Monday, 29 June 2009
It was Helena's eleventh birthday at the weekend. She's almost impossible to buy presents for, but in the end I took her shopping and she chose a Sherlock Holmes game for her Nintendo DS. Actually, I had to get her a new Nintendo DS as well (costs almost as much as the games), since the old one had stopped working, probably through overuse.
The Sherlock Holmes game is a puzzle-based adventure where you take on the role of the famous detective and wander through an Egyptologist's house, trying to solve the mystery of his disappearance. They Egyptologist's, that is.
This took me back almost 30 years. When I was about Helena's age, I got my first computer as a Christmas present. It was a lot less powerful than the Nintendo DS, which has two colour screens, 4MB of memory, and a couple of ARM processors, the slowest clocking in at 33MHz. This is 4000 times as much memory and 10 times the speed of my old computer.
The other day at work, I was telling my younger colleagues about the kind of computer I had on my desk 15 years ago - A sun IPC with no hard drive running OpenWindows. An older colleague piped up with his memories of programming computers using punched cards. An almost Pythonesque conversation.
Anyway, back to the subject of this post. When I was young and computer graphics weren't so advanced, text-based adventures were in their heyday. They were very similar to Helena's game, but without the pretty pictures. There were puzzles to solve, treasures to find, mysteries to clear up.
It had all started back in the 70's. Even when computers were expensive and could take up whole rooms, using them to play games on was nothing new. Unix was originally invented in 1969 so that someone could play a video game (which ran too slowly on their existing OS). Allegedly not on his company's time.
The original "Adventure" program was a treasure hunt written by Will Crowther, who was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons, and also a keen caver. The setting is based on a real network of caves in Kentucky. It was improved on by Don Woods, and by the time I played it on my home computer in the mid-80s, it was already considered a venerable classic, even though it was less than ten years old.
There were loads of similar games. Scott Adams produced his version, "Adventureland" specifically for home computers, and went on to write many more. He was trying to fit his game into about a tenth of the space of "Adventure", which means that there is less text and explanation, but just as many puzzles.
Another company that was active when I was playing these games was "Infocom". Their cave-based treasure hunt was called "Zork", and came in three parts. They also wrote some great murder-mysteries, and collaborated with Douglas Adams on a "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" adventure.
Although I played loads of these games, I don't think I ever completed one. I was never that good at persevering. A quarter of a century later I still don't have a great concentration span, but I am managing to complete some of the things I began back then. Most notably learning Greek, which I never quite got round to as a teenager.
And what about all those old games? Well, a surprising number of them are available today. In the 80s, faced with 20 or 30 different types of home computers, Infocom wrote all of their adventures in a way that made it easy to transfer them to any of those types of machine. Enthusiasts have ported this mechanism (the "Z Machine") to modern computers - Windows, Linux, Mac, Solaris, etc. They've also converted the original "Adventure", and the old Scott Adams games to this format, which means that you can download and play them now.
I've got 41 of these games on my hard drive. Over the weekend I managed to complete one of them, which is one more than I did all those years ago. Which proves that it's not all downhill. Getting older does have some benefits...