Reviews of Humbug

Missed Classic 63: Humbug (1990)
Review by Joe Pranevich, The Adventure Gamer, December 2018

Here’s a link to the definitive in-depth review by Joe Pranevich on The Adventure Gamer blog.

Review by Sue Medley, Syntax, 1991

I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy to write an adventure game, but I’ve often thought that it must be several times harder to write one which is funny too. Trying to get the right balance of humour while juggling flags and counters and trying to ensure a good story and mix of puzzles at the same time seems an impossible task. But luckily there are a few people who have achieved the impossible and one of them is the author of Humbug and an equally funny game, Jacaranda Jim. One final point to ponder is that he’s programmed both games from scratch too! Makes you feel ‘umble, doesn’t it….

Anyway, back to Humbug itself.

The title comes from the fact that, once again, you’ve been sent to boring old Attervist Manor to spend the school holidays with Grandad – and this is the Christmas holiday. The old codger is a bit of a trouble-maker so the idea is that you’re supposed to keep him out of mischief. Fat chance! When you enter the Manor, after being dropped off by a cab, you find him fast asleep in his chair, clutching a document from his neighbour’s solicitor.

It seems that Grandad is in a bit of a spot financially and his neighbour, Jasper Slake, has offered to settle his debts for him in exchange for ownership of the Manor – what a nerve! Gramps must think so too ‘cos he’s written a rather rude word on the document; he obviously doesn’t fancy the idea suggested in it that he goes into an Old Folks’ Home.

Slake thinks Grandad is crazy too, partly because he says there’s treasure hidden in the grounds of the Manor. Well, Slake could be right – after all, Grandad idolises Napoleon Bonaparte and dresses just like him! On the other hand, if he isn’t crazy and there IS treasure somewhere about and you could find it, it’d solve all the old boy’s problems. Plus it would give you something to do in this awful weather…..

Whereas Jacaranda Jim was a really fun game to play, Humbug is even larger and more amusing with lots of weird objects to collect and wonder what to use them for and the house is riddled with strange chutes which lead ….. who knows where.

There are several creatures around the Manor and its grounds too; a bear cub searches for food in the woods, an owl sits in the attic, a hedgehog hibernates by the boiler while an aardvark in a suit sleeps on top of a washing machine and a wumpus (eh?) is trapped in a perspex tube. Can you get it out without sending the poor thing into orbit? I especially liked Grandad’s cat, Schrodinger, who wanders from room to room. You can play a game called Wubble-a-Gloop with a games-crazy octopus too, if you’ve got the nerve and can work out how to beat him.

The human NPCs are equally realistic, from Grandad’s gardener, Horace, who will foil any attempts you make to map a large maze in the garden by collecting any objects you drop and putting them in his dustbin, to several Vikings (one of whom wears a Marks and Sparks coat and carries a Filofax), a gravedigger and a barman. You’ll meet the last two characters once you use Grandad’s wonderful invention – a time machine, which will take you back to the Attervist Manor of Victorian times.

Grandad has invented other items apart from the time machine. His speciality seems to be robots which have been constructed from the odds and sods that anyone else would throw away; milk bottle tops, pipe cleaners, old treacle jars and the like. You’ll find several of these on your travels. The best one, though, has got to be Kevin, the clockwork shark. Just read this description, taken from the game:

    “I am in the pantry. It is a small, dark room – the only source of light being a barred oval window built close to the ceiling in the west wall. A definite niff of seaweed wafts around the shelves. Small mountains of marzipan and icing sugar are liberally scattered across the dark stone floor. There is a movement from behind one of the taller mounds of marzipan and a shark totters around on his hind fins. The shark smiles benignly at me, “Hello, my little poppet”. The shark paternally pats me on the head with a damp flipper and flamboyantly places a small caddy on one of the pantry shelves. The shark smiles at me again and waggles his eyebrows in anticipation of my response.”

Sue Medley, SynTax

Review by Crispin Boylan, SPAG, 1997

This game has been around for years, and is one of the more popular interactive fiction titles in Britain, and was, until recently, a shareware title which had to be registered (with the registered version you got a solution to the maze which was otherwise unsolvable, and you could also save and load games to disk). Times they are a changin’ however, and now the game has been released into the public domain due to the author not having enough time to sell or support the game anymore. Cluley has actually produced this game without the aid of any of the text adventure creation languages, a huge feat for a game this size!

Anyway that’s the history out of the way, now to get to the meat of this review, the game itself. It all opens with you, Sidney Widdershins, arriving at your senile old grandad’s estate for a short stay during the Christmas Holidays. You planned to explore the old windmill in the grounds of Attervist Manor, but as you arrive you realise that something is amiss, especially when Grandad does not appear to be around!

Closer inspection of the house reveals grandad sleeping in his armchair, seemingly unwakeable, he has a rather interesting document in his possession, a legal document asking for grandad to hand over the manor to his new neighbour, Jasper Slake, who will take proper care of the manor.

It seems during that the old fool is broke, and has let the manor fall into a state of disrepair, and his mutterings to Jasper of secret treasure hidden in the grounds of the manor, and the ‘wild woman of the hills’ have done nothing to prove his mental stability!

Grandad and Slake are bitter enemies, only recently, the letter explains, did Grandad plant a scale model of the Champs Elysee in Slakes garden! So, on discovering this news it is still unclear as to your mission, do you have to find the treasure? or maybe stop Slake?

This is one of the best points of the game, you are constantly fed with small snippets of the plot, which is consistent, and of good quality.

There is one major feature of this game which makes it stick out from the rest, it is completely weird and surreal, you only have to look at the NPCs to see this, Kevin, a clockwork shark, built by Grandad as his contribution to the war effort; Sven, the viking, whose ship has been caught in the manors lake as it froze; and Horace the groundsman, who travels round the maze collecting any ‘litter’ in the form of objects, that you may have deposited, he also only talks to vegetables!

Some of the NPCs are better than others, but all are likeable, apart from the villain, Jasper, of course. The NPCs, on the whole are not too talkative, but then again they really don’t need to be.

This game has a maximum score of 2000 points, so you can expect quite a few puzzles in this little gem, most of which are quite logical, but there are some very hard puzzles which you really have to think about.

The game also has a bit of organisation needed, you must do the puzzles in a certain order or you won’t be able to complete others, this is a bit annoying, but it is quite obvious, and easy to get around. To get the final few points you have to do a bit of verb searching, for example typing ‘PRAY’, earns the response ‘A voice from below shouts, “I don’t know how you’ve got the nerve!”‘ and earns you 10 points, but does little else, my top score is 1920, so I still have to get those last few!

There are over 200 objects and 100 locations in this game, so it’s pretty big, and the locations are varied, and when I say that I mean Varied with a capital V, there are such bizzare locations as a alien bar, a trip back in time, a fairie’s den, a junk yard, a bus stop, and all of this takes place in the manor’s cellars!!

The parser’s vocabulary is pretty extensive, but does it doesn’t stretch to multiple commands in the same sentence, still I like it.

This game is very funny, you can’t help but laugh at some of the jokes that examining some objects brings up, and the whole thing is just so surreal! The atmosphere is very good and you can just imagine being there, the writing is on the whole very detailed and descriptive.

As a player with a bit of experience (I haven’t completed all the Infocom games, but I’ve played through a few) I found this game hard (I desperately needed the on-line hints), but very rewarding, just wait until you see the ending, it’s brilliantly funny, and you’ll never guess it!!!!

This is a great game, download it now.

Crispin Boylan, SPAG

Humbug: “Quiet Eccentricity”
By Theo Clarke, Strategy Plus, 1991

My collection is crowded with adventures set in gothic mansions with extensive grounds, absurdly convoluted catacombs and a maze of twisty little passages all the same. I suspect that Graham Cluley’s collection is much the same. Humbug is the most entertaining text adventure that I have played since Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in 1984. It is crowded with wit and challenging puzzles that open up to logical approaches.

Sidney Widdershins is spending a few days of the Christmas holiday at Attervist Manor, the home of his eccentric inventor Grandad. Grandad’s neighbour, Jasper Slake, wants to buy the Manor and has suggested that the old man is more than merely eccentric. Given that Grandad dresses as Napoleon and claims that there is a treasure to be found in the old house, Jasper could be right.

Grandad is heavily in debt but he is a successful inventor. There is a time machine in the cellar and some very odd robots turn up in the most unlikely places. Perhaps there really is some hidden treasure and Sidney may be able to sort things out if he can only find the loot.

Attervist Manor and its grounds contain about a hundred rooms and over two hundred different items. The parser is robust and refreshingly obvious. Actions involve simple phrases and there appear to be no cases of the thesaurus-driven puzzle that can be the adventurer’s bane. The logic of the game is inescapable; find a chimpanzee and you know that there will be a banana somewhere with which to bribe him. When the links are not obvious it is possible to pick up further clues by questioning the rather curious characters that populate the game.

Quiet absurdity is the core of this adventure. There is Kevin, a camp robot shark built by Grandad. There is a Nim-playing octopus and a Viking carrying a filofax. All of this daftness is tied together with an internal logic that seduces the player into Cluley’s world.

The game achieves the optimum balance of challenge, charm, silliness and sophistication. There are all manner of knowing jokes about the nature of adventure games. For example, when Sidney enters a crypt he sees something trapped in a tube. Closer inspection reveals

    “a cuddly wumpus, a small round ball of a creature covered in soft pink fur. Over the years the wumpus species has suffered more than most. Misguided adventurers have been led to believe that wumpi are large fang-ridden creatures with a taste for human blood, and that Hunt the Wumpus is an honourable pastime. The truth couldn’t be more different: the wumpus is a timid creature who prefers an evening in with a good book and Mozart on the hi-fi to mayhem and slaughter.”

Current wisdom is that people don’t want to use a keyboard to play games. The same pundits claim that successful games have graphics. This has led to clumsy marriages of pictures to text adventures and to the sophisticated animated adventures from Sierra and their competitors. But there are some forms of humour that rely on words alone and Humbug makes the most of this.

If you don’t like puzzles you won’t like adventure games but there can be few PC gamers out there who won’t get their money’s worth.

Theo Clarke, Strategy Plus

Review by Alex Freeman, SPAG, 2001

In this game, you are Sidney Widdershins and have been sent to Granddad’s for the winter holidays. When you arrive there after being deposited by a taxi and get in, you find that Granddad is asleep and is holding a document. When you read it, you find that Granddad’s neighbor, Jasper, has offered to buy Granddad’s home, Attervist Manor, since Granddad is so deeply in debt. Granddad claims that there is hidden treasure in the grounds of the manor, but Jasper apparently thinks he is nuts. Granddad thinks lowly of Jasper and has written a rude word on the document (not shown in the game). However, if Granddad is not nuts and if there really is hidden treasure, you could help him get out of debt.

The atmosphere is unique and quite odd. For instance, there is a Viking called Sven whose boat has been caught in the frozen lake nearby the manor. There are also a bar, a hacker, and an octopus underneath the manor. The game also does not always make sense. For instance, what is giant slug doing in the manor? But, eh, who cares? It makes the game

There are other interesting places you can explore, such as the forest maze and the manor back in the Victorian times (via time machine).

The NPCs are fairly well developed. You can get to know them better by asking them questions in the format “ask character about subject”. Obviously, the characters can’t have a special response for everything, so when you ask a character about something or someone he doesn’t know (e.g. asking someone who lives in the Victorian times about someone who lives in modern times) the character has a special response to indicate
that he doesn’t know anything about what you’ve asked. One of my favorite responses is the one you get when you ask Horace the gardener about something he doesn’t know:

    Horace looks suspiciously at me, but remains silent. I am not sure it is in his terms of employment to actually communicate with sentient life forms. Herbs and vegetables he can cope with, but people give him problems.

Another interesting NPC is Kevin the clockwork shark, who is one of Granddad’s many inventions and was made by him during WWII. You get this description of him upon entering the pantry for the first time:

    I am in the pantry. It is a small, dark room – the only source of light being a barred oval window built close to the ceiling in the west wall. A definite niff of seaweed wafts around the shelves. Small mountains of marzipan and icing sugar are liberally scattered across the damp stone floor. There is a movement from behind one of the taller mounds of marzipan and a shark totters around on his hind fins. The shark smiles benignly at me, “Hello my little sugar-plum.” The shark paternally pats me on the head with a damp flipper, flamboyantly places a small caddy on one of the pantry shelves. The shark smiles at me again, and waggles his eyebrows in anticipation of my response.

There are many other NPCs, such as a Victorian grave digger, Alex the hacker, Jasper, and, of course, Granddad.

As you’ve probably noticed, the writing is quite descriptive. It’s also quite humorous. In fact, my wildcard points are for the humour in the game. You also get funny responses if you try do silly actions. For instance, typing DRINK PETROL gives you the response “Heh, heh. I think not.” You even get 10 points for it! My only complaint about it is that it contains a few minor punctuation errors (as you might have noticed).

The parser is very good. It can understand fairly sophisticated sentences and is easy to use, but it doesn’t do some fancy stuff like recognizing multiple sentences (not that I would type multiple sentences if I could but still).

However, this game has one serious flaw. Most of the puzzles are either too easy or too hard. For instance, I find a banana and later I find a chimp. Gee, I wonder what to do next. That one is, of course, an example of a puzzle that’s too easy. A puzzle that is too hard is how you’re supposed to put out the fire underneath the manor. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to figure that puzzle out! It is quite illogical. The hint system partially solves this problem, and it is quite good, but it is no substitute for good puzzles. The only problem with it is if you can’t solve a puzzle because you haven’t solved another puzzle, it won’t tell you that. Instead it gives a hint or the solution (it depends on which you choose) of the puzzle whose solution you have requested. I ended up getting solutions to puzzles I probably could have solved on my own in this way because I didn’t realize that it wasn’t the puzzle I was currently trying to solve that was the problem but some other one.

However, don’t get me wrong. Not all the puzzles are bad. In fact, almost half are quite good. It’s just that there should have been more good ones.

I also managed to find one bug in the game. In Humbug, you can EXAMINE objects, or you can LOOK at them in order to get descriptions. You can abbreviate EXAMINE with x and LOOK with l. I am more used to LOOKing at objects than I am to EXAMINing them, so I used the abbreviation l. This abbreviation worked on all the objects on which I tried it out EXCEPT one. During the game, I decided to look at my hair because I thought maybe that would help me solve a puzzle (I won’t say how). When I typed “l hair”, the game didn’t seem to understand the command. I later used the hint system to get the solution to the puzzle that involved my hair. I wondered how I could have solved that puzzle since I figured that I couldn’t look at my hair. However, when I looked at a written solution for Humbug, I found out that you’re supposed to type “x hair”. The hair, apparently, is the only object at which you can’t LOOK but still can EXAMINE, which isn’t supposed to be the case for any of the objects. This bug effectively prevented me from solving an important puzzle in the game.

Anyhow, the plot in Humbug is wonderful! I’d say it’s the best part of the game! You are given bits of the story as the game progresses, and there’s one major plot twist! The ending is spectacular and was really fun to read!

Overall, Humbug is a good game and is worth playing. Just be prepared for some illogical puzzles here and there. It could have been an excellent game if the puzzles had been better.

Atmosphere: 1.8
Gameplay: 1.5

Writing: 1.8
Plot: 2.0
Humour: 1.6
Total: 8.7
Characters: 1.5
Puzzles: .8

Alex Freeman, SPAG

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