Return to Twin Kingdom Valley
One day in 1984, when I was ten years old, my parents purchased our first computer and changed the course of my life.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was a wildly popular home computer in the UK. Invented by Sir Clive Sinclair, it launched in the early 1980s; some even later trumpeted it as being responsible for “launching the UK IT industry.” It certainly launched me on a (admittedly circuitous) path to my current career. The programming and design, though, came much later — for me, the real revolution came in the form of games. My younger brother and I were each permitted two games to go with our new toy; I no longer remember my second choice, but the first was Bug-Byte’s Adventure-inspired Twin Kingdom Valley.
Sadly, in an age of twin cassette decks, and long before anyone had invented the concept of DRM, our game collection, both legal and illegal, rapidly grew, and my limited 10-year-old attention drifted away from those initial purchases. Interactive arcade games like Chuckie Egg and puzzlers like Dizzy were far more exciting than laboriously typing instructions, and so Twin Kingdom Valley was consigned to the back of the games cupboard long before I had even progressed beyond the starting area.
But, recently, at the age of forty-something, I finally started to finish games. The Last of Us, Batman Arkham City, Bioshock Infinite, Skyrim — after thirty-odd years in gaming, I was finally reaching the actual end of games. And so now, with the benefit of age, experience, and a Spectrum emulator, I am returning to the valley, determined to finish what I started almost thirty years ago.
I will finish the first game I ever played.
Years of modern computing have rendered the blocky, fixed-width 8-bit fonts hard to read, especially in retina-scorching white-on-black. Twin Kingdom Valley’s introduction is amusingly direct, with none of the ‘suspension of disbelief’ dramatics one sees in modern games. We know you’re playing a game, it says, let’s drop the bullshit and get on with it:
Welcome to Twin Kingdom Valley. As you may have realised, this is not only the name of a game, but also of a mythical place in which two kings live. Naturally they hate each other!
There are also no complicated metrics for success. You are simply told: “It is assumed you are a typical adventurous and greedy human, and that your main aim is to finish the game with as much wealth as possible.” There’s some stuff about a possibly magical lake, witches, and the “secret of life”; I’ve rented a hut, apparently, where I can store my treasure. So far, so Skyrim.
Amusingly the game’s creators dedicate a screen to explaining that “your actions are simulated inside the machine” — perhaps there was genuine concern that people wouldn’t understand how a computer game worked. I also need to “draw an essential map of the valley,” apparently. I suddenly miss lined graph paper.
The game starts on a road in the forest, looking proudly at my rented two-tone cabin. Poking around inside the cabin I found a jug, a key, and an unlit oil lamp. Immediately I start worrying about inventory limits; I hope I won’t need to start juggling fifteen types of armour any time soon.
One of the novel aspects of this early graphical text adventure is that the pictures of the locations provide clues. Despite not being mentioned in the description, I can see a picture hanging on the wall of the cabin. Looking at it reveals more detail — a bridge spans a river as it enters a cave between two high stone walls. I try to interact with a few other things, but some of the game logic is less than polished. Trying to either light the fire or sit on the bed triggers the same response: “You don’t have a flint.”
Sticking to the road seems safest, so I head west. The trees are little more than garish blobs of green and red, but there’s a quarry a little further down the road. I decide to investigate. Aha! Here’s that flint that was missing from my fire-lighting and bed-sitting endeavours! Grabbing it, I head back to the cabin. But when I try to light the fire, instead I manage to light my lamp instead. It seems my vocabulary is somewhat more advanced than the game’s. Extinguishing the lamp with a Picard-esque “LAMP OFF”, I head back outside to explore the rest of the road.
The further east I go, the closer I draw to what appears to be one of those council-funded, coin-operated toilets that one finds in public parks, usually near the tennis courts. I’m pretty sure that’s not what this is, but I carry on anyway. Finally I get close enough to work out that it’s a church. Oops, my mistake, that’s not a cross, it’s a sword … because this is The Sword Inn. I think they’re my landlord, actually; I should stop in and say hello. But before I can, I realise I’m no longer alone. I have been joined by one of the first independent NPCs in gaming, “a strong elf with nothing.” Let’s engage in some limited banter.
Sadly nothing I type seems to work: “say hello”, “say hello to elf”, “greet elf” — nothing is working. In fact I don’t even know if the elf is still here, since he has disappeared from the description when I look around again. Maybe he went inside for a beer.
Inside the inn are some garish fuchsia beer barrels, some beer, and the innkeeper. No elf, but maybe the innkeeper can be engaged in conversation. “Say hi” almost worked, triggering another prompt: “with what?” The elf also showed up while I was wrestling with my mouth. There must be some way to interact with these people.
Finally I remember that “help” was a valid text command, and my screen is filled with the verbs that “the machine” actually understands. “Wave” and “ask” look like the only likely candidates for human/elf first contact. “Wave elf .” “You haven’t got that.” Okay. “Ask” triggers a series of questions that seem to control requisitioning supplies from other characters. I give up, drink their beer, and leave.
The road comprehensively explored, my only other options are the moor (which surrounds the inn) and heading off into the woods. The moor, the same dazzling pink as the beer barrels, is dull and featureless, seemingly just a barrier to a far-off mountain range to the south. The strong elf seems to be following me now. Perhaps I can make him carry my stuff. Hope he doesn’t take an arrow to the knee.
The mountains (also pink) turn out, once I reach them, to be that reliable feature of any text adventure, a semi-random maze. I wander around a little until a gorilla carrying a wooden club shows up. This doesn’t look good … unless maybe I can wrest his weapon away from him? *Thonk* Apparently not. He twats the strong elf for good measure as I turn tail and run away.
Finally I stumble across a spring fed by a brook, which is of course “babbling” (the universal language of the brook). There’s another road to the south … wait a moment! This is the same road I started from! Somehow I have wandered in circles — damn you, game designers, now you’ve messed up my map! And now a troll with a sword has appeared and hit me. I’d better get back to the inn for some refreshing beer; unfortunately the troll seems to have had the same idea.
Drinking beer doesn’t seem to be working, since I’ve now gone from “weak” to “dying”. Perhaps there’s something wrong with the beer. The troll stabs the innkeeper for no apparent reason. I scarper.
Back in the forest I follow the stream west, where it broadens into a river and then a waterfall. From the top I can look down into a deep chasm, the river flowing along the bottom. Oh wait, the gorilla is back. I accidentally dive, swan-like, from the cliff and into the waterfall.
“You are dead. Your score is 0. Another game is now starting.”
Jug. Key. Lamp. Flint. Not going near the inn this time.
Choosing a different path into the woods, I come across a locked grate in the ground. Unlocking it with my key, I bravely descend into the darkness. I light the lamp and discover that I’m in a tunnel sloping down to the north. The walls, like so much of the rest of the geography in this part of the world, are bright pink. Moving onward, I emerge into a room where I find a crystal ball and a dagger, as well as a locked bronze door. Armed and clutching my ball I try the door, but apparently I need a different bronze key than the one I am carrying. I try the tunnel instead; at the end is another locked door, this time made of, um, “metal,” and a short wooden rod. Amazingly my key actually works on this door, beyond which lies a cave, and beyond that is … The Hall Of The Forest King. Wow. I stroll nonchalantly into the audience chamber where I am immediately arrested for trespassing and thrown into the dungeon.
The guard informs me I am “a vagabond worthy of no respect” and throws me into a room full of bones. Luckily he forgot to lock the door, so I escape into a maze of twisty passages, all alike. Wandering at random I meet a witch carrying a bronze key. That sounds like something I would like to have, but when I ask her for it she casts spells at me until I’m dead.
Your score is 0. Another game is now starting.
Back in the tunnels I take a left turning to see if I can find an alternative route around the King’s Hall. Goddammit, more twisty little passages! And oh good, here’s the witch again. This time I try throwing my dagger at the witch, with the result that now she’s a witch carrying a bronze key and a dagger. I run away. She follows me, pelting me with spells and flaunting my dagger.
You are dead. Your score is 0. Another game is now starting.
Right, this time it must be the right passage. No twisty passages here, just a series of passageways getting progressively less wet until I’m standing in front of a gold door. Unsurprisingly I can’t unlock it; at least this time I can retrace my steps back to the King’s entrance hall. I’ll try the upwards slope — ah, the outside world. I seem to be somewhere in the mountains, which have confusingly turned bright red instead of their usual shocking pink. My old friend the elf is here too. Perhaps he’s lost.
Exploring further, I discover the path returns to the woods, but, unsure of my orientation, I follow the cliff top path to its end. It looks like another perilous drop — and the waterfall is just east of here. And a gorilla. Dodging his thrown wooden club I escape into the mountains, eventually making it back to the road. Back where I began, but still alive. Definitely an improvement.
I’m at something of an impasse. I’m pretty sure I’ve explored all of the immediately obvious locations, and I think that the next piece of progress is going to involve winning a combat with that key-hoarding witch. I suspect I have matched my ten-year-old self’s intuition. It’s time to push myself a little.
I check my inventory to see if there are any ideas in there. The jug is conspicuously empty; perhaps I should fill it with something. Not sure what the crystal ball is for, or this “short wooden rod.” I head back through the underground tunnels to find a way down to the canyon floor in the hopes of filling my jug with something useful. At the west end I come across a fissure, and two(!) elves. It seems I mistook the original “strong elf” for his less muscular and rather more bland cousin, the plain old “elf”. Since they’ve been the only creatures I’ve encountered that haven’t tried to kill me, I feel rather warm towards them.
I squeeze into the fissure; looking back, the bright red walls of the canyon dominate the skyline. I squeeze further until I emerge unscathed on the other side. It looks as if the river runs down to the sea; tempting, but … there’s another cave to explore just over there…
The second cave is a deep blue, with an amusingly shaped pink splodge on the floor. There is also what I think I can legitimately call my first piece of treasure: a large cut diamond. I reach out, greedy fingers grasping, only to find … “You can’t carry any more.” Juggling a few bits and pieces isn’t working; I think I’m going to have to drop quite a lot of junk here and run back to my cabin with the diamond. Or perhaps … would it serve as payment for entering the hall of the Forest King? As I look around again to consider my options, I notice that this cave actually descends further into the ground than I had initially noticed in my diamond excitement. I take a few faltering steps into the darkness … “You are in a sloping maze” DAMMIT. But wait, what’s this? I’ve found a small holdall — perhaps that will help with my inventory-related problems?
Finding my way back to the entrance I eventually figure out that “fill holdall” is the right combination of words to let me transfer objects into my new bag. And yes, I can now pick up the diamond too! I type “score” to discover that I finally have points, 80 of them. We’re making progress at long last.
The river mouth turns out to be a place imaginatively named Watersmeet, although there’s not much here apart from sand stretching away to the north and south. I struggle up the northern sandy slope, at the top of which is a narrow crack through which flows a river of gold. (The game is annoyingly unspecific about whether this is a metaphor or if it’s actually a river of gold. Maybe I shouldn’t have filled my jug with water.) I’m also “very dry” for some reason. I’ll try to drink some of the water, which might make room for molten gold. Unfortunately I can’t fit through the crack, so I head back down the beach. Sand dunes, with no explicit directions available … it’s another maze. Great. The elf shows up again — there must be something I can do to him. I hand him one of my daggers, but he’s stoic as ever. I ask for it back, and he hands it over with no complaint. Weirdo.
It’s at about this point that I realise my lamp has been lit the entire time I’ve been wandering around outdoors. I suspect this may come back to bite me.
At the other end of the canyon I come across the bottom of the waterfall that I fatally plunged into a few days back. Closer up, I can see that it’s … infested with crocodiles?! Probably did me no favours when I dived into it earlier.
Wandering back through the woods towards the cabin I come across an axe. Perhaps I’m well enough armed by now to take on the witch with the key? I head back via the quarry, but as soon as I reach the road I’m faced with not one, not two, but three gorillas. I smack one with the axe and he leaves, only to be replaced by the strong mute elf. I twat the second gorilla; the elf picks up a fallen wooden club. Is he actually going to do anything useful? Yes — finally he joins in with my gorilla-bashing! The gorilla is dying, albeit slowly. Together we finish him off, only for his friend to reappear. We quickly off him too, and my new best friend arms himself with two clubs. Dropping off the diamond at my hut, I head back out to take on that witch.
Back in the “maze of little twisty turny passages” the strong elf is definitely following me, dual-wielding his wooden clubs. Eventually we stumble across the witch, but she proves tougher than the gorillas. My friend helps by throwing his clubs at her, with the result that after a couple of rounds of combat we are facing a witch armed with two clubs and a key. I raise my axe for a final time, but … I’m too weak. The elf buggers off. The witch casts a spell on me. I am dead. My score is 80. Another game is now starting.
I’m starting to get annoyed at the lack of a save game function. I take out my frustration on the inn keeper by way of an axe to the face. He takes it very well, and dies with no word of protest. The elf also doesn’t seem much bothered by the dramatic change in my personality. Maybe he’d like some too? I hit him, which somehow makes me drop my axe, which he promptly picks up. Uh-oh. Luckily he gives it back when I ask politely. A couple more rounds of this and he joins the innkeeper on the floor. The inn is mine! Laughing, I quaff several beers until … “You are dying.” Just in time, the troll with the sword rocks up. Since I can no longer hold my axe, it doesn’t last long.
You are dead. Your score is 0.
I set off with the intention to retrace my steps, retrieve the diamond, then head back and see whether or not the Forest King wants it, but while I am searching for the holdall I found last time, the “deep magical voice of the keeper of the mountains” says I can get past a rock fall (I’m sure it wasn’t there before) if I “prove myself worthy by bringing the treasure chest of the desert king.” I try to engage the mysterious voice in conversation, but it seems the AI isn’t prepared for that possibility. Since I don’t really know where to start with this treasure chest business, I leave clutching my diamond. I’ll stick to the original plan.
It turns out that simply carrying a diamond around doesn’t impress the Forest King’s personal guard, and I’m thrown back into that dungeon without even getting a chance to offer it. From the room full of bones I can climb back up a tunnel that leads to the hall, but as every time I do that I’m thrown back into the same dungeon I decide to try the other passageway. At least there’s no Rancor in here with me. I venture south, despite being pretty sure I’m about to get magicked to death by that witch again. Sure enough, she shows up to taunt me with her bronze key.
You are dead.
Wait a second. I’ve had an idea. So far I’ve tried brute strength with this witch, and it has never worked. But perhaps … how does one kill a witch? If The Wizard of Oz has taught me anything, it’s that a well-aimed bucket of water can do what axes and daggers cannot. It’s got to be worth a shot, and I have a jug.
You are dead.
Reading through the handy list of valid commands, I notice one that I’ve missed up until now. Apparently, “swim” is something that I can do. Maybe there was more to that uninteresting beach than I originally thought. “You feel strangely healthy” after a dip in the lake; I should probably fill my jug here too, since it seems to be somewhat magical. It’s already full, since I filled it on the way through the forest, so I try to drink the water that’s already in there. The game interprets this as a request to drink from the lake instead — not something I would usually try to do — but it seems this was the right thing to do: “A strange magic reveals to you the secret of concealed doors.” Really? That was the action that was holding me back all this time? Drinking lake water?
Back in the diamond cave, I can now see a secret door in the eastern wall. Heading inside, I find a small bedroom; a similarly small sitting room and kitchen are visible. I wonder who lives here? I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone yet who qualifies as ‘small’ — it’s all been elves and gorillas. Unless my D&D-influenced imagination is making all the elves into Legolas when they’re really more like Dobby. Who knows. In the kitchen I finally find that gold key, and in the sitting room I find another secret door.
Out the door I’m in a familiar looking damp passage near a locked gold door. I unlock it with my new key and step through. On the other side is another passage, and a “damp hall.” They should really get someone in to look at that. In the hall, another locked bronze door (I suspect that the witch might be able to help here) and a wooden trap door set into the ceiling leading to a “pokey anteroom” which in turn opens up into a large hall. There’s a guardroom, a dungeon, one more locked bronze door, and a spiral staircase leading upwards. I have a quick peek in the dungeon; there’s a narrow crack through which I can see the armoury, but I can’t fit through. Shame, maybe some better weapons would help me with that witch. Back in the hall, a mace-wielding castle guard has appeared. He throws it at me as I duck into the guardroom.
On a bright blue table I discover a uniform. Aha — that old trope, dressing up as one of the guards! I transfer everything into my holdall and prepare to get changed … but try as I might, there doesn’t seem to be any way to wear, use, or otherwise make use of it. Maybe just carrying it around will be enough? Somehow I don’t think so, but luckily the guard has gone by the time I re-emerge.
Up the spiral staircase there’s not much to see aside from a very narrow passage filled with more castle guards. I crawl along until I reach the castle entrance hall. (I’m not sure at what point this became a castle; the geography around here is suspect at best.) The entrance hall is impressive, with a view of the blue “Grand Staircase” and outside to the drawbridge. There’s also a study and dining hall nearby. The study gives onto a workshop, where there’s a cauldron of oil — I know where to come to refill my lamp, I guess. Another guard shows up, but since I’ve neglected to pick up any weapons on this play through I quickly run away. The castle seems to be the only location I’ve found so far that respects basic compass directions; I complete my path around the lower floor by passing through the dining hall, and then I’m back to the entrance hall. Time to see what’s upstairs.
On the landing, I finally come face to face with the Desert King, carrying (or presumably wearing) a jewelled gold crown. Since most people seem to want to kill me rather than talk, I opt to explore the north tower, and head up the spiral staircase. Perhaps I’ll find a princess to rescue up here. What else could be living at the top of a castle tower?
“Flames fill the room. You are dead. Your score is 95. Another game is now starting.”
Fuck this shit, I’m going back to Tamriel.