From The Adventure Gamer
by Will Moczarski
According to issue 017 of “Compute! Magazine” (Oct. 1981), “MED SYSTEMS has been publishing and distributing software worldwide since 1979”. If my research is correct, Med Systems Software started developing and publishing games for the TRS-80 (and subsequently the Commodore PET and the Apple ][) more or less at the same time. In 1980, they not only released Rat’s Revenge, Deathmaze 5000, Labyrinth and Reality Ends but also ten more games and applications. Having reviewed the four available adventure games in previous “Missed Classics” playthroughs, I will dedicate this post to a short rundown of the games that don’t really fit the “Adventure Gamer” template, as Med Systems appears to have been a consistently interesting company.
Multiple attempts to contact William F. “Mike” Denman, jr., who apparently was one of the company’s two lead programmers as well as its president, sadly all but failed. I’ve tried several e-mail addresses and social media platforms, but alas, I never even received a reply. The other main protagonist of the company’s early years was Frank Corr, jr., whom I didn’t even find a trace of online. Most of the early games are still available in some form – several of the manuals can also be found in web archives. Many of the games don’t have in-game credits, so there’s basically no telling who wrote the games without surviving manuals. Sadly, three of the adventure games released in 1980 (or even before?) appear to be lost altogether, but more on that below.
Through my research I came up with the following timeline of Med Systems games and applications released in 1980:
|When breaking the “16K barrier” was cutting-edge|
From 1981, there seems to have been a change. Med Systems also published games by authors who were neither Corr nor Denman – including the late Jyym Pearson of Adventure International fame, as well as Simon Smith and the late Ken Kalish. The company seems to have left behind adventure games in 1983 when they focused on other genres. Their second line of products appear to have been educational games for children and adults alike – some of them might even shed some light on the fact that they apparently meant to start out as Med(ical) Systems. But even without the medical educational game that is The Human Adventure (William F. Denman jr., 1980), many of the games appear to deal with mental illness or popular depictions of “asylums”. This goes for their most popular game, Asylum (1981) which even warranted a sequel (1982), as well as The Institute (1981). The earlier 3-D adventures I’ve already played through also allude to their fiction actually representing a state of mental disorder, and in Reality Ends no less than the dissolution of reality itself is at stake. Med Systems were thus innovative as a (technical) pioneer of 3-D adventure games that fused the genres of the maze game and the text adventure – most successfully in the Asylum games. Also, they were among the earliest companies to tackle mental illness in a computer game – even without resorting to the convenient ‘amnesia’ plot.
With Denman pulling the ‘Crowther’ on me, I can only resort to speculation when trying to piece together the company history of Med Systems. I will try to sort the games chronologically best I can but many facts are still confusing me. Some dates are unclear (was The Farvar Legacy released in 1981 or was it 1983? What is the order of the games released in a given year?) and some games are lost. This is the reason why I’d like to put out a rather unusual…
Request for Assistance: Lost Games – Bureaucracy, Samurai, Starlord (presumably 1980)
Okay, let’s get Starlord out of the way first. I’ve found a listing of Med Systems’ early adventures in the September 1980 edition of “Kilobaud”, including the three mentioned titles as well as Reality Ends, but as I’ve found no further information about that game – as opposed to Bureaucracy and Samurai both of which show up in the 1981 Med Systems catalog available online. Before I found the Kilobaud article I thought that the name may well be a mix-up with Peter Hildebrandt’s Star Trap, published by Med Systems in 1981. I’ve found Star Trap but if anyone was able to elaborate on the existence of Starlord, I’d be more than happy to listen!
|I really want to play these!!|
Bureaucracy and Samurai are two more tough nuts to crack. Both were apparently released for the TRS-80 (models I and III) as well as the Apple II/e. Other than the 1981 Med Systems catalog (and the ad pictured above), there appears to be no trace of them online. Sure, research is hindered by the 1987 Infocom adventure of the same name (Bureaucracy) and the word samurai also pops up in some other game titles but it’s astonishing how little impact these two games seem to have had. So if anyone can enlighten me about these two games (or even find a copy) I will be very happy about it. I’d just love to present the whole history of Med Systems adventure games and these gaps are not exactly improving my sleep.
|Sounds very neat, doesn’t it?|
The same goes for Med Systems staff – if somebody knows somebody who’d be willing to talk (Frank Corr maybe?), I’d be more than happy to be able to conduct an interview. I’m well aware that all of these inquiries are very niche but you never know, right?
Marathon Recap: Games I’ve Played So Far – Rat’s Revenge, Deathmaze 5000, Labyrinth, Reality Ends
More speculation ahead! It’s very difficult to reconstruct the timeframe of the Med Systems catalog but Rat’s Revenge seems to have predated Deathmaze 5000 which appears to have predated Labyrinth. Reality Ends may have been an earlier game than at least Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth. Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth make up the first half of Med Systems’ “Continuum Series”, the other two games being Asylum and Asylum II. Continuum games are 3-D maze adventure games. According to vol. 7 no. 1 of “Creative Computer Magazine” (January 1981) they were all written in machine language, making them exceptionally fast. With every game, the programmers added more adventure game elements, with Labyrinth boasting more puzzles than Deathmaze 5000 and the Asylum games having much more of a plot. William F. Denman jr. was involved in three of the five games (starting with Labyrinth), and he even did the second Asylum game on his own. The engine may well be Frank Corr jr.’s, though, as he (presumably) programmed Rat’s Revenge before the two of them collaborated on Deathmaze 5000, Labyrinth and Asylum.
Denman was the lead programmer on some other games, too. I presume – although without a manual, that’s difficult to say – that he was also behind Reality Ends. The terse writing style is certainly similar and the game also calls the player a dolt if she doesn’t handle the interface properly – like Deathmaze 5000 and Labyrinth do. This may also mean that Reality Ends could have been written by Frank Corr, jr., but Denman appears to have been behind a substantial chunk of the games released in 1980.
There is also a little mystery surrounding a game called Deathmaze 2000. Is this a port or a predecessor? I’ll say a little more about this one below.
Finally, all three games I’ve played through for this blog use literature as a pretext. Deathmaze 5000 relies on the player’s intimate knowledge of Beowulf (and either the bible or the Byrds) whereas Labyrinth lifts its monster from the legend surrounding the labyrinth of Knossos (the minotaur). The minotaur also appears in Reality Ends and the city of Knossos reappears in a Med Systems adventure called The City of Knossos. The hints at ancient literature appear to be another bit of corporate identity along with the aforementioned focus on mental illness. Reality Ends, and I have to thank two anonymous commenters for this as I wasn’t aware of the fact at all, seems to base its whole storyworld on the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. Quite a different role model compared to Beowulf or Plutarch but hey, whatever floats your code (sorry).
Skipped Game 1 – The Playful Professor (1980)
The Playful Professor is an educational game written and designed by William F. Denman, jr. It was released in 1980 for the TRS-80 (models I and III) and described by the company as “a mathematics learning aid that provides tutoring in integer mathematics, as well as fractions, for the four basic operations. Demonstrated solutions are completed step by step in a black board format easily understood by grade school children. Problems are presented in a game format that places the pupil in a sixty room mansion. To win, the player must catch the ghost with the key, then get to the front door before the ghost (or other player) recaptures the key. Movement is based on problem solving. Doors open and close randomly. The player’s turn is skipped if he gets temporarily sealed in a room.”
Unfortunately, although there have been countless magazine ads for The Playful Professor, the game does not seem to have survived online. At least, I couldn’t come up with a working version, so if you should come across one, I’d be more than happy to play it. When Screenplay took over Med Systems around 1983 or 1984 (a story for another time), they re-released the game in a revamped version for the Atari 8-bit family and the Commodore 64 as Playful Professor: Math Tutor in 1984. Steven Baumrucker ported William Denman’s game, and it seems like Mr. Denman commented on it personally when “Highretrogamelord” posted a sample on YouTube.
This means I will play the game once we get to 1984 in our marathon – the original version by William Denman, sadly, is not available right now.
Skipped Game 2 – The Human Adventure (1980)
The Human Adventure is another educational game by William Denman, apparently aimed at medical students, potentially hinting at the original direction his company was meant to take. In a way, The Human Adventure is even an adventure game, albeit an unusual one. It was released for the TRS-80 as well as the Apple II.
|And So It Begins|
The story goes that you are a miniaturized scientist inside a vessel injected into a person’s bloodstream. Inside, you use a simple text parser to move through the body in six different directions: front, back, right, left, head, feet. In an original review by Russ Williams of The Space Gamer (vol. 47, January 1982), the reviewer stated that he “learned more about human anatomy from this game than [he] did in [his] biology class!” Indeed, many of the descriptions are rather cryptic to the non-medical eye.
|My Excel Map, Upper Part|
The story appears to have been inspired by the 1966 Richard Fleischer film Fantastic Voyage which has a very similar plot premise. According to the manual, “[o]nly movement in the direction of the blood flow is legal. Access to all major organs is possible by making the correct decisions.” In general, there are three available game modes: exploration mode (ideal for mapping), game mode, and attention mode (whatever that may be). In the game mode, the patient has cancer, and there are two afflicted sites (initially). The hull of the player’s craft collects antibodies while moving around. After a while, she can attempt to heal the afflicted sites by destroying the disease with lasers.
|Good job, Bones! Scotty – I think we’re done here.|
The playing experience is enhanced greatly by mapping the gameworld from the outset; as the game mode is rather complicated and involves avoiding white cell attacks and “[p]eriodic electrification of the hull to burn off these proteins”, it’s a good way of getting a feel for the lay of the land.
In the beginning, you can choose between travelling through either a male or a female body. Both bodies look exactly the same except for their size and their nether regions, and you start out in a different location each time. You are addressed as if you were in a text adventure: “YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT CORONARY ARTERY. ACCESSIBLE OPENINGS: FEET. COMMAND?” Below is a picture of the human body with a small dot in the middle. The small dot is you.
The process of mapping The Human Adventure took longer than expected because the gameworld consists of a whopping 158 locations most of which are twisty little arteries/veins that look (almost) exactly alike. Most of these bloodstreams take you to all of the important organs and sites of the body – due to its educational realism, you travel through the lungs and the atrium over and over again, and short-cuts or even simple branches are few and far between. I have to say, though, that although mapping is a bit of a chore I did learn a lot of things about the human anatomy. It’s also a nice way to get acquainted with the gameworld before trying out a challenge.
|Give me a break here, I’m one of the good guys!|
When I start the actual game, I can choose between three levels of difficulty. The EASY mode is pretty difficult as it is. The game mode also introduces some more mechanics: typing REPORT shows me a turn counter as well as the location of the two initial sites of infection, e.g. LIVER, PANCREAS. Typing ELE(CTRIFY) electrifies the hull of my ship which is necessary every few turns to not bump into hostile white blood cells over and over again. If I do get attacked by white blood cells or happen to reach an infected site, I can LAS(ER) them to get rid of them. There’s a 100% chance of me eliminating them but both make me lose my energy more quickly. In the beginning, my energy is up to 100% but I lose a little energy (one to two percent) with every move. To REC(HARGE), I have to travel all the way to the brain. INT(ERFERON) makes me use an “interferon charge” but I can’t figure out what that does as the answer is always “Ok…nothing happens”.
|He’s dead, Jim.|
After some failed attempts, I get the hang of The Human Adventure. Two strategies are required to win: First, you have to electrify the hull every five turns or so to avoid getting swamped by white blood cells. Second, you need to move up to the brain after having vaporized one of the two infections in order to recharge your energy. It’s all a lot of fun, and the other two levels of difficulty (moderate and hard) are pleasantly challenging. I also find out what the interferon charges are for: If you choose one of the two harder modes, the patient has cancer. This makes the disease spread pretty quickly and you’ll have to visit at least three infected sites to succeed. Lasers don’t vaporize the cancer – but interferon charges destroy it.
|It’s all in a day’s work at St. Eligius|
Although The Human Adventure is 95% mapping and 5% playing, it’s a pretty enjoyable game.
Skipped Game 3 – Money Master (1980)
Money Master is apparently another maze game “designed to tutor the young child in the use of money.” This one appears to be lost, too, so I can’t really tell whether it’s more of an application or more of a game. The game apparently has the player move through a maze where she encounters different objects and creatures. Whenever this happens, she has to perform a transaction – collect tolls, give the right amount of change etc. The mazes are randomly generated and there are two dozen creatures and objects to be found within.
Skipped Game 4 – Ghost’s Gallery (1980)
Ghost’s Gallery is a variation of The Playful Professor without the math. According to the Med Systems catalog, it boasts enhanced graphics and features compared to its predecessor of the same year. The goal is to capture the ghost with the key and get to the front door quickly in order to escape the haunted mansion. It offers a single-player mode as well as a two-player mode. At first I thought it was heavily influenced by that other famous maze game with ghosts, but Pac-Man was released in North America in October 1980 while The Playful Professor was probably released around February and Ghost’s Gallery came out in May 1980 at the latest.
Ghost’s Gallery is a pretty fast and very simple game. The ghost holding the key is marked with a K, and you have a fixed number of moves before the layout of the maze changes unpredictably. If you find a good position to wait, you can press D to end your move. The moment you manage to touch the ghost with the key, you sort of become the ghost (marked with the K). Now your job is to get to the exit at the bottom of the screen as quickly as possible, because the hunter has become the hunted. It’s all over very fast. There’s another option: By pressing S you can search for a secret passage which sometimes gets you out of a jam.
|I ain’t afraid of no ghost.|
I can imagine the two-player mode to be quite good, as it’s not really that much fun to steal from the computer-controlled ghost and then run from it, still it may be very nice to chase after one another in front of the same screen. I can also imagine The Playful Professor adding some challenge by letting the (young) player solve some math problems in between. A game of Ghost’s Gallery is over pretty quickly, and although it’s certainly a major programming feat in 1980 to create such a relatively smooth, fast and approachable game for the TRS-80, its single-player mode did not entertain me for too long.
|1980s Kids <3 Ghost’s Gallery|
I never actually lost, so I don’t even know what the fail state is. The won message suggests that it’s possible to fail but I didn’t find out how which goes to show just how easy the game is.
|It’s pretty neat that you can name your character!|
Skipped Application 1 – Athletic Index (1980)
The first Med Systems product I was able to find a magazine ad for is an application called Athletic Index. Although the program can not be found online, it appears to be an encyclopedia containing facts about the Olympic Games. Apparently, the Athletic Index was already discontinued in 1981 as it’s not featured in the spring 1981 catalog anymore.
Skipped Application 2 – The Basic Bartender (1980)
The Basic Bartender was written by William Denman and appears to be another kind of encyclopedia. Med Systems advertised it as a “very specialized data mini-system” containing information on 102 mixed beverages. It’s possible to edit this database “as memory conditions allow”. The user can either search for a recipe, browse by categories or take a look at the complete list of available drinks. The mixing instructions are detailed and sometimes contain information about the recommended glass and garnish recommendations. I assume that it’s called The Basic Bartender because it was written in BASIC but of course I cannot prove that as this one’s also lost.
Skipped Gimmick – Adam’s Apple (1980)
In their spring 1981 catalog, Med Systems also had a 48 piece 3-D jigsaw puzzle resembling an apple on offer. If anything, it’s a good example how much they loved their wordplay: According to their description, “Adam’s Apple” was “seemingly designed just for Apple owners” and “a challenge to the core.”
Final Conundrum – Deathmaze 2000 (1980)
Deathmaze 2000 had me going in circles for some time as it appeared on the “Giant List of Classic Game Programmers” (Link: https://dadgum.com/giantlist/) which is sort of comprehensive if not really all-encompassing but nevertheless regularly updated and appears to be correct most of the time. In the 2019 version, the “game” is no longer listed but looking at the 2001 list turns up the title “Deathmaze 2000” written by William Denman for the Apple ][ which is probably just a harmless typo and nothing else.
Well, this is it for now. Med Systems sure is an obscure company these days but back in the day they were sort of a major player (by 1980 to 1983 standards) littering all the major TRS-80 magazines with a plethora of ads. Many dealers advertised that they had Med Systems games in stock, so there certainly must have been some demand, and especially the Continuum games have grown to be true cult classics in some retrogaming (or just nostalgic) circles.
I’d like to conclude my write-up with the company’s own words, namely a mission statement from the December 1980 issue of Kilobaud: