September 27, 2008

Mad Mazing

I’ve been a computer geek from the beginning. By 5th grade I was screwing around with BASIC on computers that displayed eye-blinding green type (or sometimes orange) on tiny screens. I remember getting a TRS-80 color computer one Christmas and being thrilled—this baby ran programs off cassettes—yeah, audio cassettes!—and I upgraded it from 8k to 32k. That’s RAM. Not megabytes, but 32k!

Back in the early 1980s (probably 1983 or 1984) my family was selected as a test family for a service called Videotext. We were a perfect test family, I suppose: two boys and a girl, two parents, two grandparents, all in one house. For about 6 months we got the service free and we answered some questions and did survey interviews about it. We were told that about 200 families in New Jersey had the system.

Videotext was like a primitive Internet, for its day. We could send simple notes (pre- e-mail) to other users, get weather and news, and submit letters to online advice columns. Aside from checking the weather and news, which I did every day, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the system … until Madmaze came along.

Madmaze was a 3-D style maze game. You navigated a graphic maze, and every so often you came to a drawn location, such as a castle, that had an associated riddle. If you answered the riddle, you continued. The only riddle I remember is: “Name a Rodgers and Hammerstein play named after a state” (Oklahoma). My brother and I became addicted. Before long, we—via our screennames—were listed in the Top 10 players. We soon we moving through the maze so fast that we began running into unfinished sections, and we were invited via “e-mail” to help debug the game by provided reports of bugs and unfinished areas. Every evening at 7-o-clock I sat down and ran the gauntlet for about an hour. This was way before Wolfenstein 3D and the Atari system had only been out a few years; this was new, exciting stuff.

Eventually the test period of Videotext was growing to a close. My brother and I, enjoying the personal competition, strove to finish the maze before each other … and anyone else. The last week was a mad dash to the finish, as the hallways of the maze grew steadily weirder (they had begun as brick or clay and now had glowing electrodes in them). Then it was over. My brother finished first, another player called ElBandito finished second, and I finished third—mere points apart. Curse you ElBandito!

As his prize for coming in first, my brother won a poster-sized print of the screen location of his choice, signed by the digital artist. My brother, knowing I knew the locations better and wanting to share his prize, let me choose. It was easy; after briefly considering the Haunted House I chose the Castle (big surprise, eh?). We indeed received our print (which sadly is now long gone) and it adorned our bedroom wall for a time. Soon thereafter the system was removed from our house and we heard little more about it, though it seems the test helped lay the groundwork for the Prodigy online system.

Historical notes: Internet searches lead me to believe that Videotex (no t) was the name of our service, but I remember it being Videotext, dammit! Greg Costikyan (designer of the West End Games’ Paranoid RPG, among other things) developed a Madmaze game for Prodigy in 1989, but this is not the game we played. Some screenshots of this latter game are labeled Madmaze II, so I have to assume that we played an earlier or prototype version (call it Madmaze I or perhaps Zero).

So what’s the moral here? Not much, except to share memories of my first online dungeon. Later adventures in the computer realm would follow: Ultima III and IV, Wolfenstein, etc., but few captured that excitement of exploring Madmaze.
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