One Thing After Another – A Warren Spector Gamebook

I had a look at Warren Spector’s first and so far only novel a couple of weeks back. It may have been his only novel but it turns out he was already a published author as of a year earlier thanks to this:-

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One Thing After Another was published by Puffin in 1987 and based on the TSR Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. It’s a game book in the regular format with the reader/player flicking between numbered sections as they make decisions throughout. The role-playing elements are very simplistic with the player stats all predetermined and combat simply being a case of rolling one die to decide the outcome. There is the notion of “Karma” points which can be spent at any time to increase the value of a die roll. Learning where to spend these should more of less guarantee victory but a little luck never hurts either.

In this tale, the player takes the role of The Thing from the Fantastic Four. Early on, the gang are all infected by a super hero targeting virus with only the Thing being strong enough to venture out to seek a cure. It’s tricky to describe the plot from here on out as there are numerous paths through the game with no single correct route. The main thread however involves collecting blood samples from Things in alternate dimensions in order to use them in making a cure for the disease. These alternate dimensions feature the familiar cast of Marvel heroes and villains but life has taken a very different turn for all of them. For instance Dr. Doom is on the right side of the law in the first dimension and the Thing is now King Kong sized and indeed climbing the outside of skyscrapers while terrorising the city. This doesn’t make it easy to get a blood sample off him and this was the section that needed several attempts to find the correct path.

You’ll need to collect a sample in all 3 dimensions to win outright on this path but the alternate dimensions can be avoided all together if the player chooses. I found a way to win by visiting a planet populated by some sort of nano-sized dust creatures who had the ability to enter our heroes bodies and cure them. Having multiple successful endings isn’t something I can remember seeing in a game book before. I’m wondering if this is an early example of his disposition toward offering players multiple paths through each situation that we saw in so many of his later games.

I complained somewhat about Spector’s writing style when looking at The Hollow Earth Affair. He uses the exact same style here but being a superhero story it works extremely well and captures the Marvel ethos perfectly, at least in the eyes of someone who has never read a Marvel comic in his life. The book is upbeat, over the top and rattles along at a good pace throughout. It assumes a little more knowledge of the Marvel universe than I possess with some of the characters such as “The Ghost” completely unknown to me. This was never that off-putting – how much do you really need to know about comic book villains anyway?

I will say that the experience of playing this is brief. The multiple paths may offer replay value but it really doesn’t take long to get through any one of the routes as a result. Other than that I’d definitely recommend this one, especially since it’s so cheap and readily available. It’s definitely a whole lot more fun than The Hollow Earth Affair.

Given that I read every game book I could get my hands on as a kid, I’m surprised that I’ve not come across this series before now. My favourite series at the time was always Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf so while I’m on the subject I’ll strongly recommend the Lone Wolf Saga app on Android which is entirely free and so far has the first dozen entries in the series up and running.


It’s time for a quick look at another random old game from the pile which this time is going to be Ocean’s Pushover. I only picked this up recently at Revival Solstice although I did play it a little many years ago.


It was published by Ocean in 1992, developed by Red Rat Software and is a puzzle game with some light action elements. It consists of 100 screens in which you play an ant who has to move dominoes around in such a way as to get every one of them to fall with a single push and a particular one to fall last . There are numerous types of dominoes to contend with. Some will keep flipping until another domino gets in their way, others float upwards before toppling, some explode, disappear, split in two, etc.. It’s a neat set up for a puzzle game giving endless options for levels, some of which get extremely tricky.


The arcade element comes in as it’s often required that you start dominoes moving and then race around rearranging others before the chain catches up. The level design can be extremely unforgiving here allowing no mistakes whatsoever. It is also possible (and sometimes required) to trigger dominoes without a push by falling on top of a splitter while carrying another domino.


The motivation and storyline behind all these puzzles is where things get a little strange. Back in the early 90’s here in the UK, Quavers crisps were being advertised on TV in short cartoons starring a character called Colin Curly, voiced by Lenny Henry. For instance:-

I have absolutely no idea how the deal came about but Quavers ended up sponsoring Pushover and Colin became a part of the game. The intro sequence shows him enjoying his Quavers a little too much, to the extent that he floats into the air, they all fall out of his pocket and he loses them down an ant hill. G. I. Ant volunteers to get them and the game starts. The intro only lasts 20 seconds or so but takes up the entire first disk of a two disk game.




Every 10 levels or so, you collect a packet of Quavers from somewhere that isn’t all that apparent and get a naff little animation of giving it back to Colin. These crisp packets then appear on the menu screen to show your progress. What any of this has to do with toppling dominoes I have no idea. If I’ve ever seen sponsorship shoved onto a product as an afterthought this is it.


The deal was taken a step further with free Amigas and copies of the game being given away in crisp packets as pushed in the advert below:-

Sponsorship aside, the gameplay of Pushover is really solid. This sort of title has a degree of timelessness and having to control G. I. Ant is quite a nice touch rather than keeping it as an abstract puzzle game. You can’t let him fall too far and have to bridge gaps, blow holes in platforms and the like to get him where he needs to go. I would still say that Pushover is lacking a certain spark but I’m not sure exactly what. I’d just like to see a bit more variety I suppose. The levels get harder for the most part and the backgrounds change every few levels but nothing truly new is ever introduced.

I found the controls could be a little wayward on the Amiga and this was certainly a point of frustration. It’s mainly because on an A1200, it plays considerably faster than it’s supposed to. This wasn’t something I realised until late in the game when I looked to YouTube for assistance with a particularly nasty level and saw everything moving at half the speed. I managed until I got about 80 levels in but reached a point I simply couldn’t progress past at that speed. I swapped to the Atari ST at this point which aside from the worse sound was near enough identical. It’s about time my ST actually saw some use – near enough everything on it slightly inferior to the Amiga version and it never gets switched on.


The last level of the game is a little devious as all the dominoes are blank and don’t show you what type they are. It all has to be worked out through trial and error but is at least relatively simple otherwise. The scant reward for beating all these levels is a static congratulations screen.


Pushover is a pretty decent game that probably deserved better than having some inappropriate sponsorship thrown at it. I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly as it’s just not quite special enough but it’s was above average when it was released and hasn’t suffered all that much for the 25 years since. There was a Windows remake done a few years back which may be the best way to play it now but any of the other versions I’ve tried hold up perfectly well.

The Tandy TX And Getting It To Run Wing Commander

The Wing Commander CIC has been flying the flag for Wing Commander for 18 years as of this week so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d look at something to do with Wing Commander. I’ve been looking for games to play on that Tandy I recently acquired and was slightly surprised to see that Wing Commander supported Tandy 16 colour graphics so I thought I’d give it a go. This was never going to work on my EX but I did have a chance of running it on Tandy #2, the Tandy TX.


I picked this up some weeks back when I figured I would never find a memory expansion for the EX only to then find one days later at a decent price. You can never have too many old PC’s as far as I’m concerned so it’s now been added to the ever expanding collection.

The TX has several things going for it over the EX. For a start it comes with 640K of RAM as standard. It has a 3.5 inch 720K drive by default, built-in DMA, and normal 8 bit ISA slots opening up a world of expansion options. It’s quicker than the EX with a 16 bit 286 processor running at 8 Mhz although it’s not quite a full 286 as all the peripheral interfaces (including graphics) are still 8 bit. Perhaps the only disadvantage over the EX is that it can’t be made to run at 4.77Mhz to support the oldest of DOS games but it does have a half speed mode.

I bought the TX, untested and as is. Getting it to a state where I can actually use it has been a bit of a project. First problem, it didn’t come with a keyboard and this being a Tandy it has a proprietary keyboard using an unusual DIN plug. The same goes for the joysticks. It has native support for two which is a nice feature in a PC of the era but they also use a Tandy only DIN socket. To compound this, you can’t disable the ports meaning that it’s not possible to slot in a joystick card to one of the expansion slots.

Despite a worrying amount of rust on the case, I did manage to establish that the machine would switch on and run a program using a boot disk and an autoexec.bat. I added a 360K drive while I was at it. The machine came with a hard disk expansion card which would have been a nice bonus had it actually worked so that needed sorting out as well. It came with a VGA card installed but that’s far too modern for my purposes so it got removed in favour of the built-in Tandy graphics.


First things first then, the keyboard was simply a matter of tracking one down, not all that easy but they are out there. It was a little temperamental when I first got it but seems to have settled down after a liberal spraying of switch cleaner.


The joystick was along the same lines. It’s not exactly the flightstick I would choose for Wing Commander but then I’m not expecting it to be playable anyway. This joystick was certainly cheap but when it arrived the rattling sound and the fact it flopped up and down was not a good sign.


Sure enough, on opening it up the bracket connecting the vertical axis to the potentiometer had sheared In two on one side. Nothing some araldite wouldn’t fix at least.


I was less sure about what to do with the hard drive expansion card. It’s a curious one piece card with an ancient Western Digital hard disk attached directly to the 8 bit ISA card. I thought at first, I could maybe swap out the hard disk but the edge connector it uses put me off this. I discovered a much better alternative in the Lo-tech 8 bit IDE adaptor card. This is a modern card allowing you to add IDE devices to any 8 bit PC. The snag is they only sell the circuit board and you have to build it yourself. I took the far easier but pricier option of buying a pre-built one from Ebay. The device is made with CompactFlash cards in mind but also requires an IDE->CompactFlash adaptor if you are going this route.


With the ISA card in place and connected up, I decided to carefully mask up the CompactFlash>IDE board to insulate it and shove this through one of the expansion slots at the back.. Once taped in place, this lets me remove the card when the case in closed.

Getting Wing Commander onto this PC would have been quite time consuming since it doesn’t support HD disk drives which is what the game shipped on. This solution allows me to just slot the CF card onto a modern PC and copy any software I like to it which is going to make using this PC a whole lot easier.


At this point, I could nearly run Wing Commander, except for a lack of memory. The original PC-Jr shared graphics and system memory meaning that the Tandy graphics mode eats into the 640K and the game didn’t have enough RAM left to run. One more trick the TX has going for it over the EX here is 4 expansion sockets to drop in some extra DRAM chips. These add another 128K which is exclusively used by the graphics and frees up the whole 640K. These are regular DRAM chips which I thought would be dirt cheap but the price over here was a ludicrous £7.99 each and I needed 4. I took the far cheaper option of importing a set of 5 from Hong Kong for not much over £2 including the shipping.


I noticed while I had the case in bits that it’s been arranged with the speaker at the front of the case where you would expect except that it points into the case, presumably to shield the components from the magnet. It’s not the most obvious arrangement but doesn’t affect the sound as much as you might expect and it’s still quite loud with the volume switched up to full.

Some time later, the chips arrived from Asia and I was finally able to give Wing Commander a go this week. So after all this effort, how well did it play? My hopes were never exactly high. The recommended specs are 12Mhz or higher. I know all too well how Origin games run on the “recommended” specs by now having experienced it back in the 90’s. My Tandy is only 8Mhz and not really a true 286 putting it considerably below recommended. The results could be described as just about playable but in truth this is Wing Commander – the turn based strategy.

I do quite like some of the PC speaker sound effects actually which I’ve never heard before. I’m not so sure they aren’t better than their Roland equivalents. The graphics hold up far better than I would have expected in 16 colours too. The installation program just converts the 256 colour graphics as part of the install so they haven’t been created with the Tandy in mind. This does result in some odd character graphics such as Spirit looking decidedly red during the initial briefing. Some of the in mission text is completely illegible suggesting that Tandy mode didn’t get all that much testing at Origin. A lot of the screens still look great such as the launching sequence. On the whole I reckon if it was about twice as fast, I’d have been pretty happy playing this back in 1990.

VGA is still clearly the way to go but Wing Commander running on a CGA monitor isn’t exactly a common sight so for the very few who might be interested, I pointed my phone at the screen and had a go at the first mission. I met an ignoble end, afterburning into an asteroid but it gives an idea. Apologies as ever for picture quality – next time I do one of these I’ll figure out how to turn off autofocus on my phone.

It may not have been the best way to play Wing Commander but the upshot of all this is that I now have another fully specced and working Tandy which I will definitely be playing a good number of games on over the coming months.

The Hollow Earth Affair – A Warren Spector Novel

Before getting his entry into making computer games at Origin, Warren Spector had been working for several years in the world of tabletop role-playing games, first with Steve Jackson games and then moving to rival TSR in 1987. He worked on numerous projects while at TSR but what interested me particularly about his spell there was that he became a published author in 1988.


The book in question is “The Royal Pain/Hollow Earth Affair” which was published by TSR in 1988. It’s the second in a series of 3 novels based upon the Top Secret tabletop game, particularly it’s 1987 Special Intelligence revision. The game involved players taking the role of spies working for the Orion Foundation who would have to do battle with the evil Web.

All of the Double Agent novels were appropriately titled since they contained two stories featuring recurring secret agent characters. In the case of The Hollow Earth Affair, that character is Sebastian Cord, a gambling, womanizing secret agent of some experience who is now getting slightly past his prime. Basically it’s James Bond by another name, although he looks curiously like Bruce Campbell on the book cover. The Origin links to this character go further than just Warren Spector as the first entry in the series had been penned by Aaron Allston, who would go on to create the Claw Marks manual for Wing Commander.

The story starts in Nazi Germany where V2 scientists have to abandon work on their new super weapon at the end of the war but the lead scientist, Karl Unland, is given the opportunity to somehow carry on his work. Before we find out how, we jump forward to current day 1988 where Cord is trying to extract a defector from Web only for him to get sucked up into what appears to be a UFO.

None of Cord’s superiors believe this of course and he is put on forced leave. He ultimately recruits aid in the form of another agent, Rodrigo, a South American magician who does contract work for Orion + two of the backroom staff in an attempt to solve the mystery and in the course save the world.

I spare readers the entire plot but if you haven’t guessed by now, the Nazi superweapon was indeed a UFO. In true X-Files fashion this renders anyone without ear protection unconscious when it lands, although it hints elsewhere that they are rendered unconscious because of the large amounts of CFC gas it leaves behind while cooling the engines. The secret base where these were manufactured turns out to be underground at the South pole thus explaining the hole in the ozone layer because of all the CFC gas being released (yes, really).

There is much jetting around the world before reaching the South pole of course, including to Austin, Texas where a chunk of the novel is set. As well as being Cord’s home town, it’s the location for a secret base in the desert complete with UFO. Unland’s ultimate scheme involves using some sort of super CFC to entirely wipe out the ozone layer and destroy all life before repairing the damage with his CFC-be-gone chemical and taking over the cleansed world with his selected few.

To be blunt, The Hollow Earth Affair isn’t a great read. The story is ludicrous and the characters entirely unbelievable thanks to dialog that lies somewhere between Jeffrey Archer and George Lucas. There is a complete absence of any tension and the editing exacerbates this by doing its best to pull you out of the action at ever turn. It’s the literary equivalent of a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon.

It’s that editing that really got to me. In later stages, the narrative will swap between story threads so frequently there is no chance for the reader to get back into one before they have to start on another. This swapping happens several times on a single page in extreme cases.

The story is more or less a poor mans James Bond throughout, complete with the usual gadgets such as a spy watch which can communicate anywhere in the world via satellite, to the underground secret base which gets blown up at the end and a maniacal super villain intent on world domination. This is the Bond of the Roger Moore movies rather than the novels and I was never a fan of those in the first place.

I still can’t say I hated The Hollow Earth Affair for all that. I’m sure it was never meant to be serious literature and is bad enough to be fun most of the time. It did a decent enough job of passing the time on a long train journey. It’s not hard to see the mind that came up with this coming up with the premise for Martian Dreams as they are both equally far-fetched sci-fi tales. Martian Dreams may well have made an equally terrible novel but it was if nothing else much less derivative.

I’m certainly not going to recommend that anyone track this down. Any of the Ultima/Wing Commander novels that I’ve read through on this blog would be far better choices. It appears to be fairly readily available on abebooks for the curious though. I’ve not read the second novel in the book as of yet and will probably keep it that way.

King’s Quest 1 (AGI)

Now I finally have my house back again, I’m seriously overdue a little retro gaming to make up for the enforced 7 month hiatus. This should mean a load more posts in the near future. Above all else, I wanted to have a go on that relatively recently acquired Tandy 1000 EX.


Since posting about that previously, I managed to find a memory expansion for it bringing the RAM up to the giddy heights of 640K. It also adds a DMA controller making it slightly more PC compatible and in theory speeding up load times off floppy. The Tandy has an interesting expansion system where a slot opens up in top of the machine and expansions have to be slotted in on top of each other. This means you have to unscrew the blank plates from all 3 before you can put a card in the bottom. Lining up the slots proved quite tricky since I had absolutely no way of telling where they are in relation to each other. This system is entirely unique to a couple of specific models in the Tandy line making these cards difficult to locate even if the demand isn’t exactly sky high.

Having got that working (and even though I don’t strictly need the extra memory to play it), the first game had to be Sierra’s King’s Quest.


Sierra pioneered the graphical adventure game starting out with Mystery House on the Apple II all the way back in 1980 and continuing to release ever more ambitious titles throughout the early 80’s. When IBM wanted some software to show off the gaming capabilities of their forthcoming PC-Jr, Sierra were certainly one of the obvious choices to create it and the result of that deal was King’s Quest.

IBM’s attempt to enter the home PC market with the PC-Jr would prove to be a dismal failure, largely due to the price point and the famously horrific keyboard. King’s Quest on the other hand would become a staple of PC gaming, managing nearly as many games it’s in main canon as Ultima. Despite the nature of that IBM contract, Sierra were wise enough not to put all their eggs in one basket. They created a whole new engine (AGI) which ran the game on a virtual machine and allowed for easy porting to other platforms. The PC-Jr format would still see much success ultimately in the form of Tandy’s clone which fixed most things IBM had got wrong the first time around.

My copy of King’s Quest isn’t the original release which was a PC-Booter but it is the one I bought back in the late 80’s as a trilogy pack with the first 3 entries in the series. This later version used a more advanced AGI engine (requiring twice the memory), had quite different box art and most importantly for me at the time I played it came on both disk formats and not just 5.25’s.


The box isn’t exactly stuffed full of goodies but does have quite a nice manual with an embossed King’s Quest logo and the story that sets up the game. All the King’s Quest games are based on fairy tales and the manual is very much written in this vein. In brief, King Edward (the ruler of Daventry), manages to give away the Kingdom’s greatest treasures which are a shield that makes his armies invincible, a chest with everlasting treasure, and a mirror that tells him the future. This is clearly why we shouldn’t have a hereditary system of rulership. It’s about what you should expect when you name someone after a potato I suppose. In the game, I’ll be playing Sir Graham, bravest of King Edward’s knights, who has to sort this mess out.


The game starts with a rendition of Greensleeves (apparently not in the original booter version) and then I take over control of Sir Graham. This is a traditional text adventure game in one sense with a prompt at the bottom to type commands. The big innovation was being able to walk Graham around the world with the cursor keys. This added a minuscule amount of arcade gaming to the experience avoiding all the monsters roaming around the countryside. We hadn’t got as far as pointing and clicking yet, but this was the dawn of that style of adventure gaming.

Job #1 in this game is to go and see King Edward who despite the apparent poverty he has put Daventry into, still lives in a castle so large it won’t fit on one screen of the game. He’s kept safe from marauding peasants seeking social justice by a crocodile infested moat which probably explains the sparsely populated nature of his Kingdom.

Graphically, the game looked impressive back in 1984 despite only being in an unusual 160×200 resolution when the Tandy was capable of the full 320×200. I didn’t realize it when I first played these games but the backgrounds are entirely made up of filled polygons and on the booter version, you can actually see these being drawn to the screen. This saved on disk space and kept loading times to a minimum.

Speaking of which, I played this off the original 5.25 disks and the loading times really aren’t too bad considering the hardware. They would have seemed positively speedy at the time with 2-3 seconds to load each new room. What I didn’t like was having to swap disks to save my game.Many of the screens have random monsters that mean instant death if they catch you. They aren’t capable of chasing between screens at least so you soon learn to stay near the edges of screens in this game and save often.


I’m getting ahead of myself though. Before I can explore the countryside, I have to go and get my quest from King Edward. I have to retrieve the 3 missing treasures and in return will get to be King.

Gameplay in King’s Quest is extremely non-linear and these treasures can be obtained in any order. There are usually several solutions to every puzzle with some solutions worth more points than others (non-violent solutions usually being the more valuable).The main world consists of roughly 20-30 screens in a grid that rolls back around to the opposite side at the edges, and there are further sub locations, inside houses, below ground, etc most of which are on the second of the two floppy disks.


Apart from the 3 main treasures, various other valuable items are scattered about which can be gathered for points. These tend to be hidden in tree stumps or logs and the like. I don’t think I’ve ever managed full points in this game so there must be one somewhere I’ve never found.

The first main treasure I stumble into is the magic mirror, which is through a cave at the bottom of a well. It’s guarded by a dragon who I disable by throwing a bucket of water in its mouth.


The world map is large enough that I never really did learn my way around. I do notice that some of the screens in the game appear to be a whole lot better drawn than others as I roam around Daventry. E.g. the bush on the right of the screen above looks like something I might come up with, were I to try to draw the outline of the UK with a ball mouse that hadn’t been cleaned out for 10 years. It’s a completely nondescript room with nothing whatsoever to do on it but you’d think they could have tried a little harder


The most infamous puzzle in Kings Quest involves guessing the name of a dwarf who lives on a little island near the castle. You get three goes and the only clue is a note in an unrelated part of the map which says “Sometimes it is wise to think backwards”. I only solved this one when I got the Official Book of King’s Quest which didn’t give the answer but did have a crossword puzzle that gave me enough of a clue. I won’t give away the answer but suffice to say, not many people would have guessed it and the puzzle isn’t exactly fair.

The game can be completed without solving this to be fair and the only reward other than some points is an excruciating climb up a beanstalk with little guidance on exactly where is safe to tread. It took much disk swapping and reloading before I made it up to the clouds. Once there I’m set upon by a giant but thanks to the games limited pathfinding capabilities, it’s possible to position myself behind a tree and avoid him. Eventually, he gets fed up, falls asleep and I pinch the chest he was holding which is the 2nd missing treasure.

Curiously on the Tandy, there is a snoring sound effect when the giant falls asleep. It’s not exactly impressive by modern standards but the noise channel on the Tandy is definitely ahead of what I’d have got from the PC speaker in this game. The use of music and sound is very limited though with little more than a death theme and a couple of seconds of warning music when a monster shows up.


The final treasure is under the ground. Reaching this place requires finding a passing eagle who only occasionally appears on one of the games screens, and then using the games “jump” key (which is entirely useless otherwise) at just the right time and location to catch onto the eagles claws. I knew what to do through bitter experience the first time around but how I guessed it as a kid, I have no idea. I expect trial, error and a whole lot of free time.

At any rate, this eagle flies me to a little island, I drop through a hole in the ground and thanks to a fiddle I took from the only two people left in Daventry I’m able to make all the leprechauns that live down here dance away and retrieve the final missing treasure.


All that is left to do is head back to the castle (which took me at least 10 minutes to locate again). King Edward grants me the throne before keeling over dead. Showing all due respect to the ex-monarch, Graham heads straight for the throne to claim his prize while Edward’s body still lies on the ground. There is one final rendition of Greensleeves and some brief credits.

I was reminded a lot of Zork playing this again all these years later in some ways. King’s Quest is a very traditional treasure search as was so common in early interactive fiction. It doesn’t have the puzzles or complexity of Zork of course.

I usually ask myself if a game has held up when I finish it but I’m unconvinced that King’s Quest was all that much of a game in the first place. It’s extremely brief and without any particularly memorable puzzles or plot. Comparing it to contemporary offerings from Infocom such as Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, it’s ridiculously simplistic. Compared to most other publishers of the time, it holds up far better I suppose with the added attraction of the graphics.

Sierra’s more forward thinking approach would ultimately be proved correct a couple of years later as the traditional IF market died off and the graphical adventure game started to come into its own. In the meanwhile, King’s Quest wasn’t without its charms but Sierra would do far better with this engine in later efforts. The King’s Quest series is no doubt aimed at a young audience and as an introduction to adventure games this serves quite well with the open structure limiting dead ends and multiple solutions offering more chances to get past each puzzle. I’m still not sure it’s a title I could honestly recommend to a new player with so many better adventure games available. It did get a remake a few years later and then a fan remake some years after that, both of which I may well look at eventually.

That will have to wait as in the next post, I’ll be almost getting back on topic and looking at a curious entry in Warren Spector’s early career.