Eight Bit Adventurer

Not all those who wander are lost…

Stuart Williams' Apple IIe running ‘The Hobbit' from 5.25" floppy disk

Or, of early adventure games, and how to go adventuring on your Apple II today

Many are familiar with the concept of the computer text adventure game, or work of ‘interactive fiction’; they may even have played such a game when they were much younger, in the early days of home computing – the late 1970s to 1980s – when they may have had fun loading them up off cassette with a Sinclair Spectrum, a BBC Micro, a Commodore 64, an Amstrad, a Dragon or even an MSX.

But many of the first commercially available adventure games, indeed some of the very first available on a microcomputer instead of a mainframe or minicomputer, were actually initially introduced on the now-scarce Tandy TRS-80 Model I, the Commodore Pet 2001, or the rather easier to find Apple II range. And even today, for those wanting to go adventuring like in the “good old days”, there is much to be said for turning to the classic Apple eight-bit machines once again, and truly seminal games like Adventureland, Zork I and Mystery House, from which all else follows on.

What’s in an adventure game?

Adventures were some of the very first games to be played on computers, with Colossal Cave Adventure (often known simply as Adventure) being developed for mainframes and minicomputers as far back as 1975-6. The whole point of the game was to present the player with a story within a digital world with which he or she could interact, solve puzzles in, progress through and, well, have an adventure!

Because those early scientific or business-oriented computers didn’t use bit-mapped graphics, the first games, and many of those created for early home computers, were entirely text or character-based, and before the advent of VDU (video display) terminals, game progress would actually be printed out on a teletype machine or line printer. This made text adventure games ideal for converting to the earliest home computers, with minimal or relatively crude graphics by modern standards. They also required relatively little memory to run in, and could be stored on tape cassette or the relatively low capacity floppy disk drives of the day.

The adventurer’s tale

Adventure games are also known as ‘interactive fiction’, since their object is for the player to take part in and influence a fictional story by exploring within the game, making choices, picking up and using objects, solving puzzles and, in the more sophisticated games, even interacting with other, computer-generated characters in the story.

Typically, as you might expect given the geeky nature of computer gaming, fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime, and variations on these tropes, tend to be the most popular themes for adventure game storylines, but almost any subject can lend itself to the genre.

In the beginning
Colossal Cave Adventure running on a PDP-11/34, displayed on the minicomputer's VT100 serial terminal (COURTESY Autopilot/Wikipedia)

Colossal Cave Adventure running on a PDP-11/34, displayed on the minicomputer’s VT100 serial terminal (COURTESY Autopilot/Wikipedia)

The very first adventure game was Colossal Cave Adventure, often referred to simply as Adventure, Colossal Cave, or ADVENT. Colossal Cave was developed in 1976 by Will Crowther, for the 36-bit DEC PDP-10 mainframe computer. This game is the great, great grandfather of all the adventure games which followed. And as you might expect, variations on it were among the very first games to appear on the Apple II range. Continue reading

Whether you are an adventurer bold, looking for a fellow wanderer to join you on your quest, or you simply haven’t a clue, and are looking for one, welcome to the first post of my new blog for fans of retro adventure gaming, Eight Bit Adventurer, which launches today!

Here, I plan to write about adventure games past and present, as well as current adventure news, for users of those eight-bit home computers which were the first affordable home of ‘interactive fiction’ – software programs better known by many as text adventures, or stories in which the computer user could actually intervene and play a critical role in defeating evil, solving a mystery, exploring – or just grabbing as much treasure as possible!

This blog had its very first incarnation on my, currently mothballed, website Retro Computing News. The good news is that, by the time RCN was put into stasis for personal reasons, Eight Bit Adventurer had already been accepted for regular print publication in Eight Bit magazine by the editor, John Kavanagh, for which I was very grateful as it meant there would be another readership for, and indeed a permanent record of, my spidery web-scribblings – on paper.  What could be more retro than that?

Now, that printed column will be complemented by this online equivalent, with both formats sharing content as appropriate. Some pieces will appear first in the column in Eight Bit, others will show up here online first, notably any timely news.  There will be significant crossover between the two, but not everything I explore will appear in both.  Hopefully this will offer an incentive for you, dear reader, to keep up with both magazine and blog.

Title screen from 'Adventure' for the Apple II, 1980

Title screen from ‘Adventure’ for the Apple II, 1980

To quote Graham Cunningham’s first November 1983 Editorial in the much-missed Micro Adventurer magazine, which in part inspired both blog and column:

“For those of you who have never ventured into the realm of computer adventures before, they consist of a series of intricate puzzles. The puzzles themselves are set in worlds of myth and imagination, ranging from J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit through any number of elves, dwarves and trolls, to deserted castles and vast alien space ships. Most adventures have some central aim, either a princess to be rescued or some treasure to be collected, but much of the fun lies in exploring the world created by the programmer.”

And that, indeed, is the main purpose of Eight Bit Adventurer – to help me, and hopefully others, explore those many worlds of the multiverse which were created in past computer adventures, and also those ‘worlds within’ of the new games which have been created, and are still being created, in more recent years when the use of home computers long considered obsolete by the mundane and the mainstream has become one of the most fascinating hobbies for computer historians, collectors and retro gamers alike. Continue reading