First posted on 21 August 2001. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
Planetfall is a work of interactive fiction penned by the infamous Infocom Implementor Steve Meretzky. You may have cursed his name once or twice if you have ever played Sorcerer or the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (for which you should also be given a medal if you have completed either game without hints). Planetfall is Meretzky's first solo effort at writing for Infocom. As a pure text adventure, this game is interactive fiction in its original and truest sense of the form. The only graphics in this game comes from your mind, making it a title to be avoided at all costs if playing games from companies such as Sierra On-Line has already corrupted your imagination.
In Planetfall, life is not so good for you. Following in the footsteps of no less than 5 generations worth of ancestors working for the Stellar Patrol of the Third Galactic Union, you too have signed up for the service. Your family has high expectations of you. Your great-great-grandfather is the High Admiral, after all. You have just been transferred to the SPS Feinstein, away from gentle hands of Ensign First Class Lim and into the clutches of Ensign Cadet First Class Blather. Immediately, Blather summarily confiscates your Double Fanucci cards, vetoes your application for Grotch feeding detail, and relegates you instead to cleaning out their cages. You feel that you are forever stuck at the lowly rank of Ensign Seventh Class and are seriously thinking of quitting the patrol. Fortunately, your lucky break comes during a ceremony to welcome Ambassador Br'gun-te'elkner-ipg'num of Blow'k Bidden Gordo, when you are allowed to leave the Grotch guano to clean the floors of Deck 9. Unbeknownst to you as the ambassador is about to pass your "clean" deck leaving a trail of immovable slime, explosions are set to rock the ship—that is, unless you are clever you are going to die along with the rest of the crew. Trot! In other words, you must figure out how to escape from your doomed ship, survive entry into the planet's atmosphere below, and work out what is going on.
For most parts, the writing in Planetfall is good. The descriptions are adequate without being cumbersome. Not too much is given away on first glance, making it important to look at even the most innocuous of items in order to get an idea of how to use them. The rooms are realistically laid out, with a fair quantity of them useful only in the sense that they readily set the mood of the game. All in all, you should not have any trouble immersing yourself into the game world.
The game is based on the concept of interactive fiction told through a story interpreter pioneered by Infocom. The Infocom story interpreter is platform independent, and the game themselves are complied for a virtual computer architecture called the Z-Machine. There have been 4 versions of this game released since 1983 using the standard (3) and advanced (5) version of Z-Machine, with the last version dated 1988. The game supports 105 rooms and 45 objects, with a vocabulary of 669 words and 7,879 opcodes.
As a game, Planetfall plays well and lives up to the Infocom standard. The parser handles most sentences with relative ease. As with other titles from Infocom, it is only too willing to help you out if you phrase your words incorrectly. The only problem I have is getting a laser to work. The game keeps wondering why I want to "turn it on". Rather, I have to change my mindset back to the early 1980s to recall that I probably need to "zap" something with it.
As an adventure, Planetfall is pretty straightforward. Most of the game involves finding specific objects and the appropriate receptacles in which to insert them. There are plenty of red herrings which have no use at all but add much to the game's realism. To break the "serious" tone of the game, the character Floyd is added as your robot companion, whose boredom frequently gives you a few chuckles. Despite this effort, the game may still benefit from a bit more humor. Although the game demonstrates the potential of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy / Red Dwarf ilk, this potential is never sufficiently realized.
There are very few characters in the game, but those who are there serve well to lighten the tone. The ambassador Blather and your sidekick Floyd are fun to play around with, though only Floyd is with you for any meaningful length of time. I find solving the puzzles quite satisfying despite that most problems are relatively simple, such as working out how to avoid getting eaten by a microbe while being in miniaturized form. There are a few allusions to the Zork series of games that always bring a smile to my face.
The game's greatest strength is its plot. Although relatively simple in itself, it is developed with control that rivals a novel. The details are revealed slowly. The goal becomes clearer to the careful reader as clues hidden in locations come together to paint a picture of what has happened and what must happen in order for you to return heroically to Stellar Patrol. In contrast, the game's greatest weakness is its inventory management. Inventory juggling has always been a problem in adventures. Most adventure gamers accept the fact that there is a limit to how much the player can carry. In most games, an item is included which allows the player to carry more without destroying the delicate limits of belief. Unfortunately, no such item exists in Planetfall. Worse is the fact that I try to pick up an item but only to find it tumbling to the ground along with some other items of importance. This happens a lot, sometimes in almost endless successions. Moreover, there is a lack of challenging puzzles. Beyond inserting objects in slots most puzzles can be easily solved by dying, working out what has gone wrong, and then trying something different. Floyd is integral to a couple of challenges and should have been used to much greater effect.
Overall, Planetfall is a good playground for beginners who want to learn some of the basics of adventure gaming. Infocom fans may also find the rewards of this game worth its effort. Meretzky's contributions to interactive fiction are significant. If they are ever considered serious objects of academic study, then this game must be looked at closely as a representation of his early effort. While more sophistication is seen in his later works, such as Zork Zero and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the seed of his genius can clearly be seen in development here.