Missed Classic: Spellbreaker - The Chase

Written by Joe Pranevich

You’ve heard the classic story: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy and girl happen to be levitating rocks on a Tron-esque grid? It’s classic. If I have to say one thing about Spellbreaker, it is not afraid to have interesting and difficult puzzles. And despite the number of times that I have been stuck in this game, I’ve nearly always managed to get myself unstuck by looking at the problem in a different way. As we approach the end of the game, the overall picture is coming into focus. Connections are forming between the areas that the cubes take us, but I wish I did not have to spend the first half of the game feeling like I was playing a text-adventure version of Quantum Leap. Oh boy…

One other thing: this game is long. I’m ending this post at just over 18 hours in, making it the longest Infocom game by far and that does not include any of my time replaying from scratch last entry. The only longer game in this marathon is mainframe Zork which clocked in at roughly double where I am now. No actual Infocom release has taken me more than twelve hours to win. If they had planned to make this the “grand finale” of Zork, I think they succeeded under that metric at least.

Let’s play!
Wow. That looks complicated.

Two Dead Ends

We ended last week having just solved the octagon maze and with a new cube in-hand. I blorple it to end up in “No Place”. It is a lot like a place, except the room description says that we’re not in a place and my brain has no idea how to process not being any place, except somehow there are also exits east, west, and south, presumably to places. The mind boggles, but I head east first. That me to a vault filled to the brim with treasure. Could it possibly be the vault we discovered at the end of Zork III? The only exit from the vault is a locked door with a complicated mechanism although it’s strange that it is locked from the inside. I cannot seem to interact with it in any way. Is there a puzzle here or just a locked door? Rezrov is not powerful enough to open it.

I start to sift through the room for things I might want, but anything I pick up is listed as “treasure” in my inventory without distinction. I can teleport out with no problem, but doing so transforms the “treasure” into “junk”. I either need the treasure and therefore need to exit through the vault door to keep it as-is, or perhaps all the treasure really is an illusion… maybe even the door? I’m not sure where the we are going with this one, but there doesn’t appear to be anything for me to do here right now.

Restoring back to “No Place”, I discover that west is the typical broken exit that we have with each of the cubes while south leads me to a very strange plain.

The 1980s were truly a special time.

Imagine, if you will, a plane with intersecting lines moving in all directions. There are hovering boulders sliding on the lines from place to place. I cannot follow the lines or go any direction at all because the ground is too slippery for walking. Even magic seems to be broken here as spells just fizzle out. I can’t cheat by using the magic carpet either. A green-eyed boulder is nearby and I can talk to her, which is somewhat surprising because she’s a rock. She tells me that I’m not as odd as the last person that visited her. Could that be the assailant from the beginning of the game? I point out a brown-eyed rock in the distance and she says simply that he’s not as pretty as she is. This increases the total number of vain green-eyed talking boulders in adventure games to… one. The good news is that the she’s willing to give me a ride in exchange for some food. All she wants is something high in phosphorus.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any and cannot proceed this way. With repeated attempts, I am unable to find anything different in any of the areas that I already explored. There’s no way through vault door, nor is there anything else I can do on the plain. I am stuck.

A Whole New (Boring) World

I expect that this game is very difficult to follow in written-out chunks every week or so. I’m taking very good notes which I need to be able to sit down and write against later and I’m still having difficulty keeping the whole game in my head. I am especially confused about places where I experimented and then gave up. Did I do that in my current save? Did I not? I don’t remember.

I have a note from last time that I’m not satisfied that I did the correct things with the carpet, either in the way that I bought it with the opal or in what to do with it afterwards. So I head back there and play around. It turns out that you can haggle with the vendor and talk him down to 500 zorkmids. This involves “offering” him different amounts starting from high to low and if you get it just right he’ll agree to 500 after a few tries. In my case, I found that if I started with 300 and increased my offer by 50 each time, he eventually comes down that amount and I can pay using my coin, saving the opal for a puzzle later. I feel better about this solution overall.

What should I do with the carpet? I know that if we fly up from the bazaar, we discover that we’re in the mountains that have the roc’s nest and the guard’s tower. I didn’t map it before, only explored it more or less at random. I’ll take a more structured approach this time. Unlike typical exploration, we have altitude to contend with. I find four separate levels to explore: “above”, “high above”, “very high above”, and “dizzyingly high above” the ground. Any further up than that and it is always the same text, while any lower than that and we crash or land but either way results in death. You can keep going higher and you never seem to die of asphyxiation, but maybe I just wasn’t patient enough. For my part, I concentrate on “above” since we need to be able to see things below us to land on them. I do head up and explore a bit higher, but unless there is a castle in the sky or similar, it is all empty air. I can come back if I get stuck again.

When Aladdin sang his song, he expected more interesting terrain.

There are an infinite number of empty rooms stretching in all directions. Just as before, I locate the bird’s nest and confirm that the guard’s tower just four rooms east. I do not find any way back to the bazaar, the mountain at the beginning of the game, the ocean, or anywhere else. Even so, this is everything I need for a new idea:

I am going to race the roc.

Whenever I come up from the bazaar, the roc is already at its nest. But when I teleport to the oubliette and climb my way up on the ice floe to the guard’s tower, the roc is circling and not at its nest. What if I climb out then immediately jump on the carpet and head west? I try that and it works! I beat the roc home and find the nest unsupervised for the first time in the game. Unfortunately, I arrive just as the egg is hatching and if I stay for more than a couple of turns, the hatchling kills me. I memorize my spells in advance so I just land, grab the cube and the carpet, then “blurple” myself away. I am not going to be a snack today!

Portrait of Belboz from Zork: Grand Inquisitor

Third Dead End

Using the Roc’s cube takes me to the “String Room” with exits to the south and east. Naturally, only one of the exits work but the other takes me to the “Enchanter’s Retreat” where the retired Belboz and other former leaders are retired to a life of quiet meditation. Why aren’t they helping since everyone else is a frog? I guess they figure I have it covered. Belboz, my mentor from the first two games, is there and we can ask him a bit about what is going on. He tells me that someone had visited him a few days prior, impersonating me, but that he knew it wasn’t me because he did not know things that I would have known. So he asks me a question: “Of the Neuromancers, who is the best known?”

Of course, I have no idea, but I do have the manual and the several trading cards that came with the game.

Oysters and fish are not vegetables.

I answer “Berknip” from the cards and he seems relieved that it is me. He hands me an iron key. I ask him about the cubes and he makes them sound impressive, as if the knowledge of them can make or unmake the world, but nothing else I ask seems helpful. I try the key in the vault and that is not the correct place to use it. I’ll have to keep looking.

I am stuck again except this time I do not even have notes that I missed something along the way. I explore more with the carpet. The solution turns out to be going through my spells to see which ones I haven’t used yet. I’ve created frozen icebergs, shrunk giant snakes, put a statue to sleep, repaired a hut, grew out some ragweed, animated a statue, and blew away fog. The only two spells that I haven’t found uses for yet are “yomin” to read minds (although that did provide some hints) and “snavig” to transform into an animal. I try to find things to transform into.

A Fishy Solution

It doesn’t take me that long to find an animal that I can transform into: a fish. If I use the “water” cube and take a splash landing into the ocean, you end up where I fought with a grouper to capture a message in a bottle. That grouper is still there if you return. After hiding my stuff in the zipper, I try “snavig” and am able to become the fish. Swimming down, I discover a cube at the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, the fish still eats my cube and I lose all of my stuff because everything sinks. I have to find an alternate approach.

Instead of stashing my stuff in the zipper, I drop everything I am carrying in the Water Room itself. I memorize “snavig” and “blorple” so I can get back, but I take the dive into the ocean unencumbered. That still doesn’t quite do it because the fish will steal the water cube if I am not careful. I can transform and eat it myself, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to regurgitate it back out. I eventually settle for also taking the smoked fish with me and feeding it to the grouper as soon as I see him and before I transform. He ignores the now-sinking cube and apparently is not above a little fishy cannibalism. Survival of the fittest, right?

Casting “snavig” takes a few tries and I restore several times to get a casting that works on the first try, but I manage to swim down to his nest. Unfortunately, I cannot pick up the cube while in fish form and I previously learned that eating it was a bad idea. Eventually, I take the wait-and-see approach. I stay underwater until I transform back into a human, immediately grab both cubes, and swim to the surface. I make it just before I run out of air and now I have a new cube! I’m making this sound a bit easier than it was; getting the timing right took trial and error.

“Don’t try it, Anakin! I have the high ground!”

Hot Lava!

The new cube takes me to the “Light Room” with one good exit, to a volcano. Immediately after I arrive, a fragment of lava falls at my feet. It is too hot to touch, but I can freeze it to pick it up. There doesn’t seem to be anything else to do here so I take the rock back to the strange bounders that I found at the beginning of this section.

Feeding a rock to the boulder is exactly what I needed to do. The green-eyed boulder now allows me to ride her and I can follow the tracks on the plain. Each time I do, the distant brown-eyed rock (which I now see has a cube on its back!) also moves. It’s a bit of a dance, made more difficult because I can’t quite seem to find a way to speed up the green-eyed rock or catch all the way up to the brown-eyed one. He seems to be avoiding us. I try randomly for a long time, but I do not stumble on the solution. Time to get analytical! I ignore my brown-eyed friend and map out our environment:

It’s a document icon!

What I find is a collection of 15 rooms, with north/south or east/west tracks between each room with one exception, a diagonal line in the upper-left corner. I thought initially that going over the same track too many times would rub it away, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Although we can make some good guesses, the text doesn’t quite let us know precisely where the brown-eyed rock is at first, only whether it is near or far and in what general direction. Once we have the map drawn and printed out, I put counters down to track where I am and where I think the brown-eyed rock is.

I continue to play with this puzzle, but it’s not deterministic. If you save and restore, the rock can choose to move a different way after the restore. But no matter how hard I try, the rock is very effective at always staying a few squares away and there is really no way to trap it. The best you can do is figure out its exact location using the process of elimination.I look for ways that we can block off exits by dropping things onto the track, but that doesn’t work. I try to get close enough that maybe I can jump across even if it isn’t in the same square as me, but even when I get it on a diagonal I still cannot leap across.

Just to give you an idea how to work out where it is, from the start I tried these directions:
  • I go south and the brown-eyed rock goes north
  • I go west, it goes south
  • I go east, it goes south again
  • I go north, it goes south again

At this point, I am 100% certain that it is in square D4 and I am back in B2. But what good does that do me? Not much except getting us into known spots which allows me to know his exact location for the rest of the puzzle. The trick is obviously something to do with the northwest corner. I thought at first there might be a hidden room, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I try very hard with dozens of restores to force him to go on the diagonal so that I can catch him, but that doesn’t work. If I go on the diagonal, I still cannot catch up to the brown-eyed rock because I can never get there when it is anywhere close enough for it to matter. He seems too “smart” for me, even when I save-scum.

In the end, I take a hint from the blog and find that I am on the right path. By heading over the diagonal, I’m essentially taking two moves instead of one and this subtly changes the dynamic between the two stones. It doesn’t solve anything immediately and if the brown-eyed rock doesn’t make a mistake, it doesn’t matter one iota. But… I do that and he eventually moves towards me when he shouldn’t. I guess my strange movement disrupted his algorithm. With that, the gap is closed and I am able to successfully maneuver to bump into him in a few turns. As soon as we get close, he is mesmerized by the green-eyed rock’s beauty and I can just jump across and grab the cube. I guess she wasn’t just vain after all.

With that, I will end our session for this week. We had some great puzzles this time and I am ashamed that I needed to ask for help on the rocks when I probably would have noticed the brown-eyed rock doesn’t play perfectly after the diagonal slide. My desperate hope is that I can wrap this very long game up next post. I’m having fun, but it’s still time to put this one to bed.

Time played: 6 hr 30 min
Total time: 18 hr 20 min
Inventory: 11x white cubes (“earth”, “soft”, “water”, “air”, “bone”, “change”, “noplace”, “string”, “light”, and an unused one), zipper, magic burin, knife, spell book, pruning shears, gold box, bottle, opal, compass rose, magic carpet, iron key
Spell Book Contains: caskly, throck, blorpie, yomin, rezrov, frotz, gnusto, malyon, jindak, lesoch, espnis, liskon, tinsot, snavig
Score: 415 of 600 (69%)

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