Don't you open that Trap Door, there's a Piranha down there.
Berk, Boni and Drutt may mean nothing to you at the moment but after October 6th their names will be household names, or so ITV believe (see News). These are the three principal characters in ITV's new series The Trap Door, set in the basement of a creepy castle.
Berk is a blue blob of a creature, and he's the slave of the Thing Upstairs who owns the castle. Thing is a difficult entity to please and we never see him but his commands boom out from the dumb waiter in the basement and Berk must obey, helped and hindered by his friends Boni and Drutt. Boni is a disembodied, world-weary skull who acts as Berk's adviser (a sort of skull teacher, I suppose) and Drutt is Berk's pet who generally gets in the way.
There are only two rules in Berk's life - always obey the Thing Upstairs and don't open the trap door. Berk is not very bright and often leaves the trap door open. Deep in the gloomy nether regions of the castle cellars, something stirs and the basement is soon full of weird and wonderful beasts. Some of these creatures are fairly harmless, almost helpful. Others are nasty horrors, the stuff of which nightmares are made.
The result is that even the simplest of tasks is made almost impossible for Berk, but he never seems to learn.
Amongst the profusion of commercial goodies which have been inspired by the series is a gem of a computer game from Piranha, Macmillan Publishers' software house. At first I thought "this is a kid's game"... then I tried to play it. Wow! This ain't child's play.
The Trap Door is a kind of strategy adventure and consists of several puzzles to solve. The solution to each teaser is complex and I've been sworn to secrecy so that I don't spoil the fun.
I can't remember seeing such finely animated graphics on the Spectrum before. It's the closest thing to a computer cartoon that I've seen. Smooth animation, lots of colour, jumbo-sized pseudo sprites and not an erring attribute to be seen. I am extremely impressed with the programmer's mastery of the machine.
The tasks themselves are very well thought out and interlock well enough to dispel the linear feel of similar games. If you lose an object vital to the execution of the current task, there's always the possibility of employing something else in its place. For example, I lost a projectile which I needed to complete one of the Thing's commands, but I found Boni to be an ideal, if somewhat unwilling, substitute.
The basement consists of six rooms, and each one has a significant part to play in the game. We join Berk in the trap door room, Boni is quietly surveying the scene from his perch in an alcove while little Drutt gambols around the floor. Suddenly everyone freezes as a command gradually comes into focus on the screen. This is the graphic equivalent of the Thing's booming voice and it demands a can of nice juicy worms. An easy one this, just grab a can, find a few worms and whizz them up the dumb waiter to the not-so-dumb master.
Worms seem to emerge each time Berk flips the switch which opens the trap door and a can can be found in the store-room next door. Having noted this, I released three worms and dashed to fetch the tin, but when I returned, there wasn't a worm in sight. Quickly searching the other rooms confirmed my worst fears - the worms had gone. To solve this mystery I dragged Berk back to the Trap Door room and flipped the switch again. Momentarily, the door swung open and another three worms popped out. Being a curious kind of person, I waited to see what happened.
The disappearing worm trick was soon revealed as Drutt came skipping in and gulped my prey down. Whose side is that little perisher on?
By now the Thing was getting a little impatient judging by the ever-lengthening bar on the 'angiometer' at the bottom of the screen. I now must draw a veil over the proceedings but, suffice it to say, I managed to keep Drutt's greedy little trap shut while Berk wandered around grabbing the worms and depositing them in the tin.
Thing was delighted when I sent up his feast but soon he was booming out more requests. Fried eggs were his next heart's desire. Eggs, now where do you get eggs in a basement? Well, the trap door seems like a good bet. Boing! Up popped the biggest creature ever to spring out of the Spectrum's memory. "Could this be a spring chicken?" I thought as it bounced off the screen. Giving chase was my next big mistake. As if in divine retribution for my awful pun, the springy thing landed square on the head of Berk and - kapow! - the screen flashed and there was Berk reeling from the blow in some other part of the basement. Still no eggs.
Eventually I managed to coax the bouncing beastie back into the cellar and closed the trap door over his head. Cautiously, I pressed the switch again. Up popped a few worms and a feathered head. "Ah! This looks more like an egg factory."
A large parrot-like creature rose out of the depths and started floating about the room. How can you get a high-flying bird to lay an egg? I had no idea, so I asked Boni by lifting him down from his alcove.
'Bullet' was the rather brief response which sent me dashing off to find a suitable projectile. After successfully working out how to fire the bullet, the bird obliged me by laying an egg or two.
The satisfying feeling of solving a problem before the angriometer reaches maximum is the main hook to this game. The attention to small details is amazing. For instance, I placed a utensil on the stove in one of the rooms and left it on for quite a long time. When I tried to make Berk lift it off the heat, the object was flashing and Berk immediately dropped it to the floor. I swear I saw him mouth the word hot each time I tried to get him to pick up the utensil!
As the Thing Upstairs makes each new demand, the problems become more and more involved. Failure to complete a job in time results in Thing impatiently deciding that he no longer wants that meal, and he moves on to his next demand.
After eggs he wants boiled slimies. What's a slimy and how do you catch it when you find it? All I will say is that they're not under the trap door. This demand is followed by a request for a bottle of eyeball crush and this is the most complex problem which has to be solved.
The way to a Thing's heart is definitely through its stomach and the final task is to open the safe which contains Berk's pay. Then you can start again to try to succeed in all the tasks and work more efficiently using the knowledge gained in your previous attempts.
You soon learn not to waste energy. If you find yourself in a room with nothing to do then use this to best effect by preparing for the next culinary delight. A trick I learned was to delay putting the food into the dumb waiter as long as possible. While waiting for the angriometer to reach a fairly frenzied state you can wander around getting all of the elements ready for the next meal. Then a quick dash back to the lift will mean that you have 'borrowed' time to allow you to complete a more difficult task. The disadvantage of this system is the loss of bonus points, but this is no major hardship.
The game has two levels of play. As a Learner Berk you won't be bothered by irritating ghouls whose touch blasts Berk off into another room. The other difference between this and Super Berk mode is that the Learner does not get a crack at the safe.
The Trap Door is a credit to Piranha and shows how far the company has come since the early efforts of Macmillan to produce games based around Orm and Cheep. I also remember their football game - no matter how hard I tried to forget!
If your leanings are towards problem-solving games then this has an awful lot to offer. It deserves to be a monster hit.