Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Killer Mansion (1982)

This week, we're tackling a fairly obscure BASIC adventure for the TRS-80 Color Computer -- Killer Mansion, author uncredited, published by T&D Software in 1982.

Past the nondescript title screen, some hyperbolic introductory text explains that we're not dealing with a homicidal building; instead:


The interface is all text, but provides a compass rose in the corner of the screen indicating the available exits.  The standard screen layout displays the current location, visible objects, and a command line; if we use the INV command, the screen switches to an inventory display -- then it's impossible to get back to the room display without doing something, like moving to another room or interacting with an object.  Only three characters are significant to the parser, and the BASIC engine is rather slow to respond, so if you're playing via emulation you may want to crank up the simulated clock speed.

I do encourage interested readers to venture into the Killer Mansion before proceeding here.  It's a brief and straightforward adventure aside from one major parser obstacle, and in the interest of history I will be documenting all of the gory details in the following commentary.  In other words, beware that there lie...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The story begins in a hallway with a broken light fixture, some cobwebs, and a cracked mirror. LOOK doesn't work with the parser, but EXAMINE does.  EXAMINE MIRROR yields, YOU SEE A WIERD [sic] OBJECT IN THE MIRROR! (pause) YUK! ITS YOU!!  So this game isn't inclined to ingratiate itself with the player.  GETtable objects have to be picked up before they can be EXAMined.  And some things that should logically be portable are not; this can generally be taken to mean that an object is window dressing and irrelevant to play.

A newspaper in the living room features the headline, CRIMINAL ESCAPES KNIFES COP; RUNS OFF WITH LOOT!!  Just to remind us about the plot, and it make it clear that punctuation is really unimportant as far as this game is concerned.

OPEN STOVE in the kitchen results in THE DOOR BREAKS SETTING OFF A BOMB THAT BLOWS YOU OUT OF THE MANSION!! TRY ANOTHER BODY AND ANOTHER MANSION!!  So we will have some unforeseeable deaths to deal with, and in fact this happens if we try to OPEN just about anything in the game.

A MANEATING WATCHDOG in the sitting room presents an issue - THE DOG WILL TEAR YOU TO SHREDS UNLESS YOU DROP SOMETHING RIGHT NOW!! WHAT WILL YOU DROP?  If we try to drop something we actually don't have, the game replies with its usual questionable grammar:  YOU DONT HAVE THAT!! YOUR DEAD!! THE CRIMINAL IS PLANNING ON ATTENDING YOUR FUNERAL!!   Really?  That doesn't seem wise on his part.

Trying something else to appease the dog, like the newspaper, produces THAT IS THE WRONG THING! THE DOG JUMPS ON YOU AND KILLS YOU!  Okay, now this is getting annoying; we can't even leave once we've encountered the maneating dog, so we'll just avoid the sitting room for now.

The kitchen has a counter, a sink, and a scampering rat (who will appear in several other locations and is just window dressing.)  The den has an antique desk and a row of shelves.  OPEN DESK sets off a fatal bomb, of course.  This criminal seems almost suicidally thorough -- one can easily imagine him making an absent-minded late night trip to the refrigerator and succumbing to his own trap.

The layout of the house is a bit strange -- the dining room has a stove in it, we encounter a PANTRY *and* a FOOD STORAGE room, and two DENs.  The trap door in food storage is another bomb trap, of course, and a closet contains a flattened out hat (fixed resolutely in place) and an old chicken bone.  Another storage closet contains a broom and a locked dresser.  A bucket in the laundry room reads (well, EXAMines -- there's no READ verb) MADE IN HONG KONG.

There's quite a bit of reused text, which generally means those items and descriptions aren't really relevant; for instance, every one of the rugs LOOKS LIKE IT HAS BEEN WALKED ON RECENTLY.

The bathroom contains a towel, a rusty faucet and a plunger; the strangely-named FRUIT ROOM has a dirty glass jar and cobwebs.  Trying to enter the COAL STORAGE ROOM south of the COAL ROOM establishes that YOU WERE HIT FROM BEHIND AND KILLED BY THE DANGEROUS CRIMINAL! BEFORE YOU CAN ENTER THAT ROOM HE MUST BE DEAD!   The game's feedback and design often seem to be post-hoc in nature -- it's too bad we had no way of discovering this earlier, and that the game provides no SAVE feature.

A small room contains a half-eaten and unlicensed WHOPPER, as well as more STRANGERS FOOTPRINTS (how do we know they don't belong to someone we know???) and a blood stain.

If we enter the HIDING ROOM -- another odd name -- we find a small key, but are then jumped by the bad guy. A text display indicates a fight (THUD!) and then we RUN! until suddenly, YOUR ONLY CHANCE IS TO USE SOMETHING! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO USE?  I tried GUN, assuming that as a police detective I might be carrying one, but only learned that, according to the game's inscrutable logic, it's no good:  YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT WEAPON TO DEFEND YOURSELF! YOU DIE!!!

At this point, we've explored most of the mansion, and it seems this game's plot is all about killing the bad guy and solving whatever puzzles remain.

Dropping the chicken bone from the closet gets us past the  maneating watchdog, whose affections are easy to buy -- he is now a FRIENDLY WATCHDOG.  To the east is a SECRET ROOM with a CONTROL PANEL bearing red, blue and yellow levers.  This is probably the game's biggest challenge, due to a maddeningly obtuse and inflexible design -- USE LEVER yields CANNOT FIND THATPULL LEVER produces only I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE VERB!  PUSH RED -- I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE VERBMOVE BLUE almost looks like progress, as the game replies, MOVED IT BUT NOTHING HAPPENED, but moving the other levers doesn't do anything interesting either.  USE RED is similarly misleading:  OK.. NOTHING HAPPENS!  We actually have to MOVE PANEL -- and then we can choose which lever we want to move.  Ack!

Past this sticking point, we learn that using the RED lever causes us to fall out of the window with skull-crushing force.  BLUE dumps us into the guest room on a bed, but we lose all of our inventory items and might as well quit and start over.  YELLOW tosses us around and ultimately sends us to a dungeon, apparently in a new part of the mansion.

The dungeon's Torture room has an old skeleton, but we can't GET it or EXAMINE it (because we would have had to GET it first.)  We can MOVE SKELETON, though, to find a KNIFE, which we can hope will be more useful than the gun.  The JAIL room contains an ice pick and a locked door, and we can USE PICK to escape this remarkably insecure dungeon and return to one of the dens.  This amazing ice pick cannot be used to open the locked dresser or an intriguing chest, though.

We can't open the desk in the guest room either, it's also booby trapped despite the watchdog guarding the area.  The attic contains a locked chest and another newspaper, with the same headline as the other one.  This criminal likes to collect his own clippings it seems.  And if we try to OPEN CHEST, it also blows up.  Sigh.

The game's poor grammar extends to the inventory limit system -- we can only carry four items, after which we are told YOU CANNOT CARRY NO MORE.  Sigh again.

With the knife, at last, we can kill the criminal -- THE CRIMINAL FALLS BACK, HIS LAST WORDS ARE, 'THEY WILL NEVER FIND IT, IT IS TOO DEEP!'  It sounds like it's buried somewhere, whatever "it" is.

Since the criminal is dead, we can now get the small key and visit the Coal Storage Room, which has a suspicious dirt floor.  A piece of crumpled paper reads, "'X' MARKS THE SPOT."  While there's no such marking visible here, we can use a handy shovel to dig until we find a chest.  We USE KEY -- since we didn't try to OPEN the chest directly, we can safely do this -- and we are done!

So we've found the money and killed the bad guy -- there's no sign of any additional TREASURE as mentioned in the introductory text, but at least it's all over and we can return to the land of decent grammar and proper punctuation.  Killer Mansion isn't difficult, but the design is haphazard and sloppy -- play is very trial-and-error, despite the limited vocabulary.  We just have to try to pick up, use and move everything until something gives, and after we've winnowed play down to the essentials there isn't really much to do; my walkthrough (below the fold, and available at the CASA Solution Archive) wraps the whole thing up in under 40 moves.


W, W
N, E, E, E (maneating watchdog! what to drop?)
MOVE PANEL (which lever?)
YELLOW (transported to dungeon)
USE PICK (come out in den north of kitchen)
S, S, E, E
S, S, E, E, N (fight; what will you use?)
KNIFE (criminal dies)
S, W
USE KEY (victory!)

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