Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Enough to Make a Dinosaur Take a Nap

The other Steve Jackson's third and final FF gamebook was Robot Commando, which has what must be the most 'toys for boys' premise in all interactive fiction: robots versus dinosaurs. And other robots, but that's just a bonus.

I wouldn't go quite as far as 'best of all time', 
but I can see where whoever created this image is coming from.

I got my original copy after school, and started to read it on the way home. No dice, of course, so I got close to a victory, but my robot got blown up because I didn't know the passwords that the villains were using. I say 'a' victory because there's more than one way of winning this book. I achieved one of them in my previous online playthrough, so provided I get stats that are up to the challenge, I'll try and go for one of the others this time round.

Sometimes the dice produce results that can't be made much better even with fudging.
Skill: 8
Stamina: 19
Luck: 8
The Skill increase gained by reallocating the better of the Stamina dice still wouldn't give me much of a chance at the 'Robot Wars' or 'Duel to the Death' victories, so I guess I'll have to go for the usual one again.

So I'm a dinosaur rancher (a rancher whose livestock are dinosaurs, rather than a ranch-owning dinosaur - you can't have everything) in the land of Thalos. One morning, a virulent bout of sleeping sickness incapacitates all the Thalians apart from me. This turns out to be the prelude to an invasion by our enemies, the Karosseans, and forces me to become a guerrilla. Can one man defeat an entire invasion force? Hollywood would say yes, but this isn't Hollywood...

First I must choose my initial robot. The ranch has two: a 'Cowboy' walker and a light flyer. The Cowboy is more sturdy, but the flyer is Very Fast, and the faster combatant in robot-versus-anything fights gets a bonus, so while it can't take as many hits, it should be hit less often anyway.

Thalian cities all have very functional names. From the ranch, I can most easily get to the City of Knowledge or the City of Industry. I don't think there's ever been a time I haven't gone to the City of Knowledge first, and I don't intend to make this try at the book the first exception.

On my way to the City, I get attacked by a Pteranodon. It's only Fast, so I get the speed bonus, but its Skill is high enough to make it a challenging opponent anyway. The Pteranodon damages my robot, so I decide to Escape while I still can. Good thing I chose the flyer, as I'd have been even more outclassed in the Cowboy, and wouldn't have been able to Escape, since it's slower than Pterry here.

It'd only take one more hit to wreck the flyer, so I land at a nearby village and switch to a Digger Robot. This is Slow, but heavily armoured, and should keep me safe until I can upgrade to something more heroic. I trundle on to the City, and start by visiting the Thalian Museum. The Information Robot is still functional, and directs me to Hall Beta for military information. Along the way I get lost, fortuitously discovering a good-luck charm (scientifically proven to work), which I borrow. When I find Hall Beta, the exhibits prove far too ancient to be of any use (says the man who armed himself with a sword against the invaders), so I try a different topic: the Karosseans. There's a display about their culture and history in Hall Epsilon, which I check out. Not massively useful, as there's nothing on their military capabilities, but I do learn about an ancient custom that would be worth knowing about if I were aiming for a different ending.

More importantly, I also discover a section of the museum that's been wrecked, with a couple of dead Karosseans on the floor. One of them is about my size, so I take his uniform. Before leaving I note that the devastated section is labelled 'Tyrannosaurus'. Now, if I had a higher Skill, I'd seek out an encounter with the Karosseans' killer because, you know, full-size robot Tyrannosaurus rex! But while it would be a spectacular way to die, the 'way to die' part is that bit too much of a downside, so I just leave. The Information Robot attempts to stop me from leaving with the good-luck charm, but an appropriately good roll enables me to get away.

Next stop, the College of War. There's a whacking great Karossean robot parked outside, but that's not a problem, as I can impersonate a Karossean with that uniform. Before long, however, further Karosseans arrive, and the more of them there are around, the greater the risk that someone will realise I'm not one of them. There are three easily accessible books, so I decide to have a quick look through one of them. On my first ever attempt, I selected the thoroughly unhelpful Emergency Procedures, but these days I know the advantages of having swotted up on Karossean Military Robots, so that's the tome I consult.

The new arrivals have parked next to the Digger. I jump out of the window and head across to the robots, hopping into a Karossean Myrmidon. It's currently in humanoid form, but can change its shape to a fighter plane. In either mode it provides a Skill bonus, the plane form is almost as durable as the bipedal one, and why am I even bothering to go into detail about its capabilities when the reasons for taking it rather than the Digger can be summed up in the word Transformer?

I fly off before the owner can get back. Well, now the Karosseans know that there's still someone awake to oppose them. But if I get my way, I won't be the only one for long. On that note, it's time to visit the College of Medicine. Rather conveniently, this place contains instructions for creating a 100% reliable antidote to sleeping sickness, plus all the ingredients. Slightly less conveniently, one of the ingredients in stock is past its prime, and I'm going to have to find a fresh Man-Trap Flower if I want to be certain of the Potion's effectiveness. Even more less conveniently, the Potion is so volatile that I'm going to have to find a way of administering it to every Thalian simultaneously, or it'll evaporate before I've revived more than a handful of my compatriots. And least conveniently of all, animal experiments are carried out at the College of Medicine, and with all the researchers asleep, the test animals have broken out of their cages and eaten the scientists. And they think that dessert has arrived, so I have to fight off three Giant Lizards.

Now I come to think about it, getting blown up for not knowing the password was the second way I failed this adventure. I employed the 'go back to the previous section and choose differently' technique after learning that loitering at the College after eliminating those Lizards leads to being cornered by some of their friends. Today I'll try the 'learn from past mistakes' method, and not hang around.

Having done everything I want to do (and have a decent chance of achieving - no fighting robot Tyrannosaurs for me today :() in this City, I now move on to the City of the Jungle. Finding the plant I seek requires me to operate the Myrmidon in biped mode, so I have to follow paths and pick a direction when I reach a junction. I manage to choose the route on which I don't encounter a hostile Ankylosaurus, and at the next junction, the Man-Trap Flower is clearly signposted. In a 'beware' way rather than 'pick your own', but you can't save the world without taking the odd risk, so off I go.

The plant in question is in the middle of a clearing, and in full flower, so I pluck a bloom and add it to the Potion, which changes colour. The plant doesn't take kindly to this, and attempts to pull bits off of me and see how I like it. The robot takes some damage in the fight, but not as much as the plant does. Trekking onwards through the jungle damages it further, but it's still intact by the time I emerge. There are a lot more Karosseans around than there were when I came here, so I decide to move on quickly.

From here I can return to the City of Knowledge, or set off to the City of Industry, the City of Pleasure, or Capital City. I know that I can get to where I actually need to go next from the City of Knowledge, but I'd rather see if there's another route. Where can I get from the City of Industry? And why am I so ill-informed about the relative locations of different Cities in my home land?

When I get to the City, I decide to look around for a bit before moving on. Not too much, as at least two attempts at this book have ended badly on account of my nosing around parts of the City of Industry, but the Robot Experimental Centre is worth a visit. In the Weapons Development department I get somewhat beaten up by a Guard Robot, but after disassembling it I find a prototype Seeker Missile, which can be used in combat to automatically eliminate almost any other robot (or at least put a big dent in the end boss robot on another path I shan't be taking).

Back at my stolen Myrmidon, I take what healing I can get (and wonder why medikits in Robot Commando are so much less effective than food in almost every other FF book), and then depart the City before I get any stupid ideas about tangling with Tripods or trying to find out if there's a way of exploring the subterranean tunnels without plunging to my death in an elevator shaft.

Annoyingly, from here I can only go back to the City of Knowledge or the City of the Jungle, or on to the City of Pleasure. Well, I could also go to the top secret City of the Guardians if I'd found out about it, but I didn't so I can't. Let's try the City of Pleasure (perhaps with a stop-off in the town of Business along the way).

This is the number one Thalian vacation spot. In remembrance of a habit I formed on family holidays, I head for the arcades. Three games catch my attention, and I decide to go for Wasp Fighter because I've been arbitrarily stung often enough to want payback. The Wasp in question turns out to be an experimental fighter plane, and the game a FPS/flight sim combo, but I still have fun. And play well enough to qualify for the advanced game. I can handle that as well, and the simulated combat is realistic enough that I actually get a Skill bonus out of it - or would, if I weren't forbidden to exceed my Initial score.

I then proceed to the airfield, and what should I find there but a non-simulated Wasp Fighter? It's more effective in combat than the Myrmidon, can take more damage than the battered one I'm in, and has the interesting feature that if, while flying it, I win a round of combat sufficiently decisively, I automatically win the next round too. And I can operate it because I did so well at the game. Well, that's the Ender my time with the Myrmidon.

The vehicle upgrade provides a little compensation for the fact that from here I can only go to the City of Industry or the City of the Jungle. Back to the Jungle, then. Along the way I have a run-in with a Karossean pilot who's found himself a Wasp Fighter. Drat! He hasn't found a prototype Seeker Missile, though, and just as he's getting ready to gloat about being able to use the 'win the next round too' function, his Wasp gets well and truly swatted.

A reception committee awaits me in the City, but the municipal robots they've taken over are so slow that I'm able to fly away again before they can even engage me in combat. I could probably beat at least the Street Cleaner and the Towing Robot, actually, but it'd only take a couple of bad rolls for me to wind up a smear on the ground, so I'd rather not take the risk. Didn't want to come back here anyway.

But now I can return to the City of Knowledge. Another Karossean intercepts me, and as I don't know the password (well, I do from past attempts, but using it here would be cheating), he challenges me with the first part of it, and attacks when I don't give the correct response. Despite the advantage provided by the Wasp's bonus, I get hit often enough that only Luck can keep me airborne. It does - just - but my fighter is now in very poor condition. So before heading off to the next place I actually want to visit, I make a quick stop at the Dinosaur Preserve and switch to a Super-Cowboy Robot. Not as fast, or with as much of a combat bonus, but at least it won't fall apart the moment a Karossean scowls at it.

Still unwilling to use knowledge that ought to be learned in-game, I next head to the City of Storms. I encounter a storm on my way there, but as Super-Cowboys don't fly (at least on Thalos - I specify that so as to avoid having some comics geek mock me for not knowing that there's an obscure superhero called Super-Cowboy whose powers do include flight, should such a character exist).

At the City, I visit the Weather Bureau. It's flying flags that warn of the storm I encountered (how helpful!), and outside is a Walker Robot, which is faster than the Super-Cowboy, but inferior in every other regard. And in the illustration, it has Tyrannosaurus rex-style unhelpfully short arms. Inside the Bureau I learn of another impending storm, which will start at the City of Worship and rapidly spread across the whole of Thalos. Now I have my means of getting the Potion to everyone at once, provided I can find a functional flying robot to take me into the storm.

Before leaving, I take my robot for a stroll along the beach. There I see a herd of the Dinosaur formerly known as Brontosaurus, clustered around something shiny. Taking a closer look, I find it to be a partially-buried Cowboy robot, with a couple of medikits in the cockpit. After helping myself to them, I discover that I can travel straight from here to the City of Worship. But I need a flying robot, so I'm going to have to go back to the City of Knowledge again to switch back to the nearly-wrecked Wasp.

At least this time, when a Karossean air-fighter identical to the one that almost killed me moves to intercept me, I can challenge him with the first part of the password. He gives me the correct response (not that I'm likely to need it), and I return to the Dinosaur Preserve for the damaged Wasp. Then I fly that to the City of Worship. There are four Temples I could visit, and I may need a bit more Luck, so I go to the Temple of Peace, where I can get a bonus by praying for the right kind of peace. I could encounter some rather nifty wordplay if I were to visit the Temple of Nothingness as well, but doing so would not benefit me in game terms (and could hinder me if I roll badly), so I'll just take off and fly into the storm.

And whether I succeed or fail is determined by a Skill roll, not a Luck roll. Which I narrowly fail. The turbulence does enough damage to remove what little flightworthiness my Wasp still had, so instead of administering the antidote to all Thalians, I wind up hitting the ground from a great height. There's a saying that any landing you can walk away from is a good one. This landing is not good.

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