The start of the affair: Hunt the Wumpus

[Editor’s note: Conrad Zimmerman talks about Hunt the Wumpus for his piece to this month’s Monthly Musing. Conrad also gives a link to the game at the end of his tale should you want to hunt the Wumpus. — CTZ]

Oh so long ago, I lived in a townhouse in a not-so-great part of a small industrial city. It was set up as two apartments in the house proper with a third situated over an unattached garage. My father kept an office in that garage, working at any number of his entrepreneurial ventures. The accounting firm, the cab company or whatever else it happened to be that month was run from a tiny corner of an otherwise cluttered garage.

It was some kind of mystical space, like a museum for long-abandoned passions. Even now I can see the piles of indecipherable paperwork, assorted marketing materials that were produced though never needed and a motorcycle that once traversed the length of the United States but would never run again. The reek of oil and musty paper, so vivid in my memories, meant that this was a man’s domain. Occasionally, my father would permit me entrance into his sanctuary and allow me to entertain myself with games on his personal computer. More after the jump.

The machine was portable, much the same way that cellular phones were in the late 1980’s. It was the size of a suitcase and weighed more than thirty pounds but it had a handle, by God, and that was portable enough for us. Sporting two 5 1/4″ floppy drives and a huge, 9″ monochrome display, the Kaypro lacked any capability to display graphics. The knock-offs of popular arcade games we played on the computer were nothing more than ASCII characters. Pac-Man, an inequality sign that animated into a dash and back, was chased by ghosts represented by a capital “A”. I don’t think Donkey Kong was even attempted in his clone game, but I recall Mario wound up as an “@”.

These games entertained me, but I lacked the manual dexterity to play them well. Temporary diversions, at best, for a child eager to succeed yet easily frustrated. It wasn’t until I discovered Hunt the Wumpus that I truly took to videogaming and it is likely responsible for my continued interest in the hobby.

Hunt the Wumpus is a text-based game which places the player in a cave with a network of numbered rooms. Each room has three exits leading to one of the other nineteen locations. The object is, as suggested by the title, to hunt down and kill a mysterious creature called a “Wumpus” using only the clues provided by your senses (as described by in-game narration) and logical deduction. If you were in a room adjacent to the Wumpus, the game would inform you that you could smell it, giving you an opportunity to fire one of your precious few arrows in the direction you think the smell might be coming from. If you miss, the Wumpus will move, possibly into the room you happen to be in (thus devouring you).

The Wumpus wasn’t the only threat to your well-being either. Rooms could contain other hazards, such as a bottomless pit or Super Bats. Moving into a pit room was certain death but the bats would simply move you, at random, to another room in the cave. Of course, they could very well move you to a room that has a pit or the Wumpus. Both the Super Bats and pits had their own text cues to let you know one was nearby.

Since the Wumpus, hazards and player are all assigned random locations at the start of the game, no two rounds of Hunt the Wumpus were the same. Upon an untimely demise, the game would prompt to see if you wanted to use the same setup again. This way, if you happen to fall into a pit on your first move or only ventured in a bit and never getting close to the Wumpus, you could sally forth armed with the knowledge gained in the previous run.

As a child of about four, I was reading on a small scale. Since Hunt the Wumpus was a simple game with little in the way of response text, it was something that I was still able to play. I wasted hours upon hours creeping about in fear, with tensions reaching their peak whenever I encountered the phrase, “I SMELL A WUMPUS.” From the very edge of my seat, I fired my arrow into what I could deduce was the room containing that fearsome beast. Victory, rare at first but more likely with every play, was exhilarating.

What made Hunt the Wumpus so amazing to me was that it was cerebral. It did not require quick reflexes or careful timing. I was able to think things through between rooms and figure out where I was going based on where I’d been and what I knew of the surroundings. This game taught me that videogames could be more than jumping over barrels or eating dots. They could also be enjoyed by people who liked to just sit and figure something out.

I sought out other games of this sort as my descent into becoming a gamer progressed. From the Zork trilogy into graphical adventure games and eventually point-and-click, I continue to follow the genre to this day. Eventually, the reaction times and coordination necessary to play more action-oriented games came to me but nothing has ever piqued my interest like a good puzzle and Hunt the Wumpus still provides that nearly a quarter century since I first played it.

Want to try your luck at hunting a Wumpus? The game is available here in its original configuration (a dodecahedron) as well as several other map types.

Conrad Zimmerman