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 Review: Frotz and Classic Text Adventures Masterpieces of Infocom CD-ROM
                            By:  Jason Compton 
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In a thematic gesture, I thought it was high time I gave recognition to one
of the neatest gaming genres in the world and how you can take advantage of
it on the Amiga.

Back in the day before the Amiga started a home computer graphics
revolution, much of computer gaming was done in ASCII form.  (credit where
credit is due, even though the Amiga didn't capture the world, it had
everyone running scared, as attested to by then-director of Apple
engineering Jean-Louis Gassee)  The game of Adventure pioneered the text
adventure (or, as it's now known, "interactive fiction" genre) and the game
of Dungeon took it to a higher level.  The former has been done and redone
dozens of times the world over and has turned into the stuff of legend.
Many Unix systems (including Amiga NetBSD) ship with it as standard: for
fun, the next time you're in your ISP shell, type "adventure." You may get
a pleasant surprise--I did on my new CalWeb account.

The latter, Dungeon, became known as Zork, and was the motivator behind the
founding of the company known as Infocom, which spawned a few dozen of the
finest games the world has ever seen.  This is not hyperbole by a
sentimentalist, I'm being serious.  Infocom's authors (called
Implementors) are among the best writers and puzzle designers yet seen in
computer gaming.

Oh, sure, not all of Infocom's games were hits.  Some of the best games met
with little commercial success (A Mind Forever Voyaging springs to mind),
others were decidedly sub-par or at least missing a certain special
"something".

One of the best things about Infocom was that you could be the owner of
practically ANY computer platform (and remember, back in the 80's, that was
literally more than a dozen) and Infocom would support your platform.  The
genius behind this was that each game was compiled into a single data file,
and this file was accessed through an interpreter, which, no matter whether
you were on a Commodore Plus4 or an Amiga or a Kaypro, looked precisely the
same to the Infocom data file.

Set up such a useful standard, and others are bound to duplicate and
imitate it--which is exactly what has happened.  The Infocom "Z-Machine"
standard was hacked and disassembled and analyzed until today, authors
around the world are able to create their own text adventures in a form
nearly identical to the Infocom standard.  Dozens of these games are out
there, with more on the way all the time.

What's the upshot of all this?  The other side of the coin is that the
interpreter format is an open book as well.  Independent programmers for
just about every conceivable machine have developed their own Infocom-style
interpreters which let you load the data file from any version of Infocom
game and play it on your respective machine.  For the Amiga, the best
interpreter out there right now is the Frotz interpreter, ported and
supported on the Amiga by David Kinder.

Frotz's operation is very simple.  You load up Frotz, which will open
itself on any standard Amiga (or graphics card) screen you specify.  You
load in an Infocom-style data file.  The new games are almost all free or
shareware, and are available from ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/infocom/games.
Infocom released all of its titles for the Amiga.  But it is fairly hard to
come by the original Infocom packaging, and the Lost Treasures of Infocom
series for the Amiga was never in great supply.  You can find the Lost
Treasures series for the PC or Mac (which is a two-box set containing all
of Infocom's text adventures) but even this isn't the easiest thing to
find.  So now Activision, owners of the Infocom properties, have come out
with something else.

The Classic Text Adventures Masterpieces CD-ROM is about as inexpensive as
it's going to get.  For about US$20, you can own almost the entire back
collection of Infocom titles on CD-ROM.  The exceptions are Hitchhiker's
Guide To the Galaxy (the rights on this game license have expired), a
fairly good game, and Shogun (the rights have expired here as well), by
most accounts a pretty lousy game.

You also get three bonus titles: the top three entries in last year's
rec.games.int-fiction game contest in the Infocom category.  (The other
three games were entered in the TADS category, which is another form of
interactive fiction game.  There is an Amiga interpreter but the games were
presented as precompiled PC .exe files.)

There is, of course, a catch.  While Frotz will access each game
flawlessly, giving you a whole lot of entertainment (35 games worth),
you'll be hard pressed to get very far without documentation.  Infocom was
legendary for fascinating, well-presented packaging that could double as
copy protection--a vital clue here, a map there, a note that isn't
described in the game except to say "You'll find that in your game
packaging."  The Lost Treasures series provides these in a handbook, but
they're more expensive.  For a $20 CD, you get online documentation in
Adobe Acrobat .PDF format.  This is all well and good, but Adobe doesn't
make Acrobat for the Amiga.  No problem, I'm told, the freeware port of
Ghostscript will handle it.  This is what I've been told, but I've not been
able to get Ghostscript to properly interpret a single PDF document.  So,
if you're a braver or more successful soul than I with Ghostscript, or have
access to another way to read .PDF files (for example, running Acrobat
under Shapeshifter or Emplant Mac emulation) then you're set.

I can't stress enough how overwhelmingly cool Infocom games are.  On the
CD-ROM, you'll get the absolute-required-playing Zork series, which set so
many standards for entertainment they're hard to count, Douglas Adams'
Bureaucracy, the Infocom murder mysteries of Deadline, Suspect, and Witness
(all engaging in their own ways), the hilarious Nord and Bert Couldn't Make
Head or Tail of It, the Planetfall/Stationfall pair which introduces Floyd,
the best computer game character I've ever seen, and the chilling and
amazingly well written A Mind Forever Voyaging.  And about 20 others which
are almost all classics.

I strongly suggest giving this CD a look if you can get a hold of it.
Activision has it in limited release, but for the price and the quality,
it's worth searching for.  Also be sure to get Frotz for yourself and
browse through other offerings in ftp.gmd.de/if-archive, the home of
Interactive Fiction on the net.  You can read more about Interactive
Fiction in this issue's Feature story.


Classic Text Adventures of Infocom
Activision, Inc.
310-479-5644 phone
support@activision.com e-mail
http://www.activision.com 

Frotz 2.01 Amiga - Available on Aminet
David Kinder
kinder@teaching.physics.ox.ac.uk