A 30-Year Search For the Game That Time Forgot
Many years ago, sometime in the 80s, I had played a game in elementary school on an Apple II computer whose name I was unable to recall later in life. The memory occurred to me in the late 90s, during an internet discussion of games you remembered playing, but could not remember their titles. I realized that I had pretty much never forgotten a game's title with this one exception.
Since no one at the current forum knew of the game I described, I went around to several other forums devoted to Apple II computers and games and asked if it sounded familiar to anyone. I never got an answer that matched the game in my memory.
But I realized that I was finding it difficult to recall very many details about the game, but what I did remember seemed fairly distinct - certainly enough to properly identify it. Here is what I knew:
It was an adventure game with text commands in which you traveled to different planets, talking to people and solving puzzles. Although it was text-based, the game did have full-color graphics of your planetary surroundings. You could see the planets you could travel to on a map of the galaxy. I was certain you could also see your character walking around on them (unlike some games, such as Shadowgate, that are entirely first-person view).
Sometimes you could see the characters you were talking to. I had a very strong memory of the game's villain sporting a large mustache.
The most dominant details I could remember that should've made it easy to identify was a character who wanted a violin and a planet that required some kind of special suit in order to breathe its atmosphere.
However, no matter how much I searched keywords I thought should lead to this game, including attempts like, "apple II adventure game violin planets suit", I never got any results that were a definite match.
Most often I was told this had to be a Space Quest game. I knew it was not. While the style of gameplay was generally similar, nothing about any screenshots I saw of Space Quest or descriptions of its gameplay rung any bells. And there was nothing I could find about a violin. I knew a violin played a heavy role in this game, and if there was no violin, it could not possibly be it.
Every so often, throughout the following decade, I would attempt searching for the game again. I figured at some point, someone else would remember this game and document it somewhere, somehow. I searched through countless lists of Apple II games, and one thing that had begun to dishearten me was that a lot of the old adventure games, for lack of a better way of putting it, had really terrible artwork. While this game in my memory probably didn't have the best graphics, either, I also thought it may have looked...well, at least a little better than what I was seeing.
I wasn't sure what to make of this. Was it possible the game was for some other system than the Apple II? I would have no way to find out what that system was if that was the case. Is it possible it was fan-made and not an officially published title? But how could an amateur have produced better-looking scenery than the pros at the time? Why are so many adventure games, both popular and obscure, documented at least somewhere, and yet not this one?
Is it really possible that my memory...made it up? I just couldn't imagine my mind was creative enough. Not only that, but the idea that I dreamed it doesn't jive with my other strongest memory of it.
You see, there was more to this obsession than just finding the game's title: Nobody in the class was able to solve it! The problem, as I remembered it, occurred with the character who wants the violin. It was possible to get a violin, but he would not accept it, effectively locking you out of a sequence that would enable you to defeat the game's villain. I was the only person in the class who figured out how to reach the villain, but I did not know how to beat him. I didn't just want to know what the game was called, I wanted to know if it was possible to solve it.
So, here I am in 2016, almost 20 years after I first posted about this shadow of my mind on the internet, and I finally get the idea to focus more on the fact that I played this game in school than its inner details. My digging led me to a forum topic where someone else was asking questions about an Apple II game he/she played in school, although not the same one as mine. But the replies suggested the game he/she was looking for could've been a Weekly Reader or Stickybear game.
That bit of information enlightened me to existence of digital magazines that were sold on floppy disks to schools in the 80s and 90s. These ROMs, which often contain games and other educational activities, are not usually listed on Apple II ROM sites, so that is why they eluded me for so long.
I went through the entire Weekly Reader/Stickybear Apple II catalog, and nothing was a match. But, I figured there were probably other digital magazines like this. I figured right. That led me to the Softdisk magazine, which ultimately wasn't what I was looking for, but I was moving in the right direction. It is still actually possible to buy a disc containing almost all of Softdisk's Apple II software, but it cost $40, and I wasn't willing to shell out that much without knowing for a fact that my game was in there.
Slightly disheartened, but still determined, I tweaked my search again in hopes of finding at least one more digital magazine, and that's when I discovered...
Scholastic's Microzine. One encouraging sign is that it seemed a lot of people had memories of playing these in school. Some just as confused as I was years later as to what exactly they were. I found a partial listing of the contents of these disks, and I downloaded three of them that had games with sci-fi-sounding titles that might possibly be a match.
The first one I tried was Cosmic Heroes (Microzine #25), but it was not what I remembered, as it seemed more like what we'd nowadays call a "Visual Novel" than a true adventure game.
The second one I tried was Outer Space Adventures (Microzine #38), but this turned out to be some kind of weird politics simulator taking place on another planet. Definitely not it.
It was getting late, and I really should have gone to bed, but I decided to try the third one anyway, Robot Rescue (Microzine #21). Because I could not remember anything about rescuing robots in the game, I was totally not expecting it to be what I was looking for. I figured I'd confirm it was wrong, and go to bed.
After a wordy, text-only explanation of what the game's story is about, I see this...
And immediately, I think...Could this be the galaxy map I remember? I pointed the spaceship towards the large cyan planet on the left...
...and I end up in a weird sequence where I have to guide the ship between a bunch of musical notes and land on a white landing pad. I have no memory of this. Okay, so, this is some weird action game. This can't be it. Time for bed...
...but then as the ship falls onto the pad and the next screen boots up, I sit and stare in stunned silence. This... kind of looks like it...
Somehow I hit the wrong button and accidentally leave the planet. I decide to check out the small orange planet in the upper right...
Holy moonbeams, Batman! It's the planet you need the special suit to breathe on! I may have long forgotten what it actually looked like, but now that I'm looking at it, I remember it in perfect clarity - especially those rabbit-headed aliens. This is definitely the game. Nearly 30 years later, I've finally made a positive ID. Except, what about that violin? Well, wouldn't it make sense for that to be on the planet with the musical notes called "Melod" (short for "melody")? Let's head back there...
...and check out that building on the right...
...and sure enough, an unseen character, who's described as being a talking Bass Synthesizer, tells you that he's waiting for someone named Violino. No doubt about it now. Even if all my memories weren't 100% accurate, they were good enough to positively identify this as the correct game, and now I know for sure I didn't just imagine it. Apparently, I had just completely forgotten the plot was about saving your character's robot friend.
I never would've found this game by searching its details. Until now, there was literally no information on it anywhere. Only by using deep internet sleuthing, much of it based on hunches, was I able to finally find it.
But that's only half the battle - I still haven't solved it. Now, I warn you that the part below the "SPOILER WARNING" will spoil some of the game. If for some reason you'd like to try solving it on your own, I wouldn't recommend reading any farther.
*** SPOILERS BELOW ***
Now, the other two planets, the green planet with the "Z's" and the blue "Saturn" planet, also have a few puzzles you need to solve. But they're nowhere near as abstract as Melod's puzzle. Even as an adult, I have a really hard time wrapping my mind around it. No wonder my 1987 self and classmates could not.
It's so abstract, I'm not even sure how best to describe it. The talking Bass mentions a project he's working on. You can talk to characters in complete sentences, but the game only looks for particular keywords. Just type "PROJECT" and hit enter, and he gives you a little more information. Here's where the problem occurs: He clearly wants the presence of someone named Violino. Now, see those plant stalks numbered 1-4?
Investigating the stalks marked "1" garners the attention of a Hairy Being who asks for the name of the person who runs the site. If you guess that it's VIOLINO, you are correct...
...and Violino himself appears and gives you something called MUSEGEN1. Logic dictates that you should give this to the Bass, right? He needs Violino and this MUSEGEN thing is supposed to play Violino's music, right?
Unfortunately, no. No matter what you do, you just keep getting this response. The game also suggests checking your messages (from the menu at the top) to find what you need, but they do not help you with this. Now, I'll let you in a secret - the mystery I solved almost 3 decades later - The whole damn thing with Violino is a massive red herring!!
You never need to even talk to Violino at all and you don't need MUSEGEN1. There is something else you have to say to the Bass to get the ball rolling, and it is not at all obvious. It's an unusual word that a 10-year-old in the 80s wouldn't have heard or used very often, and it's confusing because the Bass specifically asks what you want, and it isn't what you want, although it is what he wants...and it's something else he wants besides Violino.
The word does appear in his dialogue with you, and if you get it right, he gives you a list of the names of the other musical inhabitants of the planet, so you can now go to stalks 2-4 and find the MUSEGEN you actually need to complete the game.
See how confusing this is? It's almost too creative for its own good. Talking musical instrument own gardens run by little hairy men with poor memories that grow music-generating fruits. Really, WTF??
The fact that you can't see the Bass adds a little to the confusion, though I'm not exactly sure why that is. He's the only character (besides one that only shows up in the ending) that you never see, so I'm wondering if the misinclusion of a profile picture is an error or if there was not time to add one before the game had to ship. I wish there was a tile viewer for Apple II ROMs like there is for NES, SNES, and other console systems to confirm if one is in there or not.
Now, let's take a brief look at the other planets...
The green planet with the "Z's" is called Bodom, a take on "boredom", because the inhabitants are always bored and sleeping, hence the "Z's" everywhere. As though I hadn't already found enough evidence that this was the game from my memory, I suddenly remembered those buildings in the upper right corner. I remembered trying multiple times to enter both of them individually, but you cannot. Putting your stick figure man (who is essentially a cursor) over the general area only results in meeting the same character every time.
One of Bodom's inhabitants is a non-native clown who is crying because a traveling circus has left her behind. Much like how the Bass will never meet Violino, you can do nothing to reunite her with the circus. But there might be a way to get information from her.
In the forest, you'll find a talking Dogat, which is part dog and part cat, but looks pretty much completely like a dog because all we see is his face. You'll have to figure out a way to wake up the Dogat's sleeping master, and I do not wish to spoil this because it's very easy to figure out. Although I probably should mention...
The menu at the top of the screen includes a section called "Data Files". The only way you'll know what you need to beat the game is to read through them and ask characters around the planets about the "Useful Objects". You have to be careful of some red herrings, though. I guess this game is supposed to be "educational", and its focus is making you read carefully so that you pick the right item for the right situation. For example, there is both a Groundkey and a Lifebranch in the Data Files that have similar descriptions. You can get both from the same character, but only one does the job.
The planet that looks like Saturn is called Challa (I don't know if that's a play on anything), and has some strange buildings, including a pyramid and a dome with electrodes on top. Here is where the red herrings in the Data Files tripped up some of my classmates. There is both a Hot Suit and a Desert Suit. One of these is a red herring and the other is what you need to breathe on the final planet. The files clue you into looking for it here.
Inside the pyramid is a robot Guard who looks a little like a green Generation 1 Ironhide from Transformers. He might have the suit you're after, but he needs some information first. I actually had some memory of this character, and I remembered he had a green face with a lot of straight lines, but I had him confused with the Bass. I thought he was the one who wanted the violin and wouldn't take it, but after replaying the game, corrected memories began flooding back to me. I think the fact that the Bass has no profile picture led to this confusion in my mind.
The information the Guard needs can be found in the domed building, from a computer with a female voice known as the Central Brain. Here's what tripped up my classmates - the red herring suit can be gotten more easily just by asking for it from the Central Brain. The real suit you need requires a few extra steps. Consequently, my classmates went to the final planet with the wrong suit and died. I managed to figure this out and get the correct suit, but without having solved the Bass/Musegen puzzle, I still could not beat the game.
If you got all three correct items from Melod, Bodom, and Challa, you can head to the final planet, Kretor (I guess a take on "crater"), and talk to the nomads, who look kind of like the rabbits from Life in Hell, although not so much in profile view. They will give you the final piece of information needed to complete the game.
If you do the right thing, you'll find the hidden factory on Kretor where your robot friend, EZ-4u, is being held prisoner. His mind has already been reprogrammed by Pwono Ledge, the game's villain, so you'll need to say the right things to him so that his old memories overwrite his reprogramming.
Once EZ-4u is returned to normal, you'll be stopped on the way out by the game's villain, Pwono Ledge, who (just as I remembered) has a very big mustache. I do not quite get this guy's name. It seems to be a take on the word "knowledge" (in fact, the Data Files mention that he once stole all the world's knowledge, Carmen Sandiego-style, I guess), but anyway, you need to say the right word to him to win, which is given to you by the nomads. It is probably not possible to guess it because it's not a real English word.
Don't expect much when you win, as the good ending is different from the bad ending in dialogue only - there are no extra scenes or credits, although the good ending does at least have a reference to the arcade game, Galaxian.
Other random or weird trivia about this game:
There's a strange subplot about a guy with only one eye named Bow Man who is always one step ahead of you, apparently trying to stop Pwono Ledge, too. Although you talk to him in the ending, he is the only character besides the Bass who is unseen. It's mentioned that he came from Racine, Wisconsin. I have no idea what any of this is about. I'm not sure if he's a reference to the character David Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or to someone the developers knew from Wisconsin.
If you don't know the correct word to pacify Pwono Ledge, you can back out and come back again, but EZ-4u reverts to being mind-controlled and doesn't respond to your words anymore. You'll probably have to start over again. Also, when backing out of this situation, sometimes the game instantly warps you to Bodom in the middle of a conversation with the clown.
I'm suspicious the colors of planet Kretor are an error or at least not what was originally intended. The blue colors make it look like an underwater planet when it's described as a desert, and the game's own dialogue says the sun is red, when it's clearly colored blue. It's also the only planet whose color (blue) does not match what it looks like on the galaxy map (orange).
I don't really understand the point of the ship-landing sequences since they don't fit the game's theme of reading comprehension. I had no memory of them. I guess when people make a game, even an educational one, they still sometimes want you to do "video gamey" things.
The game has absolutely no sound - no effects or music.
Other programs that appear on Microzine #21 include Fabulous Kids, Fill in the Blanks, and Monitor Mystery.
I tried to find information on the game's creators, Jeffrey Siegel and Roberta Schwartz. Schwartz co-wrote a book on Apple Graphics. I couldn't find anything about Siegel.
So there you have it. A personal mystery almost 30 years old finally solved. I had lost a lot of sleep during the week I finally identified this game. I stayed up way past my bedtime diligently searching, and then the night I found it, I got almost no sleep at all because of my excitement. I finally knew what it was like to be Henry Jones, Sr. trying to locate the Holy Grail.
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