MYSTERY HOUSE / Sierra / Apple II
 
 
Reviewing Mystery House feels kind of like CNET going back and blasting Alexander Graham Bell's first phone for lacking a touch screen and apps. Our whole deal here is to review games solely in the context of how well they've held up over time and how enjoyable and playable they continue to be years after release and all that, but reviewing this particular game objectively in that light just feels like picking on a child. More so than usual.

Mystery House violates pretty much every rule of good game design, but it came out in 1980 when there really *were* no rules of good game design yet. Pong was all you could play at home on a TV, it took expensive arcade hardware and cabinets just to render something like Space Invaders, and the concept of a "personal computer" was an entirely new (and expensive) thing that was only available to a relatively tiny handful of people. Games had been made for computers since the 1970s - mostly for giant office mainframe terminals so pre-internet techies could have a means of fucking off at work - and the first text adventures like Zork and Colossal Cave were already out (and served as the inspiration for this game), but other than that there really was not much else going on. If you were designing games at the time, you were figuring out almost every aspect entirely for yourself.
 


Mystery House blazed trails by being the first adventure game to incorporate graphics. Sure, it's a static screen that has to be refreshed every single time you enter a command, and the graphics were drawn on a clunky primitive drawing pad and look like they were scrawled by a kindergartener, but the novelty was enough to make creators Roberta and Ken Williams somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000 in sales, which enabled them to found Sierra On-Line and go on to further develop the adventure game genre and create some pretty fine games along the way.

The game is so amateurish it's almost charming, from the childish graphics, to the rambling introduction/instructions at the outset, to the game just shutting itself down and kicking you out with a snippy reprimand if you type profanity. The one part that isn't charming (and that deserves some fair amount of criticism) is the incredibly obtuse parser. Not only does it only recognize maybe ten commands at best, some of them are very counterintuitive. You'll likely be stuck on the first two screens on a first playthrough for quite awhile if you don't know that the only way into the house is to first go "up" to the porch, then "go door" after opening it (no other command but "go" is understood for movement.) I think this was all covered in the rambling five or six pages of introductory instructions, to be fair, but who can actually be expected to read all that. Anyway, criticism is actually somewhat merited here as both Zork and Colossal Cave had much more functional parsers than this game does. I couldn't find a way to die, but the game can screw you over if you don't stumble across a lantern fairly early, as after a certain amount of turns darkness falls and every screen is covered in pitch black.

Of course, we are talking about two self-funded people with limited programming experience who were just enthusiasts of the medium and feeling their way along. And thank goodness the game had such great success in spite of its clunky unplayability, because it opened the door for many better things. Still, though, you really don't want to try playing it now.
 
                               Cause of death: Blunt force trauma resulting in Ouchie
 
Links :
 
* Download w/ Apple emulator - The game has been public domain since 1987
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