Harry McCracken is not the name of a Cold War superspy, but a man who is now the tech editor of Fast Company (opens in new tab) and, in his younger days, a developer of games for Radio Shack's TRS-80 microcomputer. McCracken recently went back to have a look at his first game, Arctic Adventure, which he wrote when he was 16 around 1980-81—a text adventure inspired by the work of Scott Adams (opens in new tab) in particular, a pioneering designer of the Adventure series of games for the TRS-80.
As was common in the 80s, Arctic Adventure was distributed in book form. This was The Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures: pages of type-it-yourself BASIC code, each entry its own adventure game.
It's amusing how made-up McCracken's potted biography was in this book: "[it said] I was fifteen years old (I was seventeen when the book was published), took computer courses at school (nope), played Dungeons & Dragons (never), and was devoted to science fiction (not particularly)."
In high school, I wrote and sold a buggy TRS-80 adventure game set in the Arctic. Forty years later, I’ve debugged it (at least a little), expanded it, and made it run in your web browser. And I’ve written about the whole experience. https://t.co/gJ28vTUG6yAugust 28, 2021
Despite the emulators and swathes of TRS-80 software now easily available online, however, McCracken couldn't find Arctic Adventure.
"I know of only a couple of contemporary mentions of it on the internet, and no evidence that anyone has played it since the first Reagan administration," McCracken writes in a post about the game. "It seems fair to call it a lost game. Or at least I lost it myself until recently."
McCracken got paid for the game but never received a copy of the book or any feedback ("except for someone involved with Bob's software company tartly informing me that a bug rendered my game unwinnable. He offered no other details.") While McCracken would go on to make two other games, one of which sold and one which didn't make it, he soon discovered he enjoyed freelance writing more and his career went in that direction.
"Decades later, I didn't spend much time thinking about Arctic Adventure, but I never forgot the fact that I hadn't received a copy of the Captain 80 book. Thanks to the internet, I eventually acquired one. But typing in five-and-a-half pages of old BASIC code seemed onerous, even if it was code I'd written."
McCracken eventually got around to it this July. "After five or six tedious typing sessions on my iPad, I had Arctic Adventure restored to digital form. That was when I made an alarming discovery: As printed in the Captain 80 book, the game wasn't just unwinnable, but unplayable. It turned out that it had a 1981 typo that consisted of a single missing '0' in a character string. It was so fundamental a glitch that it rendered the game's command of the English language inoperable. You couldn't GET SHOVEL let alone complete the adventure."
The book apparently had a program editor, who had one job and failed to do it. McCracken has no idea at this remove "whether I was responsible for the bug or it slipped in during the editing process, I don't know. But if you typed Arctic Adventure into your TRS-80 back then and couldn't get it to work, I hereby apologize."
The page where McCracken tells his story has a restored Arctic Adventure (opens in new tab), in which the creator has made quality-of-life interface improvements, squashed bugs and tweaked it to run smoothly on a web-based TRS-80 emulator. McCracken clearly knows the modern internet audience well, because he added a dog that follows you around and helps win the game. He also added an even earlier game of his as an easter egg—"a rudimentary slot-machine simulator that survived because I uploaded it to a BBS circa 1979. (Now it's a slot machine inside a tiny casino in the Arctic.)"
The return of Arctic Adventure is a pretty heartwarming tale, and the fact it sat around with a typo rendering it unplayable for 40 years is kind of amazing. I feel terrible when I notice typos in my articles a few hours after publication, so lord knows how satisfying McCracken must have found it to re-insert that missing 0.
An ad for the book where ARCTIC ADVENTURE originally appeared, with typical 1981 computer magazine ad art. pic.twitter.com/RobZD4u0ZKAugust 28, 2021
There's also the interesting element that, strictly speaking, this isn't the original preserved in amber, but a creator returning to their work decades later to polish it up, not for any hope of gain but the noble goal of self-amusement and satisfying one's own curiosity. This game may not be a crucial lost part of gaming history, but raises some interesting questions about how this stuff does or doesn't survive.
"Rather than trying to either preserve ARCTIC ADVENTURE in its original form or completely reimagine it," writes McCracken, "I decided that it was my game and there was nothing wrong with continuing development on it after a four-decade break—especially since it's unclear whether anyone managed to get it running in 1981." At least, however, "I do know that it's now possible to play it all the way through to its exhilarating conclusion."
If you're not into text adventures or TRS-80s, then just think about this as a manifestation of a different era, a different culture around computers. A time McCracken remembers fondly because "nearly everyone who was serious about computer games tried writing their own, regardless of the results."