17. Wombats I

by Garry Francis


Issue 27

May/Jun 87

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Generally speaking, Adventuring is a serious business. Hacking through steamy jungles, piloting spaceships and whomping monsters are not tasks to be taken lightly. When you step into an Adventure's alternative world, you are putting your alter ego's life on the line. This can be a considerable responsibility, but when combined with the normal challenge and frustration of Adventuring, you realise that the Adventure player is subject to considerable stress. The more Adventuring you do, the more stress you're subjected to!

Because of this, it's nice to occasionally take a break from 'serious' Adventuring by playing an Adventure comedy. By that, I mean one of the light-hearted Adventures that doesn't take itself too seriously and provides a few laughs along the way. Unfortunately, there are very few Adventures that fall into this category. Most Adventures have at least one or two funny responses, but very few are funny throughout. Infocom no doubt comes closest, with games like Planetfall, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. The only non-Infocom comedies that come to mind are the classic Soft Porn (from Sierra On-Line) and possibly Dragon Quest (from Antic), although these are more spoofs than comedies.

That brings us to the subject of this month's column...

Wombats I is a text Adventure written by Alex Leavens and Shirley A. Russell for Dynamic Software Design, P.O. Box 8169, Fremont, CA 94537, U.S.A. It was first advertised in March 1985, hence it must have been around for about two years, but it's extremely hard to find. I tried a couple of mail order houses in the States and eventually got a copy from Computer Games +, P.O. Box 6144, Orange, CA 92667, U.S.A. for the discounted price of $US24.95 plus postage. However, you can probably buy it direct from Dynamic Software Design for the normal price of $US27.95 plus postage. In either case, write first to check on price and availability.

Wombats I is advertised as a parody Adventure. The ad goes something like this:

"How to track a wombat:

  • Buy appropriate wombat tracking gear (snowshoes, swimsuit, flashlight).
  • Fly to exotic countrysides (Borneo, Lower Hebrides, Pasaic, N.J.).
  • Get Wombat Tracker's License.
  • Track wombat.

OR: You can simply play Wombats I from the safety and security of your own keyboard. Wombats I is a new kind of Adventure game where the action takes place mostly in your mind. Wombats I is sophisticated software, sporting 48k of program and 55k of absurd, irreverent text. Wombats I spoofs Adventure games and life in general..."

What a load of rubbish!

Firstly, a parody is a humorous imitation of another author's composition, which this isn't. So what is it? Travesty? Spoof? Satire? Lampoon? Comedy? Farce? I'd call it a travesty (which makes a thing look ridiculous by grotesque representation) or better still, a farce (a dramatic work meant merely to cause laughter, often by presenting ludicrously improbable events).

Secondly, a wombat is a small, bear-like, herbivorous marsupial which is native to Australia. There's no way you'd track one down using the suggestions in the ad, but I'll excuse this as ignorance or 'artist's license'.

Thirdly, the title is misleading as there is absolutely no reference to wombats within the game itself!

Fourthly, the technical claims are downright lies! It is NOT a new kind of Adventure or sophisticated software, but a primitive, compiled BASIC program with a limited vocabulary and a poor parser. And how does 103k fit on an 88k disk? Simple. It doesn't! The disk has 38k of program and less than 29k of text files – a total of 67k.

To add to the false impression created by the advertising, the game is subtitled 'Episode I: Gazumba the Great and the Wombats of Borozoa'. This implies that there is an Episode II, which there isn't. (It was advertised once, but it doesn't appear to have become a reality.) There is also no such character as Gazumba the Great encountered in the game and no such place as Borozoa? And what's this obsession with wombats anyway?

I don't know what the authors are trying to achieve here, but I felt terribly disappointed once I'd played the game and discovered that it bore absolutely no resemblance to the advertisement which had prompted me to buy it in the first place!

Having gotten that off my chest, let's forget about the authors' motives and look at the game itself.

The review

Wombats I supposedly takes place on the remains of a college campus – although the majority of locations have nothing whatsoever to do with an educational institution. A mental institution, maybe, but definitely not an educational institution.

You will encounter rooms like a behavioural science lab, a restaurant with a dead maitre d', a waterfall of light, an auditorium, a discotheque, an electronics lab, cloud cuckoo land and much more. Each room has a long and colourful description like in an Infocom game. For example, the starting room (known as the compass room) is described as follows:

"You are standing in a large room with exits in all four directions. There is an ornate compass laid in multicoloured tiles on the floor and a large, lightly lit globe hangs overhead. The room is warm and the soft purr of an air filter can be heard in the distance."

The aim of the game is to find the nine treasures scattered throughout the complex and return them to the compass room. In doing so, you must also visit every room in the complex and carry out certain obscure actions to earn points. When your score reaches 342 points, the endgame room is activated. You must then find this room to be awarded the last five points, thus completing the game with a perfect score of 347 points.

Now this may not sound too hard, but consider this. There are only ten objects in the whole game and nine of these are the treasures! Most of the treasures are of little or no use except in gaining points. The remaining object has one use and one use only! Combine all this with a somewhat specialised vocabulary, a barely adequate parser and some really obscure actions and you have a hard game!


Unfortunately, Wombats I also has some bad spelling and quite a few bugs. Here's a few examples:

  • The blurb about the electronics lab describes two objects which can be taken. However, when they ARE taken, they still appear in the description even though they're not really there!
  • If you try to type anything on the computer after it's blown up, you're told how pointless that is, seeing as the computer is a smouldering pile of rubble. Fair enough. However, you get the same message even BEFORE the computer blows up!
  • Starting the car is random and can take anything up to 20 (and possibly more) tries without indicating that you should try again. If you didn't know to keep trying, you'd give up after the first go!
  • You can solve the equation in the classroom without even knowing what it is!
  • If you visit the area around cloud cuckoo land more than once, you can get extra points and even finish the game without ever finding the endgame room!
  • The parser gives lots of funny errors, but one that tickled my fancy was when I said EXAMINE THEATER. The program replied "I don't know the word TER". It thought that both 'THE' and 'A' were definite articles despite the stupid syntax and lack of spaces.
  • If you accidentally RESTORE a game with a bad disk, it asks "Is disk okay?". Subsequent RESTOREs cause "Game error occurred. Error is 133. Line is 0 Do you wish to retry?". Type 'Y' and it doesn't work. Type anything else and the program locks up.

Game playing strategy

The overall strategy required for Wombats I is not all that different to that required for other Adventures, but you must be much more thorough.

Every time you enter a new room you are given a lengthy room description. Start out by identifying all the nouns in the room description. For example, in the description of the compass room quoted above, the nouns are 'room', 'exits', 'directions', 'compass', 'tiles', 'floor', 'globe', 'filter' and 'distance'. To this list of nouns, always add 'wall' and 'ceiling'. Now systematically try to EXAMINE and READ every noun on the list regardless of how irrelevant it seems. You will often get a humorous response and may be awarded some points into the bargain! Note that LOOK AT is usually synonymous with EXAMINE, but there is at least one notable exception. EXAMINE and READ are also synonyms in some situations, but not others. Make sure you try both! For example, EXAMINE DIPLOMA and READ DIPLOMA give the same response, but EXAMINE BOARD and READ BOARD give two entirely different responses. One earns points and one doesn't.

As you work through the list, you will more often than not be told that the noun is not understood. Be persistent. Don't skip verb noun combinations as you'll sometimes find that a noun is understood when you EXAMINE it, but not when you READ it and vice versa.

Once you've exhausted the list of nouns, try to GET any object that seems moveable. You'll often get an error message, but sometimes you'll get a funny response and you may even discover a treasure! If the noun turns out to be a moveable object, EXAMINE it and READ it again after you've picked it up. You nearly always get different responses when you EXAMINE and READ moveable objects.

Finally, try every other verb you can think of that has any relevance to each of the nouns. For example, if you find a lamp (and you won't), you can try to light it (LIGHT, BURN, START, TURN ON), extinguish it (EXTINGUISH, UNLIGHT, TURN OFF), empty it (EMPTY, POUR, SPILL), fill it (FILL, REPLENISH, REFILL, REFUEL), further examine it (SHAKE, LISTEN TO, TOUCH, FEEL) or do the Aladdin thing (RUB, WIPE, WASH, CLEAN, SHINE). Get the idea? Only when you've exhausted every possibility should you move on to the next room.

As you explore the complex, make sure you draw a map. Don't assume that if you go north from one room, you can return by going south. More often than not, you can't! There are lots of twists and turns and one-way passages. In fact, it's a real *@!?# to map in a clear and consistent manner.

Finally, here's a few miscellaneous tips to help you on the way.

If you find any living creatures in the complex (and I use the term loosely), try talking to them and giving them things. You'll get some really funny responses if you do. The alien is particularly helpful! Quote him word for word!

Don't worry too much about trying to catch the droid until you're in the right room. There's a hint in the instructions which explains where that is (but ignore the hint about the movie).

There is no time limit and no limit on the number of items you can carry, so carry everything you can until you've found all the treasures.


While all this is going on, you must keep a very careful eye on your score. Type SCORE every time you enter a new room and every time you get a meaningful response from the program. Points are sometimes awarded for the most obscure actions and only by constantly checking your score will you be able to determine what actions are essential to finish the game. Remember that you cannot get to the endgame room to complete the game unless you have a perfect score!

Points are awarded as follows (the list is deliberately vague to avoid giving too much away):

5 points for visiting each of the 36 rooms for a total of 180 points
10 points for returning each of the 9 treasures for a total of 90 points
10 points for starting the car
10 points for playing the record
10 points for saying the magic phrase
7 points for reading the book
5 points for feeling the alien
5 points for reading the bulletin board
5 points for examining the papers
4 points for pulling the handle
4 points for examining the diploma
4 points for examining the frescoes
3 points for looking in the mirror
3 points for pressing the switch
2 points for examining the compass
2 points for reading the magazine
2 points for examining the plaque
1 point for solving the equation
347 points total

You also lose 20 points if you get killed.

Cheat's corner

If you've followed my advice so far and you still can't finish the game, then it's time to cheat! When I play an Adventure, I always try to finish it by myself without any outside help. If I get really stuck, I'll resort to a sector editor (or something similar) to scan the disk and hopefully come up with some ideas to help overcome the current stumbling block. In cases where the text is compacted or encoded in such a way that it is not easily recognisable, I'll turn to my large collection of magazine articles, hint sheets, hint books or whatever else is available. When there's no published material to help, then it's all out war! It's me versus the programmer – anything goes and no holds barred! All's fair in love and war ... and solving Adventures.

In the case of Wombats I, I was about half way through the game and had come to a dead end. I was finding it reasonably frustrating up until that point and was ready to resort to a sector editor. At about the same time, the disk developed an intermittent bad sector and would sometimes fail to load. I hadn't made a backup because of the copy protection and was worried that if I returned the disk for a replacement, I might never see it again.

At that point, I decided to crack the copy protection, make a backup copy and examine the disk at my leisure without having to bother about bad sectors, funny formats and so on. This turned out to be more fun than playing the Adventure itself and revealed some very interesting things.

The disk is not an autoboot disk as I would have expected, but a plain old ordinary DOS disk with a custom format on the first three tracks and a few stray bad sectors. It contains a version of DOS XL licensed from Optimised Systems Software, an AUTORUN.SYS file containing the compiled BASIC program, a whole heap of coded text files and a short data file called DMA.DAT. The latter contains decimal numbers for a machine language routine read in by the main program.

If you'd like to examine any of these files, you'll have to start out by making a non-executable, working copy of the original disk. This is easily achieved by copying sectors 1–9, 11–19, 21–39, 41–59 and 61–629 from the Wombats I disk to your own freshly formatted blank disk. (All these numbers are in decimal. All you hex freaks should use sectors $01–$09, $0B–$13, $15–$27, $29–$3B and $3D–$275.) You can actually use the working disk to load the program, but it will NOT run because it has not duplicated the bad sectors and funny format of the original. Hence the working disk is useless except for examining files.

Wombats I uses a hidden directory. This is located in sectors 370–377 and can be 'unhidden' by copying it back to its proper place at sectors 361–368. (Again this is in decimal. Hex freaks should copy sectors from $172–$179 back to $169–$170.) You can now load DOS, get a directory and use the DOS copy function to copy files to the screen. When copying the text files, you'll see that they are full of gobbledegook. That's because they've been coded to keep out prying eyes. Fortunately, it's only a simple transposition cipher. If you increment the ASCII value of each character, you'll get the proper ASCII value, thus @ becomes A, A becomes B, B becomes C and so on. This would be a pretty tedious job to do manually, so you can use the accompanying program to make life easier.

AtariLister - requires Java

The endgame

With all the game playing strategy and tidbits in Cheat's Corner, you should have no trouble completing the game. When you've reached the endgame room, you get to fill out a card included in the package and send it off to Dynamic Software Design for your Official Wombat Tracker's Certificate and a special surprise. I'm not sure what the special surprise is (as I haven't sent my card off yet), but I'm certainly curious to find out.


I feel that the advertising of Wombats I is a bit misleading, as it isn't really a parody or a comedy, but more of a farce. Nevertheless, if you've got a really warped sense of humour, I'm sure you'll get a lot of laughs out of Wombats I. Try playing it with a group of friends to get the most fun from it. (And try swearing at it!) Once the initial novelty wears off and your friends have gone home, you'll find that the game is extremely tedious. It's got a lot of bugs and needs a lot of patience to play, hence I can only recommend it to dedicated Adventurers with a broad mind and a lot of previous experience.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments or you need a hint on a specific Adventure, please feel free to write, but don't forget to include two international reply coupons if you expect a reply.