The Catacombs of Your Mind

The Catacombs of Your Mind was the first program that I ever had published. It was designed and written during my sophomore year of high school and accepted for publication in COMPUTE!’s Atari Collection, Volume 2 in the fall of 1983. This was very exciting for a 16 year old!

The Deal

The initial contract provided for an initial payment of $550 for publication in the book, and an additional $200 for the rights to distribute the game on disk. In addition, I would receive royalties on both book and disk sales. For the books sales, COMPUTE! paid 7.5% of net sales distributed among all of the authors appearing in the book. Disk royalties were similar but were a portion of 15%. The kicker, for me, was that the book royalties were split proportionally to the size of the contribution from each author. My program had a large number of short lines of data, taking up 20 pages of a 230 page book containing 31 programs.

The Game

Catacombs was a inspired by a game (I don’t remember the name) for the Radio Shack TRS-80 that my friends and I played at school. The concept is a simple “first person, graphical, text adventure.” The game is set in a maze that is displayed in 3-D and you could move around with a joystick. There wasn’t any animation, you would just move from one square in the maze to the next.

From your view, you could see the walls, turns, pits (that dropped you to another location in the maze), and boxes/chests that contained various useful items. What you couldn’t see were monsters… Once you landed on a spot with a monster, you had three turns to figure out how to defeat the monster with the items in your possession. Usually, there was a one-to-one match, meaning that only a single item would defeat each monster. If you didn’t have the correct item, you would die and have to start over.

The maze would always be the same, and the items and monsters were always in the same place, so each time you would play, you would learn a bit more and hopefully be able to progress a little further. Players would typically draw a map as they went, so to make it more difficult, there were pits that would drop you onto another location in the maze, and possibly rotated differently. There were also a some other “looping” locations, and one-way openings to make it trickier.

The Code

When I wrote Catacombs, I had an 8-bit Atari computer. I don’t remember if I was still using my original Atari 400 or if I had already gotten an Atari 800XL (later, I had an Atari 130XE). At that time, my language of choice was Atari BASIC (on a cartridge) and I had to load and save with a cassette recorder.

One of the defining characteristics of the times was software printed in books or magazines that had to be typed in by hand by the user. This impacted Catacombs in two ways. First, like most text adventure games, the available commands, items, and monsters had to be kept secret. Since the user was going to type in the program, I had to encrypt any text in the game, then decode it for display.

Second, there was a lot of data to type to define the maze (roughly 420 squares on a piece of graph paper). I couldn’t really help out the users who had to type this data, but I could help me. There was a technique with Atari BASIC to allow a program to “write itself” effectively “typing” code into the editor and it would be added to the program. This allowed me to write a few lines of code that would let me use a joystick to write the data. I started at the top left, then would push the joystick in each direction the user could move, then push the joystick button to move to the next square. After each square, the code would add a new line of data to the game code.

Let’s See It!

Unfortunately, I don’t have any screenshots or even a binary copy of the program. The book itself can be found on the Internet Archive: Compute!’s Atari Collection, Volume 2. Some one of these days, I’ll get it up and running on an emulator and post some screenshots.

If you just want to read the original article, I have reproduced it here.

Credit Where It’s Due

Although I wrote all the code for Catacombs, I had a lot of help from a classmate, David Harvey. David did most of the maze design and did all of the work figuring out what monsters would be in the maze, and what items would be used to defeat each of them. Although we didn’t have any sort of written agreement (hey, we were just kids), when I got the first check from COMPUTE!, I gave David enough to buy his own Atari computer.

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