Madness and the Minotaur



Slot machines, so the theory goes, are addictive precisely because of the randomness of the payoff. It’s not simply the possibility of winning that draws players, but the hypnotic, chaotic patternlessness of winning and losing that sucks them in.

Videogames work this way too, sometimes. D.B. Weiss’s otherwise undistinguished book Lucky Wander Boy does have the germ of an idea in exploring the (fictional), eponymous arcade game, which was both exceedingly difficult and surrealist.

My own personal Lucky Wander Boy is a text adventure for the TRS-80 Color Computer called Madness and the Minotaur. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever beaten the game. It’s not clear to me that it is actually possible. I’ve held on to a TRS-80 Color Computer solely to play this game. For years I’ve dragged a cassette around with a backup of the game on it, on the b-side of a tape which held Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage album. I could sing you the scratchy John Zorn song the accumulated bits make from the tape as they load, slowly, into memory. I didn’t have a Color Computer in 1980, but my best friend, Billy, did. If Ultima and the Apple 2 make me think of Albert and Paul and eighth grade, the Color Computer makes me think of Billy and his Irish Setter, Sputnik, and the fireworks his parents let us set off – a firecracker, a moment’s distraction, looking back and time slows and expands as I see the red glowworm of lit fuse crawl into the paper, my face just a foot away, the report knocking me back in slow motion, high pitched ringing in my ears and the sky ash-gray over a green green lawn. Like a long-forgotten odor, memories of each of these little computers, these little bits of consumer electronics, activate different aspects of my nostalgia. Each time the perfume of nostalgia wells up, it clouds my vision, and I have to wrestle with a part of my emotional past and understand it before I can see these products for what they were, rather than getting lost in what they represent to me. Perhaps what they represent is more important than what they actually were. But, nonetheless, let’s talk about the game that, to me, epitomizes the Color Computer.


Title page

Madness and the Minotaur is a text adventure game. It is a brutal, unfair, senseless labyrinth which is amateurishly written and probably unwinnable. The parser is primitive and arbitrary. Object placement is semi-random (some objects are guaranteed to be on certain floors of the labyrinth). Some objects are protected by key-rules: for example, you can’t pick up the shield unless you’re holding some other object. In one game, that might be the dagger, in another, the sword. There’s never any explanation for these rules; they simply are. If you are holding the dagger, you can reach the shield. If you’re not, the shield is out of your reach. There’s a wandering Oracle whom you’ll meet occasionally, who will tell you the arbitrary rules. But sometimes he lies.

Part of the labyrinth – the first part – is the same from game to game, so the player is comforted by the sense of familiarity. Things go rapidly downhill from there. There are one-way doors, and secret doors. The obstacles in the game I hate the most, perhaps, are the pits that must be jumped even though you have no reason to suspect they’re there. With a different syntax each time – maybe here you’ll need to JUMP PIT, or here you might have to JUMP UP. Or JUMP POOL. or just JUMP. If you pick the wrong adjective the game will ask you JUMP WHAT?, as if the randomness of its syntax is your fault.

There are monsters, but most games don’t end with players getting killed by them. Usually, players will either lose the lamp (due to a random event) and die by falling into a pit. Or there will be a rock slide, trapping them in a room until they die of boredom (there are magic spells to blow away the rock slides, but they’re very hard to get, and usually the rock slides happen early in the game, long before you’ve gotten the spells.) Or players will wander in to the maze part of the map and then give up.

I’d never met anyone who had successfully mapped the maze. Every few years, I’d fire up the Color Computer (or, in more recent years, an emulator), play the game a bit, and then search the internet to see if anyone else knew anything about it. For the first few years of the early 90s, it seemed that no one had even heard of the game. Then, in 1995, I found a fan page that basically said “This game is really hard. Here are some hints, but I’ve never even come close to finishing it.” Another page cropped up the next year.

This year, I found a page by someone who has gotten further than anyone else I know. Through seemingly obsessive effort, he has cracked the puzzle of the maze, although he still hasn’t won the game. I never would have been able to figure out how this maze worked in a million years. Here’s how it is laid out (skip to the end of this article and download the game itself if you want to avoid spoilers):


Starting out

The game itself takes place in 4 floors; you start on the top level. Each floor is an 8x8 grid. The bottom three rows of each floor are part of “the big maze”. In the big maze, every room has basically the same description (“You are in a maze of…“) and is connected to every other room above and below it (if you go down from the fourth floor, you’ll end up in the same cell on the first floor). The rooms also wrap east-west, but discontiguously: if you’re in the easternmost room of row 7, and you go east, you’ll end up in the westernmost room of row 8. Of course, just to make it even harder, there’s no indication to tell you you’ve “wrapped” to the next row. There’s no north- south wrapping. The southeasternmost room of each floor generally has no eastern exit.

There’s one and only one way to exit the big maze. You have to find the southeasternmost room on the “bottommost” floor. That room has an eastern exit, which if you take it leads to another, smaller maze (which can’t be distinguished by description, only by mapping it). Somewhere in that maze is a pit. If you jump the pit, you get outside.

“Cruel” doesn’t even begin to describe this game.

The guy who figured out the maze has done better than anyone else I know – he’s gotten 220 points out of a possible 240 (for comparison, the most I ever got was, perhaps, 30, which is about all you can hope for without figuring out the maze). He has no idea where the other 20 points could possibly come from.

The game was written by “Spectral Associates,” a company that usually put author credits on their games, but didn’t on this one. Who actually wrote it? What was he thinking? Did he ever play his own game through to the end? I will probably never find out. But I will always wonder. Madness and the Minotaur was not my first computer game obsession, nor my last, nor even my strongest, but it occupies a strange and special place in my soul. A little portion of my brain is twisted in a labyrinth of black on green uppercase letters, searching for systematic meaning and order where there is only an undertested game, and…a maze.

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