The Phantom's Revenge

     from Temple Software

If you happen to follow the Library over on Tumblr, you may have already seen part of the saga of my utter failure at this game. I was so inept at this damn game that I literally could not get out of the first room. The first room. I spent two hours there before I went to the internet for help, where I first discovered that text-only games from the early 1980s do not have walkthroughs or maps posted online because no one cares about them, and second had to throttle my ego when everyone on Tumblr managed to get out of said first room in two seconds flat. (You were all super sweet about it and I love you. My failings are my own.)

So, anyway, I started this game in disgrace and I finished it in disgrace... in that I did not actually finish it. It defeated me. The only other game to have this dubious honor is the similarly ancient Erik: The Phantom of the Opera from Crysys Games, and like that one, we must take this one as an opportunity to appreciate the fortitude of will of ancient gamers because seriously, old games are fiendishly difficult just because most safeguards and ways of making them more player-friendly hadn't been invented yet.

Anyway, if you aren't familiar with the joys of text adventures, they were perhaps the very first kind of game available on computers: roleplaying/adventure games in which you read what was happening on the screen and typed in what your character would do and where they would go. There were no graphics or sound effects (at least not until much later in the genre's development) and the only interface was you and your trusty MS-DOS or Apple IIE blinking cursor on a blank background.

The Phantom's Revenge is this kind of absolutely bare-bones game - more of an interactive novel than something that modern players would recognize as belonging to the game genre. Unfortunately, even for the genre and limitations of the time, it has a frustratingly poor text parser; it doesn't understand commands with even slight variations (including "give the book to the man", which throws up an error unless you cut it down to "give man book") and was apparently never designed to say anything but generic "I don't get it" responses to commands that are not the correct one to advance the story, which is sad because it misses a lot of opportunities for humor and/or worldbuilding. It also gives the player the option to save and restore their game, which is nice, and has a "resurrection" option if you die... but when resurrected, any items you were carrying remain where you died, meaning you'd better hope you can get back there and retrieve them all before you can hope to do much else.

But in a text adventure, the story's the main thing! So what's our story? Well, it's kind of difficult to tell. The player gets only a very brief introduction - the beginning of the game asks if you want to challenge the Phantom, but then you immediately start locked up in a cell in a dungeon for some reason, with no memory of how you got there and absolutely no help from the game in figuring it out. The instructions blurb at the beginning of the game (available only if you say yes, you want instructions, so some players may miss it) claims that there is an abandoned prison in which some treasure is guarded by a ghost and suggests the player explore it to find it, but also doesn't explain how on earth you started locked up there (or by who, if the prison is actually abandoned!). Since I didn't finish the game, I don't know what said treasure is supposed to be, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might in fact be Christine - and yes, despite the complete lack of details online, this game is definitely about the Phantom story, so for once I didn't give it up out of lack of related material!

Anyway, you start in a jail cell, and the game informs you that there's a piece of smelly cheese and a spoon lying on the ground, and even in a text format I think we've all played enough adventure games by now to know that we need to pick those things up and jam them in our pockets for some dubious use later. After the Tumblr team gently pointed out that the command "dig" would get me through the wall where eight zillion variations on "shoot prison guard with cheese using spoon as makeshift catapult" would not (thank you, crowdsourced support team!), we got to crawl around in the dark for a while, finding occasional objects on the floor and eventually managing to make it out onto a normal street somewhere.

Oh, and who's we, you ask? We don't know that, either. The player character is never given a name, nor any description of who they are or what they're doing or where they came from. This isn't actually uncommon in old text adventures, which were designed more like interactive fiction where the player was meant to imagine themself in the role of the adventurer, but again, I'd kind of like to know why I personally am in jail with amnesia and what the hell is going on, if that is indeed the case.

I did, however, learn what creosote is, mostly because the game informed me that the wharf I managed to wander onto was covered in it like four separate times. (It's a kind of black tar-like distillation used to preserve wood and prevent it from rotting from prolonged exposure to water or weather, if you wondered.) In most games, that would be a sign that the creosote would be Relevant Later, but as far as I can tell the game writers just really wanted you to picture it clearly, because I don't think it is.

So, this game is the most early 1980s game you could possibly imagine. Let me give you Exhibit A:

That is late 1970s/early 1980s nerd culture in a nutshell, y'all. The self-identification of "computer freaks" as a very small minority that the mainstream doesn't recognize or understand; the making fun of the public gamer playing pinball or some other arcade game in a bar, because these were not things you could play at home yet; the juxtaposition with the burly men and "fallen women" (misogyny: also a taste of the 1980s) with the nerd corps as a tongue-in-cheek joke about the two both being social misfits. It has it all. Please make sure you also imagine this scene with a lot of burnt orange and yellow colors, people wearing flare jeans and shaggy haircuts, and the dulcet strains of Ms. Pac-Man floating through the air while everyone drinks tap beer.

It's a cultural snapshot, is what I'm saying, in that way where its creators didn't intend it to be, but people looking back at it decades later can see how clearly it models its place in time and American nerd culture. I feel like a weird nerd archaeologist.

Sadly, none of these people will talk to you, by the way; they're window dressing for the most part. The text parser actually doesn't understand the word "women" when you try to talk to them, which is both hilarious and depressing because of course... of course it doesn't.

But this is not the part of the game environment we really care about, because we are Phantom story adventurers looking for clues about the past media adaptations. So what we care about is the fact that after wandering around and nearly getting hit by cars several times and having to endure passersby looking at me all funny (why? I mean yeah, I just crawled out of a prison cell via tunnel so I'm sure I'm filthy, but is there some other reason? Am the Phantom and I just don't know it because I have amnesia? WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE, GAME?), we finally manage to wander out of a sprawling maze of a flower garden to find this:

It's an opera house! We made it to the relevancy, everyone!

I now have questions about time period, because the game also didn't tell us when we are. The prison cell with the walls that can be spoon-dug through and the burly guard standing on the other side of a barred door feels old-fashioned, like maybe turn of the century or earlier, but this implies that 1890 was a long time ago, so apparently not. The bar's arcade game implies much later, late 1960s at the earliest, as well as the mention of "computer freaks", which implies some time in the 1970s when microprocessors had become available and people could reasonably have personal computers at home. Being specific enough to say the opera house looks like it was last used in the 1890s implies earlier again, because the further away from that time frame we get, the less likely it is for someone to be able to pinpoint its fashions/decor/whatever to the decade.

I realize that I'm probably putting more thought into this than the designers did, but I honestly felt like I was time traveling randomly between different eras depending on what area of the game I was in. (Maybe I was. Maybe that's the secret at the end of the game. I don't know!)

Anyway, the 1890s gives us a time frame for the later references to the Phantom story, and while it's a little later than the probable 1880s setting of Leroux's novel, it's still pretty close! Investigating the inside of it was frustrating, however, because not only did the text parser not want to describe literally anything it didn't say on first entry to the room, but it's time for another staple of the text adventure genre...

Damn it. Even in the Phantom story, apparently we can't get away from that damn grue. This is a reference to the massively successful and influential text adventure game Zork, which was released in the late 1970s and later spawned a massive franchise of follow-up games all the way through the late 1990s, updating to include graphics and other new developments in gaming as it went along, as well as books and even an online resource-management game in the 2000s. The game was famous for halting adventurers by informing them that they would be eaten by a grue (an indistinctly described monster lurking in dark places) if they tried to explore anywhere without sufficient light sources. It's a ghoul here, but it's an obvious homage to Zork, which probably inspired this game and countless others like it.

Thankfully, there was a lamp just lying around in the tunnels I haplessly crawled around in back when I was trying to get out of the jail, because I can report that the ghoul does indeed eat you if you wander around too much. Also, one time I went into the dark to see what would happen and some sort of spectre tried to kill me with an axe so... that's a thing that could happen, I guess.

(I'm going to go ahead and say that along with the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film and the 1987 Crysys game, yes, apparently axe-wielding 80s Phantom is a thing.)

Anyway, that's less important than this final confirmation that we are indeed in the Phantom story... in some form, anyway!

Hey! Yes! It's Christine! And she's performing in Faust, which was the opera Leroux had her perform in to such dramatic consequences in his novel! The mention of the ring is especially interesting, since it's too early in the timeline of Phantom adaptations for it to have anything to do with the ring shenanigans in Lloyd Webber's musical, which won't come out for a few years yet. So who wrote this note? Was it Raoul, and he's referring to a gift for her or maybe an engagement ring for their play engagement? Was it Erik, plotting to have a wedding ring ready for her? Is this a ring worn in Leroux's novel, or something new?

I don't know the answers because the game defeated me, as previously stated, but I do know that the game annoyingly had a ring embedded in the wall of the prison cell I escaped from fall out when I dug through, but then roll under the door with the guard, so it's over there but I can't get at it or see it. So we'll have to assume that's the same ring and that it will, indeed, be Relevant Later. (This time.)

This also tells us that we're in a sequel; if the program is from a long time ago and Christine was performing in Faust then, that means that the Phantom story has already happened some indeterminately long time ago (I'm guessing this is supposed to be the game's "modern day", what with the computers and the taxis, so I'm going with 1970s which would be 75 or 80 years). So we're some modern person uncovering the clues to what happened then... and what's still happening now, if the rumors (unsubstantiated except for advertising because this game will not tell us ANYTHING inside its frigging actual play) about a Phantom haunting some treasure are true...

So, being the responsible old-fashioned game-player that I am, I'd been mapping the game as I went along up until this point; with no graphics, it really helps to have a visual to know where you've already been and how to get back there, since otherwise you're trying to remember "went west four times, then south, then east twice" and my brain is not set up for that kind of nonsense on a purely theoretical level. Unfortunately, this strategy was pretty common practice for players at the time, too, so this game's designers decided to flummox them (and me) by throwing in areas that are completely unmappable. The overgrown garden around the opera house is one such area; it randomly generates which "room" you move into whenever you walk anywhere in it, meaning that you could theoretically go in a straight line north forever and still be stuck in the garden, or you could go west and then turn around and go east again and end up somewhere completely different than where you came from. So I mapped responsibly on my way to the opera house and then quickly realized that the map was worthless when I came back out of it, which is really just a snapshot of the experience of playing this entire game.

To be clear, this is actually a pretty ingenious way of adding some challenge to the game with a very limited set of programming options, and it definitely helps the player get a feeling of wandering some confusing maze because even if they tried to keep track of where they are, they can't. It was just also very personally targeted at me and my already grave struggles.

The opera house seats are another such randomly-generated area, meaning you can get lost in them for quite a while and never be quite sure if there were more things in there you were supposed to find, so imagine my resignation when I finally got into the seats - the game only said "you need a ticket to go in there", which is one of its most ridiculous puzzles, because no one is here game the place is abandoned who's taking tickets excuse me but was solvable by finding the manager's office and getting no clues about what happened to those guys because this game hates exposition but at least finding said ticket - only to realize I was once again lost in a wasteland of chairs and aisles.

Perhaps realizing that there was not enough drama in this part of the game, the good folks at Temple Software decided to spice it up by inserting, and I quote, "a crazed maniac" with a knife. I don't know anything else about what he looks like or what he's doing, and I don't know what the rules are for avoiding him, because he pops up seemingly at random throughout the opera house to continually try to stab me. Fleeing the room he's in sort of seems to work, but does the game keep track of him? Does he follow you? Is there only one or are there more of them? I don't have answers to these questions. You can't talk to him, so I just run away from him.

I don't think he's meant to be the Phantom, incidentally, who I think would probably have been mentioned with a lot more fanfare. Of course, that leaves us wondering who else is haunting a decrepit old opera house, which in turn makes me wonder if he's based on the early movie trend of having assistants for the Phantom, such as Ivan in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film. Then again, it could be the Phantom himself, in one of many guises - he could also have been the scary axe-ghost and he could also be the prison guard. I have no idea. I am asea. Again, it's possible the game answers this question later... but alas, not for me.

Anyway, after barely escaping knifey death and then wandering the rhododendrons for some despairing amount of time, I managed to find some more space around the docks, which got me to this amazing discovery:

Well, everything about that is delightful. Fantôme is obviously French for Phantom, and was the word Leroux used in his also obviously French novel, and the sign is too adorable. Why the sign, Phantom, buddy? Do you have minions bringing you loot, so you need to make sure they know where to put it? Are you just really forgetful and you're trying to help yourself out? Also, what are you looting? Are you an international jewel thief in this game? Do you take time off haunting the jail to perpetrate capers? Does this boat actually belong to your spawn or someone else who knows about you and it's just a weird homage? There are too many hilarious possibilities and I have information about none of them. Am I supposed to put loot there?

 

(Actually, apparently the answer is yes, according to the in-game "Help" command; when you find "treasures", you're supposed to put them here to get points for them, hoping to get the most points at the end of the game. It also informs us that we lose points for quitting the game before finishing it and lose a LOT of points for dying, so clearly Coach was never going to unbench me for this one.)

Anyway, the boat can't tell us any of this and we're not allowed onto it yet, so back we go, to explore everything some more. We dodge taxis, we get intimidated by bouncers, we get lost in the garden (again), and we discover that it looks like you can go to the prison we broke out of, and maybe what we need to do is figure out how to get in the front door since we can't break out of the cell.  So we go back to the opera house to start exploring in earnest...

...where the maniac is waiting for us. Sigh. I tried, I really did, but the last death did me in. It looks like you can take one, maybe two actions when there is A Threat such as "knife-wielding maniac" or "it's dark in here", and then the game goes ahead and kills you - or more probably, it's a random percentage, so every action you take while in danger has a 30% chance of death or something. Whatever it is, I do not recommend encountering the maniac in the opera house seats, because you will be in the endless hell of randomly-generated areas, so you will not be able to figure out how to get away from him before he murders you, and when you die, you will drop all your stuff in some random part of it and the search to retrieve it will look like climbing Everest. It is pretty cute that the game's narrator does some theatrical smells of sulfur and flames when you're resurrected - so is this a Mephitic resurrection of some kind? How much Faust is going on in this game? Am I supposed to be suspicious of the narrator? - but it was finally too much for my terrible-at-this-game heart to take, and I conceded defeat.

Which killed me, I hope you all know, because now I don't get to know about Yachting Phantom, and that's a tragedy. Maybe I'll pick it back up one day. But there comes a time when the number of hours spent on trying to review something begins to be unreasonable as well as telling you something about the general playability of it as a piece of interactive media, and that time is now.

It's a really neat artifact of its time and I hope to finish it someday. In the meantime, if anyone else finds out more, let me know and I'll add you to the list of discoveries!

All content © 2007-2019 Anne Myers