Friday, July 25, 2014

Ring of Darkness: Won! (With Final Rating)

Becoming the bearer of the Ring of Darkness doesn't exactly feel like "winning."

The Ring of Darkness
Wintersoft (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for Dragon 32, 1983 for ZX Spectrum, 1985 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 19 July 2014
Date Ended: 22 July 2014
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I ended the last post wondering whether Ring of Darkness had an original bone in its body. It turns out that it really doesn't. It lifted almost everything from Ultima, including the basic plot outline, the names of most of its monsters, the types of equipment, and just its overall ideas of how such a game should work. It is an RPG made by people who seem to have played only one other RPG, and didn't realize that its quirks were specific to that game, and not universal conventions of the genre.

Ring of Darkness takes place in four main chapters, all of which have direct mirrors in Ultima. In the first, you're just trying to get your character competent, stocked with food, and capable of withstanding more than a few minutes in the wilderness. In the second, you do a series of quests for regional kings, some involving visiting signposts and similar special locations, some involving killing specific monsters in the dungeons. Four of the kings reward you with rings of silver, bronze, gold, and copper--direct analogs of the colored gems you receive from the Ultima kings.

Ultimately--and I found this out only through trial and error--you have to descend to the 10th level of one of the dungeons and slay a "gorn," at which point your class changes to "gorn-slayer"--this game's analog to achieving the "space ace" credential in Ultima.  In the third act, just as in Ultima, you kill the hapless jester for his key, slay all the guards that attack you in consequence, and rescue Princess Xandra from her cell. (Just like in Ultima, the same princess is present in all cities.) Instead of giving you a time machine, she directs you to a special dungeon called "Xandra's Quest."

Leading Princess Xandra out of her cell.

There, where Ultima had you battle Mondain, losing almost all your hit points, before you could approach his gem, Ring of Darkness has you battle "Gron," a servant of the "Evil One," before you can get past him and take Shedir, the One Ring.

I teach classes for a couple of universities, and I often catch my students plagiarizing from their sources by copying text directly but using a thesaurus to change a few words here and there to avoid exact phrase-matching in Google or TurnItIn. This game does something similar with its monster list. Ultima's gelatinous cube becomes a "jelly cube"; an invisible seeker becomes and "invisible slayer" (with a separate "seeker" monster type, no less); a balron becomes a balrog and a zorn a "gorn." But the developers didn't even bother to find alternate names for some of the others, like the "tangler" and the gremlin who steals a bunch of your food with each successful attack.

Aside from its blatant plagiarism, Ring of Darkness does do its job by serving a basic, primal CRPG need: fight monsters, improve the character, amass gold, buy better equipment, fight more monsters. As you increase in levels, better equipment becomes available at shops. (I can't remember if Ultima did this, or if the equipment was entirely dependent on geography and gold.) Again, just like in Ultima, the best armor was a "reflection suit" and the best weapon was a "blaster," though we went past a "light sword" on the way. In transportation terms, a high level results in the ability to buy a "hovercraft," although Ring of Darkness's doesn't come with lasers.

Let's look at a few quirks specific to this game:

  • The entire game has exactly one dungeon level map. The 24 x 19 map is used for all levels of all dungeons. The locations of secret doors and traps remain unchanged. The only things that change are the locations of up and down ladders and randomly-placed barriers.

The only dungeon map you'll ever need.

  • The game offers some additional spells that Ultima doesn't have, and without exception I never found a single use for them. This includes "Bridge," "Remove," and "Create." Since spells only work in dungeons, I cannot for the life of me figure out what "Bridge" would have done. Throughout the game, I only used "Up Ladder" and "Down Ladder" to make dungeon navigation easier.
  • Some enemies, including all sea creatures and "hidden archers," can only be damaged by ranged weapons, which you don't get until you reach Level 4.
  • Wilderness encounters are useless throughout the entire game. In the early stages, they're too deadly; in the latter ones, they take up too much time for too little reward. The game has a moronically simple method for determining how many enemies you face in each "stack"--either once, twice, or three times your current level. When I hit Level 10, I would either meet 1, 20, or 30 "evil rangers" in a single stack. Spending 30 moves killing an entire stack one-by-one would have been an absurd waste of time, and you spend most of the game brushing by wilderness encounters like annoying gnats.

Taking time to kill 13 bandits is more trouble than it's worth.

  • Trying to open a chest in a dungeon (they start to show up on Level 2) has a chance of generating a monster appropriate to the level.
  • The "transport" shops in towns, which are oddly labeled "smith," offer an option for selling equipment but then bark at you that they don't buy second-hand mules and such. Why offer it, then?
Throughout the entire game, despite using it everywhere I could think of, I found no function for the (S)teal command.

I spent an insane amount of time on the game. For a while, I couldn't figure out how to get to some key locations I could see on the other sides of mountains (it turns out you have to buy a hovercraft and fly it down a particular river pass). In desperation, I actually tried mapping the game. Have you ever tried mapping a tile-based iconographic game? I discovered it was something like 84 x 110 in size, but I kept missing tiles and screwing up the proportions, so eventually I abandoned it.

A partial, but mistake-ridden, world map.

Character development throughout the game is mostly through the accumulation of hit points. In the last post, I said that delving dungeons rarely rewards you with more hit points than you lose fighting monsters. This is true in the early game, but as you get better equipment, you can often come out ahead. This is good, because you can only spend a maximum of 50 gold pieces per transaction with the kings, netting you 125 hit points each, or about one-fifth of the amount of damage done in a single attack by a balrog. It really is extremely annoying to stand in front of the king and type (T)ransact, (G)old, and "50" hundreds of times in a row.

Hit points are awarded upon leaving dungeons based on the number and level of enemies you killed.

Eventually, you get to the point where you get tens of thousands of hit points (from a starting 250) and can delve to the bottoms of dungeons and shrug off attacks from balrogs, gorns, and other fearsome creatures, including a "mind whipper" who does direct and (as far as I can tell) irrecoverable damage to your intelligence.

As I said, the game comes to an end after you perform the quests for the four kings that give you rings, descend to Level 10 of any of the dungeons and kill a gorn, thus becoming a "gorn slayer," and then rescue the princess from one of the castles. She tells you to go to the special dungeon, Xandra's Quest. Earlier in the game, this is just a regular dungeon, but if you visit after hearing from the princess, you get a special cut screen where you unlock it with the four rings. This is a direct parallel to a screen in Ultima where you put the four gems into the time machine.

You then get a bit of text:

Five hundred years ago the Evil Sage called forth the Darkling Ring. T'was then the Wizards forged the Four to seal it from the minds of men. Five hundred years has darkness slept in is tomb of stone. Yet now strange forces come to play . . . and SHEDIR stirs again.

You must enter the Gate of Mist. A sense of evil and foreboding surrounds you. Then the mists begin to clear . . . 

You're taken to a chamber with the ring on a pedestal on the far side. An evil minion of the Dark One called Gron leaps to his feet and intercepts you as you try to reach it.

Mondain tries to stop me from reaching his gem.

Gron is a tough customer. At the beginning of the battle, he does over 1,000 hit points damage per hit and you do less than 100 to him. Spells only make him stronger, so you need to fight in melee combat. As the battle wears on--dozens of (A)ttacks--the ratios slowly even out, then reverse, and finally he falls to the ground , and the game says, "Gron is DEAD!! Or is he??"

Well, of course he isn't. He springs back to life immediately, and you have to kill him again. You have to kill him about eight times before he stays down long enough for you to maneuver around him to the ring and (G)et it.

Even then, the game isn't done screwing with you. You get a message that "AHHHHG! It's HOT!" and half your remaining hit points burn away. This happens several times before, just when you're on the brink of death, the game allows you to take the ring and the end-game screens appear.

The penultimate screen has you telepathically contacted by the "people of Ringworld" who charge you with returning the ring to their planet "from whence it was taken by the Evil One," promising that this story will be told in Ring of Darkness Part 2. This game was made in 1984; it's titled Return of the Ring, and it wasn't on my master list until now. Judging from screenshots, it's a text adventure rather than an Ultima-style RPG, but I'll check it out to see if it has RPG elements.

In its last act, the game manages to draw from Tolkien and Larry Niven as well as Richard Garriott.

As I mentioned in my first post, if I was a young RPG player in the U.K. in the early 1980s, computer stores bereft of any offerings for my platforms, I would have greeted Ring of Darkness like the holy grail. Even in 2014, aside from occasional moments in which my mouth was agape at its blatant thefts from Richard Garriott, I didn't hate it. It offers just enough character development to give you an occasional shot in the arm, and by not making you go into outer space and fight TIE fighters (I assume the developers didn't know how to program it or couldn't fit it), it actually has a more sensible plot than Ultima. In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 3 points for a bare-bones game world.
  • 3 points for a character creation and development process that offers a few options and does make your character feel notably stronger as time passes, though the different "classes" don't seem to have any point (again, something it shares with Ultima).

My main character, late in the game. Some kind of mind flayer has irreversibly drained my intelligence.
  • 1 point for extremely limited NPC interaction with kings, the jester, and the princess.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The various creatures, most stolen from Ultima, are distinguishable mostly by how hard they hit. Some of them have special attacks: jelly cubes dissolve armor, gremlins steal food, and mind reapers drain intelligence.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. The "purchased spells" magic system is nothing new, and combat offers few tactics, though once you have a ranged weapon, you can try to use chests and pits to your advantage, as enemies won't cross either.

Keeping an object or pit between you and the enemy is really the only "tactic." Unfortunately, there aren't many such objects.

  • 2 points for equipment, including transportation options.
  • 3 points for an economy that's vital in the first third, but you soon amass much more gold than you need. Having the king only accept donations in 50-gold-piece increments really puts a damper on what you can do with 20,000 gold pieces.
  • 3 points for having a main quest with steps the player (in part) has to puzzle out.

Solving part of the main quest by killing a jelly cube.

  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The sound actually isn't bad for 1982, the graphics serviceable. The keyboard mostly makes sense except for the QWOP movement keys, though I got used to them surprisingly fast.
  • 4 points for gameplay, which is open, mostly non-linear, challenging without being too frustrating, and over before long. I wouldn't call it "replayable" in any way.

That gives us a final score of 24, not bad at all for the year, though still under-performing Ultima by 10 points.

At no time in the game does this happen.

Do I subtract points for being such an obvious (but unlicensed) copy of Ultima? I guess not. I've never docked points for such a reason. I'm just a little surprised that no other reviewer has noted it. Dragon 32 and ZX Spectrum reviews of the time were generally positive (links to samples) but don't say a word about Ultima; in fact, the only suggestion I've found that anyone noticed the connection is an incredulous Reddit poster. I suppose the easy answer is that Ultima didn't make it to European PCs until long after Ring of Darkness was published, and the game just never gained enough traction for anyone to remember it years later.

There was some discussion on my last post about whether the developers directly copied the Ultima source code. Without knowing much about programming, and how the code might translate from the Apple II to the Dragon 32, my guess is they didn't. I'm certain they played it. I suspect they had or had access to an Apple II and continually referenced the game as they developed Ring of Darkness. But I also suspect they wrote their own code rather than directly copy Ultima's. Things work just differently enough in Rings to suggest they were working around things they didn't otherwise know how to program.

Since I've tossed around words like "ripoff" and "copy" and "plagiarism," though, I want to make it clear that we don't really know what happened. This is still in the Dark Ages of RPGs. For all we know, Humphreys and Briskham got permission from Richard Garriott to use Ultima. Perhaps they licensed the "look and feel," just like Questron would famously do in 1984. The developers certainly did something unimaginative, but unless we hear from either them or Garriott, we don't know whether they committed a tort.

Wintersoft was located in Enfield, Middlesex, founded by John F. Humphreys and David A. Briskham, both credited as the developers of Ring of Darkness. I can only find evidence of four games from the company: Ring of Darkness (1982), Return of the Ring (1984), Operation Gremlin (1984), and Juxtaposition: Barons of Ceti V (1985). MobyGames doesn't have any of them. Judging by screenshots, it's possible that all of the latter three are pure text adventures, which makes Ring of Darkness the odd one out.

I made an effort to locate both Humphreys and Briskham, but their names are more common than you might expect, and I couldn't trace any of the potential matches back to Wintersoft. It's probably for the best: it would have been an uncomfortable conversation.

Let's see if we can finish Quest for Glory II and a couple others before the end of the month.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Quest for Glory II: Elementary

The Fire Elemental destroys Shapeir if you oversleep.

Since last blogging, I had to start the game over. It turns out that there's a bug in the game that, when importing a character from Quest for Glory, causes it to mis-identify the character class. In this case, the game thought I was a fighter instead of a mage. This should have been obvious when all the mage-related things I was doing (like passing the WIT initiation) wasn't causing my score to increase, but I didn't get it until I started exploring the desert and found that I couldn't cast spells in combat because my shield (which I didn't actually have) was getting in the way.


Re-starting wasn't so bad. With the knowledge from the first character, it only took about 90 minutes to get back to the same location. Since I now knew the uses of BARGAIN, I saved a lot of money. My score was much higher when I finished, since I got appropriate credit for the mage stuff. Most important, re-playing made the game's approach to chronology a bit clearer.

It turns out that Quest for Glory II is organized into a series of days on which specific events occur. For instance, Shema always dances in the inn on the night of Day 2, the poet Omar always recites on the night of Day 3, the Fire Elemental first attacks and destroys Alichica's cart on Day 4, and then re-appears for the player to deal with on Day 5. You have to be ready for these events as they occur. Once the Fire Elemental appears, you only have two days to defeat him before he consumes the entire city and the game ends.

The flip side of this is that if you know what you're doing, you have to spend several days screwing around waiting for major events to occur. I re-did everything I had accomplished in the first few hours in a single day: visited the moneychanger, bought equipment and spells, talked to all key NPCs, visited Aziza and the astrologer, and went through the WIT initiation. That left several days to explore and character-build before the Fire Elemental first appeared.

Just for fun, this time around I checked out what would happen if I said "YES" to the wizards' demands that I give up adventuring to study full-time. Shapeir is destroyed and I spend the rest of my life wondering whether it would have been better to help them.

Thus, on Day 2, I decided to set out and explore the desert. This first involved purchasing a saurus from a dealer at the city gates--a dealer who looked suspiciously like Groucho Marx. BARGAINING got him down from an asking price of 50 dinars to 20. The saurus immediately walked up and licked me.

Ha ha! You can go.

The saurus makes desert exploration possible in a number of ways, primarily by cutting down on the travel time significantly and thus reducing water and ration usage. At any point while riding him, you can say GO HOME to get back to the gates of Shapeir. Having to MOUNT and DISMOUNT constantly is a little annoying, but not much. He bolts immediately (throwing you off) at the appearance of an enemy, and it took me a while to figure out that I need to return to the screen where I originally lost him to find him again.

I had to laugh when, once again, I found myself exploring a desert that is apparently endless (at least, in two directions), with only a couple of key encounters, and the need to keep an eye on my food and water levels. Quest for Glory II and Fallthru are probably the only two RPGs on my list that fit this exact description. East and west, the screens never seem to stop but there are less than a dozen north to south, with the entire desert surrounded on those ends by rock cliffs. During my exploration, I only found three areas of note:

  • A cliff with a griffon sleeping in a nest. By casting "Levitate" to get myself up to the nest, I could take one of his feathers, an ingredient the apothecary needs for a "Dispel Magic" potion. I don't know why, but I forgot to take a screenshot.
  • An oasis where an old man sits with his long beard wrapped around a tree. His dialogue revealed him to be the "Dervish," and taking a bit of his beard back to Keepon Laffin solved his quest. I couldn't get any useful dialogue out of the Dervish.

A case of do or die?

  • A tree in the shape of a woman. When I first found it, I had no idea what to do. Later, I got some hints from the apothecary and Aziza, but I'll save that for next time.

Or I've been in the desert too long.

I figured Raseir would be on the other side of the desert, but I'll be damned if I can find it anywhere. The large span of dunes in between holds occasional sight gags, like a golfer unable to get himself out of the huge sand trap and an airplane flying overhead . . .

. . . but more importantly combat with brigands, scorpions, TerrorSauruses, and jackalmen. There are also supposed to be "ghouls," but I haven't been able to find any yet, and I need to for one of the apothecary's quests.

I could swear Corey Cole made a comment on my blog in which he said he regretted the combat system in this game. I can't find it, so perhaps I'm wrong. I hope so, because I don't really mind it. I think it improves significantly on the first game. Instead of one button for attack, one for defend, and one for dodge, Quest for Glory II gives you numberpad options to attack, dodge, and parry high, medium, and low while still supporting spells with the regular parser. I actually find it's easier in this game to anticipate attacks and take the appropriate action, and my "Parry" and "Dodge" skills have gone up nicely as a consequence. It also makes sense that different levels of attacks work better on different creatures. I've been trying to mix up attacking, parrying, dodging, and spellcasting in each combat.

Fighting a brigand.

Scorpions are my least favorite enemy, since they have an attack by which they grab you by their claw and sting you with their tail, and once they decide to use it, I can't figure out any way to defend or evade it. But killing them is extremely rewarding for the 20 dinars the apothecary gives you for their tails.

I had jacked up "Flame Dart" to a high level in the previous game and found that it serves me well here, although I can't seem to hit enemies with it before combat the way I could in Quest for Glory; perhaps that isn't possible in the sequel. "Force Bolt" seems promising: it both damages enemies and knocks them back for a second, allowing you to get in a few attacks afterwards.

In contrast, I've found that "Calm" does absolutely nothing. Charging enemies stop respectfully and wait for me to finish casting it, then keep on charging and we enter combat anyway. I also can't see any effect to "Dazzle." Perhaps it does lower the attack abilities of my foes, but there's no on-screen confirmation that it's accomplished anything.

Over several days, I killed dozens of brigands and a few scorpions. I don't seem strong enough yet to take on TerrorSaurses (which are mercifully rare) nor the large packs of jackalmen who attack at night.

The hero learns not to be cocky about wandering around the desert after dark.

On Day 5, the Fire Elemental was in town, so I had to stop character development for the time being and deal with him.

The results of all my desert explorations.

The four elements and their associated elementals are clearly going to play a big part in this game. The WIT council was composed of masters of fire, air, water, and earth magic, and each mage I've met so far is aspected in some way to an element: Aziza to water, Keepon Laffin to air (he even floats about on a magic cushion), and the alchemist Harik Attar to fire. (I haven't met an earth-specific person yet that I know of.) The astrologer said that I would "walk in fire, earth, water, and air" on my quest.

Most important, the poet Omar, in his poetry/prophecy recitation, indicated that the city would be attacked by elementals of fire, air, earth, and water in that order. The prophecy started to come true the next morning when I found that Alichica's cart had been ruined by a Fire Elemental.

Does anyone?

Aziza was kind enough to give me a little tutorial on each of the elementals, suggesting that they would gravitate to the areas of the city that offered them the most fuel: open plazas for the Fire Elemental and the fountain for the Water Elemental, for instance. She further suggested that I would need to lure each of them from these places of comfort, then damage them somehow with their elemental opposites, and finally capture them in containers aspected to each elemental type.

She had the most information about the Water Elemental, and she directed me to the other mages for information about their respective specialties. Harik Attar, for instance, told me that incense would help lure the Fire Elemental away from the open plaza.

I engaged the Fire Elemental in the plaza outside the inn and used the incense to lure him into one of the passages. I thought to lure him all the way to the Plaza of the Fountain, but the game immediately told me that just getting him out of the first plaza was enough.


I then used my waterskin on him, which caused him to significantly diminish.

Finally, I placed my lamp on the ground, and he obediently fled right into it. I now have a magic lamp with a Fire Elemental trapped inside, which must be good for something.

I assume the other elementals will attack in regular intervals over the next few days, and I'll keep you updated. I have to say, I rather liked the first game's open-ended approach to time more than this game's insistence that the player accomplish certain tasks on a clock.

A bunch of miscellaneous notes:

  • Guards prefer that you not cast magic in the city--not even if you're just "practicing."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa . . . watch the magic!"

  • Guards and random NPCs have a way of walking in the middle of conversations you're having with other NPCs and responding to your prompts.

Yeah, I wasn't talking to you, Mr. Ego.

  • For my second character, I decided to buy things from the merchants--flowers, baskets, pots, whatever--whether I had an immediate need or not. Fortunately the ones selling things that were unimportant refused to bargain with me.

That's remarkably honest of you. I guess Katta aren't really like Khajit.

  • Between combats with brigands and selling scorpion tails to Harik Attar, I have no problem with money. I've been able to keep a good stock of healing, vigor, and mana pills, and the only thing that I'm "saving" for is a sapphire pin that the jeweler is selling for 500 dinars (I currently have only about 180).

That seems like a hint, but I can't begin to afford that right now.

  • I'm way overloaded with centimes, and I have no idea what to do with them. You get them as change from spending dinars and on enemy corpses, but shopkeepers never seem to take them instead of dinars. You can only DROP or GIVE them one at a time, and I don't really feel like spending hours typing GIVE CENTIME to the beggar, even if it will jack up my honor score. The moneychanger wants nothing to do with them. What am I missing?
  • I beat Trickster at yet another challenge.

I still don't quite understand what's going on with the Katta. In the first game, I got the impression they were in Spielburg as part of a trading caravan and just got stuck there, but at the beginning of this game, Shameen suggested they had gone to Spielburg specifically to find a hero, something that Corey seemed to confirm in a comment. Then, the poet Omar mentioned that a year ago, when the Emir of Raseir dissappeared, the Katta lost their home there, something that Shameen and Shema hadn't mentioned at all.

Something fishy is going on here.

But if the problems have been going on for a year, why were Shameen and Shema in Spielburg for three years?


Why didn't the Katta tell me that they came from Raseir? How did they know there were going to be problems at least two years ahead of time? What aren't they telling me?!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Game 155: The Ring of Darkness (1982)

The ZX Spectrum version has a 1983 copyright date but the Dragon 32 version says 1982. I'm going to trust the latter--it feels like a 1982 game--and go with 1982 in my master game list.

Commenter PK Thunder had a good point a couple weeks ago in relation to my characterization of Quest for the Key of Night Shade as an "excruciating pseudo-RPG." (I decided it didn't meet my rules and removed it from the list.) It's easy for me to sit here in 2014, my computer full of emulators that can play every platform from the 1980s, and dismiss a game as being superfluous or unimportant, but if you were a TRS-80 owner in 1983, Dungeons & Dragons, The Wizard's Castle, and Quest for the Key of Night Shade were pretty much all you had. You were probably happy for any RPG, pseudo- or otherwise.

So imagine you're an eager young player in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, and you've just unpackaged your new Dragon 32 or ZX Spectrum. Maybe in some magazines you've heard about the Wizardry or Ultima series in the U.S., and you start looking around for something to fill that RPG craving. You find nothing, unless you want to type the code for The Valley yourself. You start to suspect that the U.S. is going to dominate the Computer Age.

Then a company like Wintersoft comes along and offers a game like Ring of Darkness. You don't care that it's a breathtakingly obvious ripoff of Ultima; it's not like Richard Garriott--the prick who has the audacity to call himself Lord British--was porting his stuff to your little Welsh machine. It's all you have, and you love it.

Fighting an "evil ranger" in the wilderness between a river and a city.

When I say "breathtakingly obvious ripoff," I couldn't be more serious. The product would be indistinguishable from Ultima except for the couple of features it steals from Akalabeth and Ultima II. These include:

  • Overland, iconographic surface navigation is contrasted with first-person wireframe dungeon movement.
  • The game has the same attributes, races, and character classes as Ultima, plus modifications to attributes based on race and class choices.
  • The same enemies pop up in the wilderness, including "evil rangers" (Ultima)
  • The command list is copied almost directly from Ultima, including (K)limb, (Z)stats, and (I)nform and Search.

The Z-stats result.

  • A king gives you random quests to visit signs and slay enemies (Akalabeth and Ultima) and takes your gold for hit-point increases (Ultima and Ultima II)
  • Oh, but you also get hit points when you leave dungeons, based on the number of enemies you killed! (Akalabeth, Ultima)
  • Quests offered by kings alter between visiting signs and killing specific enemies in dungeons (Ultima
  • Towns feature little counters selling weapons, armor, spells, and food. You engage them by walking up and hitting (T)ransact. 
  • Bartenders give hints when you buy drinks (Ultima).
  • Spells appear as inventory items that deplete as cast (all three games)
  • You need to constantly watch dwindling food supplies (all three games)
  • Magic only works in dungeons (Ultima II)
  • A king's castle features a princess in jail and a jester wandering around who steals from you. And guess what the jester has to say?

You have to be #$&*@ kidding me.

I won't say that Ring of Darkness doesn't add anything not found in Ultima, but most of what it adds, sucks. For instance, the movement keys for the ZX Spectrum (the version I'm playing) are:

Q   P

Take a look at the keyboard and tell me if that makes sense. And, no the Spectrum didn't have an arrangement in which it did. Reviews of the game at the time were also baffled.

In addition to Ultima's "Ladder Up" and "Ladder Down" spells, there are some original to this game. "Magic Zapper" is just magic missile, but we also have "Unlock," "Create" (food, I assume), "Remove," "Jump," "Bridge," and "Kill." Since magic only works in dungeons, I assume that most of these spells have to do with obstacles and pits that you encounter there. The manual says nothing about the spells.

In fact, there's hardly any documentation. You're told that "you are about to enter a strange world of challenges, surprises, and satisfying problems" (huh?), and your ultimate goal is to "seek your fortune." A bit of drivel accompanies the opening screen, suggesting that the quest has something to do with finding five rings.

That whole "one ring" business sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it.

You start by assigning a pool of 40 points to three attributes: strength, intelligence, and dexterity, then choosing a race and class, which further modifies these statistics.

Afterwards, you're dumped unceremoniously on an open landscape with 150 gold, 100 food, 2 daggers, a suit of leather armor, and 4 "magic zapper" spells. You need to immediately (R)eady your armor and weapons because random enemies start attacking quite quickly. Outdoor enemies include evil rangers, bandits, and--most annoying of all--"hidden archers." There doesn't seem to be any way to kill this enemy. If you try to (A)ttack, the game says you're out of range, and spells don't work in the wilderness. All you can do is flee, which takes several unsuccessful attempts (with you taking damage each time) before it works.

What the hell is with these guys.

The land is dotted with castle-cities, dungeons, and special locations like signs. All locations look like castles, which makes it hard when you're trying to find a specific place. The closest castle-city to the starting area is called Borderton. All of the castle-cities are laid out exactly the same and offer the same services: a weapon/armor shop, a transportation shop (incorrectly labeled "smith"), a pub where you can buy food and drink, a magic shop, a throne room, and a prison.

Getting my first quest from the king.

Versus getting my first quest from the king--also to find a signpost--in Ultima.

The weapon shop only sold daggers, leather armor, and axes. I bought an axe right away and split the rest of my initial gold between hit points and food. The king gave me a quest to find "Sinclair's Sign" (perhaps a reference to the makers of the ZX Spectrum). I set out looking for it, but before I found it, I came upon the first dungeon: Doom Labyrinth.

As I mentioned, dungeons are wireframe affairs with ladders, pits, hidden doors, chests, and basic enemy sketches as Akalabeth and Ultima. When you exit a dungeon, you receive a hit point reward related to the number and difficulty of the enemies you killed. This silly mechanism was tolerable in Akalabeth and Ultima--Garriott didn't have a lot of other templates to work with--but it seems absurd that someone actually thought it was worth emulating.

Attacking a sad, confused-looking "etin" in a dungeon level.

Speaking of emulating, I learned two new emulators for this game. The first, representing most of the screen shots above, was the "Spectaculator" emulator for the ZX Spectrum. It seems to work all right, but the game originally came on a double-sided tape, and I kept having problems with it crashing every time it asked me to flip the tape.

Thus, I also checked out the "XRoar" emulator for the Dragon 32/64. Ring of Darkness was originally published on this platform, and it has a few differences. Most notably, overworld navigation takes place on a single screen rather than a zoomed-in area:

The map doesn't appear to be the same as the Spectrum version, either.

But the Dragon 32 version ended up giving me even more problems, including horrible error-trapping, which dumped me out of the game every time I pressed a key the game didn't expect. The emulator also didn't have a mechanism for speeding up the excruciatingly slow speed of the game, so I returned to the ZX Spectrum edition and toughed through my problems, which involved actually mimicking the rewind, stop, and start operations of the cassette.

The beginning of the game is much like Ultima II, where survival is a constant problem and almost all of the money you make goes towards food. Unlike Ultima II, it doesn't appear that you can steal food. There's a (S)teal command in the game, but I can't get it to work even for a thief character.

Food! What else would I steal? Actual valuables?

Slaying enemies results in an immediate reward of experience points and gold. In the overland area, this seems to be somewhat random--I'll get anywhere from 2 to 8 from killing an evil ranger, for instance--but the dungeon creatures offer more consistency.

I swiftly learned that screwing around in the overland area is a losing proposition. You don't make enough money from killing evil rangers et. al. to even come close to restoring the hit points they sap, particularly when you have to keep escaping the invulnerable hidden archers. Thus, I spent most of my first exploration session in the dungeon, where at least you get a hit point boost upon exiting and there are no archers.

A few things make Ring of Darkness much harder than Akalabeth or Ultima. In both of the latter games, you could descend into a dungeon and have a reasonable chance of exiting with more hit points than you started. This rarely happens in Ring of Darkness, although you do end up slightly better off than you started thanks to the gold you accumulate. The key problem is that enemies always get the first attack. Whether you wander into a square next to them or wait for them to come to you, you never get to strike first.

Adding to this, enemies stay in fixed squares until they "acquire" you, and many of those fixed squares are at intersections in the dungeon. It's not uncommon to move into a square and get a notice that you've been attacked by a thief (with a consequent loss of hit points). You don't know where he is, so you turn right, only to find an empty corridor. The thief attacks again. You turn around, and there he is. He attacks again. By now, you've lost one-third of the hit points that you had in the first place, and you haven't had a chance to strike a single blow. I also find that streaks in which I miss five or six times in a row are quite common.

Facing a very badly-drawn skeleton in the dungeon. It's too bad I don't have any missile weapons to shoot him across the pit. Instead, I'll have to advance onto the pit, where he'll get the first attack.

Nonetheless, through a combination of exiting when my hit points got too low, receiving my boost, returning to the castle to pay the king for more, and re-entering the dungeon, I managed to slowly earn the 1,024 experience points necessary to make Level 2. At this point, three new items appeared in the weapon/armor shop: a sword, a "spiked rope," and a suit of chain mail. The "spiked rope" sounded promising as a long-range weapon, and I thought it might help take out the hidden archers, but no, it doesn't work.

During this time, I explored the map a little more and found Sinclair's Sign. At the sign, I found a suit of leather (echoing Ultima, where one of the sign posts gave you a weapon), and upon returning to the castle, I got some more experience and 416 gold from the king. Unlike Ultima, the king doesn't send you on the quest again. He simply says that his quest is done.

Solving the first quest.

Moving on through the only paths available within the natural barriers of water and mountains, I found my way to a second city, Port Stillwater, where the king asked me to kill a "jelly cube." There's a handy dungeon nearby where I could attempt that quest, though I don't know what level on which they appear.

From Ultima, in the Lost King's Castle.
From Ring of Darkness. The developers were so lazy they couldn't even think of a different creature for the player to kill.

A few miscellaneous notes from the game:

  • When you die in the game, you get "resurrected" in a random part of the map with 250 hit points and no apparent penalty to experience, gold, or items. 
  • An "inform and search" command finds hidden pits in dungeons. You basically have to use it on every corridor lest you go plummeting to the next level with no way back up.

A pit right in front of a pit. Clever.

  • The game copies Ultima in that a few monster types--thieves, skeletons, giant bats, giant rats--are always found on Level 1. Reach Level 2 and you get giant spiders and "etins" in addition to the above. I haven't yet made it to Level 3 or lower.
  • The transportation shop sells a cart when you're Level 1 and a cart and a mule at Level 2. I wonder if it eventually offers a laser-armed hovercraft as in Ultima.
  • Other than getting new items in the shops, I'm not sure what leveling does for you. It's unrelated to hit points, and it doesn't seem to make me more effective at combat.

The above took me about 6 hours, and I don't imagine I'm very close to winning the game. As a gameplay experience, it's about as good as Ultima (although the fact that it plagiarized so heavily from Ultima makes it worse in general), which is a game I liked for historical value but wouldn't have wanted to play for more than the 8 hours it took me to beat it.

But I haven't deliberately bailed on a game since Bloodwych two years ago (since then, the only winnable game I haven't won, Legend of Faerghail, was due to a irrecoverable bug), so I'll probably continue, see if I can beat it, and see if it has an original thought in its head. If I end up having to kill that jester for his key, freeing the princess, and getting a time machine, there's going to be hell to pay.