by Dan Horn
Strolling through the Wonderland of computer games I've discovered that, all in all, the games win. There's always that one level that you can't get by or that one screen that you've heard about but have never seen.
Well, one magical day, I chanced to pass through the Looking Glass of games into a world of secret doors and false walls. My journey into Wonderland seemed far more interesting than Alice's.
Late one bleary-eyed evening as I ambled past all those games relegated to the shelf because they were simply too hard or too frustrating, I met a White Rabbit with a pocket calculator. But this time he wasn't running late, and he invited me to step into the Looking Glass and share with him some interesting secrets.
As we walked together, a small man wearing sooty overalls and a miner's helmet dashed by. He was jumping with odd little leaps as he ran, and was being pursued by some rather ugly mutants. Mr. R., taking note of this unusual spectacle, called after the man in some sort of arcane-sounding language. With scarcely a pause, the little man rocketed from his simple, introductory game level to an advanced one. The score counter began ticking wildly--the points were racking up faster than Mr. R. could tally on his calculator.
Aha! I thought. A sterling opportunity to extract forbidden knowledge from the venerable Mr. R. I asked my furry companion what he had said to the little man. "Listen and learn, my boy," Mr. R. said, his nose and whiskers syncopating perfectly. "I told him to type the phone number from the title screen after he had reached a safe place. Once there, a simple press of the Shift key followed by any of the level numbers will whisk one to that level! "
A kaleidoscopic shimmer marked our passage into yet another weirdling nook of Wonderland. Even before the mist had cleared, I could feel the excitement--the air was electric with the spirit of Adventure, and as far as the eye could see, the strange meshed with the not-so-strange. Bears, salt, hurricanes and logs, it was almost too much to believe. At first glance, there appeared to be little logic to the bizarre panorama--the bear had to be dealt with, but long before one could solve the problem, one would be swept away by the hurricane. Mr. R. offered a solution. "Say 'Yoho,"' he said, "and then save the game onto your tape or disk." Once saved, you can outwit those troublesome random numbers and continue until you do!"
Again, the wisdom of Mr. R. shattered what many had thought to be an impenetrable game barrier. My excitement was escalating now--I couldn't wait to see if Scott Adams' Savage Island-Part I could be skinned and hung in my trophy room.
I had just turned to ask Mr. R. to reveal more secrets to the Adams' Adventures, when he produced a gold pocket watch with a flashing LED, display and starred at in shock. "I'm late!" he cried. "Fare thee well and the best of all things to you!" As quick as a wink, he vanished into a wispy neon swirl of light.
His words were still ringing in my ear when a vast sea of sand appeared before me. Distant spires poked into a pristine, azure sky, recalling childhood tales of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I followed a trail of time-worn cobblestones, and soon found myself inside of another classic game. Secreted somewhere in this arid desolation was the beautiful (natch!) princess. Less well hidden were the many foes that would just as soon draw a scimitar across one's throat as to look at him.
A sudden tap on my shoulder made me whirl like a dervish and come face-to-chest with a small turbaned boy. I started to speak, but he applied a dark index finger to his lips, whispering. "A secret for you, Sahib." His eyes darted to and fro, as if searching for eavesdroppers. "Try adding a player when facing a tough opponent. Let this extra player fight for you. Once he tangles with the monster, run like all the jackals of the Sahara are nipping at your heels. This will provide a means of escape, and as long as you remain alive, the game will continue." Deceptively simple, I thought, but a hint in the truest sense. Upon my return from Wonderland, this information would revitalize a game long since retired to the shelf.
I soon returned to the sand-strewn cobblestone path, where it quickly led me smack into a huge pyramid. The entrance appeared to be unguarded, so I stepped inside. To my surprise, a large set of teeth glowed in the tar-black darkness of the stone passage. My eyes adjusted quickly, and I discovered that the grin was owned by a rather large cat that floated aside a man dressed in khaki shorts and a pith helmet. "No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to get to the upper levels of this bloody pyramid!" the man shouted with no small degree of exasperation.
"Calm down," the floating cat soothed. "All you have to do is finish the first level. When the code word to the next level appears, press the Reset key. Strange as it may seem, this will cause the codeword for the next level to flash. Continue to press the Reset key and the codewords to all of the upper levels will flash." The cat was starting to fade now. Within seconds, all that remained was its toothy grin. "You'll never find an easier way to reach the top level!" it cajoled with a raspy purr, and disappeared completely. Armed with this knowledge, the man ran gleefully down the passage and into the dark of the tunnel. Pharoah's Curse now had a little less sand in the works, and playing those upper levels would make the game much more fun.
I stepped from inside the pyramid into the searing desert heat. After trudging through the dunes and drifts for a while, it occurred to me that it had been some time since I had quaffed a cool one. Fortunately, the magic of Wonderland soon provided a welcome break in the sandy scenery: a shaded, beachside villa suddenly fell into focus with startling suddenness.
I approached the villa and knocked on the door, and was greeted by a Carpenter and Walrus who ushered me inside. They bickered constantly--something about the pros and cons of harvesting oysters by submarine. As we chatted over drinks and pimiento dip, I learned that they had discovered a tablet which revealed the secrets of undersea travel, plus a few special commands that were not included in their sub's instruction manual.
We clambered into their sturdy sub, the Sea Dragon, and I tried my darnedest to remember where I had heard that name before. But before my memory could jog, they had plugged in their joysticks and we submerged in a foam of bubbles and departed for the well-protected oyster beds that lay to the south.
The passage to oyster Nirvana was a jagged tunnel which snaked through a smorgasbord of tethered mines and descending depth charges. The Sea Dragon was heading directly for a volatile-looking mine. Just when I figured that the Carpenter would slap the joystick trigger button and blast the mine into a thousand little minelettes, he instead pulled the joystick plug from port one and popped it into port four. A press of the trigger button and--voila!--the mines were replaced with a shower of depth charges. Again, the Carpenter pressed the trigger button, transporting us to yet another scene. This time, the walls of the tunnel were much closer and it was a claustrophobic squeeze through the maze.
While I chewed a few fingernails, the Walrus, non-plussed, was sipping grog through a straw and leaning lazily on his joystick.
About this time, I noticed that the air timer had zeroed out. Before you could say "scuba," the Sea Dragon exploded into a million tiny fragments. As we floated on the debris, the topic of navigation came up several times. But the Walrus, unflappable to a fault, simply plugged a joystick into port three of an Atari 800 that happened to be drifting past, and pushed the trigger button. Instantly, we were back in the Sea Dragon. I glanced at the master screen: a strange symbol had replaced the miniature sub figures on the Remaining Subs display. I inquired about this anomaly, and was told that the mystery graphic signified that five additional subs had been awarded. "We can crash all the live-long day!" the Carpenter cried as he merrily steered the Sea Dragon toward a descending depth charge.
just as a deafening explosion ripped the air, spraying my back with sea water and bits of soda straw, I stepped through the Looking Glass and stepped back into the Here and Now. My den seemed a bit out of place considering the sights and events I had witnessed on my wonderous journey, but the sight of my waiting Atari quickly galvanized me into action. I grabbed a dusty Miner 2049er cartridge from the shelf, wiped it on my pants-leg and inserted it into the waiting slot. And as the opening sounds of play began, I paused for a moment to wonder: Does Alice ever play computer games?
Dan Horn is an adventure enthusiast working at Infocom in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to Hi-Res.