Text adventuring or, to give it its new less geeky name "Interactive Fiction" seems to be enjoying something of a revival these days. Fancy new name aside though, and despite thirty years passing since Crowther and Woods put together Colossal Caves, not a lot has changed. Obviously programmers now have a lot more memory to play with, and tools to build a text adventure are a touch more sophisticated, but the fact that such a game has to be 'manageable' means that many of the new "Interactive Fiction" text adventures being released on the PC market will fit perfectly well into the memory of a Beeb or Electron, if their programmer takes the time to convert it.
To Hell In A Hamper is a perfect example of a modern day text adventure, brought wholesale onto a disc-based Acorn Electron by its author, J. J. Guest. You are one Professor Pettibone, a rather pompous and somewhat exasperated 'eminent Victorian balloonist'. The cause of the exasperation is your companion, one Mr. Hubert Booby, with whom you are sharing a once-in-a-lifetime skytrip. A rather exciting introductory diary explains how you came to be sharing your balloon with this apparent aeronaut, and also makes it very clear that Booby is the cause of all your current problems.
Why? Well, during your voyage, it appears that Booby has been stocking up on souvenirs from each stop that you made - and hiding them all in his overcoat. Of course, you did not originally plan to be carrying the excess weight of all of these things and the situation has now reached crisis point. The balloon is heading straight into the mouth of a volcano and you have 200 turns to strip Booby of every last item he has secreted about him and cast it all overboard.
Not only is this a particularly original idea, it confines you, the player, to one location. There is no escape from the balloon, so whilst commands are still entered in the traditional 'verb noun' formation, you are not going to have to start making a map and GOing EAST, WEST, etc. Instead the focus is one large puzzle which has, at its heart, an incredibly simple premise: find stuff and get rid of it. Each time you cast something out of the hamper, you gain altitude; the bigger stuff raising you much higher than the smaller stuff.
The truly delightful touch however is the interaction between your character and Booby. Standing sullenly in one corner of the balloon, with an overcoat literally bulging with swag, talking to him will still elicit numerous reactions to the effect that he is hiding nothing and that "this is all your fault". It won't be giving away too much to say that a few EXAMINE commands will reveal that Booby is lying, and before long you will succeed in wrenching everything from a sewing kit to an Egyptian mummy from the confines of his voluminous overcoat. Where did he get all of these things from, you may wonder? ASK HIM ABOUT them and he will tell you; these explanations frequently also containing subtle clues about how to progress in the adventure itself.
Not that you really need these of course. To Hell In A Hamper contains one of the best HINT utilities ever seen - no cross-referencing to clue sheets or decoding needed here. Simply enter HINT and up jumps a multiple-choice questionnaire walking you through the puzzles and which you can leave immediately by pressing Q.
An altimeter, recording your current altitude, and the description of the ever-approaching volcano, constantly update, reminding you that, in spite of the cartoony-style interactions with your companion, you do both remain in mortal danger. One of the early problems, for example, involves investigating Booby's hat, which he assures you, naturally, conceals nothing. Trying to GET the HAT off his head becomes a fight which Booby always wins, so you may try instead to THROW something at his hat. Choose the right object and the hat will be dislodged, revealing a manic 'large, ornate cuckoo clock'. The idea that one could hide a cuckoo clock under a small felt hat requires some suspension of disbelief. Further on in the game you will be required to investigate Booby's underpants, and even to start beating him around the head with a trombone. The descriptions of these moves are so wildly entertaining that the adventure as a whole is a much more uplifting experience than that of even the largest professional adventures hitherto released for the Elk.
Another touch which I like is that the adventure will not let you throw away something which you still need. If you do so, the item is brought back, in various strange, mind-boggling ways. You can die, of course, but only by setting your balloon on fire, flying into the volcano or by falling victim to The Curse of the Blue Ibis. I will leave you to discover all of these endings, and how to avoid them, for yourself.
As with many of the games of this type, you do occasionally struggle to find the correct words to get something to happen. To give the obvious first example, I'd tried to CUT OFF the BUTTONS of Hubert's overcoat. This did not work. However, CUT BUTTONS did. Generally therefore, you seem to be best typing input in To Hell In A Hamper with the minimum amount of words if you can. Happily, the parser, although it does have some limitations, does recognise input of up five words, and you can always SAVE your position, experiment with which commands work and which do not, then LOAD it back in again so that you don't waste vital turns.
Another limitation of the parser is that it does not recognise the definite article. So you can type, for example, ASK HUBERT ABOUT CRICKET BALL but not ASK HUBERT ABOUT THE BALL.
Another grumble concerns the size of the game. Despite being set in one location, the multitude of different puzzles and events means that the disc drive is constantly in action as different sections are loaded in. Whilst the game might be forgiven for doing this when something important happens, it can be frustrating to wait two seconds for 'I can't do that' to appear, and then another two seconds for the 'What Now?' prompt to return.
Also, the game runs in the Elk's "paged mode" so that you have to press SHIFT to scroll the text. However, if you switch to the HINTs section, it suddenly seems as if you press any key other than SHIFT to scroll the text, which is a bit weird.
All in all, though, I have to say I thoroughly recommend this adventure. New games for the BBC and Electron are in extremely short supply these days so it's good to see that there are still some real crackers being produced. J. J. Guest, also informs us he is now working on an update of Potter Programs' Stranded On Iloofrax which, if up to the same standard, is certainly going to be well worth watching!