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Adventure Gaming Roots

Adventure gaming began in 1976 when William Crowther created the very first text-based game, written in a language called FORTRAN. The game was loosely based on a large cave that he had explored as a caver and was created on a PDP-10 mainframe. Shortly after, Don Woods found the game, and with Crowther's blessing, expanded it into what now is known as Colossal Cave, the grandfather of all adventure games.

The game was purely text based and accepted 1 or 2 word commands to guide the player through various puzzles in a bid to collect all of the treasure within the cave and return it safely to the house. From this single game spawned every other adventure game and it was no surprise that when home microcomputers came along in the early 80’s, people would begin to write their own versions and create new variants.

Because the game was text-only meant that almost any micro could be used as long as it had enough memory to hold the parser, objects, locations and mechanics of the game. The Spectrum had several versions of the classic, notably Adventure 1 from Abersoft (later bought and published by Melbourne House as Classic Adventure) and Colossal Cave by Level 9.

Amongst the first wave of Spectrum spin-off adventures that moved away from caves and gave the player a different world to explore were ones produced by Artic Computing. There initial set proved very popular, frequently entering the top ten despite some very dodgy actions that could be performed on a female android in one game.

The only problem often raised was that sometimes the games proved difficult, not because of the actual challenges, but because the player had to guess the correct wording to use… do you use collect, get, pick up, take… to pick up an item? This is where magazines jumped on the band wagon, and began offering help pages for lost adventurers.

Text-only games relied heavily on the imagination of the player, much the same way a book does, but with the advance of computing power, graphics began to creep in. Initially they were poor line drawn squares, relegated to a small area at the top of the screen like Magic Mountain (right) from Phipps Associates, but as time went on, they slowly improved, filling the top, and sometimes the whole of the screen.

The Hobbit arrived and changed everything...

The major jump in advancement for the Spectrum came in 1983 when Melbourne House published The Hobbit. This game completely changed adventure gaming, providing a complex parser and rich graphics, coupled with a good story and large vocabulary. Like Colossal Cave before it, The Hobbit spawn a multitude of copies – some better than others.

Adventures began to grow and well known scenarios soon arrived, taking ideas from films, comic books and television. There has always been a niche market for adventure games, and a company called Gilsoft wanted to target this group when it launched the Quill, a utility that allowed people to create their own games. This had a knock-on effect of flooding the market with text-only games. Later an add-on allowed graphics to be added… again another flood of games.

The next logical major step was animation. Not only did we get text and graphics, but now moving images too, all to enrich our experience. These usually took the form of small animated characters like those in Valhalla or scenes to move the plot forward like those used in the Scot Adams games. Slowly the textual element of adventures was been eroded until we reached a new genre… The arcade adventure.

Text input for this new genre was either reduced significantly or eliminated altogether, as the player now relied on the graphics to portray the action, with just a few text prompts to help things along.

There were still some people willing to experiment though, one notable game was Slaine (right) from Martech. Here the player’s thoughts drifted around the screen and had to be selected to perform the action. This method was quite intuitive but difficult to control without a mouse and never really caught on.

With all of these new features, the games themselves could seem restricted, especially in size, but some games just grew to enormous proportions despite the limitations of memory. Lords of Midnight boasted 32,000 views, and although leaning towards Role Playing, it was still a part of the Adventure family.

Snowball from Level 9 claimed to have 2000+ locations using clever text compressor to fit it all into 48k. To get around this hardware and memory limitation, several companies began to think about supplying an expansion unit for the Spectrum, to allow for bigger and better games. Shadow of the Unicorn from Mikro-Gen, it is the only one that actually made it to release though, coming with a 16 ROM expansion that allowing for more data to be used.

Imagine were famously working on a similar concept for their much publicised but never completed game Bandersnatch, one of the two Mega-games that have since gone down in micro computing folklore. It seemed that the limitations of the Spectrum were holding adventures back, and the genre had gone as far as it could, at least on the 8 bit machines.

Some companies, like Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9, through Firebird, still put out quality games, relying on atmospheric text and complex game play. Despite this, the adventure game days were numbered, sadly along with the Spectrum itself.

Luckily, for any avid adventure fans, the Spectrum and the genre is not completely dead. Adventures are still being released, albeit slowly, with a great mix of puzzles, atmospheric text and sometimes even graphics.

The game format came along way from its early text only days, but some say you still can’t beat the imagination when it comes to adventures.