Thursday, May 26, 2016

Game 224: Dungeon of Nadroj (1991)

Anyone know what Blackmar's Dungeon is?
    
Dungeon of Nadroj
Australia
C. W. Jordan (developer), published as shareware
Released 1991 for Amiga
Date Started: 22 May 2016
Date Ended: 22 May 2016
Total Hours: 3
Reload Count: 9
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

It takes some guts to write an independent shareware RPG for what is arguably the premier RPG platform, in the heyday of its popularity, but that's what C. W. ("Bill") Jordan did here in 1991 with Dungeons of Nadroj. While it can't compete in quality with some of the best commercial games of the era, Jordan deserves credit for creating a game that feels familiar without feeling completely derivative. As I told him during a brief correspondence earlier this week, I couldn't identify a single specific game that must have served as Jordan's inspiration.

Dungeon of Nadroj belongs to a subset of games that we might call "afternoon RPGs": light games of short duration and randomized gameplay that use RPG elements. It's going to suffer in my GIMLET rating for not having much of a framing story or an epic quest, but that was never the developer's intention. An Australian chess champion, Jordan became well-known within his community for developing chess programs, and Nadroj feels like the type of game that a chess game developer would write: brisk, replayable, and more concerned with mechanics than content.
      
The game's "instruction manual" leaves out the important keys (U)se and (D)rop.
    
Jordan was 33 when he wrote Nadroj and began selling it in magazines for $25 AUD. Like legions of developers before him, Jordan decided to name the dungeon by spelling his last name backwards. Memo to future developers who might think about doing the same thing: this only works if you have the right sort of name. If your name is Bill Rorret, you got lucky. Mr. Jordan, in contrast, did not, and his game name sounds as silly and forced as, say, Dungeon of Ekorbgnilob. (Revelation: the first five letters of my last name are an anagram for "goblin." How did I never see that before?) Again, though, we give it a pass for not being that serious a game in the first place.
   
Two PCs encounter each other in the dungeon.
   
Up to 4 players can explore the dungeon, competitively or cooperatively, all with a goal to kill a wizard on the sixth level. When you start the game, you set the number of characters, choose from human, dwarf, elf, and hobbit classes (I found no functional difference), and give each character a name. If more than one character is active, you decide whether they can fight each other and how many moves each character gets per turn. After that, it's off to the dungeon.

Levels are supposedly randomized for each new game, but I didn't see that happening, so it's possible the only version floating around online is a demo version rather than the full, paid version. Each level is 14 x 14 squares, with the squares initially hidden but slowly revealed as they enter your field of vision. As you explore, you fight both fixed and wandering monsters appropriate to the level, collect treasure, and use it to improve your character's dexterity and strength (the only attributes), restore lost constitution, and purchase equipment.
  
The combat is pretty basic. You see you and the monster's comparative strength and dexterity levels and health meters. As the seconds tick by and you and the monster attack each other, your meters deplete until one of you is dead. Your only options are to toggle between "Defend," "Attack," and "Thrust" modes, but these just seem to affect the speed at which the meters reach their inevitable outcome. You can also "Run" or "Use" a particular item that gives you an offensive or defensive advantage against the enemy, but there aren't many of these.  
  
Combat with a poorly-drawn mummy.
   
Slain enemies give up gold. If the enemy was fixed (there are about a dozen of these per level), he'll also have a treasure chest that might be trapped or might have some special inventory item.

In between monsters, you encounter wandering NPCs. If you "talk" to them, they'll give you brief hints, such as the locations of stores. If you "trade," each will offer potions that increase strength, potions that increase dexterity, and healing potions. The potions that increase strength and dexterity are the primary mechanisms for character development in the game. They start at 200 gold pieces each and increase by 20 gold pieces for every point you increase.
  
Buying healing from an NPC.
   
You start the game with no inventory and slowly accumulate weapons, armor, rings, potions, scrolls, and so forth. Even after winning the game, I remain confused about how it treats weapons and armor. There's no "equip" command. There is a "use" command, but you can only have one item in active "use" at a time. Thus, if you have a sword and a suit of armor in your inventory, I don't know if they improve your combat stats if you're not actively "using" them. There are some items--sacks, ropes, and lanterns among them--that never seem to do anything even if "used."

On higher levels, you fight tougher creatures like dragons, demons, balrogs, vampires, and puddings, but you start to find more useful magic items. There's a "magic sword," for instance, that protects against any damage from undead, and rings that detect evil creatures, warn you of impending attacks (and give you a chance to flee), and protect against fire and magic. These rings are never called anything but "ring," so you have to remember which effects are in which inventory slots. There's one fun bug: if an undead creature attacks you while you're protected from undead, your hit points actually increase with every attack, potentially well above the normal maximum of 200.
   
A "Ring of ESP" does its job.
   
On lower levels, almost every fixed enemy's treasure chest requires a key. You have to develop an inventory of different keys--iron, copper, gold--on upper levels to open any of these chests. You're generally rewarded with multiple treasures per chest if you have the key.
  
I don't have the right key to open this chest.
   
Levels are dotted with staircases, parts of the corridor that slope upwards and downwards, magic portals that teleport you to other levels, trap doors, and secret doors. The ratio of regular squares to those that screw with your movement gets a little tiresome sometimes.
   
   
Slain characters can "reincarnate," but their strength and dexterity are reduced to 1, they lose all their equipment, and they lose all their gold. The maps remain explored and all the fixed encounters--which you really need to build the character--already tripped, so "reincarnating" is worse than just starting over. 
  
  
With the equivalent of permadeath thus in effect, winning the game is hard unless you spend a long time grinding. You want to spend a long time on earlier levels, earning money, buying potions, and getting your strength and dexterity up high. Camping near a store seems like a good idea; that way, you don't have to rely on random NPCs for healing potions. You probably don't want to move down to the next level until your stats are 10 times the level number.

Since I was willing to abuse save states, I won the game more quickly, though I had to "reload" quite a bit. The wizard roams the sixth level, but he's invisible, so you need a Potion of Detect Invisibility to find him. This can be purchased from one of the shops if you don't find one, although none of the potions in the shops are labeled, so you have to spend a while testing them.
   
For some reason, if you can't see the wizard, you end up fighting a pudding.
   
Once you can see the wizard, killing him isn't very hard--he falls far more quickly than the dragons and balrogs you can find on the same level. Defeating him gives you a brief message in which Jordan forgot to put spaces around the [Name] and [Class] variables. Hitting SPACE at this point dumps you to the Amiga desktop.

The "winning screen." Either by bug or by design, the wizard has no graphic of his own. You're seeing the last NPC I encountered.

Nadroj isn't going to do great on my GIMLET, but I still liked it. It didn't hurt that I played it while taking a break from the 100+ hour Fate: Gates of Dawn and just before the confusing Swords & Sorcery. Nadroj served great as a quick, fun palate-cleanser.
      
  • 1 point for an extremely brief game world.
  • 2 points for character creation and development in the form of buying potions.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction, both to trade things and hear a small selection of hints.
  • 1 point for a set of standard foes.
  • 1 point for near option-less combat.
  • 3 points for a variety of equipment you must use intelligently to survive.
      
     
  • 4 points for an economy that never gets stale given the need to buy potions.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for goofy graphics, no sound, and an okay interface, though the in-game instructions don't bother to tell you all the commands.
     
This is a "balrog." I think you'll agree I'm being a bit generous on the graphics.
       
  • 4 points for gameplay, mostly for replayability and not overstaying its welcome.
    
That gives us a final score of 22, which doesn't sound great, but is on the upper end of independent RPGs. It's much better than the other Independent Australian RPG I've played in the last year: 1990's Stone of Telnyr.

In e-mail correspondence, Mr. Jordan (still active with chess programs and tutorials) told me that the Amiga shareware scene was pretty active in Australia in the early 1990s, with a number of stores selling cheap disks by mail, and one magazine--MegaDisk--with large shareware library. Bulletin board distribution was also quite common. There are probably dozens of uncatalogued shareware RPGs from this era (that wasn't a challenge!), and Jordan's was one of the few lucky ones to find its way to modern databases. Jordan says he did well with some of his programs, but he only ever received one shareware payment for Dungeon of Nadroj. Reviews were good, though, and the game was awarded "public domain game of the month" by one UK library.

As I mentioned, Nadroj is unique among shareware programs (so far) in that it owes no obvious inspiration to an earlier commercial RPG. You can't describe it as a "Whatever clone." Jordan told me that while he was familiar with some roguelikes--LARN, Moria, Hack--he was primarily inspired by tabletop Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls sessions from the 1970s. He also tried his hand at adventure games and an adventure game creator, all of which seem to be lost.

It's a bit refreshing to play a game with brand new elements, and even more refreshing to cover a 1991 game in a single posting. Back we go to Nadroj's thematic opposite with another posting on Fate.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Fate: Bumbling Around

Winwood chooses an inappropriate time to invent a creative curse.
  
I had hoped to report that I finished the first quest by now, but I don't think I'm even close. Instead, I spent about 10 hours since the last post just messing around, mapping, fighting combats, and talking to NPCs for hints. This is an insanely slow game.

Based on the comments from last time, I ran around Larvin testing every "black" square for secret doors (and I now know not to make them black unless I've already done this). I found two. One led to a relatively small area in the southeast with an extra chapel and smith. The second led to an alternate entrance to the catacombs. More on that in a bit.

I also got rid of my adventurer, hunter, and valkyrie characters and started looking for a banshee, archmage, witch, or enchanter (there was a little disagreement on the optimal party, but it seems to be mage-heavy). Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find anyone of those classes who would join me. I eventually picked up a fighter just so I'd have some more combat power until a better option came along.

I continued logging hints. In previous sessions, I'd learned that Larvin's "Cavetrain" wasn't working because it had been broken by some ape-men called "mongards." King Garloth is offering a reward for anyone who can fix the situation. In subsequent hints, I heard that the "Shade Ghosts" are the power behind the Cavetrain, and that despite their name, they're not evil. The Mongards somehow have the power to control the Shade Ghosts, but so does a mysterious man named Miras Athran, known as "Master of the Shade Ghosts." But Miras Athran is reportedly an ally of Thardan, my enemy, and I've thus been encouraged to stay away from him. I really don't know where this is all going.

There was a hint about a magical axe hidden in a secret "Benth chamber" in the catacombs, and someone told me a wise druid named Mulradin, keeper of many secrets, lives in Larvin. I haven't been able to get anyone of any class to continue the thread about the island in the southeast of Larvin, even though it comes up every time I click "Hint."
    
    
A few other notes from NPCs:
   
  • If a male character (like Winwood) tries to use "enchant," it only works if the NPC is female. If the NPC is  male, the game says, "He doesn't look like a light-hearted fellow." I didn't think the message made sense until I realized what "light-hearted" must have been translated from.
  • The more I explored and leveled, the harder it became to find hostile people in town. Even muggers, thieves, and murderers were happy to talk with me instead of attacking.
   
A friendly mugger.
   
  • If you use "threaten" on these evil classes, they sometimes give you money before running away. I can't remember any game that's let me mug someone before. The chapels don't even regard it as a sin.
  • I'm continuing to gain points from talking to NPCs and asking for "help," but I've only found NPCs that will increase my dexterity, wisdom, and intelligence. Fighter types, who sound like they should be able to increase strength, never help me.
   
I tried exploring the catacombs, but until late in the session, the only entrance I knew about was in the northwest of the city. This leads to some very short hallways that quickly move downwards. I found that once I got to level 4 or 5, the monsters outclassed me and I died repeatedly from their attacks.
   
   
Lacking any other ideas, I decided to go outside and explore the environs. I mapped the area immediately around Larvin, traced the local road network, and then started to feel for the northern and western edges of the map. I was blocked from some areas by rings of dense trees or boulders, and from others by water. I'll ask explicitly: is there anything in the game that allows you to move on water? If not, I'll color in some of the middle areas.

My map of the outdoor area so far. Gold boxes are wilderness areas that you can step on (and I have); gray are roads.
  
There were tough enemies outside, too, but not as hard as the catacombs. My characters started to hit Levels 4 and 5. Combats with dwarves and gnomes--they never want to parley--resulted in thousands of coins.
   
Well, that's just rude.
   
I found hidden treasures in two locations: a set of scale bracers and an "icesword" that does significant damage against multiple enemies per round.
  
Winwood readies his new weapon.
   
My full combat post will have to wait for later, but I've noticed a much larger variety of magical effects in this game than in most RPGs. Enemies have spells that make you hungry and thirsty, destroy your items, sap your statistics, and prevent you from casting spells.

I don't know why enemies sometimes start up to 12 meters away and other times they're right next to you. Trying to advance across the battlefield 2 meters at a time while enemies fire spells is a sure recipe for death. I need to get some missile weapons soon.

As I mentioned last time, game time runs quite slowly. I explored the wilderness for almost 5 hours real-time before it started to get dark and I headed back to Larvin. My characters were hungry and thirsty, so I stopped by a tavern, and performing a "go around," I got the hint that led me to the alternate entrance to the catacombs.
  

      
The first level of the catacombs. Note all the one-way doors.
   
Instead of leading me to a series of small hallways, this new entrance led to a more traditional-sized dungeon. I mapped the first two levels, or at least parts of them. Both levels featured multiple one-way walls and doors, as well as multiple up- and down stair cases, so it seems likely that the earlier levels might turn out to be much larger. Not a lot interesting has happened so far--some combats, some traps, some treasures, some NPCs--but on Level 2, in the middle of a 3 x 3 room, I found a boulder that clearly has some kind of purpose. None of the game's actions did anything, however.
  
   
Some other miscellaneous notes:
    
  • There are separate conditions associated with hunger, thirst, fatigue, condition, cleanliness, and sobriety. A character who doesn't need anything to drink is "still," for some reason. I don't really understand "cleanliness." I had a character who became "near death" in this category until I took him to a temple and had them cast "cleanse." I don't see anything in the manual that covers these conditions.
   
"Billy," who is female, is in perfect health, at least until we try to use a bathroom in North Carolina.
   
  • The game pays homage to Zork by offering battles against grues in the catacombs.
   
I thought they were supposed to stay away from light.
   
  • More than 12 hours in the game, I finally got a copy protection request.
       
   
  • Lamps are expensive and extremely short lived. I went through 5 of them just mapping two small dungeon levels.
    
It takes so long to assemble enough material for a post in Fate that I can easily envision 3 or 4 postings happening for other games in between Fate entries. The wilderness and dungeon are turning out to be so big that you could imagine the "Cavetrain" quest being the entire game in most other titles.
  
Time so far: 18 hours
Reload count: 21

*****

Spectre of Castle Doomrock (1985) was on my upcoming list, but I'm suddenly having trouble with my Atari 800 emulator. Since some reports indicated that it's not an RPG under my definitions, I got rid of it.

MegaTraveller 2 was technically next, but I fired it up for a while and just got exhausted with it quickly. It's not good policy to postpone games for that reason, as I'll have to deal with them eventually, but I just wasn't interested in trying right now. Thus, Dungeon of Nadroj (1991) will be my next non-Fate exploration.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mandragore: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

  
Mandragore
France
Infogrames (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II, 1986 for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX, and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 26 April 2016
Date Ended: 16 May 2016
Total Hours: 15
Reload Count: 11
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Mandragore is a rare case of an RPG that got better as it progressed. When I first started playing, seeing it as something of an Ultima clone and wanting in traditional Ultima-style mechanics, it took a lot of effort to get me to play. Later, as I tried to appreciate it for what it was trying to do...well, I still didn't like it. But I was almost able to role-play the kind of person who would like it. Someone more interested in originality than in getting a traditional RPG fix. Such a person would appreciate the sheer weirdness of its visuals, which are almost outré enough to call it the first psychedelic RPG (although you could make a strong case for Empire on that one).
   
The outdoor area looks similar to Ultima III, but the similarities end there.
  
The framing story that wraps the game is almost bland in comparison. As I discussed in the first posting, the accompanying 22-page novella describes how the default party gets together, embarks on a quest to defeat the evil usurper Yarod-Nor, and is ultimately defeated and dispersed over the course of their adventures. But if you start the game with the default party, everyone is hale and together, so that's a bit of an unsolved mystery. After I defeated the game, I re-read the story to see if there were any hints. Although the party encounters some of the same monsters as the player does in-game, the manual doesn't give any explicit hints.

The basic goal of the game is to explore 9 castles reachable by land, solve their individual puzzles, and get a "stanza" as a reward. In each case, solving the castle's puzzle involves finding the right item and then dropping it in the right room. Once you're done with the first nine castles, you buy a boat, journey to Yarad-Nor's castle on an island, and defeat him using a passcode picked up from the stanzas.
   
Yarad-Nor's subjects are suitably bleak.
   
The beginning and end of the game are standard high-fantasy stuff, but the first nine castles all have quirky, comical, or just plain screwy themes. They're not even really "castles," although that's what they look like from the outside: many feature outdoor areas and caves. In the order I found them, they are:

  • A "zodiac" castle with NPCs representing each of the signs. Together, they provide a clue to look behind a bookcase, where you find an object called "Master." Dropping it on the top of the tower solves the quest.
  • A "beehive" castle in which a bunch of giant bees and wasps had been driven mad because the queen's "fluid" was leaking. Solving the castle means dropping a bowl, found in one of the other castles, in front of her.
   
My "reward" fort he beehive castle.
   
  • The "number" castle, described in my last post, where I had to solve a magic square by dropping a "4" in the right place. Enemies included mathematical symbols.
  • The "Lost World," where I met a bunch of dinosaurs, dragons, and devils. In one of its caves was a hermit, and the solution to the castle was to drop a flame (picked up, somehow, from a different screen) on his pedestal. Given the stanza that followed, the hermit seems to be Syrella's father, mentioned in the backstory, but nothing particular came of our meeting with him.
  
There was no acknowledgement of paternity here.
   
  • A forested castle where I was attacked by different plant-based monsters. I had to find a plant called "Vital" and place it in the middle of a crown for some reason.
  • "Heaven," where platforms circled through the clouds, and angels greeted me as NPCs. I wasn't able to solve this one--more on the consequences of that in a bit. Apparently, I was supposed to find a compass rose somewhere but I never did.
   
    
  • An underwater castle of Nereids and sirens. I couldn't solve this one, either. I gather I was supposed to drop a "prow" in the siren king's chamber as an offering, but I visited the chamber too early and had to kill the king to escape.
   
Just before I killed him. I think his line refers to my party's curiosity in following the sirens to his chamber.
   
  • A castle full of undead. I had to find a barrier deep in the castle and place it in front of the front doors.
   
   
  • A "chess" castle full of NPCs named things like "red queen" and "green king." Solving it meant picking up the green king and dropping him somewhere else. I figured it out through trial and error.
   
   
Last time, I questioned whether it was possible to kill necessary NPCs without realizing it. Given the rest of my experience, I'm not sure there are any absolutely necessary NPCs, with the possible exception of King Triton, as above, but even that could have been something else I missed instead. In any event, it turns out that non-hostile creatures don't deliver experience points, so that's another way to tell.

Each of the castles held a set of monsters that, while bizarre in general, was specific to their themes. As I killed them, my characters increased in levels every 1,000 experience points, but I was never sure what the leveling did for me. I suppose it might have made combat easier, but with harder enemies coming along at the same time, it was tough to tell.
     
This is not the devil; only a devil.
    
Castles also held selections of treasure, weapons, and armor. As I mentioned last time, I never noticed that the weapons or armor were helping me in combat. To get to the endgame, you pretty much have to sell everything anyway, and I explored the final dungeon unarmed with no apparent drawbacks. Fortunately, I'd been stealing medicines throughout the game, because if I'd been purchasing them as often as I needed them, there's no way I would have had the 3,000 gold pieces necessary to buy the boat.

The last castle wasn't very hard until the end. There were some NPCs who alternately begged for assistance and commented on the futility of taking on Yarad-Nor. There were a couple monks I had to kill.  Eventually, I found a patch of the titular Mandragore (French for "mandrake"), which fittingly looked like a person. Each character took and ate a piece, which turned them invisible.
  
Okay, mandrake root looks kind-of like a person, but not in this way, right?
   
Soon we wandered into the chamber of the fearsome Yarad-Nor himself, labeled only "Monster." I couldn't figure out what to do here. Attacks did nothing. Talking with him did nothing. None of the commands usually applied to monsters did anything. I also couldn't leave the room.
  
To me, an evil overlord ought to have more contrasting colors.
  
Having played Ultima IV and plenty of other games in which the text found during the quest played a role in the endgame, I consulted the stanzas. I was missing two of them, as I hadn't finished those castles, but I was able to cheat and extract them from the game file just by opening it in Notepad. But each stanza basically just recapped the quest for that castle; none of them said anything about defeating Yarad-Nor. I tried to find some code among the words and letters and came up short.

I thus turned to a hint page in desperation. It took me a while to find one, and it was in French. Nonetheless, it told me what I needed to know by confirming my supposition that the code was in the stanzas. In the original French, the first letters of each stanza spell out IN DEMONEM, which is (fairly recent) Ecclesiastical Latin for "in the demon." The term actually makes sense, as we'll see in a second.
  
Anyway, stringing together the first letters of the English version spells out...TNSADWOAT. I'll save you a trip to Google: it doesn't mean anything in Latin or any other language, and in fact this page will be the only one that has it. As I typed it into the game parser, I thought, "there's no way this is going to work." But of course it did. That's some lazy translating there. It would have taken hardly any effort to translate the stanzas in such a way as to spell out the same phrase in English as it did in French; instead, the developers insured that English players would never figure out the endgame password on their own.
 
Mandragore is the first game to feature a battle inside the enemy's body. It's not the only one because Pools of Darkness (1991) does the same thing.
   
Speaking the phrase took me inside Yarad-Nor's body. The images were freaky, but I think I was supposed to be inside his bloodstream, fighting fat globules or white blood cells or something. At last, I came to a chamber where I fought something called a "Filanta." Killing it--it wasn't very hard for the endgame boss--produced the winning message at the top of the screen.

The final battle of the game.
   
The endgame text thus had an interesting twist: Yarad-Nor, who the manual said had "appeared from nowhere" at the same time good King Jorian disappeared, was actual Jorian himself. The "Filanta" was some malevolent being that had ridden to the land in a meteor shower and possessed Jorian's body. By entering his body and killing it, I freed his mind and spirit. Groovy.

We thus start the GIMLET strong:

  • 4 points for the game world. There's not much thematic consistency among the castles, but the framing story is well-told and Mandragore certain meets my first bullet point: "The game world has unique features that distinguish it from other CRPGs."
  • 3 points for character creation and development. I like that the game awards experience for non-combat actions, and I like that only certain classes can access certain commands, making the choice of characters important. I don't like that the effects of leveling up aren't really palpable in the game.
   
A character sheet towards the end of the game.
   
  • 2 points for a series of NPCs that deliver one-line phrases and hints.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are uniquely named and drawn, but they don't really act any differently in combat, nor have any particular strengths or weaknesses.
   
I'm not quite sure how my party is breathing underwater here.
   
  • 1 point for magic and combat. A terrible system. I didn't notice that the SPELL, PARALYZE, or HYPNOTIZE commands succeeded any more or less than simple ATTACKS, nor even much difference among the characters. There are essentially no tactics at all.
  • 1 point for equipment. There's plenty of it; it just doesn't seem to do anything. My unarmed and unarmored characters at the end were just as effective as when they had weapons. There are items sold in the towns like torches and keys that never do anything in-game. The only purpose to inventory is to find things to sell and carry quest items long enough to use them.
  • 4 points for the economy. Food, medicine, and the boat must be purchased within a tight, closed economic system.
  • 3 points for a main quest, 2 for having one, and 1 for making it a little more interesting than most games of the era.
   
The stanza I received after defeating the haunted castle.
   
  • 2 points for graphics, which are bad but interesting. None for sound, as the only sound in the game is an awful music track. None for the parser interface, which might be one of the worst I've encountered. Every errant keypress causes it to freeze up. There's an option to separate the party that is never needed.
   
And I never understood why the game insisted on listing objects you can't interact with.
   
  • 4 points for gameplay. I like the nonlinearity of the first 9 castles, the moderate difficulty (I suppose I should regard it as hard since I couldn't finish 2 castles, but for some reason I don't), and the length. 15 hours is just about right for a game of this era.

Add 'em up and we get a subtotal of 26, but I'm going to subtract a point for the poor English adaptation to leave the final score at 25. It's not the best game of the era, but certainly far better than I thought when I fired it up. French developers have a way of making games that you remember even if you don't always like them, and I think Mandragore will be one of the most memorable games of 1985.

It would have been interesting to see what the author of Mandragore did as the genre evolved, but Marc Cecchi seems to have gotten out of video games shortly after it was published. The only other game I can find attributed to him is Inforgrames's Oméga: Planète Invisible (1985), which seems to use the same engine. Both games would have been developed when he was in his early 20s. Since then, he appears to have gone into business consulting and is currently a senior vice president with Atos, a French IT services company.

Mandragore was the first RPG released by Infogrames--it might even have been their first game (there are three others in 1985, the company's first release year). We next saw them with Drakkhen, perhaps the best exemplar of my "memorably weird" thesis, but I don't think we'll run into the company again until 1999's Silver. They're almost entirely about action, adventure, and strategy games.

But we will have plenty of more French RPGs in the near future. As I mentioned in my 1984/1985 transition posting, this is the brief "golden age" of RPGs in France, and we have three of them in a row coming up in 1986: Faial, Fer & Flamme, and Le Fer d'Amnukor. I'm sure they'll all be suitably inscrutable.

*****

Tell me if  you agree with this line of thinking: While the Macintosh is definitely a personal computer, of all the platforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is least like the others. Thus, RPGs designed specifically for the Mac make a kind-of subset of the genre and have to be studied as a unique evolutionary branch. For this reason, it would probably be a mistake to jump right to Shadow Keep (1991) without first investigating the Mac-only games that preceded it, like OrbQuest (1986) and Quarterstaff (1987), to see how this sub-genre evolved.

If this is true, I should probably move Shadow Keep off the active list and play it much later in the 1991 list, after I've played a least a couple of those earlier games.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Game 223: Seas of Blood (1985)

    
Seas of Blood
United Kingdom
Adventuresoft UK (developer); Adventure International (publisher)
Released 1985 for Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 14 May 2016
Date Ended: 15 May 2016
Total Hours: 9
Reload Count: 6 characters, about 15 total in-game reloads among all characters
Difficulty: Easy-Medium (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

A little over a year ago, I checked out two computer adaptations of gamebooks from the storied Fighting Fantasy series: The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom. Neither did it for me. Penguin Books had done nothing more than copy the literal text and choices to the computer, creating in effect a book that you read on a screen. Neither game used the power of the computer to transcend the limitations of the gamebook (for instance, by allowing backtracking), and neither improved in any way upon the experience of reading a physical book.

I had resolved not to try any more gamebook adaptations, but frequent commenter Joe Pranevich hoodwinked me back into the genre by promising me that Seas of Blood outperformed its predecessors. It was, among other things, developed by Adventuresoft UK, an actual game company, and programmed in part by Mike Woodroffe, whose work we'd later see on Elvira and Elvira II. Joe was planning to write a review for "The Adventure Gamer" and thought we could have a little cross-blog synergy. The reviews also time well with TAG's upcoming interview with Woodroffe.

Seas of Blood is fare more an adventure game than an RPG.
  
Having finished the game, I think we should have collaborated on a different one. It isn't an RPG, first of all--there's no character development or even much of an inventory. As an adventure game, it doesn't fare much better. Both its puzzles and its parser vastly underperform the better titles of the time. Nonetheless, it does fix some of the issues we saw with the two previous Fighting Fantasy adaptations. The world is fully open--no artificial barriers to backtracking--and you interact with typed verbs and nouns instead of choosing from gamebook-style lists. In that sense, Seas of Blood does what a gamebook adaptation should do: adapt the story and setting from the book using the superior tools of the computer. They just didn't go quite far enough. In particular, the computer game preserves an issue that many of the book readers complained about: too many sudden deaths and other arbitrary outcomes to player choices.
  
Man, this book was brutal.
  
The game is set on the Inland Sea south of the city of Tak, "the greatest den of thieves, pirates, and cut-throats that the civilized world has ever seen." You're one of them. Your goal is to sail your pirate crew around the seas, assembling a collection of 20 treasures that you must take to the top of the mountain on the island of Nippur to the south. I never received any logical explanation for why you'd want to dump a bunch of treasures on top of a mountain, but there you go. (The plot in the gamebook is slightly more sensible. The player and his arch-rival, Abdul the Butcher, engage in a contest to determine who will be King of the Pirates. Whoever reaches Nippur with the most gold within 50 days gets the title.)

I've seen some reviewers praise the game for the opportunity to "role-play a bloodthirsty pirate," but in truth you don't spend much time pirating. You have to attack one innocent vessel, I guess, but otherwise you're indistinguishable from the hero of a typical game.
  
The Fighting Fantasy system generally has the player roll for skill, stamina, and luck, with various items and encounters able to damage or enhance the initial scores. Seas of Blood increased the complexity by having the player keep track of a second set of statistics relating to the ship and the crew: "crew strike" (basically, crew skill) and "crew strength" (the number of crew members, basically equivalent to crew stamina). The player also had to track a "log" of how many days he's been at sea.
  
The computer version of the character sheet.
  
The computer adaptation eliminates luck and takes a step back from its predecessors by offering no character creation. Everyone starts with 9 skill, 20 stamina, 9 crew strike, 20 crew members, and 50 provisions. Without introduction, the game dumps you into the Inland Sea at its northern border, in a location I presume is south of Tak. Despite building it up considerably, the game doesn't actually let you visit Tak.
   
The first screen of the game...
..contrasted to the first paragraph in the book. I like that the game makes you navigate to these locations instead of just choosing options.
   
While on ship--called the Banshee--you navigate with commands like SAIL EAST and SAIL NORTH. There's only one place to go on the ship, DOWN to the hold. You can visit other ships and shipwrecks with commands like SWIM and GO, and if you find a promising island or port, you GO ASHORE, at which point you navigate with the regular cardinal commands.

The Inland Sea is only 7 squares wide. I don't know how many it is south--at least 45--but I never found the southernmost extent without running out of provisions. Functionally, you never have to go more than 30 south since that's where Nippur lies. Within those 210 explorable areas of sea are maybe 12-15 islands, ports, and other locations where you have to leave the ship and explore (without your crew) a small land map, collecting treasures, fighting battles, and overcoming associated encounters. 
  
In some ways, this part isn't much different than Pirates!
   
The "provisions" statistic hampers your ability to sail around infinitely. You start with only 50, and every direction sailed at sea uses 1, no matter how many crew members you have. I found three locations--an oasis, a giant crayfish, and a pirate ship--where you can get 15 more, but even with them, you can't possibly explore all 210 sea squares in a single game. Seas of Blood is thus like many adventure games where you field a bunch of doomed characters before your final character takes the optimal path through the encounters. A fair number of instant deaths and walking dead moments only enhances this fact.
  
All I did was choose one direction over another.
   
Joe's post at "The Adventure Gamer" does a great job with the blow-by-blow of each location and encounter, so I'll let you read it if you want all the gory details. For my part, I'll say that there aren't really any classic "puzzles" to solve. In almost all the encounters, the only challenge is figuring out what combination of verbs and nouns the game wants you to use. The manual lists about 20 commands that work, but there are quite a few more needed to navigate the game, and more than once my success or failure boiled down to trying a bunch of synonyms until one took.

An example: at one point, you come to a wreck in the ocean with holes in the bow and stern. SWIM WRECK gets you over there. SWIM BOW results in an instant death as a "giant sea anenome [sic] grabs you." SWIM STERN puts you underwater in the ship's hold, where you meet some sea sprites guarding some kind of magic potion. After some fumbling about, I found that TALK TO SPRITES has them say, "A krell has stolen our Skull of Salt. Please help us."
   
Finally!
   
Okay. What now? OKAY and YES produces nothing. Neither does AGREE nor SURE, BUB, WHATEVER YOU WANT. It took me about 10 minutes of screwing around before I found that the needed command was HELP SPRITES. This violates a core convention of adventure games in which verbs and nouns are about direct action rather than general intent. 

The book version is at least clear about what you're doing.
   
I'll admit there aren't a lot of these, though. A couple places required knowledge from a previous encounter to answer a riddle, but generally speaking success is about exploring every crevice, EXAMINING literally everything, opening every box and chest, fighting every enemy, and just reloading when you die. Slowly, you assemble your collection of treasures as well as items needed to solve puzzles elsewhere. To avoid over-encumbrance, you frequently have to dump your inventory in the hold.
   
I got the answer to this riddle from a shrine.
  
There are a few islands and ports where, when you try to GO ASHORE, the game tells you, "this is a very unfriendly place. Forget it." I don't know if these locations just exist as landmarks or if more content was originally planned there. You can do things at these locations in the book. There are several other locations that simply waste your time or stamina and offer no treasure. Until you're confident that you found all the treasures, it's hard to tell which of these areas are superfluous and which you simply haven't solved yet.
  
None of the locations in this game have been friendly.
   
Land combats are entirely fixed, I think. There are three random sea combats when another ship attacks you, and a couple more fixed ones. You get four separate stacks of gold coins from these ship combats; each counts as one of the 20 treasures.
   
One of the random ship combats. These are generally over early in the game.
   
Whether on land or sea, combat is a pretty boring affair. The enemy rolls two dice and adds his skill score (land) or strike score (sea). You do the same. If your roll is better than his, you damage him; otherwise, he damages you. Repeat until one of you is dead. Most enemies start with a far smaller crew strength or stamina than you, and usually lesser skill, so battles rarely last more than a couple rounds. But there's no way to restore stamina or crew strength in the game (there's a Staff of Healing in the captain's quarters but I could never figure out how to get it to work), so a few unlucky combats can leave you without enough points for the endgame.

Fighting some goblins on land.
   
The distressing thing is that combat dumbs-down the system offered in the book, where you could use your luck as an alternative to skill and to increase the damage done to enemies or mitigate damage done to you. There are no such choices here--no choices at all, really. Even worse, there are no items that enhance your skills. As far as I can tell, your inventory has no bearing in combat. You start the game with a sword and later find a silver cutlass (one of the treasures), but your skill is the same even if you drop these items and fight with your bare hands. (There is one undead enemy that can only be hit with the cutlass.) Similarly, a helmet that you find doesn't seem to improve your skill or stamina, and a looted crossbow is never fired.

Just a few random screenshots of game encounters:

I was never able to find a way to get this ruby. Fortunately, it wasn't necessary.
I feel like this exact thing has happened in about 12 other games. There was a sapphire in the nest, naturally.
There's never really anything to do in ports. I want to visit the governor!
Examining everything is really the key to the game.
If you screw around too long on the burning barge, it's destroyed before you can collect all the treasure, putting you in a "walking dead" situation.
     
The endgame is boring and unsatisfying. When you have your 20 treasures in the hold, you sail to the island of Nippur, climb the mountain, and start dropping them. You can't carry them all at once, of course, so you have to tediously make several trips between the mountain and the ship, picking up everything individually (the game doesn't recognize AND) and dropping it. When the 20th treasure hits the ground, you get a message that, "You have all the treasure. You are clearly the greatest pirate of all." Game over.

  
This is honestly the "winning" screen. I have 21 items on the ground here; I'm not sure which one of them isn't an actual treasure.
   
My sense of dissatisfaction is enhanced by the fact that in my Commodore 64 version, at least, this endgame text appears with no paragraph breaks at the bottom of the screen where I've been dropping all my stuff.

My GIMLET gives the game:

  • 3 points for the game world. The setting had some promise. The map is basically the Mediterranean rotated 90 degrees, with the "Rivers of the Dead" standing in for the Nile, the "Isle of Volcanoes" standing in for Sicily, the "Three Sisters" standing in for the Canary Islands, and so forth. The encounters lightly use themes from the region.
   
The map of the Inland Sea provided in the gamebook. The computer game is relatively faithful to it.
   
  • 0 points for character creation and development, as there is none.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. This is the type of game where "NPCs" are inseparable from "encounters," but in any event, there really isn't anyone in the game to talk with.
  • 3 points for the gamebook-style encounters.
   
My crew is turned to animals. I learned in an earlier visit, resulting in an instant death, that I shouldn't EAT.
   
  • 1 point for the boring combat.
  • 1 point for equipment. There are treasures and puzzle items, but nothing to enhance your abilities.
  • 0 points for economy. The gold you find is a plot item; there is no buying, selling, or bartering.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for adequate graphics, no sound, and a sometimes difficult interface.
  • 4 points for gameplay that's non-linear and has the decency to at least be short.
   
The final score of 16 comes in lower than the previous Fighting Fantasy adaptations, which at least offered character development, useful equipment, and a crude economy. I like what Seas of Blood did with the exploration and encounter options better, but it did everything else worse.
   
I must have missed this encounter in-game.
   
Overall, I think we're seeing the same lesson repeated: gamebooks don't really make good computer games. Not unless you scrap everything except the story and setting. In the Fighting Fantasy books, the skill/stamina/luck/two dice system is a limitation imposed by the medium; why adapt it literally to the computer (and even subtract from it!) on which much more complex mechanics are possible? As I'm sure they'll agree over at "The Adventure Gamer," adventure games designed specifically for the computer vastly outperform these gamebook adaptations.