Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Spring Thing 2014: The Adventures of a Hexagon

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 15, 2014

The Adventures of a Hexagon by Tyler Zahnke is an entry in the Spring Thing 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.

The Adventures of a Hexagon is a CYOA-style story, implemented as a set of HTML files, about a day in the life of a hexagon. Geometrical shapes, we learn, can escape from textbooks when no one is looking and go off to have their own adventures.

Hexagon is very short. There are only 38 pages, each containing at most a few short paragraphs of text, some of which are extremely similar. I completed every path in about five minutes.

The story is also extremely lacking. Essentially, the PC, a hexagon, can choose to go to either the Museum of Geometry of the Polygon Village, either with his friends, Pentagon, Heptagon, and Octagon, or, in the latter case, alone. Ultimately, if you choose any option other than joining with a group of other hexagons, the PC is killed. If you try visiting the village with your friends, the only path to a good ending is for the PC to abandon his friends to the tender mercies of a gang of polygons, and find a group of other hexagons to join with. If there is a theme to this story, it is that one must seek out others like oneself–that those who are different are not to be trusted, and one cannot be happy among them.

But I fear I’m giving the game too much credit, saying that. A sample of the game’s text should illustrate it better. If the PC goes to the museum and, through a series of pages which basically amount to ‘specify your path’, chooses to look at the triangle exhibit, you are presented with:

You take a closer look, and you realize that the triangle has a little needle point sticking out of it. But it’s too late! BLZZZT! It sticks the needle in you, leaving a great big hole in you. Game over! I guess you can never trust a triangle!

That’s it. The end. Pick the pentagon exhibit, and you get:

You get your six sides together and hop up on the ledge. The five pentagons say, “You have one side more than all of us! Har, har, har!” You hear a sound like that of a broken record as you are dragged to the wave-pool. Broken record sounds are always a bad sign in a dramatic scene. You are now being dragged underwater by the fierce five-siders. You have been drowned by the pentagons!

Other choices end with the hexagon killed similarly suddenly. Only choosing to view the hexagon exhibit doesn’t end in the PC’s death:

You approach the hexagons, and they all say, “Hello, Sixling!” The other five hexagons then open the door, and you enter the building just as they do. A late 1990s dance song starts to play as the hexagons hit the dance floor. You join them in a disco-style up-beat dance.
Congratulations! You got to dance with some polygons! You finally found a path that wouldn’t get you smashed to pieces by other polygons! You won!

The other ‘good’ endings are almost exactly the same, having the PC dancing with other hexagons.

The whole game is just a set of menus leading to the PC either being killed or joining other hexagons and dancing. It’s a story, generously speaking, but the non-ending parts of the story would probably fill less than half a page.

The Adventures of a Hexagon is not worth the few minutes it takes to complete.

Play time: about 5 minutes.

Posted in Bad, Freeware, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent, 2014 | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Spring Thing 2014: The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 14, 2014

The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost by Briar Rose is an entry in the Spring Thing 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.

Innocence Lost is the first part of the story of a Greek boy, Andreas, who, along with his brother, Alexius, is sold by his father to a Roman slaver. This part covers Andreas’s childhood, with later parts yet to be released.

The game is a browser-based CYOA-style story, hosted by ChooseYourStory, a site I was not previously familiar with. Three of the ten games in the Spring Thing use it, though, making it the single most popular ‘engine’–so I suppose it must be popular.

Here a brief digression: it troubles me to have games in competitions hosted externally and unavailable for download. When the host disappears–and it will, eventually–those games will simply be gone, unless the author has somehow archived them, or some enterprising player has done the same. This won’t affect my scoring of the games, but I hope that authors will keep this in mind when choosing a venue.

After the story begins, the plot proceeds in a frankly predictable fashion. The protagonist and his brother are put on a slave ship to be taken to Rome. There, they meet and befriend a young girl, Lula, who has been a slave for some time already. When they arrive in Rome, all three are purchased together, and it turns out that they are to be trained, along with other youths, as gladiators. The story briefly follows their training and culminates in a battle between six of them and six competing trainee gladiators.

The player’s choices throughout can impact Andreas’s strength, speed, or ‘approval’ with another character. The most substantial change the player can make is affecting which and how many (if any) of the children die in the battle at the end of the story, including possibly Andreas himself.

The mechanism of this change is the strength, speed, and approval scores mentioned earlier. During the battle, certain decisions will succeed or fail, based on Andreas’s strength or speed, and after the battle the other characters in the story will have (brief) conversations with Andreas that are impacted by his approval score with them.

When Andreas’s strength, speed, or approval score with another character changes, it’s displayed by the game in conspicuous colored text, inline with the story. This is a little distracting, but more importantly it had a strong influence on how I experienced the game. From the very beginning, because of these notifications, I was aware that the game was keeping tracking of the approval statistics, and I soon learned about strength and speed, so when making any choice, I could not help but think about how it might impact Andreas’s stats. It put me into a mindset to engage in metagaming, and made it more difficult to immerse myself in simply roleplaying as Andreas.

When first meeting Titus (the owner of the gladiatorial school) and Rhode (the trainer), for example, Andreas may either describe his education to Titus or attempt to bite Rhode’s finger. I, as the player, had a shrewd suspicion that doing this would impress Rhode with Andreas’s fierceness, but Andreas’s motivation wasn’t to impress her–he wanted to bite her because he disliked her. I’d have thought that, even without the approval scores being made explicit, but if they had any impact, it was only to widen the gap between player and player character.

This gap was especially noticeable on subsequent playthroughs. It became clear, at the end, that ‘winning’ the game meant keeping all six children alive through the final battle, and that doing this would involve having sufficiently high stats, so my replays quickly devolved into simply trying the different options to learn what impact they had on Andreas’s statistics, then finally going through the game making all of the ‘right’ choices, so as to preserve all of Andreas’s teammates. It took me an hour to play through the story once, but less than twenty minutes to play through it five more times, start to finish.

Innocence Lost‘s biggest weakness is its linearity. Your choices have literally no meaningful impact on anything but the final scene. Andreas can’t be bought by anyone other than Titus. He can’t be killed prior to the battle. Your choices incline the story in one direction for just a few paragraphs before it returns, unerringly, to the single path the author determined. This, combined with the very visible statistics, makes the game more about optimizing statistics than influencing a story.

The writing in Innocence Lost is reasonably solid, if unexceptional, and the characters are interesting enough for the brief time we know them. Unfortunately, Innocence Lost makes poor use of the medium. Of course, a degree of linearity is to be expected from a game that is the first part of a trilogy. Perhaps the later installments in the series will give the player more choice. If not, this story may be better suited to static fiction, abandoning the conceit of choice in favor of more strongly developed relationships between the characters.

I give The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost a rating of 6/10. Fun enough to read, but unexceptional as a work of interactive fiction.

Play time: 1:16 for six complete playthroughs.

Posted in 2014, Decent, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 13, 2014

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure is a 1978 text adventure by Greg Hassett (who was, as I understand it, only 12 years old at the time) for the TRS-80. I played the Commodore PET version, ported by S. Prenzel.

When the game begins, you find yourself in a ship which has crashed. A computer screen informs us that ship’s “fribulating gonkulator is burned out.” I hate it when that happens.

What follows is a rather standard exercise in exploration and treasure-gathering. The game’s map contains about three dozen rooms, including two–thankfully very small–mazes (with a reference to the Colossal Cave Adventure: “I’m in a maze of twisty little passages.”). The game uses a two word parser, with only the first three letters of a word being significant.

Wandering randomly around in the game are bugs. If you encounter one before you have found the sword (which is very likely), you’ll be killed, and have to load a saved game. Bad luck for you if you saved in a place where you’ll inevitably be killed.

The game is completed when you have found both a replacement fribulating gonkulator and the tools with which to install, but there are over a dozen treasure to collect, some of which are necessary to progress, and others which only add to your final score. I managed 170/175 points, and I cannot imagine what I must do to get the last five points.

The world is a bit incoherent. You’re apparently deep underground, so rooms like the ice cavern or cobblestone hallway make sense, but others, like the Arabian Room or Al’s diner (!) just don’t fit. In addition, the game is very poorly written, with many spelling and usage errors (“I can here chirping nearby.”, “and fall into the lava ??? Fat chanche !”). On the positive side, the game does include some unique responses for flavor. For example, attempting to eat ruby results in “I think that a large ruby would give me indigestion, and I don’t have any Pepto-Bismol.”

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure doesn’t measure up to many of its contemporaries, and it certainly can’t compare to modern interactive fiction, but it’s still an interesting part of the history of interactive fiction.

Posted in 1978, Bad, Commodore PET, Full Review, Interactive Fiction | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

All Quiet on the Library Front

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 12, 2014

All Quiet on the Library Front by Michael S. Phillips is a 1995 interactive fiction game, entered in the first annual interactive fiction competition. The premise is that the PC is a student enrolled in CS 441 – Interactive Fiction who has been slacking off for the entire term. To save his grade, the PC must navigate the university library to acquire a biography of Graham Nelson, to use as a source for a term paper.

Phillips’s first (and, to date, only) contribution to interactive fiction, Library has the hallmarks of a first game: it is set in a fictionalized version of the author’s workplace; it contains many references to the IF community; it has a rather thin premise. That said, it’s competently implemented and reasonably well written.

Library‘s main sin is that it’s too simple. Its puzzles are very straightforward, its NPCs don’t seem to do anything but serve their very limited purposes, and there’s little else to do but what’s required. I only finished with 26/30 points, and I have no idea what the other points could be for, but I don’t have any particular urge to get the rest.

Most of Library‘s scenery is implemented, though some actions, like x me, give default responses. On the other hand, you can kiss alan for a response that’s both humorous and useful as a hint–well done.

Overall, Library is just mediocre, and there are too many better works of interactive fiction for me to recommend it. If I were rating it for the ifcomp, I’d give it about a 4/10.

Play time: 30 minutes to win, plus about 10 more of exploration.

This review is based on Release 2.

Posted in 1995, Decent, Freeware, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Parent’s Guide to Computer Games

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 21, 2014

In my quest to save marginal game-related information from the depths of obscurity, I came across this book, A Parent’s Guide to Computer Games by Craig Wessel.


Its back cover is very ominous:

Your kids know what “RPG” means. Do you?

Surprisingly, it’s a fairly decent book, given its focus. The first half is given to discussing generalities: the game platforms of the day (Windows, Macintosh, N64, Game Boy, PS1, PS2, Dreamcast); game platforms to come (Xbox, Gamecube, Game Boy Advance, even Linux is given a few paragraphs); surprisingly, a brief mention of emulation, specifically Bleem and Bleemcast; discussion of the various types and genres of games; a few pages devoted to online games, including specifically EverQuest and Ultima Online; finally, an explanation of the ESRB’s rating system.

The second half, of course, is devoted to the games, including one to three page reviews of each featured game.

I’ve uploaded the table of contents for the review section, above. It includes many notable games, including Age of Empires 2, Deux Ex, Diablo 2, Half-Life, Civilization 2, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Sim City 3000, The Sims, StarCraft, and Unreal Tournament in its “Hot Titles” section, and a fair mix of others (from Icewind Dale to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) in the other sections.

This book was published in 2000, so it’s only about 14 years old, today. That said, I think it’s worth looking back to see just how things were perceived even as recently as that. The book predicts that Sony wouldn’t be able to do much about Bleem, and notes, of Linux, that “game developers have embraced the operating system”, though it’s cautious about Linux’s future prospects.

I’m looking at some other examples of this type of book, as well. Secondary materials won’t be forgotten, if I have anything to say about it!

Posted in General Commentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Toshiba T-3100

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 4, 2014

I meant to publish some of my pending game reviews, but I’m taking rather too long with editing those, so have something completely different: the Toshiba T-3100 laptop PC.

While doing some work on MobyGames, I learned about the existence of this laptop. It was released in 1986, and,  according to the IPSJ Computer Museum, it was “the world’s first 16-bit laptop PC with a built-in hard disk”, and the Japanese version (called the J-3100, apparently on the theory that Japanese people have some patriotic attraction to the letter J) was Japan’s first PC-compatible laptop. I’m a little unclear on the exact timeline here–it seems like the Japanese version might not have been released until 1989

The T-3100 may have a name like a robot assassin, but it’s a reasonably standard computer for the era, featuring 640K of RAM, an 8MHz 286 CPU, a floppy drive, and a 10MB hard drive, plus one interesting quirk: its display, normally CGA compatible, could be switched into a high-resolution 640×400 monochrome (horrifyingly orange) mode.

In Japan, Imagineer published special J-3100 editions of Lemmings, Sim City, and Sim Earth (although this one’s labelled as ‘DynaBook edition’, so it’s probably intended for the 386-based laptop released in 1990, instead). One wonders what was different about these versions, since the J3100 was PC-compatible. Given the release dates, perhaps it was DOS/V support.

If you’re interested in more information on early Japanese PCs, there’s a relevant article in the April 1997 issue of Computing Japan, “From Chaos to Competition: Japan’s PC industry in transformation” by John Boyd, which mentions the J-3100.

Posted in Hardware | Leave a Comment »

Ahoy! #1 (January 1984)

Posted by Tracy Poff on June 5, 2013

This is something a little different than my usual fare. Today, we’re going to take a look at the first issue of Ahoy!, dated January 1984.

This is a piece of history, for sure, and an important one. Magazines like this related news about the still-developing home computer market, and are a great source of information about the computer world, as it looked in the eighties. More importantly, these magazines introduced countless people to programming; some learned by reading the articles that discussed programming, while others simply picked things up by inputting the type-in games and other programs these magazines usually contained. Their impact cannot be overstated.

Be warned: as the length of this post shows, I go into a fair amount of detail, and quote pretty extensively.


Ahoy! #1 begins with an editorial by Ben Bova, “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”, which opines that we are at the beginning of the microcomputer revolution, and is very wide-eyed and optimistic about the coming days. Not without reason is Bova enthusiastic. As he says, “The child in us, the little kid that’s delighted by Space Invaders or Pac-Man created a market that accounted for nearly $10 billion in sales last year.” And, “Computer technology has advanced with breathtaking speed: if automobiles had improved their efficiency and cost as rapidly as computers have over the past twenty years, a Rolls Royce would be able to get more than a hundred miles per gallon of gas, and would cost less than $100.”


Next is the Scuttlebutt department, featuring news on recent and upcoming hardware and software releases. There’s some great stuff in here, for those interested in the history of computing.

Ahoy-01-Executive 64The first item discussed is the Executive 64, a portable computer. As Ahoy! says: “Commodore has provided one alternative for the growing number of business travelers who find their computers significantly harder to leave behind than their wives. The portable (27.6 pounds), briefcase-sized (5″ x 14.5″ x 14.5″), $995 Executive 64 features an upper and lower case detachable keyboard, 6-inch color monitor, and single floppy disk drive with 179k capacity (second drive capacity).” Interesting what ‘portable’ (though I’ve heard those kind called ‘luggable’) meant, a few decades ago, given that modern portable computers have weights measured in grams and thickness measured in millimeters.

Ahoy-01-RomoxAnother item of interest is Romox Terminals, from Campbell, California based Romox Inc. “The Programming Terminals contain the codes to five hundred or more games in several formats, including those of the Commodore 64 and VIC-20. At the same time, ECPC’s, Romox’s EPROM cartridges, will be made available to the public. One ECPC (edge connector programmable cartridge) can be purchased for fifteen to thirty dollars. If the purchaser doesn’t like the game or grows tired of it, (s)he can take the cartridge to a Romox Programming Terminal and have it reprogrammed with a new game in minutes for a relatively low cost of one to twenty dollars. The cartridges can be reprogrammed many times over.” Nintendo would have a similar feature for the Japan-only Famicom Disk System, a couple of years later.

Notice that this is pretty much an early form of digital distribution (the BBS being the more direct ancestor to Steam et al.), and Ahoy! muses that will be quite a boon to the industry. “This system represents an all new method of game distribution, and the industry will be watching the experiment closely. If the system works, retailers will have much more shelf space available. Software publishers will be provided with an instant glimpse of a new game’s popularity. Smaller, newer game creators will be able to sell their games on a mass market basis without the costs and headache of manufacturing and distribution.”

There’s a long section discussing laserdisc games, like Dragon’s Lair (recently re-released for Windows), and musing on future uses for the technology.

There is an interview with Guy Nouri of Interactive Picture Systems, who says “Our feeling is that the day of Space Invaders is dead. In the future, computer programs will not be so much shoot-em-ups, but activities. Learning software, not educational, but learning.” IPS produced The Movie Maker, “a real-time animation system that requires absolutely no programming.” IPS also has in development “a dance program, one which already contains a library of dance steps from which the users can select to arrange a sequence.” I’m sure that one turned out to be a winner.

Other items featured in the Scuttlebutt section: an EPROM cartridge programmer, printers, two different speech units, Magic Desk (which introduced the desktop metaphor to the home market), various educational software from MECC (at $50 per item–about $110 in 2013 dollars), tax software, accounting software, weather forecasting software (costing $199.95 together with the weather sensor, “supposedly the same one used by sixty countries worldwide”), and lots of upcoming games, including Night Mission Pinball, which I reviewed previously.

The Computer as Communications Device

The next article, “The Computer as Communications Device” by M. David Stone, discusses the practical aspects of using a computer to connect to a BBS, including which modem or terminal software you should purchase, and why, as well as who you can call, once you’ve got them (CIS, Delphi, and The Source are recommended). Since it was about $150 for a terminal emulator and a 300 baud modem, this article would surely have been a worthwhile read.

Can the 64 Crack the Peanut?

Steve Springer contributes a 3-page article speculating on whether the Commodore 64 could stand up against IBM’s rumoured ‘Peanut’ computer, supposed to be released sometime between 1983 and 1985. Of course, the ‘Peanut’ turned out the be the PCjr, a dismal failure.

This article is mostly interesting if taken as a cautionary tale against excessive concern for rumour, a lesson that game journalists and others could stand to learn, even today.


The reviews section includes fourteen titles: Astroblitz by Creative Software, Fort Apocalypse by Synapse Software, Keyword Cross Reference and Mailing List and Labels by TOTL Software (not games), Moondust by Creative Software, Speed Racer and Candy Bandit by T&F Software, Suspended by Infocom, Hometax by Learning Source Inc. (not a game), Cannonball Blitz by Sierra On-Line, and Snake Byte, The Blade of Blackpoole, Repton and Type Attack by Sirius.

Everything Else

David Ritchie provides a brief, but interesting two-page biography, “John von Neumann: The Genius Behind Computers”.

Pete Lobl gives us “The Interrupt Music Maker/Editor for the Commodore 64″, a type-in music composition program, and “The 64 Graphics System”, a technical discussion of (you guessed it) the 64 graphics system, plus a type-in graphics program, Multi-Draw.

Robert J. Sodaro offers an incredibly positive “Interview with Bill Badser from Protecto Enterprises”, which is followed by no fewer than ten pages of ads for Protecto. One wonders if Protecto offered to buy ten pages of ads on the condition of being given a three-page feature.

Dale W. Rupert writes the “Rupert Report”, titled “Don’t Curse that Cursor! Learn to Put It Where You Want It.”, which discusses cursor positioning.

The “Commodares” section includes a couple of type-in utilities and a few programming puzzles.

Michael Kleinert and David Barron write “A Peek at Memory on the Commodore 64″, which describes exactly what the 64K is used for, and “Programming Sequential Files on Your Disk Drive”, which is just what it sounds like.

At the end of the issue is a glossary of computer terms, which jokes strewn about (“High resolution. High-quality graphics capability when applied to a video terminal. An individual software program may itself contain high-resolution graphics, meaning detailed or colorful graphics. A subjective term and therefore frequently abused (especially on New Years Eve).”)

Posted in 1984, Full Review, Magazine | Leave a Comment »

Achievement Unlocked 2

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 4, 2013

Achievement Unlocked 2 is a 2010 platformer by Armor Games.


Much like its predecessorAchievement Unlocked 2 is a commentary on metagaming. The player controls once again a small, blue elephant, and has no other goals than to unlock all of the achievements. Here, Achievement Unlocked 2 tops the original, featuring 250 absurd achievements, more than double Achievement Unlocked‘s 100.


Of course, it wouldn’t be a worthy sequel if you couldn’t unlock achievements just by starting the game, and this once again sets the tone for the whole game. There are plenty of achievements for things like clicking on interface elements, as well as the more ‘traditional’ sort for standing on certain squares or collecting all the coins in the game.

The main thing that sets Achievement Unlocked 2 apart from its predecessor is that it features multiple rooms. In a parody of the current DLC craze, though, you’ve got to buy the DLC to unlock the extra rooms, using the coins you collect in the game. In addition to the initial room, ‘Floor 1′, you have access to the elephant’s home, as well as four more floors and the roof of the building you’re in.

If you unlock all 250 achievements, you can see the ending… but is it really worth it?

One of the title screen’s messages is “Why risk it when you can just create a sequel?”, and the fake review quote in the shop for the second floor reads “If you like the first floor you’ll probably like the second.” These are certainly intended as parody, but they sum it all up pretty well. The second game in the Achievement Unlocked series is more of the same. If you’ve played the original, there’s probably no reason to bother with this one. If you’ve never played the first, you can take your pick; either game will do.

Posted in 2010, Decent, Flash, Freeware, Full Review, Platformer | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tracy Poff on March 30, 2013

Kangaroo is a platformer by Sun Electronics, released in June 1982.

The player controls a kangaroo whose child has been kidnapped by mischievous monkeys. Gameplay is pretty standard for arcade platformers: walk on platforms, climb ladders, avoid pitfalls and enemies while collecting bonus items; pretty much the same as Donkey Kong.

The kangaroo, of course, can jump, and is also equipped with a boxing glove, so that she can punch the monkeys that harass her on her way to rescue her child. The monkeys throw apples at her, which can be punched to return to sender.

Rescuing the child ends the level and begins the next. There are four variations before the levels replay at higher difficulty.

Kangaroo has simple graphics, music, and sound effects, on about the level one expects from a game from 1982. Its quality is comparable to Donkey Kong: decent for an old game, but nothing special these days.

Posted in 1982, Arcade, Decent, First Impressions, Platformer | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »


Posted by Tracy Poff on March 29, 2013

Ponpoko is a platformer by Sigma Enterprises, Inc., released in 1982.


Ponpoko is a very standard ladder-and-platform collect-em-up, in which you play the titular Ponpoko, a tanuki.


It is required on each level to collect the food while avoiding the pins (bizarrely called ‘apple cores’ in a flyer for the Venture Line release) and enemies (which look rather like mice but are apparently hairy caterpillars). The pots with question marks on them may contain bonus points (good!) or snakes (bad!). When you complete a level, you gain a bonus depending on how much time you used, and move on to the next level, with a different layout and a different kind of food to collect.

Ponpoko features fairly nice animation, but uninspired sound effects and no background music. It’s a decent game for its time, but it doesn’t stand out from the crowd.

I’ve recorded a sample of the gameplay:

Posted in 1982, Arcade, Collect 'em Up, Decent, First Impressions, Platformer | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »


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