Game 39: Dog Star Adventure (1979)

From CRPG Adventures

The title screen. Note, if you will, the masterful use of negative space.
Before I kick things off, I should mention that I’ve completely redone all the Final Ratings, and converted them to the new RADNESS Index (standing for Righteous Admirability Designation, Numerically Estimating Seven Scores).  I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turned out, and I feel like it’s a much better representation of the relative quality of the games I’ve played.  The top games remain mostly unchanged, but there was a lot of shuffling at the bottom that put the worst games where they belong.  Check out the link on the sidebar if you care about my arbitrary ranking scheme.
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About a month ago, I played Battlestar, a game that culminated in a lightsaber duel with a thinly veiled Darth Vader.  No doubt Star Wars was still in the zeitgeist in 1979, because Vader is back in the game I’m writing about today, Dog Star Adventure.
Oh, sorry, it’s not Darth Vader, it’s “General Doom”.  Doom and his Roche Soldiers are preparing an attack on the Forces of Freedom, and they’ve captured Princess Leya and taken her to one of their battle cruisers.  Geez lads, couldn’t you have tried a bit harder?  Obviously, this game is nicked from the middle third of Star Wars (and no, I’m not going to call it A New Hope, I’m using the movie’s real name).  Intellectual property concerns were definitely not a thing in the gaming community in the late 70s.
Dog Star‘s creator was Lance Micklus, who’s been featured on the blog before as the author of Treasure Hunt, currently languishing near the bottom of my RADNESS Index.  That game was more of a mapping exercise in the style of Hunt the Wumpus, with some light adventure game elements based on inventory.  Dog Star is a proper text adventure.  Reading up on Micklus, I’m surprised to see how prolific he was around this time.  Not only did he create the games above, but he also made a bunch of boardgame adaptations, utilities for programmers, financial software, and a port of the Star Trek game that was such a big deal on the mainframes.  The dude’s got a resume.
Dog Star Adventure was released commercially circa March 1979 for the TRS-80.  At about the same time its code was published in SoftSide, in the issue cover dated May 1979.  This is it’s main claim to fame; as the first text adventure to have its code publicly released it served as a reference point for loads of future game creators.  Micklus never made another text adventure after this, but his creative DNA will be seen in a bunch of games as I progress forward in my chronology.
I couldn’t find the cover to the commercial release,
so here’s the cover of the
SoftSide issue.
The article accompanying the code in SoftSide gives the backstory to the game.  General Doom has captured Princess Leya aboard her spaceship, as I mentioned above.  They also took a chest containing Melidium crystals, which apparently comprise the entire treasury of the Forces of Freedom.  Leya was also wearing a Shinestone necklace, and encoded in one of the stones is the location of the rebel base.  The player takes the role of a character (presumably a member of the Forces of Freedom) who has stowed away on board her ship.  The goal of the game is to rescue the princess from Doom’s battle cruiser, find the two treasures, and escape.  So yeah, it’s another treasure hunt, but at least this one’s wrapped up in a rescue mission.
The game starts with the player inside the ship, aboard the battle cruiser.  For anyone who’s played a Scott Adams adventure, the style and tone here are very familiar.  As usual, I went through my adventure game preparation routine.  First I checked my inventory, and discovered that I was carrying nothing.  Second, I typed SCORE, and learned that there are 215 points to earn before I can beat the game.  I also tested movement, and was surprised that the standard NESW abbreviations weren’t implemented.  To move around I had to type the full words NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST, UP and DOWN.  Also, I had to use INVEN instead of a simple “I” to check my inventory.  I figured those abbreviations were pretty universal by this point, but not here.  (I also spent a good minute or so wondering why none of my commands were working, until I realised that I had the Caps Lock off.  The game doesn’t register anything unless it’s in all caps.)
User friendliness is big in the future.
There were only two rooms inside the ship: the cockpit and the storage compartment.  The cockpit had a launch button, but pressing it did nothing.  Storage was empty, but I figured that this was where I’d need to bring any treasures I found.  With nothing else to do, I left the ship to explore the battle cruiser.
North and east I found a Vault, but when I tried to enter a voice asked “who goes there?”.  I answered GENERAL DOOM, but apparently I wasn’t fooling anyone because I was swarmed with Roche Soldiers and imprisoned.  That was a game over, but it was worth a crack.
West of the Vault I found a research lab, with a slightly confusing layout (including a room description that simply says “I’m Lost”.  I found a laser gun in one of the labs, and took it with me.
Heading north I passed through a computer room, where a TRS-80 was happily whirring away.  This is fairly consistent with Star Wars, which has a sci-fi setting where the computer displays haven’t progressed past vector graphics.  A message on the monitor read >> CSAVE TAPE <<.  I tried that message as a command and was told that I wasn’t carrying any blank tape, so I made a mental note to try and find some.
Further north was a test laboratory, where I found an ID card, a cloaking device, and something called a “turboencabulator”.  Also in the lab was an “evil-looking” scientist, which is kind of a shitty assumption to make.  Still, he looked evil so I tried to shoot him with the gun I’d found earlier, only to be told “I’m not carrying a BLASTER”.  Dude, I have a LASER, isn’t that good enough?  Apparently not, because while I was trying to pull the trigger the scientist called for the guards, and it was game over once more.
Getting transferred to cell block 1138.
On the next game I tried exploring south, along the flight deck.  I found some anti-matter fuel, as well as a sign that read >> NEEDS TURBO <<; this was probably a reference to the turboencabulator in the test lab.  Exploring east I came to a supply depot, said to contain “all kinds of things”, which I left without exploring too much.  South of that I came to a decontamination room and an interrogation room, where I found Princess Leya’s cape, and the Shinestone necklace, one of the treasures I was looking for.  I’d thought that it would be better guarded, honestly.
My good fortune was short-lived, because I soon stumbled into a strategy room, and a guard who called for help.  Game over number three…  I really needed to find that blaster.
Exploring further I found a lounge, with a McDonald’s hamburger on the table.  I guess “long, long ago” doesn’t apply here.  Nearby was a bathroom with some graffiti, some of which read >> SAY SECURITY <<.
Climbing up from the bathroom led into a maze of pipes, which was really only two areas that looped back on themselves a whole lot, and not at all difficult to navigate.  In one of the rooms I found a map of the battle cruiser which I couldn’t read, apparently because I’m not a cartographer.
Eventually I found my way down from the pipe maze and into the jail.  There were two empty cells, and another that was locked.  Without a key I left the jail and found a security desk manned by an attack robot.  Beyond the robot was an elevator, but he wasn’t letting me past.
I was a little stumped at this point, so I resorted to the HELP command, which gives you hints in various locations.  In this case it said “Did you bring anything to eat?”  I had the hamburger in my possession, so I tried FEED ROBOT.  Sure enough, he took the burger and I was allowed to pass.  I really should have thought of this, because feeding has been one of the most common solutions in these games.  Anyway, the elevator just looped back to the interrogation room, so it seemed that I was out of places to explore.
Wait did I just feed that robot a citizen of Hamberg, North Dakota?
At that point a guard wandered in, and I was captured.  There are randomly occurring guards who pop up occasionally, and if you don’t have the means to kill them it’s a game over.  I generally dislike random elements like these in adventure games, but in this case it’s not so bad once you have the solution.  Before that, it’s a real pain.
I’d pretty much exhausted my options, and it was obvious that I needed to find a blaster so I could kill the various personnel that were blocking my progress.  I thought I’d found the password necessary to get into the vault (SAY SECURITY), and it did get me past the first level of security, but I also discovered the hard way that I needed an ID card.  Once again, I was stuck.
The answer came in the form of the supply depot, which has among its “all kinds of things” a blaster.  I didn’t figure this out on my own; I had to resort to the HELP command once again, which in the supply depot says “How ’bout a BLASTER”.  Type GET BLASTER while you’re in there, and sure enough you’ll find one.  It’s kind of a clever puzzle, but a little irritating as well.
With blaster in hand I stormed around the place shooting everyone in sight.  The evil scientist got it first, and with his ID Card in my possession I was able to access the Vault, where I found Leya’s treasury, the Malidium crystals (the in-game spelling differs from the backstory).
Next I went and vaporised the guard in the strategy room.  There I found some keys, a communicator, and some death ray schematics.  When I picked up the communicator, someone on the other side said “Sesame”.  I replied with the same word, and a voice over the PA announced that the flight deck doors would be opened.
I’ll have some holy smokes. Menthol.
Past the strategy room was the tractor beam room.  There were no guards there, just a sign warning people not to press any buttons.  I’m not on General Doom’s payroll, so I pressed those damn buttons, and the tractor beam was shut off.  I could have escaped at that point, except for one thing: with the flight doors open, there was no oxygen in the flight deck, and no way to get back to the ship.  I couldn’t figure out how to get the flight doors closed again, and I don’t think there’s another way back to the ship, so I had to restart again.
Getting back to where I was didn’t take long though, and with the keys in my possession I was able to open the locked cell in the jail, where I found the princess as expected.  Somewhat amusingly, she’s implemented as an object that you carry in your inventory.  You can’t interact with her in any way, and she doesn’t even react when you enter her cell, or return her to her ship.  Micklus didn’t even code a response to KISS PRINCESS, which is a real failing.
I’m Lewk Skywarker, I’m here to rescue you!
I ran into one last hurdle, though: my blaster ran out of ammunition, and I was captured before I could make it back to the ship.  I had a hunch, and on my next game I went back to the supply depot and typed GET AMMUNITION.  To my delight, I found some, and used it to reload when I thought I was getting low.
I’d rescued the princess, and stashed her necklace and treasury in the ship’s storage.  I also had the fuel and the turboencabulator, as well as as a bunch of other items that were worth some points (the cape, the laser, the cloaking device, the map, the schematics, etc.).  I’d disarmed the tractor beam, and used the communicator to open the flight doors (this time from the safety of my ship).  So I went to the cockpit, hit the launch button, and basked in a victory well-earned.
Well, almost.  I’d struck a blow for the Forces of Freedom, but I was 20 points shy of the full 215.  The only unexplained thing left on the map was the TRS-80, but I hadn’t yet found the blank tape I needed to use with it.  Once again I went to look for it in the supply depot, and once again that room came through.  With blank tape in hand I typed CLOAD TAPE into the computer, and was rewarded with a printout of General Doom’s secret attack plans.  This was the final item I needed, and I was able to complete Dog Star Adventure with full points.
Way to disguise your Very Secret Plans, dude.
We can be HEROS, just for one day
You can end the game without finding everything, though, and the game gives you a congratulatory message even if you just escape from the battle cruiser without the princess or any of the treasures.  Somehow that’s helped the Forces of Freedom defend the galaxy, don’t ask me how!
You get points for depositing various items in the ship’s storage hold.  The point values are as follows:
  • Anti-Matter Fuel – 5 points
  • Leya’s Cape – 5 points
  • Shinestone Necklace – 20 points
  • Death Ray Schematics – 20 points
  • Micro Laser Gun – 20 points
  • Cloaking Device – 20 points
  • Turboencabulator – 5 points
  • Malidium Crystals – 30 points
  • Map of the Ship – 20 points
  • Secret Attack Plans – 20 points
  • Princess Leya – 50 points
Finally, here’s my map for the game, created in Trizbort.
Click to enlargenate
I had a decent time playing this game: it’s short, and it doesn’t have any exceptionally frustrating puzzles.  The ones it does have are well covered by the game’s HELP command, which I’m a bit less reluctant to use than an outside walkthrough.  It’s a solid game for the era, and I think it will do okay on the RADNESS Index.


Story & Setting: As with other games that have knocked off properties that I love, I have to be careful to rate what’s actually in the game, rather than what I’m bringing to it from those outside influences.  The story amounts to a treasure hunt once you get down to the gameplay, but it has far more context than other games of its type: there are rebels fighting against an evil force, and every one of the treasures you have to find is relevant to that fight.  The setting is novel, with Battlestar being the only other game I’ve played that’s set on a space station.  Still, it’s very sparsely described, and there’s not much in the way of atmosphere.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: We have the guards, the evil scientist, Princess Leya, and the burger-eating robot.  The first two are obstacles and wandering hazards, and the only thing you can do with them is shoot or be captured.  Leya is a literal object.  The robot is memorable, but again you can’t interact with him beyond his one function in the game.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: A TRS-80 text adventure with sparse descriptions and no sound is always going to score low.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Puzzles: Dog Star has one puzzle I’d consider clever, and a bunch of others that are simple (buttons to press, doors to unlock, etc.)  I think I come down on liking the supply depot puzzle, and I’m down with it being used twice as a solution.  Three times might be pushing things, though.  And too many of the game’s obstacles are solved by shooting them.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The game has a very simple parser, that only recognises about 20 verbs.  It does the job, but that’s all it does.  Still, I had very few issues with hunting for the right command.  Movement was annoying, though; abbreviating it to the first letter should be standard practice, even in 1979.  It’s not a gamebreaker, though, and the game does what it does reasonably well.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: Outside of the puzzles, which I’d consider a mild challenge, there are the wandering guards to contend with.  They’re annoying at first, but easily dealt with once you find the blaster.  That’s decent design I feel: things can be frustrating for a short while, just not the entire game.  I’d rate Dog Star as pretty easy, but short enough that it doesn’t matter. By the time you run out of challenges, the game is over.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: I enjoyed this while it lasted.  It helps that it was short, and I never got stuck for long because of the HELP command.  The guards at the start were annoying, but that just makes it more enjoyable once you get the ability to kill them.  Still, there’s not a lot to this one, and no scope for activities outside of the puzzles required to beat the game.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1.  As the first adventure game to have its source code published, Dog Star does have some influence and a little bit of historical importance.
That gives Dog Star Adventure a RADNESS Index of 29.  Overall that places it equal 21st, and on the chart for adventure games it’s 12th out of 24 games rated so far.  It’s equal in points to Castle, just below Pirate Adventure and above Voyage to Atlantis, squarely in the area of the chart that separates the games I liked from those I didn’t.  Middle of the pack feels about right, I’d say.
I also played through the version for the Commodore PET, which was ported in 1980.  The major difference is that it’s even more explicit with its Star Wars connections: General Doom is Darth Vader, Leya is Leia, the ship is the Millennium Falcon, and the guards are stormtroopers.  I’m not sure why IP violation was fine on the PET and not on the TRS-80, but whatever. It mercifully uses the NESW abbreviations, but only recognises TAKE, not GET (my preferred verb).  The blaster isn’t loaded when you first pick it up, you need to also take the ammunition, but it tracks how many shots you have left. The random stormtroopers take potshots at you when they appear, but I never got hit by one.  The most difficult thing for me was that the TRS-80 has been replaced by a generic terminal, and it’s a little harder to figure out the correct command.  It takes 225 points to win, but you don’t need to do anything new, you just get the extra 10 when you escape.  It’s much the same game, and despite a nifty image of Vader on start-up it gets the exact same RADNESS Index. I probably like this one a touch more, simply because it’s explicitly Star Wars.  Still, it’s weirder to treat the princess as a literal object when it’s actually Leia, and not a stand-in.
To be honest, this is a better Darth Vader than most of the artists of
Marvel Comics managed in the 80s

At least this version can spell “heroes”
Dog Star was also released by Adventure International, under the title Death Planet: A Dog Star Adventure (although it’s just called Dog Star in the game itself).
This is a much better name
It uses the split-panel style of Scott Adams adventures, with the room descriptions at the top and the player’s commands at the bottom, and is the most technically sound of the three versions I played; it ran really smoothly compared to the others. My major problem with it is that it completely removes the supply depot puzzle: when you enter the room the blaster, ammunition and tape are already out in the open.  It also has a score out of 100 rather than 215, and it explicitly marks the treasures with asterisks.  In terms of RADNESS Index I’d rate it a point higher in Mechanics, but the removal of the supply depot puzzle loses it a point in Puzzles, so it still comes out the same.
Brother, I’ve already finished this thing three times.
NEXT: It’s back to Scott Adams, as I take a look at his fourth effort, Voodoo Castle.  This time his wife Alexis is also involved, so we’ll see how much difference that makes. 

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