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Peter Killworth always found time for a wide range of hobbies and activities, ranging from anthropology to stage magic, to supplement his important career in oceanographic research, but one suspects that he must have been even busier than usual during 1983. Inspired by the unexpected success of Philosopher's Quest, he published two original games that year with Acornsoft, and ported a third to BBC Micro for them.

The original two were Castle of Riddles and Countdown to Doom. The former closely resembles Philosopher's Quest II, although it is an entirely original effort and not, as is sometimes reported, derived from Zork II and III from as-yet-unused sections of Philosopher's Quest's main source, Brand X. The plot , such as it is, casts you as a hapless adventurer who is hired by a wizard to retrieve a certain Ring of Power from an evil warlock with a bent, for guessing games. Acornsoft had a good reason for wanting Castle of Riddles particularly difficult even by the rather ruthless standards of the time: they turned its solving into a national contest. Working in conjunction with Your Computer magazine, the company collected orders during the first few weeks of 1983, then mailed copies to all potential entrants on February 15. The first to solve it would receive a voucher valid for £1500 worth of Acorn hardware and software of their choice, along with a superbly nerdy '£700 hallmarked silver ring trophy mounted on a presentation pedestal and inscribed 'King'. From the ring'“.

As several weeks passed without a winner, there was some concern that Killworth had made the game too difficult, that no one would manage to crack it before the contest's March 31 due date. So, a 34-year-old businessman named Colin Bignell thought he had an excellent opportunity when he finally finished the game one night in March. He immediately rushed to his car and drove at dawn from his home in Littlehampton, Sussex, to Your Computer's London offices to deliver the keyword that reveals the game upon completion. But unfortunately, when he stopped outside, Peter Voke was already inside doing the same; Bignell had to settle for runner-up status.

The Castle of Riddles contest was a milestone. Many other publishers would launch similar efforts in the coming years. It turned out to be a great way to build excitement around a new title in the British software industry, which has thrived far more than the American one on this kind of hype and enthusiasm. Perhaps less fortunate was the effect it had on the designs involved. They just had to be damn, absurdly difficult to avoid a stampede of players pounding on publishers' doors hours after release. Thus, what could already be a stubbornly intractable genre, some of its worst tendencies were elevated into the realm of virtual necessity. In fact, Castle of Riddles itself is the least of Killworth's games. Even he looked at him with little affection; it is the only one of his Acornsoft games that he did not choose to revive for the company he later partnered with, Topologika.

Far more impressive, and a significant step forward for Killworth as a designer, is Countdown to Doom, a sci-fi setting. His spaceship has just landed on the planet Doomawangara. You have around 215 turns to repair your ship, which is accomplished by gathering the spare parts that are conveniently scattered around the planet and dropping them into the ship's hold, and escape, after which the ship “collapses” by reasons that aren't entirely clear (beyond the desire for an in-game turn limit, that is). As that tight turn limit suggests, Doomes is extremely difficult gameplay mixed with the usual sudden innocent player deaths that are a staple of the Cambridge approach to adventure games. This game, much like his stablemates, sends the dial across the top of the Zarfian cruelty scale and on. With only 215 turns available, getting everything done is a great planning exercise, even once he knows the solution to each individual puzzle. However, its puzzles, while tough as nails, mostly stay just on the right side of fairness, only occasionally dipping a toe or two over the line. They reward intellectual leaps as much or more than dogged persistence (not that the latter isn't necessary, too). Let me give a quick example of how ruthless yet magical these puzzles are.

On your initial explorations you come across a bunch of gibberish written on a wall.

Anyone who has ever played an adventure game can guess that it must be a coded message, but how do you crack it? Well, later in the game you come across another strange message on a wall.

This is all the information the game provides to crack the code. Do you want to try? Advance; I will wait…

So the solution is to take every fifth letter after the first, going round and round until all the letters are used. This produces “Say 'flezz' to deactivate the robot”. Sure enough, there's a pesky little robot thief elsewhere in the game.

Even if you cracked the code, don't feel too smug; you had an advantage. In the actual game there is nothing to connect these two messages, nothing to indicate that the second provides the key to the first.

I needed a push to make that connection myself when playing the game, but then doing the rest myself was so satisfying that I love the game for it.

Countdown to Doom is easier to love than many games in Cambridge lore. Despite all his cruelty, he shows some hints of mercy. You are expected to collect the six spare parts needed to solve the most pressing problem, the escape problem, but a full score also requires satisfying your inner greedy adventurer by collecting six treasures. These, which are generally the hardest to collect, are actually optional; it's possible to escape and thus seemingly win the game (apart from a reprimand message telling you you could have done even better) without picking up a single one. This choice adds a welcome dose of positive reinforcement. It's more satisfying to win the game with a sub-optimal score and then improve it again than to just fail over and over again.

In contrast to Castle of Riddles, Countdown to Doom was always one of Killworth's favorite children. His design is strict and perfect in his own uncompromising way, his puzzles often brilliant. Games in this tradition will always be a minority taste, even among the minority who can still stomach old-school text adventures in this day and age, but Countdown to Doom is about as perfect an example of such a tradition as you'll find.

Killworth's final effort for 1983 was another minor milestone. Kingdom of Hamil was a loving port of the Phoenix Hamil game, the first to be written exclusively by Phoenix stalwart Jonathan Partington, to the BBC Micro. Thus, it became the first Phoenix game not created by Killworth to reach homes, and the first to retain its original title and remain basically complete in its new form. The story, spruced up a bit from the original in Acornsoft's box copy, casts you as the displaced heir to Hamil's throne, needing to prove yourself to prove your identity. Being an old school adventure game, “worth it” literally means here: you have to collect valuable treasures and place them in the castle vault. As usual, none of this makes much sense. No one would ever accuse the Phoenix games of even storybook realism.

But you don't play these games for their stories, and Hamil has some wonderful elements to it. Partington has always had a fondness for large-scale, dynamic puzzles that often span multiple rooms and require precise timing, the kind of thing that requires painstaking pen-and-paper solving. His talents are very evident here. There's a dinosaur chase scene that spans over 30 turns but needs to be planned and executed perfectly down to the last move, and a similar sequence where the terrain literally explodes behind you. Much of Amiles so much fun to solve that you can almost forgive his few over-the-top puzzles. The last of these, however, does a good job of crushing any spirit of generosity you may still have. It's one of the classic moments in adventure gaming, which reads like a caricature of Phoenix's clever math lore.

At the beginning of Hamil, you find another coded message on a wall.

This is actually easier than the similar puzzle in Countdown to Doom. When a certain closed door starts asking you for a password, it's not too hard to figure out that it must be a simple transcription cipher, with the first three words representing “The password is…” By the time it climaxes the game, so, you feel quite safe to decipher the messages that appear.


But his difficulties are just beginning. In fact, I've now given you everything the game does, so go for it if you want.

Ready to continue? OK! In the words of the anonymous writer of a tutorial from long ago:

You should get the set of letters for THE PASSWORD IS, which is THEPASWORD. Then you must order the letters, resulting in ADEHIOPRSTW. Finally you need to encode this string. You do this in the opposite way that you decoded the messages. So if, for example, TPM was decoded as THE, THE is encoded as TPM. ADEHIOPRSTW codes for NYMPHSWALTZ. To finish the game you must write NYMPHS WALTZ. (SAY NYMPHS WALTZ or NYMPHSWALTZ doesn't work).

Really, what could be clearer? Again, solving this here and now, while ridiculously difficult, is actually much easier than it would be for someone to find it in-game. There you are given no indication other than what you see of what “the phrase” refers to among a large game full of phrases (it is a text adventure, after all). Thus we come to hate in my love-hate relationship with Phoenix.

But you don't have to take my word for it. I have prepared a zip file for those interested in exploring Killworth's 1983 for yourselves. It includes each of the three games as a BBC Micro tape image, the way they were first distributed. (To start one of the games on a BBC Micro emulator, mount the tape image, then type * TAPE followed by CH ”“. Note also that at least some of the disk images of these games that float on ROM files and abandonware sites are corrupted and incomplete). I've also included some tip sheets, which you'll probably need. For what it's worth, when I play I give myself unlimited access to the first level of tracks. This usually provides the kind of little nudges that games are sorely lacking, such as Infocom would have provided within games as a matter of course at this point.

Next time we'll talk to our other special friends in British Adventures, Level 9, to see how 1983 treated them.

You should get the set of letters for THE PASSWORD IS, which is THEPASWORD. Then you must order the letters, resulting in ADEHIOPRSTW. Finally you need to encode this string. You do this in the opposite way that you decoded the messages. So if, for example, TPM was decoded as THE, THE is encoded as TPM. ADEHIOPRSTW codes for NYMPHSWALTZ. To finish the game you must write NYMPHS WALTZ. (SAY NYMPHS WALTZ or NYMPHSWALTZ doesn't work).


en/companias/peter_killworth.txt · Last modified: 2023/07/09 12:38 by jevicac