Game 330: House of Usher (1980)

From The CRPG Addict

House of Usher
United States
Crystalware (developer and publisher)
Released in 1980 for Apple II and Atari 800
Date Started: 27 May 2019
Date Finished: 27 May 2019
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
A few months ago, commenter Dungy alerted me to a little-known 1980s developer called Crystalware. Around the same time, their catalog of games, all dating from 1980 to 1982, went up on MobyGames. House of Usher was listed as an RPG when it first went up, but it has since been revised to “action/adventure.” I played it anyway because I found it hard to categorize. It’s one of the oddest and most original games I’ve played since starting this blog, although that doesn’t mean that it was “good.” I’m really not sure how I feel about it.
The game is based loosely on Poe’s famous 1839 short story, and it begins with an appropriately gothic tone. A few strains of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” appear behind the title screen, which swiftly dissolves into an image of a mansion in a thunderstorm. Lightning bolts flash across the screen with accompanying sound effects–all impressive for a 1980 title. After about 30 seconds of loading, your character appears on the front walkway of the titular House of Usher, and the game begins.
A briefly animated introduction is unusual for 1980.
The player starts with a stamina of 999, no courage, an offense score of 25, a defense score of 50, no wealth, 150 pounds in weight, and a gun with several dozen bullets (or a bow with arrows; the game and manual are inconsistent).
Beginning in the front yard.
It is 18:00 when the game starts; you must achieve one of three winning conditions by 06:00 or you lose. This only takes about five minutes in real-time. Your stamina also decreases rapidly during this period, but unless you over-burden yourself, it stays behind the timer.
Running out of time is a common way for the game to end.
Your task is made all the more difficult by a routine that ensures items, treasures, and monsters appear in randomized locations, although the layout of the mansion remains fixed. There are only 7 commands to the game: four directions of movement (using, unintuitively, the 1-4 keys), fire your weapon in the direction you last moved (5), use a carried item (6), and drop a carried item (7).
Doing a little inventory management.
The three winning conditions, any one of which brings up a winning screen, are:
  • Collect 1,000 wealth points
  • Increase courage to 1,000
  • Solve the mystery
It’s worth a quick review of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which I’ve always liked least among Poe’s work. An unnamed narrator goes and stays at the dilapidated mansion of his friend, Roderick Usher. Roderick’s sister, Madeline, also inhabits the house. Neither is doing very well, mentally or physically. Madeline is suffering from some kind of paralytic catatonia, and Roderick as a consequence is a pale, nervous wreck. After a few days, Roderick announces that Madeline has died, and gains his friend’s help in interring her in the family tomb in the basement. For the next few days and nights, the men are plagued by noises, visual hallucinations, insomnia, and a general worsening vexation. At last, they come to the realization that they in fact buried Madeline alive–an epiphany accompanied by Madeline herself, bloody and emaciated, having crawled out of her living tomb, suddenly appearing at the door and falling into her brother’s arms. The siblings collapse on the floor, both dead, Madeline apparently from the effort of her ordeal and Roderick from terror. The horrified narrator flees the house just before it splits in two (along a crack that the narrator previously noted) and sinks into an adjacent lake.
There are lots of interpretations of the story. Depending on how you read it, you can see Roderick and Madeline as incestuous, or vampires, or ghosts, or whatever. However you interpret it, it seems a strange source material for a video game, but not only did it produce this House of Usher but also a 1984 platformer.
The game adds some lore elements. There’s no “Virginia” in Poe’s story.
In this game, the player can visit around 40 rooms, although you’ll never hit even half that in a single session. Some of the rooms are drawn from the book, like the crypt and the guest room. Others are simply imagined from such an estate. The layout is complete chaos, as my Trizbort map shows:
The layout of the House of Usher (click to enlarge).
Partly responsible for the chaos are a handful of “maze rooms,” including the “secret passages,” two “catacombs,” and a “cell block,” all of which connect rooms quite far apart and in somewhat random directions. All of these special rooms have borders on the rooms’ interiors that draw randomly every time you enter, sometimes allowing passage through the room, sometimes blocking it.
Trying to navigate the “cell block” is mostly a waste of time.
Many of the rooms have pieces of furniture or other objects represented by large grey squares. Bumping into these items produces random results. Sometimes you get a message or bit of lore about the house. Other times, there’s some positive or negative consequence. For instance, bumping into a grave in the graveyard can result in a message about a heavy breathing heard nearby, the player falling into a grave and finding treasure, the player falling into the grave and getting seriously wounded, or a hand grasping at the player’s leg and causing a loss in courage. Bumping up against the piano in the conservatory might cause it to play (and put you to sleep for an hour) or snap shut on your fingers.
A bad outcome from bumping into a grave marker.
Smaller grey squares are randomly scattered throughout the rooms, representing items. These might be treasures of various values and weight (e.g., pouches of gold or silver, pocket watches, statues, copper kettle), melee weapons that increase offensive skill, or items of armor that increase defensive skill. Occasionally, you find nutrients or potions that you can use later to restore stamina. They might also be harmful items like spider’s nests, ghosts, or human heads which do various bad things to your statistics.
A helpful item.
Finally, monsters occasionally appear, including mummies, corpses, slimes, scorpions, and “hatchet men.” The game gives you a few seconds’ warning when you enter a room with a monster, and you have that long to try to line up shots. Most creatures take several hits or shots to kill. If they manage to get within melee range, they usually deplete your stamina too fast to defend.
A giant scorpion appears in the wine cellar.
I couldn’t quite catch the shot in-flight in my combat with this mummy.
For all their limited graphics, I find the rooms a lot of fun with their different configurations and fixtures, suggesting possibilities perhaps too advanced for a 1980 title, yet intriguing and evocative all the same. One room, the “room of death,” actually shrinks slowly after you enter it, squishing you between the walls if you’re not fast enough. Why didn’t Poe put one of those in “Usher”? That would have livened up a dreary story.
I have to get to that top doorway to escape the Room of Death.
The easiest way to win is to get courage to 1,000. It only takes two or three enemies. You just have to find them. On one play, I had them in the first two rooms and won with many hours to spare. Winning by finding treasure is harder because you have to carry it. As your encumbrance goes up, your stamina depletion also increases. After a few hundred pounds, it runs faster than the clock.
The hardest way–at least until you figure it out–is by solving the mystery. It’s also perhaps the only satisfying way. I haven’t done it yet, though I feel like I’m on the right track. Here is “The Mystery” as given by the game manual:
Part 1
Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitot qu’on le touche il résonne.
Part 2
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
    Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh–but smile no more.
Ververt et Chartreuse Belphegor
Directorium Inquisitorium
Part 3
. . . there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of Lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes and the evidence of some bitter struggle on every portion of her emaciated frame . . .
The two lines of “Part 1” are the epigraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” presented before the text. They mean, “His heart is a lute suspended / As soon as one touches it, it resonates.” 
The lines of the first part of “Part 2” are from Poe’s “The Haunted Palace.” “Ververt et Chartreuse” refer to two separate 1734 poems by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset: “Vert-Vert” and “La Chartreuse.” “Vert-Vert” is a comic poem about a parrot; I have no idea what “Chartreuse” is about other than it’s a liqueur. Both poems are mentioned as existing in Roderick’s library in “Usher.” So are Machiavelli’s Belphegor (1549), about a demonic prince coming to Earth to find a mate, and Nicholas Eymerich’s Directorium Inquisitorum (1376), a manual to help inquisitors investigate and prosecute witchcraft.
“Part 3” is a direct quote from the conclusion of “Usher.”
The best I can figure is that they’re instructions for a specific order of rooms, probably starting with the conservatory, where you can nudge the piano into playing a tune. The haunted lines that begin “Part 2” may refer to the graveyard or crypt, both of which are a short distance from the conservatory. One move away from the graveyard is the “summer house” and various plants, which might have something to do with the “green-green” of vert-vert. One screen away from the summer house is the vineyards; chartreuse isn’t a wine, but the authors would have had to work with the allusions they could find. From the vineyards, it’s only a short distance to the “seance room,” which could have connections to either demonology or fighting it. (There’s no library, or else I would have assumed that all of the books might be associated with it.) Touching the table in the seance room has a chance of sending you through a “vortex” to a random location in the house.
Unfortunately, if my logic hasn’t fallen apart by then, it does afterwards, as I can find no good location to conclude the path. In the book, the quoted scene takes place in the guest room, but I’ve tried that (it’s pretty far from the seance room, unless you’re lucky with the vortex) to no avail. I’ve also tried ending in the other various bedrooms. One potentially-promising room is the “red room,” which has a humanoid figure on one of the items of furniture, but I can’t get anything to happen there.
I feel like there must be something to do in this “red room,” with its figure on a bed (?).
I fiddled with other potential paths. Another goes conservatory (Part 1), graveyard (Part 2 first), garden paths (vert-vert), wine cellar (chartreuse), seance room (Belphegor), chapel (inquisitorium), and then to any of the possible end rooms. This is a lot harder because the rooms are spaced farther apart and you can barely make it in time. Another possibility, of course, is that you’re supposed to get things to happen in each of the rooms (or some of them), but no I can’t figure out the combination no matter what. The game manual promised a $100 prize to the first person to solve the mystery. I assume someone did. Until the solution comes to light, I’ll just have to be happy with my courage-based win.
Not the most satisfying of the ways to win, but a win nonetheless.
It’s best not to belabor the GIMLET on this one, since it’s not really much of an RPG. It gets a 14, doing best in “gameplay” (4: quick, replayable, challenging) and “quests” (3: multiple ways to win), but scoring 0 on the important “character development” category, since all development is by inventory. Even the inventory-based “development” is questionable because the game is over so fast you’re more likely to time out than to actually employ that chain mail against a mummy.
The manual had decent production values, and of course the promise of a $100 prize.
If Crystalware’s first outing is notable for its originality, it would definitely continue in that tradition. Between 1980 and 1982, the developer put out games set in ancient Sumeria, modern Egypt, the Iran-Iraq War, Arthurian Britain, a Westworld-style fantasy land, and several science fiction settings. MobyGames currently tags seven of them as RPGs: Beneath the Pyramids (1980), Escape from Vulcan’s Isle (1981), King Arthur’s Heir (1981), Fantasyland 2041 A.D. (1981), Sands of Mars (1981), Crypt of the Undead (1982), and The Haunted Palace (1982). These are all tentatively on my list pending confirmation of their RPG elements.
The titles are mostly credited to Crystalware owners John and Patty Bell, although Mike Potter is credited on the Atari 800 translations. Crystalware apparently started as Crystal Computer, a physical store in Sunnyvale, California, that transitioned into game development and publishing.
After its brief heyday, the company seems to have taken some odd turns. My Google searches turn up John Bell now associated with “Crystalware Defense and Nanotechnology” in West Virginia, although he seems to have returned to gaming with a virtual reality title called World of Twine scheduled for a 2019 release. As I work through the load of Crystalware titles dumped onto the list, I’ll try to contact Mr. Bell and find more about the inspiration for these unusual settings.

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