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Friday, January 10, 2020

Adventure: Castle of Terror (1984)

I've had a little bit of adventuring time available in recent weeks, and I ended up tackling Beam Software's Castle of Terror, published in 1984 for the Commodore 64 and Spectrum ZX computers.  It's an illustrated text adventure with a parser (of sorts), room illustrations (that take considerable time to draw), and a design that inspired legendary frustration in its day.

I played Castle of Terror via the Antstream game service that launched last year -- recently the company has been adding a nice selection of obscure Commodore 64 and Spectrum ZX text adventures to supplement its growing selection of vintage arcade games and Megadrive titles.  When I started this blog I honestly had no clue how many hundreds of text adventures had been created for the early home computers, and I appreciate the curation-by-default Anstream provides.  Sometimes a smaller selection makes for an easier decision, especially now that the platform has added a save game feature.

I'm playing the Commodore 64 version, and the title screen shows off a design technique that was somewhat specific to the U.K. approach, probably because the more color-limited Spectrum ZX was so popular there.  This title screen uses relatively high-resolution outlines, with blockier color underneath -- the ZX had to make do with relatively blocky color tiles, but the C-64 version is able to apply color at half resolution, making for a strikingly detailed image by 8-bit standards.

As always, I'm going to share my experience in full detail... and while normally I warn fellow adventurers away from the inevitable spoilers, this is one title you might want to know more about for the sake of adjusting your expectations.  So consider this a half-hearted warning of...


After we hit ENTER on the title screen, we find ourselves in a field where workers toil away with a few pixels' worth of incidental animation, and pleasant background music, atmospheric though no touch on the SID-powered C64's best.

I decide to head South to the location of the Duck Inn; just trying to get my bearings, I continue S to the old church grounds, and S again to a fresh grave.  EXAMINE GRAVE reveals a bit of bone, and EXAMINE BONE reveals it seems to be a bit of skull.  I'll take it along just in case, per tradition.

I wander around a bit -- we can see a foreboding castle along the north-south road from the village, and can enter a mill where there's a grindstone that might come in handy.  The map isn't very consistent geographically -- there are lots of approximate connections along the cardinal directions, and interiors seem to allow any direction as an exit, though it's entirely consistent and mappable.

I enter the mill and try to GRIND BONE or PUT BONE ON GRINDSTONE, but the parser doesn't grasp my intent.  There's a ladder onscreen, but trying to CLIMB LADDER only causes me to fall off, and EXAMINE LADDER reveals the bottom rung is broken.  We can't FIX RUNG or REPAIR RUNG but we can TAKE RUNG -- it might come in handy as a stake, now that I think of it, or rather that I allow my brain to remain preoccupied by the game's title screen.  But EXAMINE RUNG suggests it's the same size as a stay from the dray (wagon) parked outside the Duck Inn.

I haven't been inside the Inn yet, so let's go check it out.  There are some villagers grouped in a cluster of mobbish, limited interactivity, and the text also calls our attention to an old man.  Unfortunately, the parser will not allow us to TALK MAN, but if we try to TALK it asks us to whom we wish to speak... MAN doesn't yield a response, but TALK TO MAN allows him to ask us to buy him a tankard of ale.  Of course, we discover that You have no money with which to buy ale,  should we foolishly try to BUY ALE.

Wandering around some more, I find a small cottage north of the mill and enter, TAKEing a KNIFE from the kitchen table (though it is only revealed after we EXAMINE TABLE.)  Can we do anything with the dray outside the inn?  We can't LOCK DRAY (using the rung as a locking pin) or PULL DRAY or TAKE DRAY (It is too big!)

We can't ENTER CHURCH or GO CHURCH but if we EXAMINE CHURCH we find a dusty cross, always good to have on hand when these sorts of title screens are about.  Though EXAMINE CROSS reveals it is made of gold, so if we have to collect treasures it may be handy on that count as well.

There's a gatehouse (apparently near the castle?) with a WHEEL we can TURN to... lower the drawbridge, rather reducing its effectiveness as a security measure.  But trying to enter the castle by going N at this point results in our immediate demise, as an iron gate crashes down and sends pieces of our body hurtling down the cliff into the river below!  So it's a good thing I saved right before trying that!

The parser doesn't recognize THROW, so my ideas about triggering the trap somehow are for nought.  We can't GO RIVER or GO MOAT, as those destinations are unrecognized.  I can't BUY ALE with the gold cross or SELL CROSS to anyone in the inn.  What else?  Oh, if we HELP VILLAGERS in the field where we started, they thank us and pay us a coin.

Now we can return to the Duck Inn, BUY ALE... except, no, I forgot to TAKE COIN earlier, so I have to go back and get it, which I can do even though the room description never mentions it is just lying there.  (This will later prove to be something I should have paid more attention to.) 

Trying again, we can BUY ALE, but when we TALK TO MAN, he just finishes his drink and bangs his empty tankard on the table... quite a trick, as when we try to TAKE TANKARD it's already in our inventory.  So now we have... a tankard.  EXAMINE TANKARD indicates it's got ale in it.  Oh!  We have to GIVE ALE TO MAN (GIVE ALE doesn't work) to hear his tale of woe regarding his missing daughter.  He concludes by giving us a key that he indicates will help us enter the castle, before returning to his deep, dissolute depression.  Progress!

But how do we use the key?  I can't UNLOCK DOOR or UNLOCK GATE, and merely possessing the key doesn't prevent our death by iron gate.  Ah -- we have to LOCK WHEEL, as it has a place for a locking pin, and this keeps the gate at bay.

To the North of the drawbridge we find a wooden door, and after we UNLOCK DOOR with the key... the game prompts us to enter the MASTER disk for a load.  And on Antstream, this doesn't seem to happen?  Oh.  No, it does -- but it's a faithful emulation of the C64's notoriously sluggish disk drive, and it takes a minute or two (of a streamed black screen) for the game to finish loading and resume.  This is part of the authentic vintage gaming experience I sincerely do not miss.

It seems the game is technically cut into two sections -- while we do retain our inventory from the pre-castle section, the parser's vocabulary actually changes up quite a bit.  We find ourselves inside the castle's entrance hall, with exits east and west apparently guarded by knights.  We can still go East and visit a cobweb-covered banquet hall, and E again to the Gallery, where we can go downstairs to the Armoury.  Here we can TAKE SPEAR, but we can only carry one weapon at a time, so I hope I'm making the right choice by ignoring the axe and sword.  Heading back toward the entrance hall, there are only a few paths to explore -- we can try to go Up from the banquet hall, but eerie footsteps force us to turn back.

Heading W of the entrance hall leads to the Library, where a knight statue really does block progress further west.  Trying to TAKE BOOK reveals the kind of secret passage we were not hoping to find, as a trapdoor opens up in the floor and sends us tumbling into the dungeon.  But we're not immediately dead, so let's keep exploring.

Walking south, we find the skeletal body of another adventurer, clutching a piece of paper with a small dagger near his hand.  READ PAPER yields "Beware the living dead - they never sleep", almost certainly a vampire reference in these pre-Walking Dead days.  We can TAKE DAGGER -- and examination reveals it has some twine threads on it?

The next bit of tunnel as we continue S contains a spider's web -- and trying to TAKE WEB gets us fatally bitten, but at least when we restart we're not all the way back at the beginning of the game, just at the castle entrance (thankfully, to avoid further disk swapping.)  Since we're here, I'll fill in the map a bit -- but there's not really anywhere else to go, as we can't even head north of the entrance hall.  So we're probably working our way toward the game's finale.

We can ignore the spider's web, as it turns out, and just continue south, where we encounter two knights whose crossed swords block our passage through a wooden door back north.  A staircase leads up, but we'll explore to the south and east first to find an impassable pit occupied by the corpse of another failed rescuer. U turns out to lead us back to the banquet hall, though we can't go back down that way so I have no idea how this geography really works.

There don't seem to be a lot of puzzles here.  Can we KILL KNIGHTS?  No, but the parser will let us attempt to KILL KNIGHT -- though they still respond in the plural, and are too strong, beating us back.  What about the knight in the library?  KILL KNIGHT suggests there is no room to use the spear.  Returning to the armory and fetching the axe instead, it develops that we can't control the axe very well at all in close quarters.  One more try with the sword -- well, we're able to engage now, but we get cut badly with no protection.  We can do that repeatedly, though, so perhaps it's not really going to be fatal.

I can't do any better against the knights downstairs with the sword, but revisiting the pit I discover that while we can't JUMP PIT or JUMP EAST, we can LEAP to cross the pit, emerging outdoors near the river.  But we can't go anywhere from here -- SWIM and LEAP are both discouraged though not fatal -- so this is probably more of an endgame escape route.

Back to the knights, then... aha!  We can TAKE SHIELD in the armory, and maybe that will help (these items are not described in the text but are sort of visible onscreen.)  We still can't KILL KNIGHT in the library -- though we don't get cut with the shield in hand, we don't do him any damage either.  We don't fare any better against the knights in the dungeon.

EXAMINE SHIELD suggests it protects the body but not the legs?  Ah, we have to return to the armory, DROP SHIELD and TAKE ARMOUR (using the U.K. spelling.)  We still can't take out the library knight, nor the knights in the dungeon.  Man!  Hmmm... further experimentation establishes that we can't use the axe on the library knight, but it is effective against the guys blocking the gate.  Unfortunately, this only wins us passage back to the spiderweb room, and does nothing to protect us from the spider's deadly venom.  And with the armour on, we're too heavy and can't leap the pit to escape.

So it feels like we can explore a bit more freely, but I don't see any obvious puzzles to deal with.  I might have to look for a solution, as I seem to be a getting a bit stuck.

Well, there's one new discovery... for some reason, successfully attacking the knights in the dungeon seems to allow us to go up the stairs from the banquet room.  Here, at last, we find our beautiful rescuee... and the vampire, who we will assume to be her captor and not just her cousin or lover or Instagram consultant, because it is 1984.  This artwork is also striking in its combination of high-resolution pixels and chunky color.


EXAMINE COUNT indicates that the golden cross we are carrying is keeping him at bay: He sees the golden cross and is paralyzed by its dazzling lightEXAMINE GIRL gets her to ask us to help her escape, and TAKE GIRL automatically cuts her ropes with the knife (or the dagger, maybe?)  She also suggests that we can escape by the banks of the river.

A quick trip back the dungeon (we can now travel down from the banquet hall) gets us close to the exit.  Previous fatal experimentation suggests we should DROP ARMOUR and DROP AXE before we try to LEAP across the pit again.  But we can't carry the girl across the pit without support?  Like, a girdle or something hernia-related?  Puzzled, I go upstairs and try to see if we can claim the rope we cut away earlier, but it's not available.  We might as well try to KILL COUNT while we're here, but he simply turns into a bat and flees the room.  Maybe we can use the spider web?  Maybe not... TAKE WEB is still fatal.

SHOW (a verb I only discovered when I tried to threaten the vampire with the cross) in the spider's web room indicates that the object on the floor I couldn't quite make out is in fact a club.  I've already dropped the axe, so I TAKE CLUB, then... CLUB WEB?  No, but TAKE WEB works as long as we have the club instead of using our bare hands.  We now have the web, or do we?  It doesn't show up in inventory, or in the room, but I'll see what happens.  I remember to DROP CLUB before attempting the LEAP, but we're still too heavy.  Time to drop everything but the web (if we even have it, but webs can be difficult to see)... and the girl?

We're still getting told we need support for the girl (insert joke here.)  I discover that we can TAKE WEB repeatedly, and if we've dropped the club in the meanwhile, we get fatally bitten by the owner of the already-cleared web.  So that seems to be a non-useful object.  Oh, dang -- maybe I shouldn't have cut the rope earlier?  But UNTIE MAIDEN still cuts the rope.  And the parser doesn't know how to UNTIE ROPE

Hmmmm.  I try to leave the dagger and knife behind so I can't cut the rope too hastily, but now I get You have nothing with which to cut the ropes which bind her when I try to UNTIE MAIDEN.  Can we THROW MAIDEN across the pit?  Nope, but we couldn't THROW anything in the first section of the game; now the parser clearly recognizes GET ROPE and THROW ROPE but we don't have any rope nor any apparent way to obtain some.

At this point I decided it was time to break down and consult the amazing solutionarchive.com to see if I can figure out what I'm missing.  #*(#@!  There are actually two mills in the first half of the game -- one of which contains some rope, which is distinct from the rope I'm trying to salvage from the maiden's captivity.

So it's time to restart the game to address my grievous oversight.  The same mill that contains the rung also has the rope, but it's not visible or mentioned unless we request SHOW to get some more details about the room, so I feel decidedly non-guilty about missing it.  I also discover that we have to EXAMINE RUNG to recognize it as a PIN, the two nouns are not interchangeable even if we already know what we need to do with it -- it's a feature or a bug, depending on one's point of view.  A THROW ROPE once we make our way back to the pit immediately takes us back to the jetty by the river, where we still can't SWIM or JUMP, but we can THROW ROPE again to cross the water to victory!

Of course, I've only earned 111 of the possible 290 points -- but Castle of Terror's scoring mechanism is a little strange so I'm not concerned about it.  The solutionarchive.com walkthrough indicates that I missed opportunities to earn points by repeatedly helping the villagers, eating some soup in the cottage, and pressing the skull in the library, among other non-essentials.  I was more interested to learn that I actually lost points by entering the dungeon the way I did instead of taking a more convoluted route past the knight in the Library, requiring a flint I failed to find near one of the mills.  And it turns out that it's actually impossible to kill the Count, nor is that required to finish the game, which I had accidentally fumbled my way through... apparently a subject of some gaming magazine controversy back in the day!  So I'm satisfied to have seen most of what there is to see here, figured out most of the puzzles on my own, and accidentally ignored a few that don't actually have to be solved to complete the story.

Castle of Terror isn't a game I would recommend to modern adventure gamers, honestly -- while I appreciate that the design offers alternatives and red herrings, the design is frustrating in ways that it need not have been, with invisible items, parser oddities and a partially unresolved plot when all is said and done.  It's very much of its era, for better or worse.  But I really do appreciate Antstream's preservation of the text adventure genre, alongside its flashier streaming content.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Adventure: Hugo's House of Horrors / Hugo's Horrific Adventure (1989)

I haven't had much time to sit down and dig into a proper adventure game in a long while,so I was pleased to run across an animated adventure game that only took a few hours to play -- David P. Gray's Hugo's Horrific Adventure (its in-game credit), a.k.a. Hugo's House of Horrors (in old shareware ads if memory serves.)  It was originally published in 1989 with a mouse-supporting update circa 1997.

The design was inspired by the Sierra/Lucasarts 3-D adventure games and the technology is similar, but it's also a bit of a throwback to the bedroom coder days of yore.  It appears Mr. Gray was a one-man team, designing, programming, composing the music and creating the art and animation, so it's a fairly small map and has a homemade feel about it, like an early text adventure with some audiovisuals added.  The game was originally released as a shareware demo, and users were encouraged to purchase the full game, if only to have the manual handy to help answer some questions near the end of the game in the pre-Internet days.

For this post, I'm playing the ScummVM-compatible release available at www.gog.com as the first part of The Hugo Trilogy.  Note that the ScummVM plugin for the Hugo series uses the host emulator's text boxes, rather than the Sierra-style popups used by the original game, so if you want a more authentic experience you may wish to track down the original release and run it in DOSBox.

As always, I'll recount my playing experience in detail here, so if you intend to play this one yourself, be aware that there are comprehensive...

   *** SPOILERS AHEAD! ***

Hugo's Horrific Adventure has no title screen -- we're dropped right into the first gameplay location, a haunted house with eyes peering out and an unCLIMBable fence.  We can't walk offscreen left or right, so clearly our first goal is to get inside the house.  Our hero, Hugo, is the gent in the very 1980s cyan shirt and magenta pants.

The keyboard controls are similar to the early Sierra AGI titles -- we walk Hugo around with the arrow keys, and type to issue commands, with a general requirement that our hero be close to any objects with which we want him to interact.  The animation engine is a little glitchy -- if we repeatedly hit the movement key, Hugo's walking animation resets on each keypress so that he glides across the background.  It looks better if we just tap the key to start and stop his motion.  The music is suitably creepy-slash-jaunty, with a fun shift in tone if we stay in one place for a while.

There's a suspicious-looking pumpkin on the ground by the front door -- we can TAKE PUMPKIN then OPEN PUMPKIN to reveal a key, which falls to the ground, allowing us to TAKE KEY and OPEN DOOR.

Upon entering the main hall, we see a white-haired gentleman in a lab coat walking to the right of the upper level and vanishing through a doorway.  But I'll check out the area a bit before trying to find out what he's up to.

We can TAKE CANDLE from a small round table on the lower level.  We can EXAMINE any of the several PAINTINGs but not MOVE PAINTING or TAKE PAINTING so it appears these are just for decoration.  EXAMINE DOORWAY near the small opening under the staircase is worthwhile, as it yields a penknife and a small silver whistle.  As before, the newfound objects end up on the floor, so we have to TAKE PENKNIFE and TAKE WHISTLE.  And we have 46 of the 200 points already?  Perhaps this will be a brief adventure!

I chose to explore the upstairs bedroom next -- we can LOOK UNDER BED to find nothing, but there's a chiffarobe/wardrobe/whatchamacallit present as well.  We can OPEN WARDROBE to find what looks like a severed HEAD, but is actually a MASK shaped like a monkey's head.  In the process of figuring out what the wardrobe was called, I discovered that if we specify EXAMINE [unrecognized object] we are given a room-level description.  EXAMINE WINDOW reveals the outline of a shed below, in amongst some trees, so we should try to find that at some point.

Next door is a bathroom:

We can't seem to USE TOILET or USE TUB or TAKE BATH or USE WATER CLOSET; EXAMINE WINDOW reveals the same shed seen from the bedroom.  EXAMINE SINK provides no useful information, though EXAMINE MIRROR confirms the 333 text written in lipstick that we can plainly see in the artwork, so we'll make note of that information.

Entering the Professor's room causes us to lose the monkey mask, so at first I thought solving this room might have to do with sneaking it in somehow -- actually, it appears to be a restriction imposed simply to avoid animation complications.  Upon entry, the Professor urges us to get in place to "begin the experiment!" by stepping into a large open box connected to some wires and an imposing control console.  There's another character here, a large green fellow who looks a bit like the Green Yamo from the old Datasoft Bruce Lee game but is actually Igor.  EXAMINE TABLE near the door indicates there's a useful rubber bung here, but we don't seem to be able to TAKE BUNG as the glass door of the experiment booth is blocking our access to the tabletop.

So we might as well step into the box as the Professor asks to see what happens -- Igor mistakenly presses the red button instead of the blue as the mad scientist directs, and our hero is shrunk to about half his usual height.  The Professor departs in frustration, and now that we're smaller we can walk behind the glass door and TAKE BUNG, at least, but now we're too short to reach the unusually high-placed doorknob to exit this room.  So we're going to have to work something out with Igor here.

We can step back into the box and say IGOR, PUSH RED BUTTON -- of course, he pushes the yellow one, and now we're normal size but so discombobulated we can't coordinate ourselves enough to open the door.  Asking IGOR, PUSH YELLOW BUTTON causes the green one to be pushed, creating a pixel-fragmented Hugo that is equally unable to open the door.  It appears Igor tends to push the button to the right of the one we we ask for, so IGOR, PUSH GREEN BUTTON causes him to push the blue button, restoring Hugo to his normal condition, and I decided not to ask for any more button presses.  I also stopped to TAKE MASK again after exiting the room.

Heading north on the lower level leads us into the house's kitchen, where we can try (but fail) to TAKE the BROOM leaning against the wall, which is magically held in place somehow.  There doesn't seem to be anything in the oven or the cupboards, but we hear a feast going on in the room to the right.  We'll go left for now, only to encounter an attack dog, so we'll make a hasty trip back to the kitchen.  Re-entering to try my luck again, I was attacked and (I presume partially) eaten by the dog and had to restore a saved game, but I was able to catch sight of a mousehole on the wall in the dog room that may bear re-examination if we can deal with the angry pooch.

Exiting out the back of the kitchen, we see the fabled backyard shed -- which isn't really camouflaged at all, and we can't leave the path that leads to it so we have no choice but to check it out.  It's locked with a combination lock, and 333 -- surprise? -- is the correct combination for entry.  EXAMINE SHED discloses that the structure is in severe disrepair, but we see an oilcan on a crumbling shelf -- and for a change Hugo automatically adds it to inventory, presumably to avoid having to depict the shed's interior at all.

Returning to the house, we can enter the Feast room, which is populated with the standard Halloween characters -- Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula -- as well as... Gwendolin, Hood, Pea Head and Slime, so no Universal lawyers will be knocking on Mr. Gray's door.

The butler asks, "Care for a chop, sir?" -- answering YES leads to Hugo's swift demise, as the butler chops the interloper's head off with a carving knife.  Answering NO leads to the same conclusion, so we'd best just avoid the butler as he patrols the upper side of the room.  But there doesn't seem to be much else to do here, and it turns out that if we WEAR MASK we can use the disguise to make off with a pork chop from the efficient but easily deceived butler.

Now let's try giving that to the dog... this takes a little coordination of text input versus the animation, because there isn't really enough time to type the whole command before the dog takes Hugo down.  This is the first of several situations in the linear last section of the game where it worked best for me to type the command, enter the next room, and hit ENTER to execute it.  My attempt to GIVE CHOP was unsuccessful despite my clever timing, but following the game's helpful post-death recommendation to THROW CHOP instead worked.  Now we can EXAMINE MOUSEHOLE to find... a pile of squishy mouse droppings.  Hooray!

Hugo refuses to take any, erm, droppings, and attempting to leave and return to the room puts the dog back on dangerous full alert despite the luscious-looking pork chop still lying on the floor.  So why are we here?  EXAMINE RUG suggests a corner near the door looks uneven; moving to that side of the carpet allows us to MOVE RUG and discover a trapdoor.  This feels significant but I hope we have everything we need, because I suspect there's no going back after this point.

Well, perhaps we don't have everything necessary, as the trapdoor is bolted shut.  I try to TAKE BOLTS and OIL BOLTS and OIL TRAPDOOR to no avail.  But OIL BOLT works (there's only one big, rusty bolt) -- but then we can't PULL BOLT or REMOVE BOLT or UNSCREW BOLT or OIL BOLT again?

Ah!  It turns out this is not the nut-and- but the sliding sort of bolt, and OPEN BOLT works, followed by OPEN TRAPDOOR.  Hugo discards the monkey mask automatically, yet again, and we find ourselves in the basement.  117 of 200 points so far!

LISTEN DOOR yields some muffled sobbing so perhaps we are close to rescuing Penelope!  (I only know this is what we're supposed to do because getting killed by the dog suggests that now we'll never accomplish this laudable goal.)  TALK PENELOPE establishes that this is in fact Penelope, but she's gagged so she can't suggest anything.  If we stand around too long, like we're taking blog notes or something, the game starts prompting the player to see if some help is desired, but I'm resisting for the moment.

We can see (by mousing around) that there's an EXIT underneath one of the rocks near the door, but we can't MOVE ROCK or PUSH ROCK successfully.  BLOW WHISTLE produces nothing interesting.  UNLOCK DOOR reveals there's no keyhole or bolts, so it's not clear how we can open it.  PUSH DOOR is not useful either.  And we can't get back upstairs, so it's truly a one-way trip after we pacify the dog.

What to try?  In Hugo's inventory, we currently have a penknife, a bung, a whistle, a candle, a key, and an oilcan.  We can't BURN OILCAN, although we can OIL DOOR, making it an oily door that still won't budge!

OH!  We can maneuver Hugo between the rocks by the door to the Exit to reach a cave, where Hugo immediately gets attacked by some vampire bats, fatally so.  But readying a BLOW WHISTLE for immediate execution confuses the bats' sonar so that we can explore the cave area we're in.

Unfortunately, the next room contains a murderous mummy, so it seems we need to prepare some kind of offense or defense here as well.  I couldn't burn the mummy's bandages or find any other way to attack him, but as he always just makes a beeline for Hugo it appears we can use the onscreen geography to get him trapped behind rocks and navigate past the room, being sure to TAKE TREASURE on the way.

Next, we find ourselves at an underground lake with a passage on the far side, near an old man with a fishing pole.  There's a small boat on the near side -- we can't USE BOAT or BOARD BOAT, but GET IN BOAT reveals a hole in the vessel's bottom, so we have to PLUG HOLE WITH BUNG before we can proceed.  Good thing we've been faithful adventurers, collecting every object along the way!

We can't move the boat yet as it's tied to a post -- we can't UNTIE ROPE (it's too knotted) but we can CUT ROPE with the penknife, then GET back IN the BOAT and PUSH OFF.  We drift over to the other side of the lake, but can't GET OUT because the old man is stubbornly in the way.  TALK MAN reveals that he wishes to help, but he vows to test our adventuring mettle by asking a series of questions, mostly related to popular fantasy literature.

I was able to answer BILBO as the first name of the hero of The Hobbit; NARNIA as the home of Aslan; and BRAM STOKER as the inventor of Count Dracula.  I successfully chose (c) Drink It concerning what one should do with a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.  The final question is a riddle: "What's the name of the only mammal that can't fly that can fly?"  I initially guessed PIG, incorrectly, and was doomed to float forever on the old man's lake, which seems a bit harsh when all he really has to do is move a foot or so.  Fortunately, we can just TALK MAN again to re-take the quiz; I tried SQUIRREL and FLYING SQUIRREL, also unsuccessfully, before successfully arriving at HUMAN -- we can't fly naturally, but we can fly with technology, which seems obvious in retrospect.  Two more questions remain -- "What was the name of Roy Rogers' dog?"  I knew Trigger was his horse, but I had to look up this bit of trivia - BULLET (the Wonder Dog) is the correct answer, and then of course I answered YES as to whether I really want to rescue Penelope.

We now have 179 of 200 points as we venture past the lake into a guard station where a more fleshy-looking version of Igor stands watch over the beloved Penelope's cell.  TALK GUARD yields no meaningful result, nor does BRIBE GUARD, but GIVE GOLD cause Hugo to wisely slip him just one gold coin from our recent looting of the mummy's treasure.  And now Hugo has all 200 points collected!

Once we enter Penelope's cell, therefore, the game wraps up rather hastily -- text informs us we have rescued her and exited the house somehow getting two people past the dog and all other obstacles, and apparently Hugo and Penelope live happily, if not ever after, at least until the second game in the trilogy, presumably.  (Apologies for the obscured screenshot, I wasn't able to grab an image without the wrap-up text overlaid on top!)

Hugo's Horrific Adventure/Hugo's House of Horrors was an entertaining little animated adventure -- it only took a few hours for me to play through it, including taking notes and gathering screenshots, and I appreciated its straightforward simplicity.  Haunted house rescues and escapes were a very common theme back in the text adventure era, and the heavy use of the parser here felt nicely old-fashioned.  I'll likely return to this series in the future.

Monday, April 1, 2019

At Random: Karnov (NES, 1987)

I recently acquired Hyperkin's Retron 5 multi-console -- it's essentially an emulator in a console casing, with a generic wireless controller, clean HDMI output, and support for cheats and patches, video filtering options, screenshot captures, and save states for games that never had a save capability originally. 

It's not tremendously well constructed, and emulation will always have some shortcomings here and there, but this little box has one great feature from my perspective: physical cartridge slots for the Nintendo Entertainment System, its Japanese counterpart the Famicom, the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Game Boy Advance family (including the original Game Boy and the Game Boy Color).  This means that a lot of cartridges I've acquired over the years at rummage sales and flea markets can now actually be played on a modern display, and moreover with minimal cleaning and fussing, avoiding a basic issue that has kept me from enjoying NES games in particular as often as I'd like.

So I've been digging into my collection a bit, and I came across a title that was always something of a personal nemesis back in the 1980s: Data East's Karnov.

This title screen is the cartridge's entire attract mode.  There's no title music, no demo sample.  Push start or go home.

The original 1987 arcade version of Karnov was a challenging side-scroller -- one-hit deaths and a barrage of incoming enemies discouraged me from investing many tokens in playing it, but it was a visually interesting experience.  It was one of the first 16-bit coin-op games I had seen at the time and it was clear that my beloved NES was rapidly falling behind the state of the arcade art.  When the NES conversion arrived in 1988, I rented it once, spent an evening failing to get through the first level despite the home version's more generous two-hit deaths, and decided to leave Karnov alone for a while.  (I was disappointed that the original coin-op did not turn up on Data East's Arcade Classics compilation for the Wii back in 2010, but recently learned this was because the rights to Karnov and a few other Data East games were sold to Paon in the mid-2000s, instead of to G-Mode like the rest of the company's library, and the current IP owners haven't done much with the property.)

Of course, a decade or two later the NES cartridge turned up somewhere in my travels at a reasonable price and became part of my library.  I don't recall spending much time with it in the intervening years, but it came to hand as I was looking for something to play on the Hyperkin box, and so it was time to take Karnov for a spin.

Barbie Color Reveal Set with 50+ Surprises Including 2 Dolls, 3
Karnov is powerful Russian!  Karnov needs no shirt!  No neck!  No eyeballs!
Karnov is a fire-breathing Russian (ostensibly a circus performer and strongman of the non-Putin variety) who has to face down a number of bizarre creatures across 9 fairly brief, relatively slow-moving side-scrolling levels, with the customary boss at the end of each.

JDHUASHA Mens Halloween Shirt Fun Pumpkins Short Sleeve Button
First level boss!  Crazy green fishnik tosses missiles from stupid American fanny pack! 

There's a little more depth to the game than that summary suggests -- an RPG-lite inventory system tasks our hero with collecting and using bombs, magic wings, ladders and other special items along the way.  The wings and bombs are critical to getting through level eight, but the other artifacts are more or less optional, which is good because the two-button NES controller means we can only select items by nudging Karnov himself left and right until the desired item is flashing so we can finally press the SELECT key to use it.  Since the game's side-scrolling structure and limited NES-era memory generally spawns enemies as the screen inches to the right, and re-spawns them if we retreat to the left, this mechanic isn't as much fun as it ought to be.  

To the game's credit, there are alternate paths for the exploration-minded available in most of the levels, but dogged left-to-right movement will finish the game just as readily.  Even with the simplest, most straightforward approach, Karnov remains a difficult game for yours truly; many of the enemy creatures fire missiles at angles that are tough to avoid by ducking or jumping, and even though their individual attack styles become more familiar as the game goes on, my aging skills were soon outmatched.  I did manage to get through the first level, finally, but then I spent half an hour dying in more or less the same spot early in level two, only once getting to the mid-way checkpoint before hitting game over and starting back at the beginning of level two (the game supplies infinite continues but one has to complete an entire level on a single "credit" to make any real progress.)  

So... I took advantage of modern emulation technology to apply a cheat code, giving Karnov invincibility against everything but falling in a (mercifully rare) hole in the level design.  This enabled me to see all nine available environments, and witness the endless repetition of the same background music and the re-use of boss enemies across multiple levels, because, hey, cartridge ROM space didn't grow on trees in 1988.

WHQ Mountain Bicycle Air Forks 26 Inch 27.5" 29 ER, Travel 120mm
Darn you, capitalist Pepperidge Farm fish-crackers!  Go back to your barrel and gorge on American hearty-attack breakfast!

Finally, after swimming and running and shooting and flying and shooting and shooting and shooting and jumping and shooting some more, our dauntless Russian has to fight off a single-headed, triple-entrance dragon creature:

Hold, please.  Mr. Karnov is taking damage and currently unavailable to come to the screen.

And after all that -- battling legitimately through nine increasingly difficult levels or waiting three decades until a wondrous technological solution becomes available -- the game's ending is... well... a bit of an anti-climax:

In Soviet Union, game finishes you!  Exclamation points are expensive, third one sold on black market.

So that's my experience with Karnov on the NES.  I'm glad to have finally sort-of-played through the entire game, instead of just watching a YouTube video, but there's not a lot I can say about Karnov.  It's very much of its time -- colorful and challenging, reasonably well-ported from the arcade, but also early enough in the life cycle of the NES to get by without pushing the hardware, cartridge size or gameplay possibilities.  It's a competent, typical example of the 8-bit side-scrolling videogame, but history has pushed it into the background, overshadowed by NES genre-mates like Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania and Battletoads.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

At Random: Magician Lord (Neo Geo, 1990)

It's been quite a while since I've posted anything here, and I'm heading into another busy period so this may be my only post for a while to come as well.  But I've recently found myself drawn back to SNK's Magician Lord, a launch title for the Neo Geo arcade system/console.

He's a Magician!  He's a Lord!  He's Magician Lord!
This side-scrolling, single-player fantasy action game was developed by Alpha Denshi working closely with SNK during the Neo Geo's development.  And it was fairly impressive when it hit arcades in 1990 -- the graphics were bold and colorful with scaling sprites and deep parallax scrolling, the audio included digitized speech and music with sampled instruments, and while it was an arcade machine with a difficulty level designed to keep the coin slot fed, it was possible to get a feel for the visual style and gameplay on a single token.

But what I think appealed most to me was that you could play THIS version, exactly as it was, at home on SNK's Neo Geo console in 1991.  Today we're used to coin-ops arriving at home in arcade perfect form, or as close as emulation and control options will allow, but the Neo Geo was the first system to deliver actual arcade hardware to the living room.  The system was an investment -- around US$600 for the system, and building a game collection was even more expensive with titles in the neighborhood $200 apiece.  But look at that massive Magician Lord cartridge -- packed with so much gaming goodness it needed TWO edge connectors!

23 Megabits of Magic + 23 Megabits of Lordliness

Magician Lord isn't a bad game, but it falls short of being a great game.  The action is simple and repetitive -- walk, shoot magic, jump, duck, climb a ladder, take a couple of hits, use up your lives, and put another token in to continue.  Occasionally there are transforming power-ups to acquire, with six different alternate forms for hero Elta the Magician Lord to take, but the game throws so much at our man that (at least in my less-than-capable hands) these temporary modes tend to be very temporary indeed. 

There are also some unintentionally amusing bits between levels when the main villain stops by to complain about the player's progress, from the days before careful Japanese-to-English localization was a thing:

Sticks and stones...

Aren't we all, dude.  But we're only two stages in.  Chin up!

Magician Lord was an early title for the Neo Geo, and the relatively small 46 megabit cartridge's limitations become apparent as one gets deeper into the game.  Many enemies encountered in later stages are palette-shifted versions of earlier foes, the excellent 80's-synth background music gets reused on multiple levels, and the maps are generally compact aside from a few late-game mazes that seem very out of place in an arcade experience.  The bosses are large and nightmarish and varied enough, but rather stiffly animated and predictable, and the end of the game wisely features a mini-boss rush rather than revisiting the big guys. 

But maybe these limitations are part of what I like about this title -- it feels stuck halfway between a coin-op and a home console experience, and it's more richly textured and progression-oriented than most of its arcade and Neo Geo brethren.  Over time, it only became more unique as SNK's later success (and title releases) focused almost exclusively on fighting games.

As tempted as I often was, I could never quite convince my checkbook to ante up for the Neo Geo console back in the day, so I only actually played Magician Lord a few times in the arcades, most memorably for the first time at The Circus in Marinette, Wisconsin.  I remember being surprised and disappointed that it was never ported to home consoles -- it seems like the Genesis and SNES could have handled a reasonably accurate conversion, or the Playstation if cartridge space limitations were the problem.  Maybe it just wasn't popular enough to be worth the effort; the game didn't resurface in any officially licensed form until emulation of the original arcade software became possible some fifteen years later on the Wii, PS2, Playstation Vita, SNK's own Neo Geo Mini line, and most recently on the Nintendo Switch, PS4, XBox One and PC via HAMSTER's Arcade Classics Archive series.

And despite owning the game in multiple forms over the years (even the physical cartridge shown above, despite never owning the console... yeah...) -- and playing it many times -- I realized recently that I'd never actually finished Magician Lord, or even gotten very close to the end.  So I bought the most recent PC emulated version (from Microsoft's store, as it doesn't seem to be available via GOG.com or Steam) and set out to tackle it seriously.  This time I finally navigated patiently through a couple of frustrating, game length-padding later levels where I'd gotten stuck before, where visually identical doors and ladders are not in fact identical, and made it to the penultimate stage.

It was here that the nails-hard difficulty very nearly exceeded my abilities, where a series of platforming moves are combined with a plethora of floating, firing enemies and, despite the game's generous continue approach, I couldn't survive long enough to get anywhere at all before putting the next virtual token in.  The idea is to jump/walk across a series of floating platforms without getting hit by the floating spheres or their fireballs.

I either fell off the platform or exploded into Elta fragments while trying to capture this screenshot

I did finally make it -- not quite getting all the way across, but somehow getting far enough that keeping the joystick pressed leftward allowed me to land on a lower level instead of falling to my usual untimely death.  And a little more navigation led me to collect the final book (yes, each boss guards a mystical tome of power that will ultimately restore freedom to the land when the magical, lordly shelf is filled or something to that effect):
I am not an animal!  I am not a human being!

After this point, inserting far more in virtual quarters than the $7.99 I paid for this incarnation of the game to continue whittling down the various mini-bosses and final boss while getting my hat handed to me every few seconds, I managed to make it to the end!

Not the final boss either, but these giggling, leaping mini-boss twins are just too cute

"Of course, everyone has died while crops and water were unavailable all this time.  I survived by eating my beard."
So now I have experienced all that Magician Lord has to offer, and yes, I still have a nostalgic soft spot for this game and will probably return to it now and then.  If I'm honest, it was the technology advance the Neo Geo represented, and the just-out-of-my-reach pricing at the time, that really made an impression on me, and this game was just the most personally appealing of the launch titles.  But it still makes me very happy to be able to finally play it at home more than 25 years later.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Adventures in VR: Dead Secret (2016)


It's been a long time, more than a year.  But while I haven't been writing much about games of late, I have had time to play a few and to goof around with virtual reality using the HTC Vive platform.  This is exciting stuff, actually, and reminds me a lot of the pioneering days of video games I have so often written about; conventions for movement and interaction are still evolving, the technology is here but has definite room for improvement, and interesting gameplay experiments are happening.  Its immersive qualities are great for adventure games, and while I tend to favor the "theatre of the mind" created by classic text adventures, this technology is taking us to some fascinating new places.

This past fall, I played through Robot Invader's 2016 indie adventure game, Dead Secret.  The game also supports standard PC mouse-and-keyboard play, but I'm going to focus on its virtual reality mode here and what that brings to the experience.  I played it on the Vive; it also supports the Oculus Rift, and a Playstation VR version is expected soon.   

I haven't mastered figured out even started to work out a reliable way to capture decent screenshots from VR games yet -- the projections and distortions applied to the image to make it look "real" in a headset don't translate very well to flat images.  And my attempts so far tend to look a little inebriated at best:

Since this is a recent game, I'm going to do my best not to spoil the plot, which is in many ways this game's best feature.  But I will be citing some specific examples from my experience with this adventure, so there may still be a few...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

Dead Secret is a mystery adventure game set in and around an old house whose owner, a professor, recently died or was perhaps murdered.  As a reporter with one arm stuck in a cast, it's the player's job to explore the area, find clues and evidence, and figure out what really happened.

Let's start by talking about the game's VR interface.  Virtual reality's biggest strength is its ability to put the player inside the game's world, and Dead Secret does a good job of this in the basic sense.  We can look freely around the world, texture resolution is sufficient to avoid obvious pixellation, and items of interest are sometimes hidden in areas we'll only spot if we peer under the furniture or behind a prop.  Locomotion is handled by pointing a cursor at a possible destination, then clicking; we slide slowly to the new area, and are free to look around while we're moving, as if riding on a conveyor belt.  (There is a comfort mode that limits the field of view during motion, for players prone to motion sickness in VR -- I am building a tolerance for it, but my brain still doesn't like it when I seem to be walking or tilting quickly and my body is not doing the same.  I had no problems with Dead Secret's default movement speed.)  Doors and transition points like stairs are identified with icons, and the world fades out and back in at the new location, a VR convention that works well here. 

Text is nicely presented, anchored within the world rather than floating in front of the player's face -- descriptions of items are presented on surfaces nearby, museum-style, and the many printed clues we find are rendered as folders we can hold in our hand and read.  I was happy to see that the font handling supports up-close viewing, so everything is clearly readable and there are no obvious bitmaps visible.  And when something scary is happening, being "there" definitely heightens the impact.

Unfortunately, the interface betrays its non-VR origins in a lot of ways, probably due to the game's support for both desktop and headset play.  The game is running on a point-and-click engine, which means that even though we feel very present in the environment, we can't simply pick up and manipulate objects at will -- we have to click on a limited set of movable items, using a floating pointer rather than an in-game hand, and the inventory system takes us out of the game world into a menu system where we have to point and click the old-fashioned way.  (Other VR adventures I have played use a backpack or a belt to provide a more "realistic" approach to inventory handling, though scale is always a little weird when we can SEE that we're carrying all this stuff with us.  Text adventures had their awkward conventions too!) 

Using an object where interaction is supported also feels artificial; we have to access the item in inventory, then point at the intended location and click, at which time a scripted animation plays out.  We don't get to really fit things into place, turn keys or open drawers directly, and Dead Secret's approach robs the game of some of the immediacy important to VR.  In the most egregious case, when we are tasked with solving a puzzle involving weighted bottles and a scale, it feels like we are manipulating icons rather than really weighing bottles on a scale.  We want to lift and drop bottles and shuffle them around in real time, even with only one workable hand (a limitation that serves the game's drama well at times), but we're only able to "click" them into predetermined slots, severely breaking the reality for the duration of that puzzle.

The game's plotting is well handled -- there are moments that might be paranormal in nature, or might not be, and the story behind the professor's death is revealed in small, interesting revelations as we discover clues.  Seeing our character in a mirror early in the game was surprisingly effective -- I'm so used to being anonymous in adventure games that I thought this would seem like an imposition, but in a world that feels this real it was satisfying to inhabit a character with defined limitations, goals and (as we discover during the game) dreams and emotions.  There are a number of scary surprises, mostly involving a masked, robed figure that lurks and attacks at key moments in the story, and much of the game's drama comes from the rush of desperate escape and concealment.  VR and horror are remarkably effective in combination -- without the distance that a screen provides, even simple "jump scares" can be unsettling.  Dead Secret uses the medium very well in this regard, with measured pacing to convey approaching menace and jeopardy.  Part of my brain knew it was just a game -- but part of it didn't, and I found my heart pounding and breathing rapid several times along the way.

Multiple endings provide a little bit of extended play value -- one is accessible at the very beginning, if we opt to just leave the house rather than investigating, but the others depend on choices made near the very end, and the game generously allows us to restart just before that point to discover the alternatives.  I was so involved in experiencing the environment and events of the story that I didn't do a great job of finding and making sense of all the clues, so I wasn't at all sure about my factual determinations, and this design concession to the player hours invested up to this point was greatly appreciated.

Dead Secret is not a perfect adventure game, and its VR implementation misses some opportunities.  But the experience stuck with me -- not just the eerie moments, but the discoveries of new spaces and clues in a virtually real environment.  Immersion to this degree is perfect for old-fashioned adventure games, where methodical examination and consideration is of more importance than fast action, and I look forward to seeing what else the nascent VR game industry produces along these lines.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

At Random: Quest for Camelot (Gameboy Color, 1998)

Hi, everyone!  It's been several months since I've posted here, but my current show is up and running and rehearsals for the next one don't start for a few weeks aside from a staged reading I'm doing next weekend -- whew! -- so I have a little time to do some gaming and writing.

One of my brother's students has given me an opportunity to play a game that hadn't even crossed my mind -- Quest for Camelot for the Gameboy Color, published by Titus Software to tie in with Warner Brothers' 1998 animated fantasy movie.  It showed up in the mail on October 1st, so I've been able to spend a little time with it!

Licensed games are almost always at a disadvantage, especially when development schedules are constrained by an immovable studio release date.  Generally, these games end up using an existing engine, or even modifying a work-in-progress game design and just grafting on graphics related to the licensed property.  Projects like this are valuable, in that they keep many a fledgling developer afloat while they work on more original and substantial projects, but the results are usually rushed and unpolished.  For example, this terse, silent title screen could have done with a little color and context and 8-bit music:

To its credit, Quest for Camelot differs from most licensed titles in that it's not a side-scrolling platformer -- instead, it opts for a Japanese-style Action RPG design.  We can select English, French or Spanish language at the start, after which a lengthy sequence of illustrations and text screens sets up the story -- our hero, young K... something, must discover what's happened to... oh, man, I've already forgotten what the storyline is.  Time to reset!

Okay... a young girl named Kayley jumps off a pony into the arms of her father, Sir Lionel, who must leave immediately for Camelot; she wants to be a knight too.  At Camelot, Sir Ruber demands King Arthur give him more than his fair share of land, and attacks the King when his "need" is denied. The King successfully defends himself against Ruber's attack, probably because Sir Ruber's arm appears badly broken (or his name is actually pronounced "Sir Rubber") and he has no idea how to wield his mace or aim at his opponent:

Somehow Ruber manages to escape all of the charging knights -- but what's this?  RUBER HAD LEFT A HORRIBLE REMINDER OF HIS BETRAYAL!  By taking a big... oh, no, by killing Sir Lionel.  As the game begins, it is ten years later, and Sir Ruber returns to... well, the text cuts off here and there's no music to set the stage in these cutscenes, but we see a grown Kayley fleeing on horseback before the action cuts to...

... some dude we haven't met before, standing out in the woods someplace and suffering from acute constipation judging from the expression on his face.  Oh, wait!  When I start walking around and turn the character to the side, I can see that it's Kayley... I think... she has a ponytail, at least, but who knows what she did with her horse?  The first person I talk to, a FARMER, gives us directions about how to talk to someone, which is not very helpful as I've already figured out how to GET IN HIS FACE BY PUSHING AGAINST HIM AND PRESSING THE A BUTTON.  After telling me that Sir Ruber has captured my mother, Lady Juliana, and warning me about his ruthless knights, and informing me I should visit the blacksmith to the east, he tells me to hold the control pad in the direction of the person I want to talk to and press the A or B button, and that I need 30 gems to save my game.  Then Mr. Farmer flees offscreen, apparently in terror of our heroine's aggressive questioning technique or fearing he will be discovered by the RPG GRP (Game Reality Police).

Mr. Farmer's flight has cleared the bridge to the south, but I'm going to go explore to the east before we start out on what I presume will be a long and arduous journey.  There's a blue knight wandering around here, and if I walk into him, I lose one of Kayley's five life hearts, accompanied by a horrible farting sound, so I guess he's not somebody we should be talking to.  There's an impassable fence line to the east, and nowhere else to go up here, so we'll travel south across the bridge and then head east in search of the blacksmith.  We have to avoid some more blue knights in the area, but I find the blacksmith where I was expecting to -- he tells us that Ruber's knights have scared his hens away, and offers to help us if we can round them up.  Why the Blacksmith has hens is not explained, so we'll call this Rushed Development Clue #1!

Now, a lesser game might ask us to find a hen, or maybe three, but Quest for Camelot is no quick cash-in... we have to find FIVE of the feathered blighters.  I find the first one in a cave -- well, it's actually a path to another area of the map, and Kayley's passage through it is accompanied by a flash of light and a rather neat screen-warping effect, rather overselling what appears to be a village underpass.  The blacksmith has no interest in only one of his hens, and tells us to keep looking, forcing us to carry live hens around while we search in caves... oh, I guess that WAS a cave, I just expected such a cavern to look different from the surrounding countryside.  It doesn't take long to find the five hens, and on my way back to the blacksmith, I encounter a ghostly, shaky-looking, possibly inebriated Merlin, who advises me that RUBER IS IN THE MANOR but we must become a skilled sword fighter before we face him.  I soon realize I have wandered into another section of the map and the blacksmith isn't here, but I go back through a "cave" and find my way back to him.  He gives Kayley a sword and advises her to seek training from his brother, who lives in A HOME to the south.  I hope he means a house.

"Here's a great sword for you, the best I ever made!  Now go pick it up out of the dirt!"

I almost leave without noticing that the sword is just laying on the ground and has not been automatically added to inventory.    There's a short, Zelda-ish animation when Kayley picks up the sword, at least.  I find my way to the brother's house, and he accuses me of stealing his brother's sword before deciding I look honest.  He tells us that we will gain experience through combat, strengthening the sword, and that he will teach me more after I take out all the knights terrorizing the town.  Of course, he doesn't actually tell me how to use the sword to fight the knights, and I reach my first GAME OVER screen shortly.

(As I replay the opening, it occurs to me that the Blacksmith looks a lot like one would expect the Farmer to look, and vice-versa.  Primary evidence: the Blacksmith is holding a pitchfork, plus the aforementioned hens.  RDC #2!)  This time, I mess around with the interface a bit and figure out that the Save screen (accessed by pushing START) is also the inventory/equipment screen.  I highlight the sword and hit some button or other, and the sword moves up to the top row of the generally featureless inventory screen -- and now I can hit the B button to attack with the sword.

Quest for Camelot's combat mechanics leave a lot to be desired.  Basically, we approach an enemy and start wildly swinging the sword -- if we do it fast enough, we generally won't take any damage, though every contact knocks us backwards a bit so we have to be careful not to get cornered or pushed into the bounding box of another enemy.  An energy bar is displayed above the enemy's head when we've done damage, and while no numbers are ever shown, the bar display seems to be based on the maximum number of hit points an enemy can possibly have; all of these guys start with the bar only partially filled.  Some enemies drop 10 gold pieces or a life heart when killed, which is handy as I have taken quite a bit of damage just trying to collect the hens.  It took me a while to find and kill all the knights, but now the swordmaster teaches Kayley a charged-up spinning sword attack, useful when surrounded (well, purportedly useful -- I found that I took more damage when I tried to use the spin attack instead of just beating on the nearest enemy.)  The swordsman advises us to seek Merlin to gain entrance to the manor, which the drunk old wizard does by allowing the formerly (and still) featureless bridge nearby to become a portal, and promises to see us again elsewhere.

I almost die at the hands of a number of blue knights just inside the Manor walls, but manage to survive.  Inside the Manor, the music thankfully changes to something a little more melodic than the thumping, raspy, percussion-heavy travel tune we've been hearing since we started the game.  A servant tells us we need a shield, and he saw a man with a dog pick one up (let's hope the servant's eyesight is pretty good and the guy wasn't just cleaning up after his pet.)  Setting out to find him, I run into some cloaked figures -- and the sword as-is isn't much use against them, as they just get larger, doing damage as they press me against walls and furniture, and I die shortly, restoring from a recent saved game to continue.

I find the man in the southeast corner of the manor -- his dog has indeed gone missing, so we have another fetch quest to complete.  While looking, I discover that contact with the cloaked enemies causes them to give chase -- so it's really important not to attack or run into them.  I see Merlin yet again, who tells us we need to find a grappling hook, and a dungeon key, and then pick up an arrow outside; he also mentions that we can open chests by swinging our sword, as one does.

It's about at this point that I start to wonder who this game's target audience was meant to be -- the adventuring and puzzle-solving is pretty elementary, but it becomes a tedious stealth game at this point, and sometimes the ghosts start making a bee-line for our heroine without apparent provocation.  In other words, I am dying A LOT.  I find the guy whose dog is missing again, but no sign of the dog -- in fact, he seems to have given up, and just assumes the dog will come back when it's hungry.  I also find a large gem of no practical value.  Wikipedia tells me that the game has 9 worlds and 60 levels... oh, man, this does not sound like fun.  For the purposes of exploring more of the game, I enter a GameShark cheat code (010518C1) that refills Kayley to full health whenever she takes damage.

Now I can continue more readily, and I learn that the ghosts can be defeated -- it's just risky to take them on, because if you end up backed against a wall or even near a less-than-sprite-sized gap when they enlarge, you're hit repeatedly and dead in short order before you can even move out of the way.  I find a hidden switch that opens a secret passageway, and this allows me to zzzzzz....

Sorry, this allows me to find the grappling hook.  And eventually I find the dog, and the graphics are so clumsy that from the side it looks more like the dog with two backs, y'knowhatI'msayin':

And I learn, of course, that if we run into a ghost with the dog in tow, the dog runs away. so it takes me a few tries to get the dog safely back to its owner and earn the shield.  With the shield and grappling hook in hand, I discover that we can only have one item equipped at a time, so we'll have to be choosy about our inventory handling.  Returning outside the castle, I realize that the "ARROW ON THE GROUND" Merlin mentioned is actually a pattern of stones on the ground pointing to where we can use the grappling hook, allowing us to access the upper level of the Manor and fight some more knights.  And my sword levels up, apparently having drawn enough blood to be more powerful now, though there's no indication onscreen of its level or its XP, so it's anyone's guess as to when it will level up again.  I find the dungeon key up here, so we're getting closer to fighting Sir Ruber -- Merlin is standing by the dungeon entrance, and now we can enter it.

Kayley finds herself in an underground maze patrolled by giant spiders now; they're fairly tough to kill, and our progress is slowed by webs on the ground so navigation becomes more important.  A tunnel leads to a boss battle with Sir Ruber, who leaps around like an idiot, descending on Kayley's head and otherwise being hard to hit without taking plentiful damage.  And he looks more like Peter Boyle as Young Frankenstein than any of the other crudely-rendered Sir Ruber images we've seen so far. 

I finally manage to wear him down, but despite Merlin's warning that Kayley must not let him escape, he escapes.  A cut-scene (well, some scrolling text followed by some Warner-approved illustrations eating up cartridge space that could otherwise have been used to enlarge the maps or improve the graphics) establishes that Ruber's attempt to steal Excalibur from King Arthur was interrupted, but the legendary sword is now lost in the Forbidden Forest.

The forest is patrolled by invincible moving rock formations, snakes, and winged creatures that are particularly hard to get into sword range without taking damage.   Someone named Garrett guards a bridge and will only let us past into the more dangerous part of the forest if he believes in our sword skills, which I will presume means the sword must be at level 2, as despite all the fuss he lets us through immediately.  The blue knights have given way to more dangerous gray knights, and we can find Garrett in his house in the forest, though he throws us out immediately for no specific reason.  Merlin continues to wander around the map, and here he appears to warn us about a deadly giant plant ahead -- to defeat it, we need a MAGICAL STICK (back to basics here) and he won't let us past without it.

Sure enough, we meet another farmer (this time represented by the graphic used earlier for the blacksmith, RDC #3! Bingo!) whose garden has been destroyed by Ruber's knights.  He wants us to kill all the knights in exchange for some reward. The worst thing about these "kill them all" quests is that we're given no indication of how many potential victims there are, so Kayley has to wander around the map, murdering people until she thinks she's dispatched everybody, then check in with the quest issuer to find out if she's really done or not.

While hunting down knights, I visit Garrett's house again -- and this time, the game state has changed so that instead of just throwing us out for no stated reason, he's quite talkative.  He volunteers that he knew Sir Lionel when he was a stable boy, and he opens up a sealed spider cave where the magical stick is rumored to be hidden.  On the way there, I spend 50 gems on a magic shovel offered by a merchant standing in the middle of the woods, not really the best location for a retail operation.  The cave is filled with pitfalls that kick us back to the entrance, and the spiders here are fairly resilient.  The magical stick is hidden in a chest, and now we can continue.

As I exit the spider cave, my sword levels up again, its lust for bloodshed ever increasing, kids!  I manage to kill all the local knights, and the farmer now allows me to dig up turnips in his garden with the shovel I just bought.  Apparently a horse in the area likes turnips, and that's why we're doing this?  I find a bunch of small turnips which the game displays but doesn't seem to acknowledge, until after quite a bit of digging I turn up a large one.  Now Merlin opens up the gateway to the plant boss, but a strong wind prevents us from walking there, which is apparently why we need to find the horse.  Sigh.

Looking hither and yon for the horse, I dig in a suspiciously artificial-looking rock formation to find another heart container, which if I weren't cheating already would be very valuable.  And I finally find the horse, back near the beginning of this whole area of the game to ensure maximum backtracking play time.  While we're on horseback we can't fight the knights, so I try to avoid them.  The horse gets us past the wind (I think we needed to have found the large turnip to make it, suggesting the horse is partly flatulence-powered) but then disappears after we're on the other side.  He doesn't run off, he doesn't stop and graze, he just vanishes into the thin air.

We now find ourselves in a maze with little, minimally fire-breathing dragons to kill (think Fygar in Dig-Dug, with a short-range lick of flame coming out once in a while.)   I find a slingshot in a dead-end part of the maze, a heart refill, and finally enter a cavern where small carnivorous plants attack from the walls, forcing us to avoid them.  The boss battle occurs not too far into the cave, and is perhaps the most tedious affair I've seen in an Action-RPG, thanks mostly to the game's awkward interface.

We have to switch to the magical stick, get it into the giant plant's mouth, switch back to the sword, and attack until it breaks the stick -- apparently what's magic about it is that it can be reused indefinitely.  It's hard to dodge the plant's randomly attacking underground tendrils and get close enough to put the stick in without taking damage, and the constant need to interrupt the action to switch equipment becomes tiresome quickly.  So I just keep switching and doing and switching and doing some more, thanking the GameShark every so often for keeping Kayley alive in the face of my sheer combat incompetence.

Finally defeating the plant takes us back to Merlin, who informs us that there's yet another crisis to take care of before we can face Sir Ruber.  Merlin tells us we have FOUND ALL THE SECRETS, though he doesn't elaborate on which secrets, exactly.  And he gives us one piece of a mystical... eight piece... parchment.  And then... my game hangs.  I can't move or access the menu?  Oh, it's just a dramatic pause, apparently.

We now enter the Dragons' Territory, where Kayley meets Devon and Cornwall, a two-headed bickersome dragon that was apparently a major character in the Quest for Camelot feature film.  He tells/they tell us we need a dragon's scale to cross a large body of water to find Excalibur, and some dude has it.  And exploring this world is even more of a pain, because if we sink in the lake accidentally, we are put back at the beginning of the level, and navigating the narrow shorelines without falling in the water proves pretty difficult until I get the hang of it.

And I am not finding the dragon's scale!  It's supposed to be out here somewhere... I finally consult a walkthrough and learn that the sword can be used to cut down some trees.  Actually, it only works on one specific tree, so I can excuse myself for not discovering this on my own.  And I learn that a compass I was meant to acquire much earlier in the game would be making my life easier at this point, but of course there's no going back from this level so I can't take advantage of this newfound knowledge without starting completely over.  And I find a warp point at the edge of the lake that takes me to another area, where I can fight another of those furshlugginer plants...

And for your humble blogger, at this point my motivation is gone for completing this particular Quest.   We're approaching one-third of the way through the game; we fought Sir Ruber once already, and while I'm sure he'll be disappointed if he doesn't get to battle us again, I'm starting to share the title screen's distinct lack of enthusiasm.  The game isn't as lightweight as I expected, but by the same token it feels padded throughout -- the maps are small and full of wandering and retreading, the inventory handling is awkward, the graphics and sound are stuck somewhere between passable and terrible, and the amount of fetching and finding required to make progress makes it hard to care if Kayley ever succeeds.

I've seen worse licensed games than Quest for Camelot -- but that's not saying very much.  Time to disable the GameShark and let nature take its course: