Say what you like about the state of modern gaming, but while the insurance policy of instantly downloadable patches may make developers less careful about releasing finished products, it does at least mean that games will be playable at some point.
This was not the case with Arctic Adventure, a text adventure written by the then 17-year-old Harry McCracken, now tech editor of Fast Company.
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The game, which McCracken describes as “deeply indebted to Scott Adams' wonderful adventures”, was originally distributed in a book called “The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures,” and was from an era where interested parties would have to physically type code into their TRS-80 microcomputer to play. In this case, the code amounted to five pages’ worth, so no small undertaking.
McCracken, though paid for his work, never received a copy of the book himself, and the only feedback he ever received was someone from the publisher “tartly informing me that a bug rendered my game unwinnable.”
The introduction to the BASIC listing for ARCTIC ADVENTURE, with praise for my programming skills and some made-up biographical details. pic.twitter.com/PF3wyVYSlbAugust 28, 2021
As reported by PCGamer (opens in new tab), decades later McCracken acquired a copy of the book online. After laboriously entering his own code into an iPad TRS emulator, he discovered that the employee was underselling the bug: “the game wasn't just unwinnable, but unplayable.”
This was down to a single missing zero in a character string, which may sound like a small bug, but had a devastating knock-on effect. “It was so fundamental a glitch that it rendered the game's command of the English language inoperable,” McCracken wrote. “You couldn't GET SHOVEL let alone complete the adventure.”
The good news, if you were left disappointed that you couldn’t play Arctic Adventure in 1981, is that McCracken has now fixed the bug and the game is playable right here in the browser, without you needing to type in five pages worth of code.
You won’t find too much changed, though McCracken has tweaked a few of the puzzles’ difficulty, making this more akin to a Director’s Cut than the original release.
There are also a couple of modest concessions to people born post 1990 who will never have experienced the simple joys of typing “GO NORTH” into a command line. “New conveniences include support for lower-case input and the ability to move around with one-letter commands such as W instead of having to type GO WEST,” McCracken explains. “Oh, and I eliminated a couple of references to Eskimos that, though well-meaning, had not aged well.”
McCracken also adds a dog that follows you around and is apparently essential to completing the game. I didn’t get far enough to see whether the ‘Can You Pet the Dog’ Twitter account would be interested, unfortunately.
Most elements have been left untouched, however, including the absurdist logic that it’s perfectly normal to wear a warm coat on top of a diving suit. “And if you mapped out all the locations, I'm not sure if their directional relationship to each other is entirely logical,” McCracken concedes.
Still, it’s a heartwarming tale of someone returning to a project that they’d long forgotten, and it didn’t even take him too long to get his old TRS-80 BASIC coding muscle memory firing on all cylinders again. “ I was surprised how quickly most of the commands returned to the surface when I needed them,” McCracken writes.
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