In both libraries of professionally released and public domain software for the BBC series, there are excellent and atrocious adventures - and many which fall somewhere in the middle. Expeditions through House - IQGR and Insomnia have proved that just because it's PD doesn't mean it can't be of Level 9 quality while, conversely, the Secret Agent Flint trilogy sadly showed a high price tag guarantees nothing with an unimaginative programmer at the coding desk.
One disc which has been doing the PD rounds for almost a decade now is The Viking Collection, a compilation of five text adventures created on the Graphic Adventure Creator by Incentive Software. The collection is still available free from one of its creators (Tim Matthews) and is naturally right up there in 8BS' PD collection (TBI-115). On top of the catalogue, the disc also contains a Teletext-style program called Quotel which we'll get to in a while.
This disc is, in every sense, true PD. The instructions accompanying each adventure plus scrolling messages on some loading screens (and their incitements to copy and distribute the games) are displayed in a colourful Mode 7 user-friendly menu on bootup. From here a keypress brings up a short, colourful introduction to the adventure of your choice and a tap on SPACE starts it off. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the many side-effects of the GAC mean that the presentation of the adventure itself is somewhat more basic than these opening titles - and indeed, of adventures created with sister utilities such as The Quill or Adventurescape. All text appears in the same colour (white) and is quite clumsily spaced. Nothing so evil as splitting a word over two lines occurs but unnecessary spaces at the beginning of some lines does. Exits are not shown separately but instead within the location description. Also the GAC utility, originally produced in 1983, is the only creation package which is, and creates adventures that are, BBC Model B only.
Of course it's a bit harsh to level the flaws of the preparation package on adventures which have been created with it but, particularly if you own a B+, Master or Compact, the lack of compatibility must be stressed. When The Viking Collection was written, it was the only such package around and, for adventure games incorporating graphics, it remains the only option to this day as it was never bettered for its mode-mixing facility. For the one adventure using graphics on this disc, Gotta Go Home, it is put to fantastic effect. But on the others, using Mode 7, the text simply appears in a huge chunk.
Start working through the adventures however and it is obvious that, although the disc makes no disguise of its amateur origin, the authors have a good idea of the prerequisites of a good adventure. Some of the introductory messages are straightforward; in 32K Universe you are categorically told that you are a trader in the 'Elite' vein - and actually move from planet to planet with the N, S, E, W commands! But others trifle with the partly believable and downright barmy; Mutiny In The Mansion has you, Jim Jimberly, on a quest for nothing less than a 6ft 4inch flower to exchange for your freedom.
These two adventures, along with Tyherington Grammar, are amazingly large, helping to offset the all-pervasive spelling and grammatical mistakes. These blips occasionally make the text unintentionally funny. You're reminded of the "acheivement" of the latest adventure, then to mind your "puncuation" but then told the machine "assumes you speak good ol' English"! Slightly less amusing are the mistakes made with some exit points. In both Mutiny and Grammar, there are locations where you are told there is an exit west, but where the actual exit is east, and vice versa. These locations are few and far between - but the bugs are there and they could confuse the beginner.
Now just how large is amazingly large, you may be wondering. Well, the location count for Mutiny is over a hundred - and almost all are immediately accessible from the beginning. This is also the case in Grammar (where you have been locked into your old boys' school in the days of the cane) and you frequently need to traverse a number of them to find an item and then locate the place to successfully use it. A small number of the rooms are identical, with simple messages like "You are in a corridor. Exits everywhere" being shown in several locations but the vast majority are not and contain rather vivid depictions of the environment. As an example of the kind of humour to expect in Grammar, for example, each time you enter the boys' changing rooms, you will have a well-used sock stuffed into your mouth!
The adventures are very different and some have more advanced parsers than others, doubtless as the team programming them honed their skills. In Mutiny the command "USE <item>" is not recognised and the only way to make progress is by GETting items at location A and DROPing them at location B, whereupon they "use" themselves to increase your score. But where the layout and problems encountered here are sophisticated and intriguing, 32K Universe is much more basic in its structure, limiting you to a smaller area at the outset, bombarding you with information which is in fact quite uninteresting and posing problems which are extremely easy to fathom. You will in turn find an empty bottle, a pool of water and a gun too hot to pick up in subsequent EASTern locations. Not exactly mindboggling...
Grammar has some great puzzles plus, one senses, nostalgic inclinations directed toward the "colditz-style" conditions us poor youngsters had to once endure. But it too strays occasionally with its rhetoric. In one location, after being told where "You are:", the description reads "There is just you and me - how romantic!" This kind of comment is one to absolutely avoid in any adventure as it crosses the first person/second person narrative and distances the player from the character he is playing! Another irk I discovered was a 'playing field' location disguised as a maze from which there was absolutely no escape.
The smaller text only adventure, Party, is actually the most atmospheric. You begin in bed with but one mission - to get to a fantabulous party on the other side of town. You are apparently a stupendous social reject, the only loser without an invite to the place where the whole neighbourhood is having a whale of a time behind the stern glare of the bouncers. As literally everyone is there, you are left to roam your desolate house and deserted town searching for the tools that will help you infiltrate the house and get your claws into Jenny, the party's hostess. Added to the normal run-of-the-mill text commands is a question and answer style which allows you to talk to people by typing questions followed by their name. Unfortunately they won't actually respond helpfully to any calls for HELP though!
Gotta Go Home, the only graphic adventure, is definitely the most impressive-looking although I have to confess I could not progress very far within it. The graphics are similar to those seen in Twin Kingdom Valley and superior to those of Stranded but, contained within a smaller graphics window, appear much more quickly. You are initially placed within a green expanse with a building to the south and paths to and from what was once a Viking village. Roaming around results in many different pictures and descriptions, free from the grammatical fluffs of the others, and the puzzles are well worth some perseverance, particularly if they yield more of the same.
Quotel is a kind of bonus utility, not an adventure in any respect but a collection of textual oddities which can be accessed by typing in a three-digit number divisible by 5. There are three versions of it, each containing a large number of text 'pages', but only a small handful entertained this reviewer and it is probably best disregarded.
The adventures which comprise the bulk of the disc, despite their compatibility problems over the BBC series, are refreshingly different from one another and it can be assumed that, if you are into adventures, there will be at least one in there which appeals to you. Although the "compass directions which transport you to whole other planets" idea of 32K Universe doesn't really pay off, it's a bold idea and not one seen elsewhere. Likewise, it's the willingness to play with these 'different' aspects to adventuring which make Party and Gotta Go Home the pick of the bunch.
In conclusion, The Viking Collection is an enjoyable disc where these are quite brilliant and the remaining three, with their assorted disadvantages, fall somewhere in the middle.