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Missed Classic: Saigon: The Final Days – WON! and Final Rating

by Will Moczarski



Last time I was severely stuck. Not even the first room in Asylum had given me such a headache. I was unable to venture past the Viet Cong gun nest and unable to open the dead soldier’s snap pocket on the starting screen. I must have tried almost everything – I even tried to do something in the one round before the hut is blown to pieces in case you need to manipulate the initial timed explosion (it occurs after one move no matter what you do) somehow. At least, I thought, my introduction was as spoiler-free as possible. All of that will change now – it’s time to leave Saigon.

Unfasten your seatbelts, we’re in for a bumpy ride!

In hindsight, all puzzles are easy. Moreover, I even had used the necessary verb before, in the first Jyym Pearson adventure I played through for the blog: Curse of Crowley Manor. Back then I didn’t even think about it too much. I simply unfastened the screws after having found a screwdriver. With the pliers and the snap pocket, this particular verb simply didn’t occur to me at all for a very long time.

Everyday work life has one thing in common with adventure games: it’s sometimes necessary to take a break and step back, look at it all from a distance, unwind. It’s the only thing that helped me solve Saigon: The Final Days. Suddenly I had this idea: what about unfasten? Have I tried that already? I think I haven’t… and it does the trick: unfasten snap pocket. Simple as that. Now I simply love the feeling when a gameworld opens up after a bottleneck puzzle. It’s one of the things that keeps me playing.

In the pocket, there are a document and a grenade. The document is a U.S. memo and reads “Code = White X-Mas.” A Bing Crosby reference? Using the grenade is straightforward and works the same way as in Asylum: I can pull the pin out and then throw the grenade across the clearing to explode the gun nest. Now I can access the new area safely but boy, this game just loves to kill ya. There’s a dead Viet Cong soldier in the gun nest and the game helpfully tells me that “something is under him.” I can move him, causing a booby trap to blow up in my face. At least I can start anew without further penalties. There is also a small radio and when I listen to it, I can hear Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas”. What is this supposed to mean? Do the U.S. troops know they need to attack to the tune of this? Is this the reason my prison was blown to pieces in the beginning? Or will it become important later? Spoiler: it won’t.

East of the gun nest, there’s a Viet Cong minefield. If I move in any direction but north, I step on a mine and have to, you guessed it, start over again. There appears to be no way to map the minefield, and it’s not a maze either, merely a dead end. North of the mine field there’s a muddy dirt road stretched out over three screens. A jungle is east and dense bushes are west but I can’t enter either. Going too far north will let me enter a Viet Cong checkpoint but I get killed right away and I have to start over once more. However, looking and listening several times will help you out as is the case in most Jyym (and Robyn) Pearson games. Looking at the road on the second screen will reveal a gigantic rock. Yes, you just read that sentence. No, it doesn’t make sense. Climbing the rock will get you back to the beginning, effectively providing a circular route to prevent you from having to enter the minefield (i.e. dying) to restart. If you listen on the next screen, there’s a whirring sound from behind the bushes. I reckon that it’s a helicopter but can’t seem to find a way to enter the bushes. However, upon returning to the gun nest and looking again for no particular reason but my experience with this particular game designer, I find that the corpse and booby trap are now gone, Bing Crosby stopped singing and there’s a machete on the ground. Now what did popular culture teach us about machetes? Right, I’ll just cut that bush with it. I actually assume that this will open up a lot of new ex-jungle and ex-bush exits but that is not the case. “Cut bush” doesn’t even work. I remember the recent unfasten fiasco and think of other verbs Jyym Pearson is usually fond of, and “chop bush” reliably does the trick. This would’ve cost me some time if I hadn’t played the other OtherVentures so recently, I’m sure.

Now that I’ve cut a hole (yes, the game does not know the verb at first but tells me it did cut a hole after the fact!) I can enter a clearing with a U.S. helecopter (sic!). A soldier beckons me and I can talk to him but he only tells me to climb aboard. Inside the chopper there’s a ring of keys for some vehicle but otherwise there’s nothing to do except talk to the soldier. He’s got a lot to say as well: “Ford issued the orders we’re all leaving ‘Nam! The Viet Cong are outside the perimeter, Saigon is a mess! The Vietnamese are trying to crash the embassy to escape!” There’s your historical backstory. After that, however, something seems to be off. The soldier suddenly says “Hold on..what’s that?” and then the chopper is struck by a rocket. After another turn, we’re going down and I find myself “paralized” (sic!).

I try several things to get out of my conundrum but moving does not work and trying to open my eyes comes back with “not now”. But soon? I seem to be on the right track. “Move yourself” counterintuitively does the trick, and after entering the same thing four times I can move and my muscles are back to working condition. Now I can also open my eyes and find myself lying on the dirt floor of a small shabby hut. I really used to be stumped when I suddenly had to refer to my body parts in a text adventure as I didn’t consider them part of my ‘inventory’. In some Infocom adventure I needed to open my eyes as well, if I remember correctly. Nowadays, it’s standard repertoire.

Looking again reveals that I’m inside the home of a beautiful Vietnamese girl. When I talk to her, she relates that her name is Ming Li and proceeds to bring me some food. It’s rice but it’s crawling with bugs so I assume that it’s a puzzle – however, it’s only flavour (excuse the pun). I just have to eat it. When I talk to her again she asks me where I want to go. If I say “Saigon” she takes me there. Now this is one of Pearson’s famous scripted sequences but this time you really have to pay attention. Ming Li takes me along some secret path to Saigon and I have to attempt to map it while waiting for us to get there. In one of the dark tunnels I stumble over something – I suppose that I will need to return there to pick it up. In a dimly lit room, Ming Li pulls a chain and thus reveals a secret rope ladder. The next thing I know we’re in Saigon and I’m back in control – but not quite because Ming Li is suddenly shot to death by one of two soldiers running down the street chasing after a prisoner. Blood splatters all over me and if I look at Ming Li’s corpse, the game tells me that it makes me cry. Wow, that was an unforeseen turn of events. The whole encounter is a bit stereotypical but for a 1981 text adventure it’s a really moving attempt to show you the horrors that can occur in a war-torn environment.


 
It almost does.

East of the scene of the war crime there is a flimsy wooden door behind which I can find a deserted warehouse. I can chop the door open with my machete and remove the wires with my pliers. It doesn’t take me too long to figure it out but the game still loves to kill me: the warehouse is dark and when I listen closely I can make out some heavy breathing from the south. If I go there, I am shot to death once more. None of my items seem to help me, so I try something else after restoring. West of the narrow street where we first entered Saigon some steps lead upwards. Similar to a situation in Earthquake, there is an American G.I. on top of the stairs guarding a security gate, and he won’t let me pass without a pass. Seeing as I don’t have one – my own people bombed the hut I was kept in as a prisoner, remember? – I suspect that I’ll have to backtrack via Ming Li’s secret passages. I die several more times as you have to retrace her steps precisely or you’ll drop down into deep pits which seem to be almost everywhere. Just where I stumbled over something when Ming Li led me past here, I can use my recently acquired Escape from Traam skills to “feel object” in the dark. I find that it’s a corpse, and upon closer examination I can steal his or her uniform. Not seeing how that may help me with the warehouse sniper (although possibly with the G.I. at the security gate?) I backtrack some more to Ming Li’s now abandoned hut. I find another screen (“W end of a ravine”) while mapping the non-lethal portions of this section as cautiously as possible, and also discover that Ming Li’s hut was destroyed by another rocket. I can investigate a crashed helecopter (sic!) – is this the horse I rode in on? – and a dead soldier which turns up some night-vision goggles (“binoculars”) as well as a wallet with a pass and a revolver. This should solve all of my problems! I go back to Saigon and discover along the way that the west end of the ravine is now populated with a party of Viet Cong. Better not go there in order to avoid another restart.

Back in Saigon I try the warehouse next. Looking through the binoculars reveals a figure to the south where the heavy breathing comes from. I can then proceed to shoot the revolver and the figure drops dead (he shot first!, albeit at another incarnation of me). He leaves behind a shovel, a parachute and dog tags but I can’t pick up all of these at once as the six-item inventory limit is as sneaky as the enemy. I decide to only take the shovel for now but take some notes to remember the other items when it seems that I might need them. Also I drop the binoculars, the pliers and the machete as it seems likely I won’t need them again.

I show the pass (not the wallet, that doesn’t work!) to the G.I. and he lets me enter a narrow street. There I am stopped by a Vietnamese soldier who wants something that will help him escape Saigon. This must be the U.S. Army uniform I found in the cave! I hand it to him and see him go away happily, leaving me to explore further. To the east there is a wide plaza. Refugees are sleeping on the ground. If I linger for too long, they kill me, lynch mob style. To the east there is a burned courtyard. It seems odd that all of the walls are described in detail: “Brick walls are N and S. A wood fence is E.” There was a similar room in Earthquake where I had to deduce that I might need a ladder. I don’t have anything I might need to build one, though. It doesn’t matter anyway, as the solution turns out to be a very different one.
Across the river

South of the plaza there is a tank, and a Vietnamese officer looks out of the hatch. I can shoot him but if I linger for too long the mob kills me. If I climb the tank I am stuck and cannot open the hatch anymore. I don’t figure out how to work the controls, either, so I restart the whole game, assuming I am dead-ended. After some more fiddling I eventually find out that “drive tank” does the trick. Nevertheless I end up dead, hitting a brick wall after two turns. However, I get it right on the next try: You have to maneuver the tank around the brick walls which is what the detailed descriptions were for. The trusty “E” does not work but “turn east” lets me drive into the burned courtyard and crash into the river which is where I can improbably escape the tank because the hatch is no longer stuck, I assume? It’s a nice sequence, though.

Swimming gets me across the river and I emerge on its eastern bank. Here there are some new puzzles for me to solve. To the west there’s a large makeshift arena where some people play chicken. A poisonous snake (get out of my head, Cedric!) is passed to and fro between two opponents and will bite him who moves first. The game plays out before my eyes but I cannot participate (yet). One of the opponents will win $1000, the other one will be doomed to die. Once more, Pearson’s choice of words is a bit off: a “chinaman” presents the game, and a “burly oriental” throws me out. From a 2019 point of view, I could have done without these.

Just to the south is another good example of a classic Pearson “look twice” puzzle. “You are at the E bank of a river on a rocky trail”, the game informs me. If I “look”, I see nothing special. I need to “look rocks” to discover some white streaks which turn out to be chalk. I can’t pick it up, though, so I don’t know what it’s for. Further to the south there is a dirty street. To the east I can see a barbed wire gate guarded by a Vietnamese man. He tells me that “only his people are allowed in gate” but if I return there and talk to him several more times he will ask me who sent me. The answer is obviously “Ming Li”, and he will grant me access.

Even further to the south there is a bricked up building with a water pipe leading up. It’s too slippery to climb but I have a suspicion how it might work. I can “rub hands” on the chalk and now it works. Good thing that I never miss my Olympic Games transmissions. I reach the roof of a building and from there I can see gunfire at the edge of the city. To the south there’s a fire ladder, and when I climb down I find myself in a plaza in front of a big pavillion (sic!) which turns out to be the Huang Lo Pavilion. (Shouldn’t that be Huang-Lao, and isn’t that in fact Chinese? Can somebody enlighten me?) I am confronted by a Vietnamese soldier who wants to be bribed in order to let me pass. I’d better win that snake game, I assume.

The first round nets me $1000 for doing absolutely nothing, so I go back to the Vietnamese solider in triumph but he informs me that $1000 is only half the sum he wants. Can I play again? Turns out I can but this time I die. Does it have a random outcome? Would the game be this cruel?

I decide to explore the crowded courtyard full of Vietnamese east of the barbed wire gate some more. Looking reveals nothing new except for a door to the south which I can’t unlock. I find, however, if I listen closely, that there appears to be a voice in my head! It’s Ming Li! And she helps me from beyond the grave, Obi-Wan Kenobi style! “Help inside..carry box….key in depths..” What does this mean? Key in depths? Wait, can I possibly dive in the river?

Turns out I can! At the bottom of the river there’s a rusty key that will open the door. Behind the door I find a smashed apothecary shop with shelves full of broken bottles. Trying to pick up a box with ampules causes me to break them, and some kind of liquid spills on my hands. I can’t read the “Chineze” symbols on the small box but as Ming Li advised me to carry it, I pick it up. Without a real lead, I try to venture south again. Maybe the soldier will let me pass because he will mistake me for a “Chineze” courier? No, I can’t even climb the pipe because the liquid made my hands slippery...wait a minute! Could this be helpful with the snake? It could! The game master even tells me that he hopes I have applied the snake repellent this time so I know I must be on the right track. I win another $1000 and can now pay the Vietnamese soldier.

This is where I’m stuck for quite a while, and I spend roughly my last half hour of playtime figuring out this final puzzle. I can’t enter the pavilion, no matter how hard I try. I figure out that I can climb the ramp leading up to a U.S. chopper but a soldier tells me to get lost because they will only transport the dead for now. Do I have to die first? Would the game be this cynical? I think of my previous OtherVentures experiences and think about the ending of Earthquake. To board the refugee boat I had to dress up like a woman. How would a dead soldier leave Vietnam? Is this why I found the dog tags?


All the places I’ve seen, boys

Convinced that I need some disguise I search the whole map once again. I find that the Viet Cong are no longer at the western end of the ravine. Instead there is a “V.C.map” with directions to the nearest escape route. Huang Lo Pavilion is marked in red. Looking at the place again also reveals a dirt mound. I backtrack to the warehouse to collect my shovel and then dig up the mound. Eureka – I uncover a corpse in a plastic bag, and removing the bag enables me to pick it up. I’ll spare you my last bout of parser-wrestling and just tell you that I manage to return to the ramp, drop the bag, climb the bag and after a few turns I find myself in that chopper on my way home. This is quite a strong anti-war metaphor, and it’s very much in keeping with the way the game constantly kills you through traps you cannot avoid. What do I make of all this? We’ll see right after the obligatory ports comparison.


I dood it!

Ports Comparison

This is going to be a short one, unfortunately. Only the two Atari versions – with and without pictures – are available. There are two screenshots from the TRS-80 CoCo version over at lcurtisboyle.com but apart from that I can’t show you much – the Apple ][ version which seems to have existed, too, is all but lost.


First Room


After the explosion

Because the text is the same in the two Atari ports, I have only played the version with pictures to let you see what they look like. In general, the pictures are really adding to the tension. You can see the gun nest across the clearing, for example, and picking up the pliers genuinely feels like stealing them from under the Viet Congs’ noses. The wording is sometimes different – I can’t look at the soldier in the beginning but need to “look Viet Cong” to see the jacket and my beloved snap pocket. After the helicopter crash, moving is sufficient, you don’t need to “move yourself” here. I am now “parylized”, not “paralized”, but still not paralyzed.


Ming Li: First Encounter


Ming Li: Final Goodbye

Ming Li now “mumbles Vietnamese” before telling me her name. They still didn’t correct the spelling of the “helecopter”. The Viet Cong no longer leave behind the V.C. map.


First person perspective

Apart from that, it’s the same game. I’ll rate the graphics below but I’ll just say that they are very atmospheric and much better than the Apple ][ graphics for the previous three OtherVentures.


Last room


WON!

PISSED Rating

Of all the four OtherVenture games I’ve recently played for the blog, I enjoyed Saigon: The Final Days the most. The serious setting was handled better than in Earthquake – San Francisco 1906 and it was not as pulpy (though I liked that, too!) as Curse of Crowley Manor. Let’s not talk about Escape from Traam, please. I’m curious how that will reflect in its PISSED score. I’ll try to be objective.

Puzzles & Solvability: That bottleneck puzzle! It took me a long, long time to solve it and I’d almost given up on the game when I finally did. It’s possibly my own fault but I feel that there was quite a bit of guess-the-verb involved here. Previous knowledge helped, making “chop bush” or “remove wire” rather minor offenders. Had I not played the other OtherVentures first I may have been stuck in these situations, too. Apart from that, puzzles are generally much more logical and much more enjoyable to solve than in the other three games. It’s a mixed bag but still an improvement, so I’ll say 4.

Interface & Inventory: More of the same. The use of the parser feels more natural and the inventory limit is not as punishing – there is only one situation that requires you to backtrack because of it. However, there are still some instances of guesswork as described above in the P category. Same release year, no changes: still a 3.

Story & Setting: Ambitious and effective. Saigon: The Final Days takes a cue from Earthquake – San Francisco 1906 and includes many descriptions for the sake of atmosphere while adding a (very short, potential) love story, many encounters with refugees, Viet Cong and G.I.s as well as a varied depiction of Vietnam: 4.

Sound & Graphics: Just a picture on the right side of the screen. The pictures in the Atari version are really good and much better than the ones made for the Apple ][ ports of the other games. Sadly I am unable to compare them to the Apple ][ version of this game but I assume they may be the roughly the same. I’ll give it 1 point for the picture on the right and I’d give it 4 points for the Atari version.

Environment & Atmosphere: The game makes you feel tense and kills you often. I normally don’t like that in an adventure game but in this case the penalty for dying is not too bad – you restart with your inventory intact and there are only few instances in which your death will dead-end you. Saigon: The Final Days does a great job to evoke a situation of utmost urgency – a country during the final days of a devastating war is represented by an air of mistrust, corruption, and general sobriety. This is amazing work for a text adventure and I’ll award that with a high score of 6.

Dialogue & Acting: Better dialogue than in Earthquake – take, for example, the soldier in the chopper who informs you of the background situation, or Ming Li who makes her presence felt even after her cruel and random death. No acting, of course, but Saigon tries to make human encounters more meaningful which is a commendable idea: 2.

Jyym & Robyn Pearson teamed up for this game for the first time. They also worked together on The Institute, I think but after that he went it alone for his final three games. I have played The Institute years ago and thought that it was a great game, in fact it was one of the two reasons for this marathon (the other was Asylum II). Maybe their joint efforts resulted in their best games – they seem to have made a great team from what I can tell by playing through these games. I also like that all of these games have a clear handwriting to them, yet they’re all very different. Jyym Pearson tried something new with every one of his games and that makes his œuvre constantly interesting. Without further ado, I’ll add it up now: 4 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 6 + 2 = 20 / 0.6 = 33 points.



Sounds reasonable! It’s less complex than Asylum but makes up for it through its atmosphere and its writing. I could have punished the initial puzzle a bit harder but maybe it was just my own stupidity. In my post-game research I have found two reader’s letters asking for help with the game: one was stuck in the minefield, the other was unable to get past the gun nest. Apparently I was not alone with this but still: I won’t be too harsh. Anybody who will be stuck there in the future can now look up the solution at The Adventure Gamer! The Atari version would receive an even higher score due to the nice graphics: 38 points seems right as well.

All things considered, Saigon: The Final Days receives the highest score I’ve given so far: 33 points. I feel like such a cheapskate! The PISSED rating system was not conceived for early adventures – especially text adventures – and I definitely had more fun with the game than that. By comparison with all of the other games from the era, it seems fair enough. Coincidentally, this concludes my Jyym & Robyn Pearson mini-marathon. Their other four games were published by Med Systems and are thus part of the main marathon. Next up is The Institute before I will wrap up the second year of our marathon and play all of their available non-adventure games released in 1981. See you soon!

Session time: 2 hr
Total time: 6 hr

Med Systems Marathon Overview:

(a) 1980 Summary
(b) Reality Ends (1980)
(c) Rat’s Revenge / Deathmaze 5000 (1980)
(d) Labyrinth (1980)
(e) Asylum (1981)
(f) Microworld (1981)

Jyym & Robyn Pearson Mini-Marathon Overview:
(a) Curse of Crowley Manor (1981)
(b) Escape from Traam (1981)
(c) Earthquake - San Francisco (1981)

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