"From up in the bleachers, the circus is all glitter and daring, a magical kaleidoscope of improbable images. But watching the circus I always want to sneak backstage, to see the performers between acts and explore the shadowy world lurking beneath all the glitz. At last I've found the opportunity with Ballyhoo, Infocom's richly evocative, often exasperating, and very clever text adventure.
The game begins as the circus performance ends. You are prowling around behind the big top, trying on stray masks and peering into the prop tent, when you overhear a conversation between the circus boss and a detective about the mysterious disappearance of the circus boss's daughter. Neither the boss nor the detective sounds terribly concerned or competent, so you valiantly resolve to find her on your own. Thus begins your foray into the seamy underworld of the circus.
Once you become immersed in the game, though, you may discover that your mission to find the abducted girl becomes secondary to exploring the bizarre and chimerical world around you. Sympathetic as you are to the girl's plight, you can hardly pass up the opportunity to walk a tightrope, watch an impromptu clown act, play with the exotic animals, or be hypnotized by Rimshaw the Incomparable. And often in pursuing these seemingly pointless diversions you can pick up some clues to the mystery. But Ballyhoo, true to the Infocom tradition, is not for the impatient. Clues are hidden under layers of red herrings; some maneuvers have to be repeated two or three times before they'll work, while others are stubbornly refused; and each of the circus folk, from the tiny midget to the 827-pound Tina, is evasive when not downright cantankerous. Even the seasoned Infocom player is well-advised to draw a map, take copious notes, and leave no gorilla suit unturned.
While the game can frustrate - don't expect to complete it in a day - it can also charm. Great care was taken to evoke the atmosphere of the circus: You hear a calliope in the distance, you smell the musty elephant tent nearby, you feel the rough canvas of the tent as you sneak behind the big top. Many of the scenarios and props are added solely for their humor. And often the responses to your commands are whimsical or ironic.
The parsing in Ballyhoo is surprisingly flexible. You can, for instance, make commands such as "Take the apple. Polish it. Put it in the box." or "Drop all except the mask and the cheese morsel." You can also ask questions of specific characters, or use invaluable Infocom commands such as VERBOSE (for a thorough description of each location) and OOPS (which allows you to retype only the word you typed incorrectly in the last sentence). As can be expected from Infocom, the packaging of Ballyhoo is splendid. The game comes with a circus ticket (or Annie Oakley, in circus lingo), a balloon, and a superbly illustrated circus program (or bible). Included in the booklet are a brief history of circuses, a colorful description of each of the key Ballyhoo characters, and a glossary of circus jargon (so that you too can toss around terms like Annie Oakley, bible, lotlice, etc.). There are also several pages of clearly written instructions, explanations, and tips. But don't be mislead: The mysteries of Ballyhoo are not easily unraveled. Or, as the program has wryly told me more than once, "You'll have to do that yourself.""