REVIEWS: Competition '97

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Steven Howard

Jan 1, 1998, 3:00:00 AM1/1/98

<<Disclaimer: There are no major spoilers below. However, there are very
candid statements of opinion about the quality of various games in the
competition. Any authors who feel they are likely to become insulted,
offended or enraged at negative reaction to their work should stop reading
now. Everything below represents my opinion only and all comments are
directed at the work, not the author.>>


Games are listed in the order I played them, as determined
by "Comp97" (which gets 10 out of 10 for usefulness --
thanks, Lucian).

"Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza" by Michael Zey

Notes: Set in the now-standard "pseudo-medieval fantasy with gratuitous
anachronisms" genre, this is basically a scavenger hunt with a weird,
overly long end game.
In a word: Forgettable.
Rating: 4

"A New Day" by Jonathan Fry

Notes: The "fourth wall" is broken in this game which is
actually set WITHIN an unfinished game (apparently about
terrorists in Athens). Cute premise is well-suited for its
length. It would have become tiresome rather quickly in a
longer work. Weakest point: The setting for the end game is poorly
described (I, at least, had trouble envisioning the layout) and it's a
save-and-restore puzzle.
In a word: Novel.
Rating: 6

"E-MAILBOX" by Jay Goemmer

Notes: One-puzzle game employing the metaphor of a physical
mailbox to represent the author's real-life frustration with
his e-mail program. Buggy implementation of opening and
closing the mailbox initially made me think the puzzle was
harder than it actually is.
In a word: Trivial.
Rating: 2

"She's Got a Thing for a Spring" by Brent vanFossen

Notes: Overlong tale of a hiker trying to find a hidden hot
spring. Technically well done, but not very interesting. The one NPC is
a strange old man who I presume was meant to be
charming. I found him slightly creepy.
In a word: Tedious.
Rating: 4

"Madame L'Estrange and the Trouble [sic] Spirit" by Ian Bell and Marcus

Notes: Australian psychic tries to find a missing scientist. There are
several major weaknesses in this game. First, the authors have tried to
write the game in the third person, past tense. However, the game quite
often slips into the more
traditional second person, present tense. This is not just in the
library messages ("You can't see any such thing"), but also in room and
NPC descriptions. Objects and NPCs don't always appear where they should
(Madame L's client leaves her room
twice without entering in between). There's also a major bug that
crashes Frotz. But the main flaw of this game is that it's barely
interactive. It seems to mostly consist of the player typing "go to
[location]" and then reading a screenful of text describing what Madame L
does at each location. It's like a text version of one of those awful
Sierra games that are nothing but FMV movies connected by mouse clicks.
In a word: Awful.
Rating: 1

"Sunset Over Savannah" by Ivan Cockrum

Notes: A bored corporate drone rediscovers his/her "creativity" by
playing on the beach and stealing things. This is an odd little game,
lying somewhere between "modern fantasy" and "magic realism." Maybe I'm
not "creative" enough for this game, but I had to resort to the
walkthrough to finish it, and even with that help I found the character's
actions at times inexplicable. "Why would I even *think* to try this?" I
asked myself more than once as I dutifully typed in commands. I
shouldn't have bothered. The silly ending does not redeem this muddled
In a word: Flaky.
Rating: 3

"The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm und Drang" (Anonymous)

Notes: Superhero parody pits five low-rent "Supertemps" against evil
mastermind and his accomplice. The NPCs are well-drawn and funny and
their limited superpowers are well-used in the puzzles, except that one of
the "Five" is entirely superfluous. Unless I missed something, there is
one "guess the noun" puzzle. This is the first competition game I've
played that I wished were longer. In a word: Hilarious.
Rating: 8

"CASK" by Harry Hardjono

Notes: Three rooms, three puzzles. No plot, no characters, no setting.
Player is locked in a cell with strange equipment and must escape. Game
is compiled with debugging mode and the Inform source code was included,
so no one should have any trouble winning. In a word: Minimal.
Rating: 2

"Unholy Grail" by Stuart Allen

Notes: Scientist studying mysterious deaths of fish is quickly ensnared
in a military/government conspiracy. Some well-done locations and
objects, wasted on stock characters and situations with no real surprises
or suspense. End game is particularly implausible.
In a word: Disappointing.
Rating: 3

"Congratulations!" by Frederick Hirsch

Notes: New parent must deal with fussy baby. This is a game
you can win by doing the immediately obvious thing in every
In a word: Simplistic.
Rating: 2

"Friday Afternoon" by Mischa Schweitzer

Notes: Programmer must escape office (and, by implication, a life of
loneliness) on a Friday afternoon in time to go on a date. Based on the
author's real-life workplace, this game avoids most of the pitfalls of
this subgenre by substituting a Dilbert-like view of the "typical" techie
office for the expected in-jokes and
caricatures of people we don't know. Those outside of the
profession may not enjoy this as much as I did.
In a word: Amusing.
Rating: 5

"The Town Dragon" by David A. Cornelson

Notes: Set in the now-standard "pseudo-medieval fantasy with gratuitous
anachronisms" genre, this game involves rescuing the mayor's daughter from
a dragon. I was unable to solve this game without the walkthrough, which
(unless I missed something) requires me to type "read about <x> in <y>"
despite the fact that <x> has not yet been mentioned in the game. Like
that pizza thing, this is basically a scavenger hunt.
In a word: Dull.
Rating: 2

"Poor Zefron's Almanac" by Carl Klutzke

Notes: Set in the now-standard "pseudo-medieval fantasy with
gratuitous anachronisms" genre, this game involves an apprentice wizard
rescuing his town from a dragon. I played around with this for an hour or
so before, stumped, I asked for a hint. The game informed me that I had
put the game into an unwinnable state by doing the right thing, but too
early. I restarted the game and confirmed my suspicions by solving (what
I thought was) the first puzzle, then asking for a hint. I got the same
message. This is unacceptably poor design. If the author didn't want me
to solve that puzzle until later in the game, he shouldn't have had all
the necessary items and information available in the very first room. In a
word: Irritating.
Rating: 2

"Aunt Nancy's House" by Nate Schwartzman

Notes: Interactive exploration of the author's aunt's house. Earlier I
chided "Madame L'Estrange" for being insufficiently interactive. This is
interactive, but there's no fiction. None. No puzzles, no story, no
characters, nothing at all unusual or remarkable about the house. I can
wander around my own house looking for something to do.
In a word: Pointless.
Rating: 1

"Down" by Kent Tessman

Notes: Plane-crash victim must cope with a broken leg. This game seemed
relatively straightforward. I did all the "good guy" stuff I could think
to do, but the game wouldn't end. So I read the walkthrough, which
instructed me to perform actions that struck me as dangerous if not
suicidal. Sure enough, I died. I don't get it.
In a word: Odd.
Rating: 2

"The Family Legacy" by Marnie Parker

Notes: Heir must spend night in haunted house and retrieve long-
lost relic to claim inheritance. The author has withdrawn this game from
the competition, so I will refrain from comment other than to encourage
her to release it in a longer, non-competition version when it is ready,
and to strongly suggest that she drop the eating and drinking
In a word: Unfinished.
Rating: None.

"Zombie!" by Scott W. Starkey

Notes: Motorist, out of gas, is stranded in a mad scientist's mansion.
This is another fairly standard IF setting, and this game features the
expected scavenger hunt to complete a secret formula. The game also
features a number of annoying bugs. The last scene of the (only
marginally related) "prologue" is displayed again during the first scene
of the main game. Objects are often listed twice in room descriptions.
At one point a message is printed indicating that the player has moved
from one room to another, but the player actually remains in the first
room. Worst of all, one of the items required for the formula does not
seem to appear in the game. (At any rate it's not where the walkthrough
says it is.) In a word: Weak.
Rating: 1

"Sins Against Mimesis" by One of the Bruces

Notes: Absolutely incomprehensible to anyone but
fiction regulars, this is an in-joke-heavy celebration of IF classics
from Zork to So Far, along with nods to recurring raif topics such as
scrapple, "kunkels", and why the protagonist has a compass rose on his
living room floor.
In a word: Witty.
Rating: 7

"The Edifice" by Lucian Smith

Notes: Titular plot device transports the player to three
"crucial moments" in human evolution. Anthropologically suspect,
especially in the third scene. The first scene, involving the use of
tools and fire, is the best, although it contains a nasty bug: by leaving
out an ingredient in the fire-building process, I put the game into an
endless loop.
In a word: Over-ambitious.
Rating: 4

"Symetry" [sic] by Rybread Celsius

Notes: Player possessed by evil spirit in a haunted mirror. One puzzle,
poorly implemented, which betrays a singular lack of anatomical
knowledge. The vocabularly, grammar and spelling are uniformly awful.
Quotes a nonsense phrase from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" for
no apparent reason. Contains the single worst sentence in the entire
contest: "Splendid is the only word that escapes your gate of teath
In a word: Wretched.
Rating: 1

"Zero Sum Game" by Cody Sandifer

Notes: Set in the now-standard "pseudo-medieval fantasy with
gratuitous anachronisms" genre, this game runs the standard
scavenger hunt plot in reverse, as our adventurer's mother forces him/her
to return a sack of treasure to its rightful owners and thus reduce
his/her score to zero. Ironically, some of the actions the player is
forced to take are much worse than the crimes he/she is trying to "undo."
Unusual premise lifts this above its genre, but it's really too long for
a contest game. In a word: Clever.
Rating: 4

"Babel" by Ian Finley

Notes: Amnesiac explores a deserted Arctic research station.
Decent puzzles, but the "flashback" scenes are lengthy and
overwritten, with melodramatic dialogue and weak, cliched
characters. There are two "revelation" scenes -- one about
halfway through, one at the end -- which will surprise no
one. The game is better than the story, but there's more
story than game.
In a word: Average.
Rating: 4

"Glowgrass" by Nate Cull

Notes: Futuristic explorer trapped in an ancient (to him, still
futuristic to us) world. Straightforward science fiction story (although
the ending is somewhat cryptic) with simple "puzzles" could use some
tightening up. The parser is a little fussy, and some objects which
should be in plain sight are detectable only by examining their containers
(and, annoyingly, "search" does NOT work here).
In a word: Promising.
Rating: 5

"The Obscense Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf" by Gary Roggin

Notes: Harried lab assistant must deliver a note from Dr.
Bignose to Dr. Aardvarkbarf. There's nothing particularly
obscene about this game: it's a scavenger hunt with way too
many red herrings. Unfortunately, there's nothing particularly amusing
about it either. Just giving characters silly names like "Bignose" and
"Aardvarkbarf" doesn't make your game
In a word: Strained.
Rating: 2

"Coming Home" by Andrew Katz
(This game is called "Coming Home" in Comp97, but "A Simple
Home Adventure" in the game itself)

Notes: Another game that involves wandering around in a house. This one
at least has people in it, although all they ever do is close doors and
tell you not to take things. Most of the "puzzles" consist of trying to
figure out which way to move --
the room descriptions almost never give directions or list visible
exits. I have ranted elsewhere about games that require the player
to eat and drink, but this game is the worst offender I have ever
seen. You get hungry about every five moves, and "have to go to
the bathroom" immediately after eating. Forget going home, get
this guy to a hospital!
In a word: Annoying.
Rating: 1

"A Good Breakfast" by Stuart Adair

Notes: Trials and tribulations while trying to get a bowl of
cornflakes. A couple of the puzzles are jarringly out-of-place:
"Lights Out" and "High-Low" are well-implemented, but their use
here is somewhat odd. There is also a bug in the game that
prevents the player from actually eating the bowl of cereal once
all the ingredients are acquired.
In a word: Mediocre.
Rating: 3

"A Bear's Night Out" by David Dyte

Notes: Teddy bear explores house while his owner sleeps. Well-
done puzzles and a lack of overwhelming cuteness made this more
enjoyable than I thought it would be. Have we had enough games
which include bits of other games yet? (Or, for that matter,
games that run fine under JZip but crash under Frotz?)
In a word: Charming.
Rating: 7

"Sylenius Mysterium" by "whomever [sic] wrote it"

Notes: Mall rat learns some video game history, then is transported
into a video game. The first half of the game is nothing special,
although there are a couple of well-done NPCs. The second half,
set in the "Game Worlds" is an unplayable mess: a real-time,
text-based version of a side-scrolling run-n-jump video game.
(Not character-based, like the Inform versions of Tetris and
Robots, but text-based: "You run to the left", "You jump into the
air", etc.) It's unclear why the author thought this was a good
In a word: Inexcusable.
Rating: 1

"The Tempest" by "William Shakespeare"

Notes: Adaptation of the stage play of the same name by the
author of the same name. There are two pitfalls when doing
game adaptations: first, that the result will be incomprehensible
to anyone unfamiliar with the source material, and second, that
the game will simply rehash the plot of the original. This
entry manages to land squarely in both traps (though, to be fair,
it's obvious that the author INTENDED to leap into the second pit).
The game includes most (all?) of Shakespeare's text, which is
lovely, but I can read it by myself without having to play an
annoying game of "Guess what I'm thinking?" to get to the next
In a word: Unnecessary.
Rating: 1

"Leaves" by Mikko Vuorinen

Notes: Inmate escapes, wanders. The notes included with the game
indicate that the author more or less made this up as he went
along. I think I could have figured that out.
In a word: Jejune.
Rating: 2

"Temple of the Orc Mage" by Gary Roggin

Notes: Set in the slightly-less-popular "pseudo-medieval fantasy
without gratuitous anachronisms" genre, this game sends our hero
into the dungeon of the title to retrieve a magical gem. Most
of the puzzles are fairly straightforward, although I couldn't
complete the game, even with the walkthrough.
In a word: Conventional.
Rating: 3

"Pintown" by Stefan Blixt

Notes: Musician wants to move out of his apartment and make
up with his girl. Unfortunately, he has to do some rather
odd things along the way. (Can anyone explain the actions
required to park in front of the apartment building?) Game
crashes Frotz at various points. I knew this game was in
trouble when I saw that the author hadn't even bothered to
change the default response for "play guitar" ("You don't
know how to play that.")
In a word: Dreary.
Rating: 2

"VirtuaTech" by David Glasser

Notes: Student of the future must retrieve a file from his
faulty computer. Straightforward, relatively easy puzzles
and not much else. A longer, more complex game in this
setting could be enjoyable.
In a word: Unremarkable.
Rating: 5

"The Lost Spellmaker" by Neil James Brown

Notes: Secret agent searches for titular character in a
somewhat modernized fantasy world where magic takes the
place of technology. Well-written, with some nicely done
NPCS (two of whom carry on a highly amusing public "debate"
early on), this game avoids most of the cliches of the
fantasy genre.
In a word: Fun.
Rating: 6

"Travels in the Land of Erden" by Laura A. Knauth

Notes: Set in the now-standard "pseudo-medieval fantasy with
gratuitous anachronisms" genre, this game sets the player on
a quest for a fabled ruby. Technically well done, but the
sheer size of the map and lack of clearly-defined goals early
on left me feeling lost. A walkthrough is supplied, but it's
in Microsoft Word format.
In a word: Overwhelming.
Rating: 3

Steven Howard

"Are you a COBOL programmer?" "No, but people tell me I look like one."

Jan 5, 1998, 3:00:00 AM1/5/98

Hello, Steve,
In reviewing A Good Breakfast, you stated that you were unable to eat the
cereal. I find this interesting, as I had no difficulty eating the cereal once I had the spoon, bowl, milk, and cornflakes. I would be interested to compare
courses of action.


IRC Contralto
DRAGON'S FANG MUD: Ganvira, Ketar, Denara
ANGALON MUD: Icedagger
________ If you think I should sing soprano, you most likely haven't
________ heard me in person.


Jan 6, 1998, 3:00:00 AM1/6/98

In article <68qp4u$6kb$>, () writes:

> In reviewing A Good Breakfast, you stated that you were unable to eat the
>cereal. I find this interesting, as I had no difficulty eating the cereal
>once I had the spoon, bowl, milk, and cornflakes. I would be interested to
>courses of action.

The first release had a bug that prevented the milk and cornflakes being put in
the bowl.


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