COMPETITION BONUS: THE RING OF THE INKA - SIR CLIVE EDITION
It is one of the great tragedies of recent CSSCGCs that the 2017 and 2018 competitions left so little lasting impression. Maybe it's because both were hosted on servers that had a tendency to fail with the regularity of Arnold Rimmer taking his Astro-Navigation exams, maybe it's because that thing beginning with V that we don't mention (and which I will not dignify with a link) carved a deep rift in the Spectrum scene that made the Grand Canyon look like a paper cut. (It was probably both.) One such casualty of the fallout was Timothy Alcid, author of The Color Challenge's Jailbreak! which was the last game to be submitted to the 2017 competition - and which was never reviewed, or made available for download, at the time. It remains his only contribution to the Sinclair scene, and has only been recovered courtesy of GReW sending me a copy of his defunct website to host myself. As for Shaun Bebbington's 2018 competition, the website may have been beyond even the Wayback Machine's recovery abilities, but at least most of the games survived, and are available via Spectrum Computing. This was of particular importance because LD-Snake was one of the 2018 entries... as was the game I'm reviewing now.
The Ring Of The Inka, version 1, was released on 31 March 2018, and was the CSSCGC's first ever entry on microdrive - but was originally sent in a bizarre .MDV format that refused to run on either Spectaculator or Fuse, and made me think it might have been for the QL. It wasn't, and after some meddling with various emulators I managed to get it running on EightyOne, then transferred it to a proper .MDR that would run on other emulators, as well as some disc formats (which, unknown to me, could never have worked properly). This had all been in preparation for being this year's host - I thought it best to have the entire CSSCGC archive in my possession and working properly.
Midway through this year I was contacted by Volker Bartheld, who had been disappointed by the way the 2018 competition disappeared down an electronic black hole, and wanted to fix and re-submit the game for this year's competition. My opinion was that it should stay as an official 2018 entry, but I'd host it and give it a proper review, with its re-release treated as an end-of-year bonus game. So I set a target for a number of submissions, using the promise of this bonus as a bargaining chip with all the other entrants - and it was always obvious what that target was, as the CSSCGC was founded a tribute to Cassette 50.
On 3 December, the 50th entry was delivered, and the Big Bullseye Bonus Game was cleared for release.
THE ORIGINAL VERSION:
The 2018 release of The Ring of the Inka certainly wasn't crap by the usual standards of the competition. From the remnants of the remaining Twitter feed, I can see that Shaun was trying to encourage text adventures during his tenure of the competition. Volker and his partner-in-programming, Michael Wiedmer, gave him more than he'd ever have bargained for. They clearly put a ton of effort into this game back in the day (circa 1987-88), but were doing all their editing on a real rubber-key Spectrum fitted with an Interface 1 and microdrive - which is a considerably trickier job than having a text editor, BASin, and a whole variety of microdrive-capable emulators to hand. And then, it sat on a cartridge, gathering dust, susceptible to all sorts of degradation, for 30 years... it's a miracle that it survived at all.
Any evidence that Shaun ever reviewed the game is long gone, but if he did, then he'd have found a handful of non-significant game-breaking bugs which would either render the game unwinnable, or cause it to stop with an unrecoverable error report. The game is long enough that 90-odd% of reviewers would never have made it far enough to find them, but I was determined to get to the end. It's not possible to do so, due to one particular C Nonsense in BASIC crash that blocks your progress completely - and there are a couple more instances of missing or inaccessible objects that should be required, but it might be possible to get by without them...
SIR CLIVE EDITION:
...and I know this because I have played the all-new Sir Clive Edition extensively, I have reached the end, I have made a full screenshot-based map which Pavel Plíva will be receiving round about the time I publish the RZX, and I have collaborated with Volker in the month-long debugging and improvement process which has seen this version hammered into shape. This is the 21st iteration of the Sir Clive Edition, and it's about as close to perfect as possible. While my extensive participation disqualified the game from entering the main competition, it's all the better for having had two of us working on it; I've had an eye for details that Volker missed, and vice versa. Every bug that we could find has been zapped, every nut and bolt has been tightened, every route in every direction has been checked for consistency, every Metallenglisch location description has been properly Anglified - and it's been made 128K-friendly on top of all that. Yes, you can use the microdrive with a Toastrack or a +2 even in 128 BASIC!
Your job, seeing as your boss has told you to accept it (and will be waiting for you at the end of the game to prove what you've done), is to swipe the Ring of the Inka from under the noses of a tribe living deep in the South American jungle. Along the course of the game you'll have to hack your way through that jungle, cross a raging river on some terrifyingly rickety rope bridges, steal from the natives, placate a monk, dig for an essential item, find a way into the temple, make it past the temple guards, grab the ring and scarper. There are 189 locations to discover, some of which are essential to visit, some are best avoided, and some are well off the beaten track. These are all illustrated by 34 different pictures, loaded in from the microdrive as they're needed. Monochrome they may be, but to keep their filesize as small and unintrusive as possible, they're invisibly loaded into the bottom third of the screen and decompressed with Einar Saukas' ZX0.
By saving a few bytes along the way without resorting to ZX81-esque VALs and NOT PIs, some extra memory was freed for some enhancements to the 2018 original. The emboldened ROM font has been traded for a custom character set (Journey, from Damien Guard's ZX Origins collection, an Indiana Jones-style font which looks appropriate for the theme of this game). Objects can now be EXAMINEd, and if that isn't enough, HELP has been added to a few locations where Volker thinks you might need it. Then, the guards have been given a less-than-human makeover and an improvement to what passes for AI in a text adventure written in BASIC, and a third has been added - the 100-year-old shaman, who creeps around the jungle trying to steal your stuff. Take care of him in an Al Pacino way or Julie Andrews, the choice is yours. There's an invisible stamina counter that ticks downwards with every action, although there's some excellent survival food dropped by an unfortunate previous explorer, if you can find it, and a top-secret way to restore a little bit of stamina if you're really desperate. Finally, if you'd like to pretend you're Bilbo Baggins (or Frodo, or Gollum...), you can always wear the ring and see what happens.
But let's deal with the main reason why we were here in the first place: does this game have any Crap Credibility at all? Just a little. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, it's slow, and for two reasons. One is the way the scenery is loaded from the microdrive every time it changes, and the access time can vary depending on how far around the miniature 8-track tape the microdrive has to search to find it. But the BASIC parser is more of a problem - it has to cycle through a DATA list of verbs and corresponding line numbers every time a command is given, so the reaction to your command is anything but instant. An extreme example is listing your inventory at the end of the game - if you're carrying everything that you could get in the game, it'll take 25 seconds to complete! Short of running the program through a suitable compiler, this will always be the case, and it was both Volker's and Michael's intention to see how much could be done in BASIC with minimal use of machine code routines.
Text adventure aficionados who insist on playing the game the way it would have been in 1980-something, without save states and drawing a map by hand, are in for a tough time. By far the biggest hazard is the way you can fall into the river, by moving in the wrong direction, from 36 different locations - seven of which have two directions that will result in a large splash. Some of these - and from a certain point in the game, all of them - will lead into the rapids in which you can drown if you don't act quickly. Make it to dry land, and it'll always be the same place, in the first part of the map. Other than this major hurdle, there are ups and downs as well as four compass directions (not eight, you'll be pleased to know), although if you're careful, these can be adapted to a two-dimensional map. All I'll tell you is that your starting point is the furthest west you can ever be. But if this still sounds too arduous (not to mention, too wet), Volker has provided his own map drawn at great length in Inkscape, and you can look at it if you're absolutely stuck.
Everything else is spot on, which it should be after all the work that's gone into the game, even since its first appearance three years ago.
The landscapes are very well drawn, very well implemented (despite the speed and constant whirring of the microdrive), and appropriate to the locations, so that it isn't merely walls of text in the ROM character set (think of those early Artic Computing adventures for comparison). It'll provide a challenge that won't be solved in two minutes, but neither does it demand anything so completely obscure that even a text adventurer of 40 years' standing couldn't work it out. And those on the other side of the Atlantic may be interested to know that the ammunition is the correct calibre for the pistol. Yeeeeee-haaaaaw!
This is a Bonus Game to be proud of - one which Zenobi Software would have been proud to publish back in the day, if only they'd ever dealt with microdrive cartridges... which they didn't. But they did deal in +D discs, which were capable of using the same loading syntax. This is why I've made some disc formats myself - as well as the tape version which can only be used on 128K models, because there's 69.6K of code to accommodate; the picture files and the machine code had to be concatenated into one block, which is then cut into pieces once it's loaded and stored in the RAM disc (automatically recognising whether we're dealing with a 128K/+2 or +3/+2A); only then can the main program itself be loaded. It's a near eight minute process, but it works.
What an excellent coda to the competition.
Andy Jenkinson, the keys to CSSCGC Towers are now all yours.
I bid you all hail and farewell.