Saturday, May 28, 2011

Castiglione Kicks It Old-School and Plays 3D Monster Maze

I suppose there are many definitions of what makes a good game. One that I hold to is that a good game must involve meaningful decision making. Another metric that I believe has merit, at least in judging the entertainment value of a game, is whether it is fun whether you win or lose.

Judged by both these measures, Malcolm Evans's 3D Monster Maze certainly qualifies as a good game.

But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself.

First, a little background.

Back in the 80's, I owned an Apple II+. I was convinced of the superiority of the Apple compared to its contemporaries but I was also a little bit curious about what the other computer systems available at the time had to offer.

One platform that I was particularly fascinated by was the Sinclair ZX81.

The ZX81 was physically tiny (it was under 6½” x 7” x 1½”) and its price was tiny as well (about $100, significantly less than the other systems of the day). It only came with 1 KB of memory but this could be expanded to 64 KB. Programs had to be saved and loaded on audio cassette tapes and it had a membrane keyboard on which you “wiped” more than “typed”.

And it had no sound.

It apparently created quite a splash in the UK from where it originated but it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact over on this side of the Atlantic, either in its original form or in the guise of the Timex Sinclair 1000, the North American version of the platform.

High-resolution (256 pixels x 192 pixels) graphics were available but the most common graphics mode used was one in which graphics symbols, which were part of the text character set, were used to “emulate” a 64 pixel x 44 pixel display. You can see the ZX81 graphics symbols below:

As you might have guessed from looking at these symbols, the text display was 32 columns x 22 lines.

That's all I'll say about the ZX81. If you want to learn more about the system, its Wikipedia article is very informative and a pretty fascinating look back at computing in the 80's.

On this computing system, using the default graphics mode, Malcolm Evans managed to create a first-person game that took up less than 16 KB of code.

On such a limited system, what he accomplished was nothing short of heroic.

In 3D Monster Maze, you have to find your way out of a randomly generated 16 x 18 node maze. There's a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the maze with you and, as you might have guessed, bad things will happen if he finds you. Initially, the Tyrannosaurus is at rest but once you start moving around, so does he.

This is survival horror distilled down to its purest form. You're lost and someone (or something) is trying to kill you. In 3D Monster Maze, two of man's most primal fears are captured in digital form to be fodder for our entertainment. Maybe that's why it's so strangely compelling even now despite its crude simplicity. To add a little bit of gravy into this mix of fears, 3D Monster Maze even has a clown in it, albeit only in a “cutscene”.

During the course of the game, you receive clues as to the Tyrannosaurus's location and disposition, ranging from “REX LIES IN WAIT” to “RUN HE IS BEHIND YOU”. In some ways, the game is somewhat like Hunt the Wumpus because of the clues it provides as to the location of your pursuer. However, unlike Hunt the Wumpus, you can't fight back against the Tyrannosaurus and can only flee from it in headlong flight.

Despite the primitive graphics, the lack of sound or even a convincing back-story explaining why you're in a maze with a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the first place, the game can get your heart and adrenal gland going. The lack of sound probably adds to the tension since it forces you to focus on the screen and when those verbal cues of the Tyrannosaurus's location start coming fast and furious, especially when they change from “FOOTSTEPS APPROACHING” to “REX HAS SEEN YOU”, your anxiety level can skyrocket.

How can one play 3D Monster Maze nowadays?

Well, the path I took to play this game was somewhat involved and was almost a quest unto itself:

After having learned about 3D Monster Maze, I found a Java ZX81 emulator running the game here. Unfortunately, it ran rather slowly on my system so I had to abandon it but if you can get decent performance out of it, you may find it helpful to know that STOP, LIST and CONT are mapped to the A, K and C keys, respectively, on the ZX81. If you don't want to bother with the in-game instructions, you should know that the game controls are 5 (turn left), 7 (forward) and 8 (turn right).

I managed to find 3D Monster Maze bundled with vb81, a ZX81 emulator. Unfortunately, I couldn't install vb81 on my ASUS U30Jc-b1 running 64-bit Windows 7 so I then turned to my ASUS 1005HA netbook running Linux, which seemed only fitting in a way since both the ZX81 and my netbook are both tiny computers.

Initially, I tried installing z81, which is possibly the only ZX81 emulator available on Linux. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it to compile so I tried the version of z81 for the X interface called xz81 which did. However, graphical glitches which offended my OCD tendencies occurred when I attempted to run 3D Monster Maze using xz81 so it was back to the drawing board.

I then decided to try EightyOne, a ZX81 emulator for Windows, using Wine, but 3D Monster Maze it became a de facto turn-based game. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised considering I was using a Windows emulator to run a ZX81 emulator. At that point, I got a flash of inspiration and reverted to vb81 (still using Wine, of course) and was quite pleased to see that 3D Monster Maze ran pretty well.

In the end, I even managed to get 3D Monster Maze working on my U30Jc-b1; it turns out that EightyOne is just fine running in 64-bit Windows 7.

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