Game 40: Voodoo Castle (1979)

From CRPG Adventures

Scott Adams’ covers are always a good
representation of what you’ll find in the game.
With Voodoo Castle, it’s time for another game in the “Scott Adams Adventure” series.  I’ve enjoyed them all so far, to varying extents: Adventureland was a well-executed attempt to get a game like Colossal Cave Adventure onto a home computer, Pirate Adventure (written alongside his wife Alexis) was a welcome step away from the fantasy genre, and Mission Impossible gave me one of the earliest adventure games that isn’t a treasure hunt.  Regardless of how they play today, Adams’ text adventures are a cut above their contemporaries, at least in the home computer market.
Voodoo Castle is credited solely to Alexis Adams in the game itself, but I’ve seen other sources credit both her and Scott.  Scott has apparently said in later years that he did most of the work, while Alexis has claimed that the game was all hers.  I don’t know the truth of it, so I’m going to credit them both while assuming that the bulk of the design came from Alexis.  I don’t believe that I credited Alexis when I wrote about Pirate Adventure, which was remiss of me: as the first known female adventure game designer she deserves some recognition.
The original release of the game seems to have been by the Software Exchange in July 1979, for the TRS-80.  As I understand it, the Software Exchange was the game publishing arm of SoftSide magazine.  Adventure International didn’t form until some time in 1979, so all of Adams’ previous games would also have been first published by the Software Exchange.  I’m playing a later TRS-80 version of Voodoo Castle, that’s credited to Adventure International, but if you scroll down to my new section Ports of Call you’ll see that I checked out a few different versions.
The premise of this game is an odd one: Count Cristo has been placed under a voodoo curse, and it’s up to the player to save him from his plight.  There’s little else to go on.  Is Count Cristo a good dude?  (Probably not, all counts are vampires.)  Are you his friend?  Is there any reward for this benevolent activity, beyond the satisfaction of beating a video game?  Having beaten this game several times, I am not much the wiser.
This count is Monte’s brother, Santo.
The game begins in a chapel with a closed coffin.  Opening it revealed the count’s body, a rhyme outlining the objective of the game and a sapphire ring.  I did my usual pregame ritual: I for Inventory revealed that I was carrying nothing, and SCORE revealed that there were no points to obtain in this game.  Waking Count Cristo from his voodoo coma was my sole objective.
Before I begin describing the game, I want to point out the weird capitalised As in the text above.  There are only a couple of them on that screen, but I can tell you that they are all over this game.  There are plenty of lower-case As, so it seems to me that this was a deliberate stylistic choice.  I spent a good portion of the game thinking about this, and wondering if it was a deliberate clue to a puzzle.  It wasn’t, it was just a piece of formatting that bugged me a lot.  I’m still baffled by it.
Taking the ring, I saw that it was inscribed with the words WAVE ME.  Doing so had no effect here, but I kept it in mind for later, and started exploring and mapping.  West was a ballroom with a fireplace.  North was a room with a window that slammed shut upon my entrance, and couldn’t be opened.  South was a stairwell and some passages which I decided to ignore for now, though I did take a piece of broken glass I found there.  East was a door with a sapphire embedded in it, as well as a bloody knife.  I took the knife, but trying to take the sapphire was fruitless (those old treasure hunting instincts die hard).  The door wouldn’t open, but waving the ring caused it to disappear and reveal a chute.  (Also, I’m just now realising the connection between the sapphire ring and the door with a sapphire in it.  I just waved the ring here hoping that something would happen.)
Sliding down the chute (with no way back up) I found a room with a crack on one wall and a hole on another.  There was also a plaque, but because the letters are phosphorescent I couldn’t read it in the light.  (If I hadn’t been carrying the broken glass, I’d have been told that the print was too small for me to read. The game doesn’t indicate that I’m using the glass here, and is bad in general at letting the player know when an item is being used passively.)
The crack was too narrow for me to pass through, and I was informed that I’d need powerful magic to get by.  I was able to get through the hole though, into Medium Maegen’s Mad Room (or as the game irritatingly puts it, “Medium MAegen’s MAd Room”.  I startled the medium when I entered and she disappeared.  Not knowing how to get her back I decided to examine her crystal ball, but “spirit vibrations” drove me from the room, leaving me conveniently at the top of the chute.
I decided to check out the fireplace this time, which I was able to enter.  I found a dusty idol there, and a flue that opened easily to give me access to the chimney.  The chimney was dark, and much like Colossal Cave Adventure moving around in the dark can break your neck in this game.  Dusting the idol revealed that it was glowing, though, and I was able to get up there safely.  All I found was some soot, and wooden boards nailed to the chimney wall.  The boards were solidly in place, but somehow I was able to take the soot.  Don’t ask me how, but I gathered it all up because this is an adventure game and has a pretty hefty nine item inventory limit.  I could also hear someone moaning, which made me think of zombies, so I got the heck out of there.
On my way out of the fireplace I was accosted by a maid who was angry about me tracking soot everywhere, and she hurried me out of the room.  I found myself in a dungeon with a shovel on the floor and an open jail cell nearby.  I decided to enter the cell, and the door slammed shut behind me.  Inside was a leaflet, which read “For a reading just “SUMMON MEDIUM MAEGEN” today!!”  Typing SUMMON MEDIUM didn’t do anything here, but the game did acknowledge it, so I made a note to try it elsewhere.  Unfortunately, the cell door was now locked, and nothing I had on me was able to open it.  I couldn’t even dig my way out with the shovel.  There was nothing for it but to restart.  (To be honest, I never did figure out how to get out of the cell on my own.  There’s a saw elsewhere in the game, and you can SAW DOOR to get out.)
Starting over, I decided to explore south.  Up the stairwell I found a stone statue of a Ju-Ju Man (who I gather was some kind of voodoo priest).  Exploring east of the stairwell I found a room with a big kettle full of soup. Eating the soup gave no response, but examining the kettle revealed a dark hole underneath. I pushed the kettle aside, climbed down, and lighting my way with the idol found a lucky rabbit’s foot.
North of that was a room with some animal heads (on the wall, one assumes, but I guess they could just be severed heads on the floor).  I wasn’t able to take them, so I explored to the east and found a cast-iron pot containing “witch’s brew”.  I was a bit more suspicious of this than the soup, so I didn’t try any.  (Eventually I succumbed to my curiosity, and found that it transforms you into a broom. A witch then appears and rides you away, for a quite bizarre game over.)
Further east I found a lab, with three items of interest: a Ju-Ju bag, some test tubes, and some chemicals.  I was keen to examine this stuff, but as soon as I tried to open the bag one of the test tubes exploded, and I was unceremoniously killed.
The only random factor in this game, I’m pretty sure.
Starting over again again I headed west from the stairwell and found the dungeon.  This time I ignored the open cell and went south to the torture chamber.  There I found a tiny door, which was far too small for me to enter.  Again, I was told that I’d need powerful magic to get through.  East of that I found an Armory, with a shield, a broken sword, and a suit of armor which was too heavy for me to lift.  The game didn’t recognise WEAR as a command, so I took the other items and left.
At this point I’d explored all the paths that were obvious to me, and it was time to begin painstakingly putting this puzzle together.  And I do mean painstaking: I was determined to get through this one without any outside help, because I’ve been leaning a little too hard on walkthroughs for my liking.  Every step of the following process involved lots of trial and error, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The first thing I figured out was that I was able to take the animal heads using the broken sword.  Behind them was a safe, with a dial numbered 33 to 38, that I wasn’t able to open.  The second thing I figured out is that I could survive the exploding test tubes by carrying the shield.  As with using the glass to read, neither of these results were signposted. I had to figure out what was going on myself.  (Incidentally, you can carry these exploding test tubes with you as long as you also have the shield. I spent way too long exploding every room in the game to see if anything would happen.)
Now I was able to examine the Ju-Ju bag, but I discovered that it couldn’t be moved or opened… yet.  (If there’s one thing the game is good at, it’s letting you know that an action will be possible in the future.)  Instead I examined the chemicals, which I was told looked like they could be mixed.  So I mixed the chemicals and drank them like any good scientist, and was rewarded with a clap of thunder and a reduction in height to 4 feet tall.  This is never reversed, by the way: the protagonist of this game remains four feet tall forever.  Such is the price for meddling with voodoo, I suppose.
Now that I was small I could get through the door in the torture chamber, and past it I found a graveyard.  There was a rusty saw there, as well as a four-leaf clover growing out of a grave that was supposedly reserved for me.  (With the deaths I had suffered already, it was probably getting a little crowded in there.)
Exploring around a little, I went back to the room with the window.  This time it stayed open when I entered, apparently because I was carrying the lucky four-leaf clover.  On a ledge outside I found a doll with pins in it.  I couldn’t pull them out, but a voodoo doll had to be important in Voodoo Castle so I held on to it.
(There’s also a raven that flies around the window, and if you listen it tells you to go and buy The Count, Scott Adams’ next adventure.  Apparently it will be “LOVE AT FIRST BITE!”, a pun the authors are so proud of that they capitalised it and gave it an exclamation point.).
At this point I finally remembered the leaflet that had told me that I could summon Medium Maegen. So I went back to her room, and after she vanished I typed in SUMMON MEDIUM.  Sure enough, she reappeared and gave me a cryptic hint.
Give it to me straight, lady!
I figured that this meant the Ju-Ju bag could help me through the narrow crack, but seeing as I couldn’t move the bag at all right now it wasn’t that helpful a revelation.  But on my way to the medium’s room I had passed by the plaque that I’d been unable to read before.  Obviously I needed some darkness to read the phosphorescent writing, but I didn’t know how to make it dark in that room.  I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a very long time to figure out that I could pick up the plaque, and carry it to a dark room.  I dunno, I figured it would be screwed into the wall or something.
So I took the plaque into the dark chimney (leaving my glowing idol temporarily behind) and was able to read its message: “safe –> 38 33”.  I went to the safe behind the animal heads, and after some wrangling with the parser – the relevant commands were TURN 38 and TURN 33 – I got it open and found an antique hammer inside.  (I guess it’s antique to explain why the hell it’s being kept in a safe.)
Back to the fireplace, I used the hammer to take the nails and then the boards.  Behind those was a grate, which I cut open with my saw.  Behind that was a button, and pressing it activated a fan that sent me whooshing up the chimney.  All this time I’d been worried that the moaning I could hear meant that I was about to be eaten by a zombie, but what I found further up the chimney was somewhat less frightening: a stuck chimney sweep.  Obviously the fellow wasn’t too happy to be in there, so I tried to help him and eventually hit on PUSH SWEEP.  Grateful to be free, he gave me a piece of paper before leaving. On it was written this message:
Chim-chimerny, chim-chimerny
chim-chim, cheroo
I only exist
to solve puzzles for you
“SAY ZAP to restore someone changed to stone.”  I went back to where I’d left the Ju-Ju man statue, said the magic words, and restored the Ju-Ju man to life.  He was standing there mumbling, and at this point I got a bit worried and high-tailed it out of the room.  The game warns you that you might be in trouble, and the packaging tells you to “beware that you don’t end up a victim of the voodoo man”, so I was wary of this guy.  It turns out he’s friendly, and if you listen to his mumblings he will tell you to take his bag, as it will help you -CRACK- the curse.  I missed this unsubtle clue, but in the end it didn’t hinder me too much.
I’ll refrain from a joke about bags and cracks.
After trying a bunch of stuff I discovered that I could now take the bag and open it.  Inside I found a stick and a book on removing curses.  Inside it read: “With knife in hand you take a stand. Circle coffin and…”  The rest of the page was missing, but I finally felt like I was getting somewhere.  The only place left for me to explore was the crack, and I guessed that the rest of the page would be somewhere beyond.
I took the bag down to the crack, but I still wasn’t able to get past.  This is where I really got stuck, and spent a good half-hour trying dumb things and experimenting just to make any progress at all.  I actually had to sleep on this one, and as is the way of such things when I got back to the game I hit on the solution on my first try: WAVE BAG.  (The medium had clued me in on this by telling me that a “moving bag” would get me through, but I only figured out what she was on about in hindsight.)  Beyond the crack I found the page, and the rest of the ritual: “…wave the stick and hold the lamp and don’t forget to yell “CHANT”! Oh yes, to help it succeed, a doll you’ll need…”
I had everything I needed, so I took it all back to the coffin and started trying to cast the ritual on Count Cristo’s body.  None of it worked.  Not circling the coffin, not waving the stick, not telling the game to go screw, not nothing.  I only hit on the solution by accident.  Figuring that emptying my inventory might help, I started dropping things.  When I tried to drop the lucky rabbit’s foot, I got a message: “On what?”  Knowing how limited the parser was, I skeptically typed in ON CRISTO.  It worked!  I was able to go through the steps of the ritual, and eventually succeed in lifting the curse.
Smiling Count Cristo could definitely be a wrestler from the 1970s.
So I was only technically victorious: I hadn’t figured out how to escape the jail cell, so the info I got from going in there came from earlier games where I’d died.  I still got to the endgame though, even if there was one puzzle I didn’t figure out.  I’ll take it!
Despite the satisfaction of beating a game legitimately, though, I didn’t get much enjoyment out of Voodoo Castle.  Adventure games often operate on a sort of weird Rube Goldberg/puzzle box logic, but most of the other ones I’ve played at least try to disguise it somehow.  This game just rolls with it, and makes very little attempt to explain itself.  Why is there a chimney sweep stuck in there?  Because it’s a puzzle, that’s why.  “Because it’s a puzzle” is the entirety of this game, and it nagged at me the whole way through.  It’s well constructed, but it’s so obviously constructed that it hurt the experience, at least for me.
Before I get into the RADNESS Index, here’s my Trizbort map of the game:
Clickin’ makes it bigger.

Story & Setting: The game doesn’t do a lot to explain the context, but there is a story here: the count is cursed and you have to help him. Who cursed him?  Why?  Why are all the things you need conveniently scattered around the castle you’re in?  Who is Medium Maegen?  Why can’t she do the ritual if she’s so great?  Why the hell is there a chimney sweep stuck in the chimney?  It goes on and on.  Because puzzles, that’s why.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: We’re in early adventure game territory here, where the characters serve no other purpose except as problems to solve.  They have no personality, and no reason to exist otherwise.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Text adventure, no sound, terse descriptions. You know the drill by now.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Puzzles: I will actually give the game some praise here, it does have some good puzzles, and all of them are fair.  Sometimes it’s not all that clear when you’ve solved a puzzle, or that there was a puzzle to solve in the first place, but in hindsight the solutions all make sense (even if some of the situations don’t).  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: I’ve always been a fan of the split-window style of the Scott Adams adventures, and even though this is a simple two-word parser it does the job adequately.  I had a couple of moments where I had to wrack my brain for the right command, but none of them stumped me for too long. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: I spent most of this game frustrated, and making progress felt painful, but in retrospect I was never stuck for long.  The puzzles were all fair, the random deaths were minor setbacks, and I was always making some kind of progress.  And I was able to finish it without a walkthrough.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Fun: Despite the things I praised above, I didn’t actually enjoy playing this game.  I just found something impenetrable about it’s weird illogic, which isn’t something that normally bothers me this much, but in this game it did.  For whatever reason, I couldn’t connect with it, and the whole thing felt like pulling teeth.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Bonus Point: 0.

The above scores add up to 15, which doubled gives a RADNESS Index of 30. That places it 20th overall, and 11th for adventure games.  Coincidentally enough, it’s equal on points to Pirate Adventure, which seems appropriate.  If I’d been able to connect with it a little better it might have done quite respectably.

This is a new section I’m trying out, where I try to play through some other ports of the game I’m covering.  I won’t do it for everything, because even I only have so much time, but for games that are quick to play through I’ll check out a few different versions.
The Apple II version is pretty much the same game, with two minor differences: it features a dedication “to all Moms” at the beginning; and its advertisement of The Count says that it will be LOVE AT FIRST BYTE, which is an even worse pun.  Oh, and the game is in all caps, so it doesn’t have all those irritating upper case As everywhere.  I’d be tempted to bump it up a point in Aesthetics just for that, but that would be frivolous.
You think any kids were disappointed that this wasn’t a sequel
starring Smiling Count Cristo?
I also found an earlier TRS-80 version than the one I played above, although I couldn’t tell if it was early enough to be the Software Exchange version.  It was pretty much identical to the Apple version, except that it retained the annoying As.  Oh, and for some reason both the Apple and early TRS-80 version have an extraneous empty room that got cut from the later version.
There wasn’t a port released for the Commodore PET, surprisingly, but there was one for the VIC-20.  I couldn’t get it to work, though, so I jumped all the way ahead to the Commodore 64 port from 1985 and got a big surprise.
She really loves those MOMS.
Apparently a whole bunch of the Scott Adams catalogue got converted to graphic adventures in the 1980s, and I’m only just finding out about it now.  I was a C64 kid, how did this happen?  Anyway, the gameplay and puzzles here remain the same, although the graphics replace some of the text in places.  Some of the visuals change when you take certain actions (such as opening the coffin above), but there are other places where they remain annoyingly static.  The raven in this version has lowered his standards, though: rather than advertising The Count he tells you that Questprobe featuring The Hulk is a SMASHING GOOD TIME.  He’s lying.  Still, this is a good adaptation. I’d mark it a point higher for Aesthetics, but without the split-window letting you always know what’s in the room I mark it a point down for Mechanics, so it comes out even.
Did I win? ‘Cos dude is still lying down.
NEXT: The next game on my list is Eamon, a text adventure RPG hybrid that also intended as a system for people to create their own games.  It still has something of a fan community, I understand, and it all sounds pretty intriguing.  I’ll post about it on Sunday.  Because I have a schedule now!

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