Friday, 17 March 2017

Missed Classic: Starcross - Zorks in Space! (Request for Assistance)

Written by Joe Pranevich

My trusty ship, the Starcross.

Last week, I embarked on an adventure: While searching our solar system for miniature black holes to mine, I instead found a gigantic alien ship. Before I knew it, I will pulled alongside and forced to dock. With my ship trapped, all I could do was board the vessel and see what was up. I solved one difficult (to me!) puzzle at the door only to find a long red hallway and suspiciously breathable air. We’re not in Zork anymore! It’s time to play Starcross.

Let me start with the usual disclaimer: I play these games like an OCD weasel on caffeine and so I’m sorting the events in a way that describes the individual areas even as it doesn’t quite reflect the jumping back and forth that happens when inspiration strikes. Much of the ship I am about to explore is open immediately and so a lot of the early part of the game is just getting the lay of the land in an alien ship. Although it is a very “Zork” experience puzzle-wise, the setting never feels like anything that has come before in this series. It’s mind-bending.

Color-coded exploration fun!

I find myself first in a set of gridded and color-coded hallways: blue, red, and green running north to south, five rooms by three. The eastern and western edges are dark rooms (containing grues!) while the far north and south are walls. I’m using compass directions rather than nautical ones because I struggled to visualize “fore”, “aft”, “port”, and “starboard” and gave up quickly. The area is only roughly gridded because some of the hallways have extra rooms between them or nooks to explore. To help you visualize all of this, I’ve included my map of my initial explorations.

I explore the blue hallway first and immediately come across a second airlock. Down the blue airlock and through a bubble-hallway that connects another ship to the giant craft, I emerge into a cluttered spherical control room and face-to-face with a giant spider in a web. I come in peace for all mankind so I try talking to it first: his name is Guthark-tun-Besnap and he’s been trapped on the ship for hundreds of years. He’s extremely intelligent and recently learned English by listening to our radio broadcasts because he was bored. I offer him the tape library that I took from my ship and he’s thrilled! He gives me a yellow rod in return. Now I have two colored rods, black and yellow, but no idea what they are used for. Did each of the four (?) ships attached to the giant vessel get a separate rod? Will I need to collect them all? I have no idea.

Elsewhere in the blue hallway, I discover an observatory with planets that are all the wrong colors. Will I need to fix them? If so, I can’t find any way to do that yet. I also find an area where someone has melted open the wall to reveal a weapons cache. Whoever did that took almost all of the gear, but I am able to pick up a single ray gun.

Like this but in space.

The final area in the blue hall is above the airlock: a hatch that leads into the surprising interior of the ship. Instead of more hallways, we emerge into a grassland complete with roaming herds of unicorns stalked by alien hunters. I wait and watch them take down and butcher a beast, but I’m not able to interrupt them at the right moment to steal a horn or whatever it may be that I am supposed to do. The trippiest thing about the area is something I don’t notice at first: you can look UP to see more grassland. We are on the inside of a tube! The area is small with only two rooms east to west but the same five north to south. The southern end is filled with a dense forest while the metal flooring is completely exposed in the far north. I find another hatch down to a maintenance room and snag a card from the floor, but the computers in there are off and inscrutable. I also find a tree that I can climb in the forest but no idea what to do there yet.

While I’m poking around, the air is getting harder to breathe. Is this going to be this game’s time limit, like the brass lantern was in the Zork games?

Going to the Zoo

Those grues I found earlier? Not just a cute reference to Zork. In a hallway between the red and blue halls, I find the entrance to a zoo. Most of the cages are destroyed or the animals inside long since dead, but in the far west I discover a cage that has been mangled from the inside. A nearby sign explains (in English!) that it contained grues, captured in the deep underground caverns on a faraway planet. Their captors clearly didn’t know what they were getting into… It’s a lovely connection between the games without needing to explain if we’re in the past or the future as far as Zork is concerned. It hardly matters. I love the Alien buzz, the tension-inducing idea that grues prowl the dark recesses of the ship. It’s a nice touch. I’m either going to need to find a light source or some other way to pacify them.

On the eastern edge of the zoo is the lair of the rat-ants: primitive but sentient creatures resembling… rats and ants… in their makeshift nest. The nest is made of flotsam and jetsam from around the ship including a red rod. I try to take it, but the buggers won’t let me near it. They don’t talk to me and if I offer them anything in trade they just take it and add it to their nest. I don’t want to resort to violence and I’ll have to come back here later. The rest of the red hallway is boring. There are planters lining the wall which become progressively more dead as you head south, but I do not see any reason why yet. I also find another strange room between the red and blue halls where they drop hints toward a secret door. But where it is and how to open it? I’ll have to work that out later too.

Like this but in space.

The Village People

East of our starting location is the green hall with one of the largest and strangest areas yet: a whole village of weasel-people. I struggle to imagine a village created in the middle of a hallway, but perhaps the halls are wider than I am thinking. Approaching from the west gets you into the village proper while access from the north and south are blocked off by “suburbs” and homemade walls. In the center of the village, surrounded by curious weasel-children and weasel-peasants, I met a local chieftain wearing an old and tattered space suit and carrying a brown rod. I happen to be wearing my spacesuit still and he points at it. I hand it over to him and he gestures that I can take anything I want. I pick the brown rod-- much to his disappointment-- and he scampers off, leaving me with the tattered suit. I hope I don’t need to do any EV activity because that old suit probably won’t cut it.

Before I can do anything else, I run out of oxygen and die. Just like in Zork II, we get a strange death message that suggests a wider plot: an alien voice says that “the candidate has not made the necessary repairs in time”. Candidate? Is this whole mess a puzzle contrived by a science-fiction Dungeon Master? Is this really “Zorks in Space!” after all? I restore all the way back to the beginning and get back to where I am with more turns remaining. Annoying, but now I’m pretty used to that particular dance from the previous games. After restoring, I head further into the town and find myself in a maze-like warren (the width of the hallway?). I try to map it, but anything I drop gets picked up by curious natives immediately. I don’t see any way to solve this so I head elsewhere. My list of puzzles is growing.

Like this but in space.

Keepin’ the Place Clean

I’m not sure if I mentioned this already, but one challenge I’ve had is that I have to carry everything around with me all the time. Thankfully, I haven’t run out of inventory space yet, but when I went to make a cache of stuff near the red airlock, everything eventually disappeared and it took me time to discover why: cleaning robot mice.

While exploring the green hall, I finally stumbled onto a mechanical mouse with metal hopper on the top. My mind immediately went to the “skutters” on Red Dwarf, cleaning robots that prowled the halls of that ship as well. (Red Dwarf started in 1988 and so could have been inspired by Starcross, not the other way around.) The mouse seems to wander randomly and I can follow it, but eventually it either goes into the dark rooms or disappears into hidden panels in the walls. I can put an object in its basket and I’d be willing to wager that I have to use that to transport something somewhere later, but I do not see a use for it now or any way to steer the robot in the direction I want it to go.

The northern end of the green hall is a computer room with the (mainframe!) machine deactivated. Why was it so hard to imagine the effect of miniaturization in the 80s? Then again, maybe it just looks like a big computer on the outside and is really something so advanced that I cannot wrap my feeble mind around it. The computer won’t start but I find an access panel and a place to put in the card that I found in the repair room. I close the panel and turn on the machine and it immediately lights up three banks of lights plus some other icons:
-  The lights are four colors: red, blue, yellow, and green.
-  The first bank has a picture that looks like an emission of rays. It has a red light flashing and a brightly lit yellow light.
-  The second bank looks like a docking port with the yellow light brightly lit.
-  The third bank might be an airlock with a flashing yellow light.
-  A light next to a picture of a cage is lit, while pictures that are possibly navigation, engines, library, and defenses are not.
-  A weird-three part display is flashing rapidly, a black circle with a black fluid level and red wavy lines. 
Like this but in space.

I guess that the computer is telling me what is damaged and where I will need to make repairs. The blinking airlock is probably why we are running out of air and the cage is probably referring to the grues or rat-ants. I’m going to wager that the dark area is the yellow hallway (both based on the color of the lights as well as our glimpse of a yellow section while we were docking), but beyond that I’m not sure. I almost leave the room without noticing that a golden rod appeared when I fixed the computer. I am developing quite a set!

Exploring in Darkness, Exploring in Daylight

I had initially intended to end here for the week, but I’m going to get stuck very soon and wanted to narrate up to that point. At this stage, I still don’t know what to do. I’ve collected three rods (black, yellow, and gold) and know where two more are (brown and red). After not solving the warren, I restored back to before I gave away my only working space suit as I otherwise have no way to get back to my ship. From here, I start to dig deeper at the puzzles I already know about but have only limited success:
  • The dark rooms are still dark, but I discover they are passable. If I stay in the darkness for two turns, I die, but I can (usually?) dart across the darkness and emerge on the other side. Before dying, I am able to confirm that there is a hidden airlock but I cannot open it without a light. I also get a slightly different message on one of the deaths, that I have to be fixed because “there are no more docking ports”. Does that mean that the other ships were also brought here for a test and they all failed? 
Like this but in space.
  • While exploring in the village, I discover that I can “follow” the chief when he leaves and through the warren. After nearly a dozen turns of him turning here and there, we eventually emerge into a shrine in the center of the village containing the green airlock. The walls are decorated with “cave paintings” of a spider, a mouse, man-sized lizards, and a being in a spacesuit. I assume that the “man” in the spacesuit is the weasel chieftain with a suit in better repair and all of the others are creatures that I’ve seen in my travels around the ship. (This room may be a callback to the topiary room in Zork II which also had images of the various foes of that game.) I descend through the airlock and across an umbilicus to discover the weasels’ original ship complete with a weasel-skeleton for a captain. The whole place is decorated with offerings of various kinds and it obviously a central part of weasel-religion. A door deeper into the ship is fused ship, but I find a broken piece of visor on the ground. I search the skeleton to find a violet rod and am briefly pleased with myself until I return through the airlock to find a number of very angry weasels. They kill me. I restore and try to find any way to sneak out the violet rod and none of them work. I’ll have to come back to that later. 
  • The repair room (where I found the card that fixed the main computer) also contains two computers of its own which I barely understand. The first machine has a picture of the emission of rays next to a yellow slot, but neither the yellow nor the gold rod do anything when I put them in except disappear forever. The second machine has several red slots with different combinations of dots: four single dots around a six-dot cluster, two eight-dot clusters, or three single dots around a seven-dot cluster. I have no idea what they mean and any rod I put inside gets sucked in and lost. I assume I’ll need a red one for this. 
Three puzzles with some progress, but I’m not quite at the end of any of them.

Like this but in space.

Believe It Or Not, I’m Walking On Air

My first real “break” is the tree in the forest: I find that if I climb to the top where the gravity is weakest and then jump up, I can soar all the way up to the engine room above. I can climb my way in low-gravity around the bubble to a door but it is sealed. A nearby silver slot is probably the solution but none of my rods work with it.

That’s not the end: if I climb up further, I discover that I can jump off and soar toward the control bubble on the other side of the ship. Unfortunately, there is too much friction from the air and I end up stuck suspended high above the trees with no way to go anywhere. I experiment with my objects to find something to use as a propellant and realize that the gun is just the thing I need. Should a ray gun have recoil? I have no idea. The first time I try to fire the gun, it misfires. The second time, I die crashing to the ground. I restore and this time shoot at the nearby drive bubble and that sends me shooting off even further into the ship and I’m stuck over the grassland. The next shot fails because the gun is out of ammo so I restore back.

A bit later, I think to try putting things in the gun to recharge it. When I go to put things in it, I discover that someone else beat me to it: wedged into the gun is the silver rod! I remove the rod and this time the first shot doesn’t misfire. I climb back up and am able to use it to propel myself all the way across the ship to land on the control bubble. Just like before, I can climb around it in low gravity and find a door that I cannot open-- this time with a clear slot. It seems to be a one-way trip because there isn’t enough shots to get back. I restore again but this time there’s a consolation prize: the silver rod. I climb up again to stick the silver rod in the silver slot and that unlocks the drive door! Inside the drive room is a white rod and a white slot. That seems too good to be true but I stick the white rod in and the drive powers up revealing a black slot. I put my black rod in there and mistakenly activate the ship’s “emergency shutoff mechanism” and the game ends. I restore back and just do the white rod without the black one. The drive is now active!

Like this but in space.

Unfortunately, this is where I need a bit of a hint. Here’s a few more odds and ends:
  • The rods seem to be color coded to the slots (which I confirmed with the white and black rods working in their respective slots) and when the rod “works” it doesn’t get sucked into the machine. It’s clear now that the yellow and red rods will be used in the repair room but there must be something I’m not doing with the repair machine because even when I use the yellow rod it just gets sucked in. 
  • The red rod remains the property of the rat-ants. I try violence to get it and I try to trade for it. Anything I give them becomes part of their nest but nothing I have makes that particularly useful. 
  • The grassland area switches to a night cycle at 140 turns. This may be significant but I still cannot find a way to do anything with the hunters or wild unicorns. 
  • If I play through the village and get the visor but not the violet rod, I can leave in peace but can never seem to find my way back to the shrine. I can look through the visor at things but that doesn’t help with anything. 
  • While trailing the mouse through the dark, it picked up an object then disappeared. I was never able to see what it picked up or reproduce it again. 
Did I mention I keep dying of suffocation as the air runs out over and over again?

So, from here, I need a few hints. Please do the ROT13 thing, but the key questions I have are: how do you fix the lights or the leaky airlock? Is there something else I need to do first? Anything else I should be warned about?

Inventory: Safety line, space suit, detector output, black rod, gold rod, ray gun, yellow rod, silver rod. The white rod is installed in the white slot. I know how to get the brown rod, tattered suit, and visor but suspect I dead-end myself when I do.

Time played: 6hr 40 min
Total time: 7hr 30 min


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Nicely done solving the ray gun puzzle. That for me is the defining moment of Starcross – repurposing a tool of destruction (which can vaporize a *lot* of things on the ship) into a means of propulsion. I can’t help but think the makers of Snowball (which came out a year after Starcross and, as we’ve already seen, has a very similar puzzle) likely cribbed that idea from Starcross.

    On fixing the lights:

    1. Lbh unir nyy gur gbbyf lbh arrq.

    2. Va snpg, lbh'ir nyernql fbyirq guvf chmmyr jvgubhg ernyvmvat vg.

    3. Lbh'er pbeerpg gung lbh arrq gb qb fbzrguvat va gur ercnve ebbz.

    4. Qb nal bs gur cvpgherf gurer ybbx snzvyvne?

    5. Jnf gurer n cvpgher va gur pbzchgre ebbz gung unq gb qb jvgu gur yvtugf?

    6. Gur "rzvffvba bs enlf" cvpgher ersref gb yvtug rzvffvba. Abg bayl vf vgf lryybj yvtug yvg (zrnavat gur lryybj unyyjnl'f yvtugf ner bhg), ohg gur erq yvtug vf synfuvat (zrnavat gur erq unyyjnl'f yvtugf ner snvyvat - unir lbh abgvprq vg'f qvz gurer?).

    7. Fb gur znpuvar va gur ercnve ebbz jvgu gur "rzvffvba bs enlf" cvpgher naq gur lryybj fybg vf gur bar lbh arrq gb npgvingr.

    8. Lbh fnl gung lbh zhfg or qbvat fbzrguvat jebat jura hfvat gur lryybj ebq jvgu gur ercnve znpuvar orpnhfr "rira jura V hfr gur lryybj ebq vg whfg trgf fhpxrq va."

    9. Whfg orpnhft ur fvyire naw juvgr ebgf pbhyg or erzbirq (juvpu V write dark vapvqragnyyl) qbrfa'g arprffnevyl zrna hung NYY ebqf pna or erzbirq nsgre hfr.

    10. Unir lbh erghearq gb gur qnex unyyjnl nsgre chggvat gur lryybj ebq va gur lryybj fybg?

    11. Lbh fubhyq... orpnhfr gung svkrq gur yvtugf.

    On fixing the air:

    1. Lbh'er zvffvat na vgrz lbh arrq. Ohg lbh unir frra vg.

    2. Lbh arrq gur erq ebq. Bapr lbh unir vg, fxvc gb Pyhr 11.

    3. Lbh fnl lbh unir "gevrq ivbyrapr" gb trg gur erq ebq. Ohg jung rknpgyl unir lbh gevrq?

    4. Ivbyrapr ntnvafg gur eng-nagf gurzfryirf vfa'g gur nafjre.

    5. Unir lbh rknzvarq gurve arfg (bs juvpu gur ebq vf cneg)?

    6. Fubbgvat vg jvgu gur enl tha vfa'g gur nafjre - gung whfg incbevmrf gur ragver guvat, ebq vapyhqrq. Cyhf lbh arrq nyy guerr enl tha fubgf gb ernpu gur frpbaq ohooyr nobir gur tenffynaq naljnl.

    7. Cre vgf qrfpevcgvba, gur arfg vf whel-evttrq - v.r., cerpnevbhfyl chg gbtrgure.

    8. Gur eng-nagf ner pnershyyl cynpvat vgrzf va gur arfg gb xrrc vg vagnpg.

    9. Jung vs fbzrguvat jnf abg-fb-pnershyyl cynprq va gur arfg?

    10. Guebj fbzrguvat ng gur arfg. Fbzrguvat zbqrengryl ynetr (yvxr gur enl tha).

    11. Abj gung lbh unir gur erq ebq, vg fubhyq or pyrne gung vg tbrf vagb n erq fybg.

    12. Juvpu erq fybg? Jryy, gur bar gung jbexf sbe na Rneguyvat, bs pbhefr.

    13. Jung qb lbh arrq gb fgbc sebz fhssbpngvat?

    14. Bkltra.

    15. Juvpu bs gur guerr erq fybgf qrcvpgf bkltra?

    16. Ubj jbhyq lbh qrcvpg bkltra (nf bccbfrq gb, fnl, zrgunar be nzzbavn) jvgu pyhfgref bs qbgf?

    17. Erzrzore lbhe uvtu fpubby purzvfgel.

    18. Gur qbgf ner ngbzf.

    19. Bkltra unf rvtug ngbzf naq bpphef anghenyyl nf B2 - fb gur bar lbh jnag vf gur gjb rvtug-qbg pyhfgref. Gur bgure gjb ner zrgunar naq nzzbavn - cerfhznoyl sbe nyvraf gung znl arrq n qvssrerag glcr bs ngzbfcurer gb fheivir

    1. I have no idea how the words "write dark" snuck into the above (I blame autocorrect), but they should be "arire xarj."

    2. Thanks for your tips! I will review them. I know I can always count on your support. :)

    3. Isn't using the recoil of a gun to move yourself in space something like a scifi trope?

    4. The explanation in points 18 and 19 is not correct from a terminology standpoint - by "ngbzf" Voltgloss means "cebgbaf," but that shouldn't impact on the ability to use the otherwise nicely laid out hints to solve the puzzle. :)

    5. Thanks for the help!

      I did not realize that the yellow rod was working because-- unlike the examples I saw with the silver and white rods-- the yellow rod was sucked in even when you did it correctly. It's a case where there was NO feedback when you did the correct thing and that's frustrating.

      I also used a hint to destroy the rat-ants' nest. (But the rest of the puzzle I solved on my lonesome.) I think I have a general aversion to violent tactics in Infocom games where violence is nearly never rewarded after Zork I in any of the games that I remember.

      Expect a "Won!" post next week.

  3. If I remember correctly this game came with the "Expert" label, pronouncing it as quite difficult. I repeatedly failed to solve the game;)