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Acheton - Review

Review by Richard Bos


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In the beginning, the story goes, there was Advent, and then there was Zork, and from those the adventure game grew. Except, of course, that it's not entirely that way. Advent was the first, but there were several games roughly contemporaneous with Zork. One of the more significant of those games was Acheton. Its main importance today lies in starting off the Phoenix series of games, which led to Graham Nelson getting involved in the whole business, and we all know what grew out of that. It is also noteworthy for being then the largest adventure in existence - and there still aren't many larger today.

So, it's venerable, but how does it stand up to time's criticism? Well, by and large, pretty decently. Of course, you can forget about the plot. There is one, in theory, but what it boils down to is this: solve puzzles, so that you can collect all the treasures. Given that it was written by mathematicians at Cambridge University, and its main audience was presumably their colleagues, it is also no surprise that it is rotten hard and on occasion requires not just lateral but downright contorted thought. So, it's a humungous, arcane treasure hunt. But it's a well-written one, and for the right player - and yours truly is - a very enjoyable one, at that.
For starters, and perhaps most noticeably and importantly, the text sparkles throughout. The geography is lively and feels real, perhaps not quite as much so as Advent but better than Zork. The descriptions are not long, but where needed they're written with zest. This is even more true for the events that happen along the way, both essential and accidental. Try blowing the horn, repeatedly, and see if you can not think of the Muppet Show.


The map, too, is well put together. Sure, it's a random collection of areas, and sure, you'll find treasures lying around here, there and everywhere. That is inherent in the genre. But you won't find other objects where they patently don't belong - the coat is in the cloakroom, not in the hall of mirrors. Also, the geography is artificial, but not random. You can see the sea from the desert, and vice versa, but you won't stumble from one into the other into the ice passages into the enchanted forest in four moves. There's a sense of space, of this being a constructed setting, but constructed on a plan.

On the player's side, there is a parser which, though limited, is mostly a pleasure to work with. "Get all" is provided for, and so is "drop all but lamp". On the other hand, undo does not exist, and more nefariously, what we would now call meta-commands take a turn, as does erroneous input. In a game as tight as this, that can cost you the game. On the positive side again, there is a built-in help function. I do not know, though, how much of this is original and how much was added later; the version I played was the Topologika MS-DOS one available from the IF Archive.

Perhaps the most obvious limitation to today's players is that pronouns are not provided for. You can't "throw axe at dwarf"; but then, neither do you need to. Puzzles are mostly not about manipulating objects, but about gaining and interpreting information about your environment. This is perhaps where it is most clear that Acheton was written by mathematicians - and higher mathematicians, at that. There are no puzzles that involve adding numbers, but there is more than one puzzle that centres around thinking about what a certain number or pattern means. The result is that Acheton feels remarkably modern, at times - while being distinctly old-fashioned at others.

Of course, there are the crusty old features, but even there Acheton is not as outdated as its age might seem to indicate. There is a lamp that needs to be conserved, but one feature of the game (which I'm not going to betray here) means that you need to be somewhat careful, but needn't worry too much about it.
There is a maze - no, there are mazes, but only one is of the "tedious" kind, and even that is well-constructed. There's a compass-confusing room. There's a monster that needs to be fed to pass. But it's all done with such panache that I, at least, was willing to forgive all those in a game that was written when those features weren't yet crusty and old.

Perhaps the one thing which will turn a modern player off most is Acheton's harshness and difficulty; on occasion one can justifiedly call it unfair. There are several puzzles that hang on split-second - read: single-move - timing, and when typing "nq" instead of "nw" kills you off, that can be annoying. And then there is one area (spoiler: see *footnote) where the entrance is justifiable exactly because of the difficulty of the game, but the exit is IMO not clued nearly well enough. On the other hand, the Balrog puzzle is beautifully judged, both the way in and the way back.

In the end, then, this is a game which is a product of its time, but a very well built, enjoyable product of its time. It is unashamedly a puzzle-fest, and it is unashamedly ball-breakingly difficult. Some of today's authors might be ashamed of those traits; one gets the idea that the Phoenix authors thought they were rather something to be proud of. In the case of Acheton, they were correct.
This game will not appeal to those IF players who want to see story and character development, and for whom the puzzles are merely a distraction from the plot. But for those of us who do like a hard-core puzzle game every now and then, this is still, after all these years, one of the better offerings in that genre.

* Hades, where you enter by getting killed and choosing not to be reincarnated, and leave by typing either "Dante" or "anon". The former would be unacceptable in an easier game, but you will die more than once trying to solve Acheton, and any player who doesn't choose not to be reincarnated, just to see what happens, and then explores his surroundings, is not worth his brass lamp. The latter depends on noting a quotation that is only obviously a clue after the fact.

Parser/Vocabulary (Rating: 7/10)

The parser is limited, but good. I have not found any place where using
prepositions or indirect objects ("hit tree with axe") is necessary or even
possible. By contrast, the game is good at giving you less to type. If there is
only one object, simply "get" will take it; if there are several, it will
assume the first one listed. Ditto for "drop", which will drop the first object
in your inventory; and ditto for several other verbs. Turning your lamp on and
off can be done using more elaborate phrases, but a plain "on" or "off" also
works. "Get all" is provided; in the Topologika version, even "drop all but
lamp" is.

Cruelty (Rating: Cruel)

This is a rotten hard and often unfair game. You can
die easily. You can lose or destroy a necessary tool just as easily. This should not be seen as a fault, as such, in one of the earliest adventures ever written, by mathematicians for mathematicians; but Acheton is not only larger than nearly all other games, it also does take harshness to extremes at times.

Puzzles (Rating: 9/10)

Many, and good. Some old-fashioned, because the game is one of the earliest; some would not be bad ones even today.

Overall (Rating: 8/10)

If you like hard (and large!) games, and are not put off by a bit of old-fashionedness, give this one a try. It's a classic and one of the originals, and even in its own right it still remains playable to the right player.