David Newton (davidn) wrote,
David Newton
davidn

Challenge of a Masterspy

Looks innocent enough, doesn't it?
From all the way back in the mid-80s, the days of the Amstrad PC, there is a game that's become near legendary in my family and unknown pretty much everywhere else. I even had to get quadralien to send it over to me after I remembered about it, as I was unable to find it anywhere on the Internet. And though nostalgia has a lot to do with liking anything, this is just too clever to drop out of existence. It's Masterspy by Albert Ball. I mentioned in my last post that games have become increasingly difficult to categorize only recently, but I can only describe this as a puzzle-action type thing. We got it from a coverdisk of PC Plus, the IT magazine that my dad used to buy (and it's still going, in its 22nd year with 270 issues) and it was instrumental in teaching my brother to read so early on. In fact, he was the only one who could successfully complete it, and he was only three or four.

And that's the other reason I want to draw attention to this - it's because after starting it up again, marvelling at everything I remembered and everything I didn't, and then actually trying to complete a game of it, I realized that I... can't. And now I'm half incredibly impressed that anyone can do this and half absolutely envious of him for being able to come anywhere near it. Therefore, I wanted to issue the challenge to anyone who will listen - download it and attempt to solve it. Absolutely reams of documentation (and, helpfully, maps) are provided with the ZIP to guide you in treating the game as a logical problem on top of several other logical problems.

Snakes and Ladders (and Bees)
It involves having to guide four separate disembodied heads around an environment each, with the eventual aim of getting each of them to escape from the game by picking up a [vehicle] TICKET and using it on a [shape] DOOR. Only one environment is available to each character per game. You have to explore a cave system (Potholes), a river with deadly crocodiles (Stepping Stones, although I was certain it was called Crocodile Creek), a parody of the London Underground with a stupidly confusing permit system (Underground Railway), and a demented board game with bees flying across it (Snakes and Ladders).

There are multiple tickets and doors - two of each in every environment. And the ticket that corresponds to a door that lets you escape is never found in the same environment as that door - you have to collect the ticket with someone else and pass it to another agent first. To even find the correct doors, you have to gather clues given by other pickups scattered around - radios, telephones and letters - to work out which ticket corresponds with which door. However! Two types of these pickups will lie to you, and you have to work out the clues that contradict each other to work out the type of pickup that's giving you true information. Makes no sense so far? Keep going, it gets even better.

On top of that, there's a mole among your group of four characters. Also using clues provided by the pickups I mentioned above, you have to work out who this is before you accidentally allow them to collect the correct ticket and use it on the correct door like your other characters. You can, however, capture him, because if at any point you use the wrong ticket on a door, a cage will come down and trap that character (much like what happens when you go through customs today if you look foreign). However (however), you've got to do this last, after all your other characters have escaped - because only one character has access to each environment even though you have a common inventory, so whenever a character escapes you lose the chance to collect any other vital clues or tickets from their areas. Similarly, letting someone escape before you've got a necessary ticket from their area will stop you from completing it as well.

Marginally less diabolical than the
real London Underground
No, I'm not finished yet. On top of the problem squared that I've laid out above, each environment has its own obstacles and way of moving around it - you're up against irate travellers and cave-dwelling demons as well as the aforementioned deadly wildlife, and two of the environments are mazes that somehow fill in behind you, so you have to plan ahead. The other two are only too happy to dump you into dead ends when you least expect it. At the start of the game you have the option of whether you want to actually be killed by these or not - the classic "PRACTICE? (Y/N)" prompt - the disadvantage (oversight, more like) of using the Practice mode where you can't be killed by anything is that if you box yourself in on one of the mazier levels, or reach a dead end on one of the "nicer" ones, is that you're stuck there and can't reverse the process short of resetting the entire game. In which case your progress is entirely lost and the game starts over with a different set of clues.

As you can probably imagine it was absolutely amazing for its time, if not in terms of gameplay in itself then in terms of the sheer scale of the problem that you were expected to solve. Especially in 42KB - you need more memory than that in your own head to have a hope of winning. If I ever do it, rest assured I'll make another giant post boasting about it - until then, you're welcome to try and beat me to it.

You'll need DOSBox, too - 1000 cycles seems to work quite well

And D-Fend if you're too stupid to use DOSBox if you want a front-end
Tags: games
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