Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Game 325: Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual (1992)

            
Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual
Germany
Motelsoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for Atari ST
Date Started: 9 April 2019

This is my third attempt to play a title from the German developer Motelsoft, which cranked out at least 23 mostly-forgotten RPGs (as well as lots of non-RPG titles) between 1988 and 2003. A partnership between two developers, Harald Breitmeier and Heinz Munter, Motelsoft favored the Atari ST for their first 7 years but ultimately switched to DOS and then Windows. To call their games "obscure" is almost an understatement: Of the few sites that carry any information about Dark Stone Ritual, almost all of them have overlooked the fact that the main title of the game is Magic Tower I. But Motelsoft made up for notability with quantity. Based on the information on their web site, just two programmers produced between 5 and 12 games per year for almost two decades. If they borrowed many of their elements from other games, the speed and skill with which they did so is still impressive.
          
A subtitle screen supplies what most sites think of as the main title.
         
My first attempt at a Motelsoft title, 1988's Seven Horror's, went okay, but without documentation I never really knew what I was doing. The main party was composed of monsters, with weirdly-named character races like "hunches" and "megrims." The goal seemed to be the collection of seven artifacts from various dungeons, which I did, but I still couldn't figure out how to win. It just occurred to me that the game ought to go on the "Missing and Mysteries" list. My attempts to play Sandor (1989) were also hurt by a lack of documentation, plus the fact that I only seemed to have an evaluation copy. The game was a little more developed as an RPG and seemed to draw inspiration from SSI titles, particularly Demon's Winter (1988). I never found any obvious source for Seven Horror's.

It was thus without much expectation that I fired up Dark Stone Ritual and almost immediately found myself intrigued. To start, the creators had clearly been exposed to Might and Magic III (1991), which means they had to program Dark Stone Ritual quite fast. Not only have they replaced the attributes of the previous titles with the standard Might and Magic set (might, intelligence, personality, endurance, speed, accuracy, and luck), not even bothering to translate their abbreviations to German, but they've done a decent job mimicking the Might and Magic III character and inventory interfaces. Not only did they do this visually, such as the separation of equipment into different categories, but many of the mechanics also work the same way; for instance, clicking on an item in one character's inventory and then clicking on a different character will transfer the item.
        
The character screen. Note the odd mix of German text and English abbreviations.

And the inventory screen.
         
The outdoor interface remains top-down like the previous Motelsoft titles, but it's very in keeping with the Might and Magic III experience. The world is tiled, with little huts and caves dotting the landscape, most offering a textual encounter with an NPC. There are forest and mountain squares you can't navigate until you have the appropriate skill

Once you enter a dungeon, castle, or other indoor area, the game switches to a first-person view that at first reminds you more of Dungeon Master than Might and Magic III, particularly with its navigation arrows and the switches to open doors. But the nature of the encounters within the dungeon are more in keeping with the Might and Magic tradition.
          
The question mark is akin to the "countertops" that Might and Magic III used to signify encounters in towns.
         
Combat goes its own way, slightly. The developers unfortunately didn't have the ability to show monsters in the environment, so combats pop up randomly as you explore, more like Might and Magic II than III. You get two combat options: schnell ("fast") and strategie ("strategy"). Fast combat plays a lot like Might and Magic III, just on a different screen. Each character acts in turn, attacking, parrying, using an item, or casting a spell, and the actions execute immediately like in the Might and Magic series (and unlike the Wizardry and Bard's Tale series, where they line up and then execute together). You cannot specify a particular enemy in this method.
         
"Fast' combat.
         
The strategic method offers the same options, but on a gridded map, where you can position your characters around specific enemies. It takes longer because you have to move and specify facing directions, but it's a better way to fine-tune your combat and prioritize specific foes.
          
Strategic combat. The compass is appreciated.
        
This is all a huge step up from Seven Horror's and Sandor (in between, I haven't played 1991's Projekt Terra or Sandor II yet), and it has the makings of an authentically fun game. I'm still figuring out quite a bit. In addition to being in German, which requires a translation pause on many screens, there appears to be no extant manual, and I have no idea what the main quest is.

I'm particularly keen to see how the spells develop. The cleric starts with just "Close Wounds" and the mage starts with just "Identify Monsters" and something called "Single-Shield." Other classes have spell points, suggesting they will eventually get spells. The game requires gems for some spells, again borrowing from Might and Magic.
        
Starting out with a new game.
       
Unfortunately, there are a few underdeveloped areas. The game seems to have no character creation process. It just starts you with a paladin named Monky, a knight named Sirus, a thief named Ellie, a priest named Knorr, and a sorcerer named Laura. (The classes have also changed to Might and Magic standards, though not all of them.) "Monky" and "Knorr" were also default character names in Seven Horror's. If there's any way to dump the default party and create your own, I haven't found it yet. But perhaps the worst part of the game is that absolutely nothing is accomplished with the keyboard. You have to click around with the mouse to do anything.
 
The party starts on an overland map with a few visible structures. The closest, a hut to the west, a guy named Kalak offers to sell grundausstattung ("basic equipment") to the party for 2,500 of its 12,000 starting gold pieces. This automatically equips each character with a kleines messer (small knife), a cap, a frock, sandals, and a wooden shield. This is a nice shortcut, though I would have still preferred a full equipment shop.
          
That guy doesn't look like he knows much about adventuring.
         
Nearby, entering a cave brings up a screen that challenges me to press four buttons in the correct order. No matter what I do, I find myself in a dungeon. A large castle-looking building to the south also has a dungeon.

Southeast of that is a tent where "Mira the Ranger" offers to teach me "Forestry" for 15,000 gold pieces. Either that or the "Mountaineer" skill is going to be necessary to progress very far, because in almost any direction there are objects that tell me I need those skills at a particular level to move on. In another hut, a guy is selling "information about Umure" for 200 gold pieces. I say yes the first time, and he tells me that there are 9 "marauding groups" lurking in the city, and that I should come back when I've "done it."
          
Notice the player's only reaction to not having enough skill.
         
Combats and treasures show up as you explore wilderness squares. So far, I've determined that the game has a skill system that determines what items you're able to wield and wear, but not much more than that. There's a food system and a rest system. Clicking other buttons brings up screens that suggest that someone with "Clairvoyance" skill can get an automap of the area. There's a button that seems to automatically take the party to the exit of the dungeon if they're deep into it, and another that allows you to wait in ambush for enemy parties. I haven't yet explored the nuances of any of these things.
          
I did finally find a weapon shop.
          
I leave you exploring Umure, which seems to be more a city than a dungeon. It has some marauding enemies, yes, but also a proper equipment shop, a tavern, a temple, and a training facility, again much like a Might and Magic town.
           
The tavern gives me the ability to sleep, eat, drink, and buy food, but not create new characters.
           
I haven't made a lot of progress, but I think I'll leave things here for the opening entry. My readers have a way of turning up documentation that I can't find. Motelsoft may have "borrowed" a lot for this one, but so what? It looks like the result is going to be fun.

Time so far: 2 hours

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Star Control II: Building the Empire

The aptly-named "Orz" do indeed make me want to kneel down and bang my head against the floor.
         
If I do end up running out of time and having to start over with Star Control II, at least I'll get to revise my decision to name my new alliance "The New Alliance of Free Stars." I didn't realize I'd be giving that name to everyone I meet. Next time, I'm going with "The Empire of Chester."

The Empire is growing. In contrast to my last session, where I didn't seem to make much progress, I did nothing but accomplish things this time around. It began with a slight rewind. After I reloaded from my fatal (for him) encounter with the Shifoxti rogue ship, I was back at starbase. I returned to Delta Gorno, but by way of the Melnorme ship at Alpha Centauri, where I sold a heap of biological data and now had enough credits to actually start buying things.
       
No rainbow worlds yet, though.
           
When dealing with the Melnorme, you can buy a piece of technology, information on current events, information on alien races, or historical information. You only get to choose the category; they choose the next item to give to you. I altered among the categories and ended up obtaining/discovering the following:
            
  • A schematic for blaster weapons twice as powerful as my current ion-bolt guns
  • A schematic for faster lander speed
  • In addition to the Shofixti warrior I'd already met, there's another solo warrior out there plus several females in the menagerie of the Vux admiral Zex. If I can bring the females to the two males and things work out, there will be millions of new Shofixti within a few human generations. The Melnorme recommended that we adopt an approach of insulting the Shofixti and then fleeing if attacked.
  • The Ur-Quan are presently at war with a race called the Kohr-Ah, which are not the alien probes, so I was wrong there. The major fighting is in the middle of the galaxy. The Kohr-Ah seem to be winning. Their war has caught the Zoq-Fot-Pik in the crossfire (something I'd already heard from that race).
  • The Ur-Quan are part of an ancient alliance of races called the "sentient milieu."
  • The blobbish Umgah, one of the races in the Ur-Quan hierarchy, renowned for their sense of humor, has begun screwing with the Ilwrath (the spider-like creatures) by using a device called a HyperWave Caster to impersonate the Ilwrath gods, Dogar and Kazon. When the Ilwrath priest caste decried this fakery, the rest of the Ilwrath population slaughtered the priests. If we could get our hands on this Caster, we could effectively neutralize the Ilwrath.
         
I ran out of credits at this point, but I'd added a few new items to my "to do" list. On we went back to Delta Gorno, where I ran into Tanaka the Shofixti again and this time insulted him. When he attacked, I fled. I re-engaged him almost immediately and noted that I had different insults among the dialogue options, so I figured I must be getting somewhere. He attacked again; I fled again. I think on the third attempt, he realized that the Ur-Quan had never insulted him before, and thus slowed down enough to figure out that we were his allies. Although glad to hear of a new alliance against the Ur-Quan, he declined to join us, preferring to stay and guard his old system. I assume I need him there for when I bring back the Shofixti females.
             
I'm going to try to get you some company.
          
Back I went to my quest list. Let's divert for a moment to note that this is one of the few games of the entire 1975-1992 period in which you have anything like a "quest list." It's extremely common now, of course. Fire up any modern RPG, and you've got a dozen items on your "to do" list (which the game now helpfully keeps for you) before you've left the first town. There are multiple approaches to deciding what item to pursue next, and I'll explore the consequences in a future special topic entry. Briefly, some of them are:
        
  • Gingerly: Do the easiest item (or what sounds like the easiest item) next
  • Chronologically: Do the oldest item next.
  • Geographically by Proximity: Do the closest item next.
  • Geographic by System: Explore the game using a systematic geographic approach (e.g., west to east), solving quests along the way
  • Consequentially: Do the most important item next.
  • Comprehensively: Do all the side quests before the next step in the main quest; the side quests are probably prioritized using another approach here
  • Organically: Do the item next that you'd really do next if you were the character, which probably juggles a lot of these options.
  • Mercenarily: Do the item that sounds like it will give you the greatest reward next.
  • Randomly: Count the number of items on the list and roll a die.
  • Anarchically: Explore the game completely at whim without regard to quests, solving them if you happen to stumble on them.
            
(Let me know if you think I've missed any.)

I find that altering your approach to quests makes a lot of modern games extremely replayable. I tend to play the first time using a "consequential/geographic proximity" combination, meaning I prioritize by importance but pick up side quests as they exist along the route. This ensures that I actually finish the main quest. I don't want to be one of those people that says things like, "I have 1,200 hours into Fallout 4 and I still haven't won the game." I go for the win the first time. The second time, if I'm motivated to play again, I might try a chronological approach to ensure that I explore more of the side quests. Lately, though, I've been prioritizing a random approach, such that Irene is sick of hearing me say, "Hey, Siri, give me a random number between one and twenty-five" before heading off to bag a Legendary Elk.

With Star Control II, I've been using the random approach, mostly because none of the quests seemed obviously more important than the others. But by the end of this session, I had decided to revise my system and use a geographic proximity approach instead, mostly because I nearly ran out of fuel twice while in the fringes of space.

Still using the random roll, I next chased rumors of an unknown ancient race who used to make their home in the Vulpeculae constellation, in the middle of Androsynth space. I didn't expect much from the expedition. Indeed, I figured I'd be attacked by Androsynth and that would be the end of it. Sure enough, I arrived to a swarm of ships who immediately started approaching my own.
             
Well, this doesn't bode well.
            
They weren't Androsynth, though. They were bright yellow things, looking like a combination between a fish and a flower. When they made contact, my translation program warned that it was having trouble with their speech, and it put asterisks around words they weren't sure about, so in an early speech, we got:
         
Hello extremely! I hope you like to *play*. Some *campers* are not so good for *games*. . . Who are you? You are not Orz! We are Orz! Orz are happy *people energy* from the outside. Inside is good. So much good that the Orz will always *germinate.* Can you come together with Orz for *parties*?
            
At first I thought something ribald was going on here, like "parties" meant "orgies" or something. But things didn't develop explicitly along those lines. The best I could work out from their many lines of only partly comprehensible dialogue is that the Orz come from another dimension, that the individual Orz we perceive are all just "fingers" of a single being (like a happy version of the Uhl from Starflight), and that they destroyed the Androsynth for some unknown reason. (They got mad when I even asked about it.) They also don't seem to like the Ariloualeelay, whom they suggest are from their dimension, but from "above" while the Orz are from "below."
         
Let's just make sure we agree on a safe word.
        
Anyway, they seemed to join the Alliance. They let me land on their planets, and they gave me specifications for an "Orz Nemesis" ship that I later had built. Good to know that the Androsynth aren't a threat anymore.

On one of the planets--the second around Eta Vulpeculae--my scanners picked up energy signatures for the first time since (I think) Pluto. There were a lot of them--destroyed Androsynth cities, it turned out.

As my lander explored these cities, the game again invented names and personalities for some of my interchangeable crewmember-hit points. Their reports together created a kind of mini horror story. It began with "xeno-historian Kilgore" reporting that some kind of land war destroyed the cities but left no corpses. Later, "science officer Bukowski" reported that the Androsynth had been researching "Dimensional Fatigue Phenomena," based on their discovery of some Precursor artifacts. They were generating waves that allowed them to see into other dimensions. They ended up making contact with some life form on the "other side," after which their research degraded into rantings about ghosts and poltergeists before abruptly coming to an end.
           
Multiple lander reports deliver a growing horror story.
          
In continued reports from the lander, "Ensign Hawthorne" radioed that Bukowski had continued his inquiry into the Androsynth research project and had himself gone insane, ranting that "they" could now see him and that he had to stop "them" before "they" could see everyone else. Stigmata started appearing on his body, as if he was being cut by an invisible source. The crewmembers on the lander begged to be brought home, and running them into other cities didn't seem to generate any new reports, so I complied. Lots of mysteries here. Are "they" the Orz? The Ariloualeelay? Some other beings from another dimension? Just who have I allied with here?
            
That sounds ominous.
           
On another old ancient ruin, my crew found an "unusual glowing rock-thing" that seemed to make some people sick with headaches and "mental disarray." It was said to be Taalo in origin, this name appearing for the first time. I assume it's the name of the ancient race that lived in Precursor times.

Back at starbase, Commander Hayes praised the design of the Orz Nemesis. Later, he reported that the Taalo rock seemed to have something to do with blocking psychic attacks. Those that had become ill were those with some psychic ability. (He referred to them as "espers," either a reference to 1988's Star Command, or just a term that's more common than I thought for someone with E.S.P.)
             
Adding the Nemesis to my fleet. Now I have four ships that I can't pilot effectively!
           
For my last expedition, my random roll gave me the Zoq-Fot-Pik homeworld, which is in the middle of the map but the farthest I've traveled so far. I stopped at a few systems on the way to search for minerals and whatever else. I'm finding that I hate planets with a "weather" score higher than 2. I can usually avoid earthquakes, and thus deal with a high tectonics score, but lightning bolts often seem to target my lander specifically, and none of my dodging and weaving helps. 

One of the worlds I stopped at randomly was Betelgeuse. There, I was surprised to find a red force field covering a planet and a starbase in orbit. It turned out to be Gaia, the new homeworld of the Syreen, their old one having been destroyed before the events of the first game. When the Alliance surrendered, the Syreen--like Earth--chose to live under a dome rather than serve as battle thralls.
           
This seems familiar.
          
In a long conversation with the Syreen Commander Talana--in which the game seemed to delight in giving me boorish, inappropriate dialogue options--I learned quite a bit about the race. They used to live on Syra--which we call Beta Copernicus--before an asteroid impact caused such volcanic upheaval that the planet had to be abandoned. Now, the entire system seems to have been taken over by the Mycon.
           
The game gives me one professional option and three takes on sexual harassment.
            
When the Syreen surrendered to the Ur-Quan, they chose the shield but noted that they had no actual planet. The Ur-Quan asked them about their requirements. The Syreen talked about Syra ("about the color of its sky, about the abundant, varied lifeforms, about the fertility of the soil and seas"). The Ur-Quan took an hour, then communicated back with the coordinates of Gaia, which the Syreen found to be absolutely perfect. "We'd been searching for a home planet for seventy-five years," Talana said, "and in the end, it was our enemies who gave one to us." Naturally, they were now uninterested in violating their treaty and upsetting the status-quo unless I could give them a good reason, and I had nothing. But I put their old planet on my "to do" list for investigation.

On to the Zoq-Fot-Pik system (ZFP from here on). When I arrived, I found it swarming with Ur-Quan, and before I could escape, one of the Ur-Quan dreadnoughts approached. Our dialogue just consisted of the Ur-Quan captain making threats. In the ensuing combat, I couldn't do anything. I tried about five times. The dreadnought fires huge metal swastikas or something--I think they're actually supposed to be autonomous ships--that fly around until they hit something. They have as many hit points as my own flagship. None of my smaller ships lasted more than a few hits and even with my flagship, it became clear that if I won, it would be with about 10 crewmembers left over. I really hope it's possible to win this game without being good at the space combat.
            
I missed the shot of the enemy's projectile. It's just crashed into my cruiser.
             
So I ultimately sighed and escaped combat, which leaves your ship immobile for about 10 seconds as it jumps to hyperspace, which is enough time for the enemy to destroy a couple dozen crewmembers. I dodged the rest of the Ur-Quan ships and made my way to the ZFP homeworld, where the faintly ridiculous species agreed to join my alliance.
          
The Pik is the emotional one.
         
I leave you on my way back to starbase. The trip to the ZFP system took so much fuel that I have to keep my eye on the gauge as I explore for elements. But I do have to explore because if I don't, I won't have any money to buy new fuel when I get back. 

Lots of fun and progress this trip, though I'm not sure what it's amounting to just yet.

Time so far: 15 hours

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Ultizurk II: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Congratulations! Here's a near-unreadable screen!
            
Ultizurk II: The Shadow Master
United States
Independently developed and published
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 26 March 2019
Date Finished: 7 April 2019
Total Hours: 16
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:
One of a long-running series of independent games, Ultizurk II borrows its basic approach and many of its plot elements from Ultima games. Although more complicated than Ultizurk I, the author was still an amateur, which comes through in under-developed character development, combat, and inventory systems. There are some decent puzzle-solving moments, but the game overall is too large and too long for its extremely basic approach to role-playing.

****

Ultizurk II ended up comprising five outdoor maps, nine dungeon maps, and 5 "dream world" maps, all 64 x 64. This is far too big for a game of such limited playability. The maps exist in a mostly linear manner, which makes it a nightmare to go back and forth among the areas as you try to solve the various puzzles. Walking through the dungeons isn't hard, if you bring enough herbs, but it's long, particularly with the clunky interface and the need to stop and toss sling stones at monsters every five steps. Towards the end of the game, I just couldn't take it anymore, and I confess that I used a hex editor to figure out the character's saved coordinates and manipulate them to get him through the dungeons faster.
           
The order of the game's maps.
         
You'll note that all the areas are, indeed, named after features on Mars, although sometimes misspelled or otherwise a bit mangled. I was authoritatively not on Mars for this game, however, as the residents are always referred to as "Arcturians."
        
In Arcturian, leaders are called "schwazzers." Got it.
         
All of the dungeon maps were swarming with monsters. Most of the outdoor maps were, too, but a couple were monster-free. As promised by the manual, each of the cities outside the starting area had one or two NPCs. They all responded to NAME and JOB and then suggested keywords in their responses. Sometimes, the keywords were a bit unintuitive, such as when the leader of the planet says, "I see you are trying to help us, but alas!," and the next prompt is not HELP but ALAS. None of them had much to say in general, and the game missed an opportunity to better flesh out the game world with these dialogues. None of them had anything to say about any water crisis, and almost all of the maps had a fountain or two, suggesting no crisis at all.
              
The Shadow Master had laid it out last time: my goal was to collect three crystals for each city's mind machine (five total machines), use the crystals to power the machines, enter the dream worlds, and collect an orb from each. The machines require specific crystals in a specific order; the ones a machine requires are usually found closest to that machine. What you don't want to do is wait until you have a bunch of crystals and then try to figure out what machine uses which ones and in which order. That takes forever and there's no way to solve it but trial and error.
          
Slotting crystals into a dream machine.
         
A lot of the crystals are found lying on the ground within dungeons. The three used by the machine in Olympus Mons are dug up from shrines on that map. A few other crystals require you to solve side-quests. For instance, a caveman named Oog would give me a crystal if I could find his kinsman Zog (another Ultima VI reference) and get him to return. The two cavemen were several maps away, so that was a bit of a pain. Another required me to find some blue glass, have it refined by a glass smith, then have it assembled into a gem by a gem maker. 
         
Finding Zog in a dungeon. That might be the worst NPC portrait in history.
         
The dream worlds all had their own puzzles. Most of them were navigational, such as one that had a bunch of invisible walls and required me to find my way to a bunch of lit braziers and douse them with a bucket of water. When I was done, the bucket of water turned into an orb in my inventory, but there was no message to accompany this, so I spent an extra hour just wandering this level, wondering what I was missing.
           
Dousing braziers on a level full of lamps and invisible walls.
       
Another dream world puzzle had the player nonsensically meet Wyatt Earp, who was trying to figure out how to best apportion sacks of feed among his buffalo ranch. It was basically a magic square puzzle--the columns and rows had to add up to 10--except with repeating values for the sacks (1,1,2,3,3,4,5,5,6) and no requirement that the values add up to 10 on the diagonals. There are systems for solving magic squares with nonrepeating values, and you can even do it with algebra, but at the time I couldn't figure out a formula that would work with this nonstandard version. Eventually, I just solved it through trial and error.
              
Helping Wyatt Earp feed buffalo by solving a magic square puzzle does, admittedly, sound like something that would happen in one of my dreams.
            
When I had all five orbs, I slogged all the way back to the starting area and placed them in their receptacles in the transportation room. Supposedly, I just had to mentally concentrate on where I wanted to go, and I'd go there. Instead, I got a message that said "Overload! Overload! Overload! Machinery too old!" and the orbs all burst into flame.
            
Like trying to run any modern PC game on a one-year-old laptop.
            
The Shadow Master had nothing to offer about this turn of events, but he did say that he'd dug up an obscure keyword (HOTEYE) that I should mention to the humblest person I had met. Well, I hadn't met any clearly humble people, but neither had I met so many people that I couldn't swing by all of them with message. The intended recipient turned out to be Krindell, an Arcturian in Hellas who I'd previously dismissed as a lunatic because he just went on about flowers and how they teach him of the heart.

Krindell turned out to be the leader of the planet. The HOTEYE keyword led to a discussion of "the lens," a theoretical construct that would melt a glacier in Elysium Mons, thus "restoring the water balance." But the lens "needs a master" and only an "enlightened one" can create it. "If you have been virtuous, then legend says that the lens will stare you in the eye."
              
Would it have been that hard to make a lens using actual lens-making equipment?
          
There really isn't a way in this game to demonstrate virtue, which is why it was a good thing that, following the conversation, a lens just magically appeared on the ground next to Krindell. That was a pretty lame plot development. I suspect Dr. Dungeon originally had a more lengthy side quest in mind for acquiring the lens.

I took it to Elysium Mons and placed it in an obvious square. The glacier partly melted, leaving a river flowing through it.
          
But did it really happen, or was it just implanted?
         
Walking up the river, I encountered a generator at the top. When I tried to "use," it told me to enter the "activation sequence." I had no notes for anything like that, so I spent some time going around asking NPCs about it. Krindell still acted as if I hadn't already gotten the lens, and the Shadow Master was still stuck on HOTEYE. After about an hour of futile wandering, I inspected the game's code and found that the answer was "1175." Apparently, it's found on one of the signs scattered throughout the game, which it turns out you have to "use" to read; "looking" at them just tells you that they're signs. 
            
Any true sci-fi fan would have gone with 1138.
         
Entering the code brought about the long endgame. First, a computer display lit up on the generator, an automated mechanism engaged, and I had to re-enter the code. "Intergalactic transmission incoming," it then said, and the face of an alien popped up.
        
Greetings, Earthling. Millions of years ago, our race had already developed space travel. We grew in knowledge and stature. We became as gods. We started with virtues similar to thine own. The planet thou hast seen was an experiment in genetics--the creation of life from inanimate matter. We do this because we respect all life, from the smallest microbe to the largest whale. Our policy is not to intervene once we have created a planet and brought life forth from it. The natural way of things must be allowed its course.

The planet thou hast just visited is but one among thousands like it which we developed countless eons ago. It developed along the usual evolutional pattern, but a problem arose with atmospheric pressure. Mathematical probability estimated life could only be sustained for a further maximum of four hundred years.

Then YOU came. Forgive our bluntness, but we've never seen such a primitive being display such compassion. You saved an entire world from certain death. You persevered for months. When the teleporter failed, you turned attention away from yourself and towards the planet's need. The galaxies themselves sing your praise!
                   
That sounds great, but how, functionally, do they do that?
         
I felt that was laying it on a little thick, particularly since I didn't bother to help the planet until it appeared that I was stuck there. Anyway, the aliens somehow transported me off-planet, and I was able to witness a little graphics show by which "the red and brown planet turned blue with water and green with grass again!"
           
Someone recently discovered vector graphics, I see.
          
Then, somehow I was transported home to the Wizards' Guild. The Dungeon Master began speaking and announced the end to the "contest . . . between the two top adventurers in the world," namely the Shadow Master--that's apparently his actual name--and me. This retcons the end of Ultizurk I a bit, where the Shadow Master kidnapped me and I didn't voluntarily enter a contest.

The Shadow Master was named the new Guild Master given that he returned first. But the Shadow Master got up and made a speech in which he recounted my adventures, said that I had somehow "created matter out of pure mind power!," and praised my selfless rescue of the Arcturians. At his recommendation the Council unanimously made me the Guild Master, and the Shadow Master went off to take over the Thieves' Guild, where he "forgot all about his new-found humbleness." 
            
The Shadow Master falls on his sword.
          
This conclusion slightly undermines one of my complaints, that the game, despite its subtitle, isn't really about the Shadow Master. But only slightly.

We'll let it all sink in while I score the game:

  • 2 points for the game world. None of it makes much sense, and it depends too heavily on recycled plot elements from the Ultima series, particularly Martian Dreams.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation, and development is a matter of getting extra maximum hit points at weird intervals. I seemed to hit the level cap (Level 7) awfully early in the game.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. No game that adopts a keyword dialogue system is entirely bad, but there aren't very many NPCs, and the interaction lacks the complexity of the Ultima titles. The bland Arcturians almost made me think fondly of the NPC in Ultizurk I who called me "granmassa" and wanted a potion of healing for her "po' lil chile."
            
The Shadow Master's characterization was, I admit, a bit unexpected.
             
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. It gets that for the a few good puzzles. The various enemies roaming around the map are just icons with nothing of interest about them.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. There's no magic system (odd given that the character is a wizard), and the combat system consists of selecting "attack" and specifying the foe.
  • 2 points for equipment. It gets both those points for the somewhat-interesting herb system. I never found any weapons other than the starting club and sling. There's no armor or usable items. This is another area in which Ultizurk I was better.
        
Loot areas like this one in Syrtis Major Planum don't offer anything but sling stones and food.
          
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no choices or alternate endings.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There are times that the graphics hold up, and some of the commands work well, but as a whole the interface is clunky, the screen makes poor use of its real estate, and the sounds are harsh and offensive to the ears.
            
Even with the inventory window up, the game wastes a lot of screen space.
           
  • 2 points for gameplay, mostly for a balanced level of difficulty. None of the other things that I look for--nonlinearity, replayability, and a proper length for its content--are present in the game.
            
That gives us a final score of 17, a bit lower than I ranked Ultizurk I. But Robert Deutsch is growing as a developer, and I find myself looking forward to Ultizurk III (1993; a two-part game) which, judging by screenshots, at least fixes the screen composition problem. We'll also have The Great Ultizurkian Underland (1993), Wraith (1995) and Madman (1996) to enjoy. Although I've rated Ultizurk II a bit miserably, when you read comments by Dr. Dungeon like this one in an RPG Codex thread, you can't help but root for the guy. If loving RPG development is wrong, he just doesn't want to be right.


Monday, April 8, 2019

Game 324: The Keys of Acheron (1981)

As an expansion of Hellfire Warrior, the game has no main title screen.
          
The Keys of Acheron
United States
Automated Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1981 for Apple II and TRS-80, 1982 for Atari 800
Date Started: 5 April 2019
Date Ended: 5 April 2019
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Easy-Medium (2.5/5), but heavily adjustable by player
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Every once in a while, it's a good idea to remember that the Dunjonquest series existed. Its first edition, The Temple of Apshai, released in 1979, gets my vote for the first true commercial RPG. Sure, Beneath Apple Manor, Dungeon Campaign, and Space technically preceded it in 1978, but none of them are what we would consider fully-featured RPGs. Temple of Apshai and its paragraph book, full of evocative descriptions of rooms and treasures, was the first earnest attempt to bring the essence of a tabletop RPG module to the computer. Co-creators Jeffrey A. Johnson and Jon Freeman should be names that we invoke as frequently as Richard Garriott or Brian Fargo.
          
A typical Acheron screen has me fighting a fungusman in a twisty cavern. A treasure can be seen beyond him.
          
The Temple of Apshai was a huge success, ported to nearly every platform that existed at the time, and it naturally generated a slew of sequels. Oddly, Epyx released several different sets of sequels for the original game. The first set began with Hellfire Warrior (1980; link to my review), which added Levels 5-8 to Temple's Level 1-3. This series continued with The Keys of Acheron (1981) and Danger in Drindisti (1982). At the same time, Temple continued onto a different set of dungeon levels with Upper Reaches of Apshai (1981) and Curse of Ra (1982). In between these titles, Epyx published a few "microquests" using the Dunjonquest engine but with a fixed character: Morloc's Tower (1979), The Datestones of Ryn (1979), and Sorcerer of Siva (1981). The engine also spun off two horrid action games with no RPG elements: StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel (1980) and Star Warrior (1980). The whole series wrapped up with the terrible Gateway to Apshai (1983), which couldn't even spell its own name right on the title screen. Dunjonquest also inspired a series of simplified diskmag and shareware titles, including Quest 1 (1981), Super Quest (1983), Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils (1984), and Cavequest (1985).

I bypassed Acheron in 2014, claiming that I couldn't find it, but I must not have tried very hard because the Azimov archive says that it's been uploaded there for at least a decade. (And thanks to commenters J.D. and metallik for helping me get it running.) I probably just thought of it as an expansion to Hellfire Warrior, which I'd already covered. But I figure it's worth taking a second look now, partly to remember the Dunjonquest series, but mostly because it was the first CRPG scenario designed by Paul Reiche III, co-founder of Toys for Bob, and co-creator of, yes, Star Control and Star Control II.

This was Reiche's first computer game credit after a couple of years designing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons modules for TSR, and his experience can be seen in the quality of the backstory and in-game descriptions. The setup is that the character has been asked by the wizard Abosandrus to recover four magical gems--emerald, amethyst, ruby, and sapphire--from the dungeon. The gems, known as the "Keys of Acheron," have the power to open or close rifts between worlds, and Abosandrus wants to use them to prevent the immortal demon lord Kronus from invading. The dungeon takes up four levels, labeled "Abode of the Dragon," "The Temple in the Jungle," "The Crystal Caves," and "The Shadowland of Kronus." The game does the same weird thing that Hellfire Warrior did where the first and third levels have room numbers (and associated descriptions in the book) but the second and fourth don't.
            
Kronus himself appears randomly throughout the game's levels and cannot be killed.
         
The game is a bit tricky to get going because it requires the original Hellfire Warrior disk for booting, character creation, and shopping. The Acheron manual tells you bluntly that you'll screw everything up if you don't follow its instructions to the letter, and for a while I couldn't find the instructions. Fortunately, as usual, a helpful commenter came through.
           
My character at the beginning of this session. I created him as a veteran of Hellfire Warrior.
          
Character creation thus precedes exactly as Hellfire Warrior, where you can randomly roll a Level 1 amateur or manually enter your own statistics and create an indomitable titan right away. After you buy your melee weapon, armor, bow, and arrows, you can choose to spend excess money on various draughts and elixirs. These modify your statistics and abilities for the next dungeon session only. You can also stop by Malaclypse the Mage and get your weapon or armor enchanted (up to +9) and buy a few magic items that only last the duration of the adventure.
           
Available magic items.
        
In one last screen before you enter, you can donate money to Benedic the Cleric's mission, which seems to increase the chance that Benedic is the one that finds and resurrects you when you die. Otherwise, you may be found by Lowenthal the Wizard, who takes all magic items that you own before returning you to the town for resurrection; or Olias the Dwarf, who takes all your items; or a random monster, who just eats you.
       
I confess I reloaded save states in such circumstances.
       
Once inside the dungeon, the game behaves just like the earlier incarnations. You use "R," "L," and "V" to turn and rotate the character and then type a number from 1 to 9 indicating how many steps to move in your facing direction. "S" searches for traps, "E" searches for secret doors (you have to be pretty close to the door), and "O" opens them.
              
Finding a secret door.
          
When monsters appear, you can try to shoot them at a distance with a regular arrow ("F") or a magic arrow ("M"), or wait until they get close and use "A," "T," and "P" for attack, thrust, and parry. When the monsters get your hit points down, you can heal with a salve ("H"), nectar ("N"), or elixir ("Y") if you've purchased them. If the room has a treasure, you grab it with "G." The controls are all quite intuitive except for movement, which never stops being clunky.
          
Melee combat with a grifffin. There are, alas, no spells in the game.
          
You have to be careful about stamina. The game tracks encumbrance (including weapons, armor, and found treasures), and the faster you move with more weight, the faster your stamina depletes. Standing still causes it to (slowly) recharge, and you don't want to be caught in combat in such situations. I had fewer problems with it here than in the original Hellfire Warrior.

The rooms and corridors are all uniformly dull--the top-down equivalent of Wizardry's wireframes from the same year. (There are mild icon animations but nothing to get excited about.) This is where the Dunjonquest series is greatly enhanced by the monster, trap, room, and treasure descriptions in the accompanying manual. On the screen, you may enter Room 16, but with the manual, you know you've entered a cave where:
          
The air is intolerably hot. To the west you can see roaring flames. As you make your way through the passage, you stumble over something. Looking down, you see the fragments of a huge egg. It would seem that the Dragon has borne young ones.
           
If you meet one of the baby dragons, you consult the manual to see that:
          
Although this creature resembles its parent closely in its scaled, wormlike form, it is fortunately much smaller, typically 6-8 feet in length. Even though the immature beast cannot breathe flame (and luckily so!), it will attack anything it meets with ferocity.
            
You defeat him and head down the corridor, only to accidentally stumble in a dragonfire trap! The manual has you covered there, too:
          
With a titanic roar, the corridor fills with the burning flame of the Dragon's breath. You should have been quieter, more careful. Now it knows you are here.
           
But eventually you defeat your foes and pick up the treasure in the room. The screen tells you that you've acquired Treasure #8:
          
A quaint piece of giantish artwork, a skull carved from a huge agate. Surely some collector of such things would buy it, but for how much?
                   
As noted, levels 2 and 4 don't have any room descriptions--some limitation imposed by the game basically faking the Hellfire Warrior application into thinking it's playing Hellfire Warrior levels. But to compensate, Reiche used treasure descriptions more as encounter flags rather than literal treasures. Sometimes, you find healing items that can be repeatedly taken. Other times, you find a clue, as in "a severed hand . . . clutching spasmodically" that eventually "points north, up the corridor." And still other times, it's just flavor text, as in "the floating remains of one of the kraken's more recent meals."

The overall dungeon designs are superior to the earlier games in the series. You start in the "Abode of the Dragon," a classic dungeon of rooms and passages featuring trolls, ogres, giants, grues, and the titular dragon. These are not Level 1 monsters, so you're expected to bring an experienced character. The room descriptions have you begin in a field and (depending on the way you go) either enter a tunnel immediately or follow a shoreline around to a cave entrance. They both converge on the dragon's lair, one via a straight path through monsters and treasures and the other taking a shortcut through a secret door. A side area leads to a unicorn's grove, where a non-hostile unicorn lets you take an opal necklace. Other treasures found throughout the area include a magic sword and a healing potion; I think this is the first Dunjonquest game where any of the found treasures can remain a permanent part of your character.
         
The game's take on a "grue."
          
The demon Kronus occasionally pops up in all of the levels, and there's nothing to do but run away. The manual says that he cannot be killed, and my experience bears that out.

The first Key of Acheron, a "spherical ruby gem as large as your fist," is found beyond the slain dragon. Overall, the level has more valuable treasures than the others, and if you thoroughly explore, by the time you return to the surface, you'll have enough money to enchant your sword and armor and drink every elixir in the apothecary's shop before your next trip.
         
The first key lies beyond the dragon.
        
"The Temple in the Jungle" offers no room descriptions and simply has you navigating a fairly open level with different types of dinosaurs, giant dragonflies, and Sserpa (snake god) shamans. For the first time in the series, this level has an adventure game-like quality where the "rooms" don't lie in consistent directions, and the map warps on itself. You have to create a little node map to find your way through. You eventually find the "amethyst key" in a room occupied by a giant tarantula.
           
Fighting a giant dragonfly in what we have to imagine is a trackless jungle.
          
"The Crystal Caves" puts you in an extinct volcano. There are some interesting "trap" areas that the game suggests are deep pools full of piranhas from which you have to climb your way out. Mechanically, you do this by searching for secret doors, but a player with an imagination will appreciate the game's attempts to do something clever with limited mechanics.

Battling lava beasts, lizards, fungus men, salt slimes and dodging earthquakes and cave-ins (again, all described in detail in the manual), you eventually find your way through secret doors and recover the "emerald key" in a cavern.
            
I collect the third gem.
          
The last level is called "The Shadowland of Kronus." Like the jungle, it lacks room descriptions, but here almost none of the treasures are actually treasures. Instead, they generally contain clues or taunts from Kronus.
           
Some of the treasure descriptions from the final level.
         
The level takes the longest to explore. Eventually, you find your way through a secret door to a large, open water area, where the game uses a treasure encounter to suggest you're paddling around on a boat. Waves and "black rain" do damage to the character while you're attacked by shadow bats, fiends, and krakens. Another node map is necessary to chart a path through the area.
          
Release the kraken!
           
You arrive ultimately on the shores of a citadel (this is all related via treasure paragraphs) and a walkway where numerous gaps suggest a "broken railing"; going through these gaps leads to instant death. Eventually, you come to Kronus's chambers with side-rooms for a torture chamber, library, and bedroom. Each room has appropriate monsters, like wraiths, astral skulls, and automatons. I particularly enjoyed the treasure encounter in the library, with its Lovecraftian allusions:
            
You stand in a library filled with books, scrolls, and tablets of arcane and eldritch knowledge. Looking around, you find such titles as De Mysteriis Vermis, The King in Yellow, and a complete edition of the Pnatonik Manuscripts. Resting on a nearby table you find a particularly interesting volume entitled The Necronomicon. When you open the book you find it filled with incomprehensible writings, and you feel an unholy chill pass through your body. Perhaps some wizard will buy this strange librum.
                 
A secret door leads from Kronus's chambers to the final area. You pass through a room of fake sapphire keys (and lots of monsters) before arriving in a room with Kronus himself guarding the real final key. As before, there's no point in fighting Kronus. You have to dart up, grab the key, find a secret door in the north wall, and escape the dungeon before he kills you.
          
The final encounter.
       
Alas, just like its predecessor, the game is disappointing in its lack of acknowledgement that you've completed the main quest. Treasures are ephemeral things; they disappear, converted to gold, the moment the game transitions from the dungeon disk to the program disk. Thus, there isn't even any way for it to record the fact that you've found each of the four keys on their appropriate levels. Even if there was, it wouldn't matter, because the moment you leave the Acheron dungeon disk, you're back in the Hellfire Warrior program, which doesn't even know that Acheron exists. As with so many other places in the Dunjonquest series, you have to use your imagination to return the gems to the wizard Abosandrus and seal Kronus in his own dimension.
          
The appearance of Treasure #1 four times in a row (this is the last) is the only "proof" that I've won.
          
The Dunjonquest entries have always evoked tabletop modules, but this is perhaps the most sophisticated of the lot--a testament to Reiche's prowess as a dungeon master. In a GIMLET,  I rated it 24, two points higher than Hellfire Warrior, apparently feeling better about both encounters and the economy.

I'll try to check out Danger in Drindisti in the future. After that, the Dunjonquest series falls apart, perhaps more from the breakup of  Automated Simulations (and its rebranding as Epyx) than from anything to do with the quality of the series. If the Dunjonquest series had continued and grown, we might have enjoyed Gold Box-quality games before the Gold Box.

****

I'd like to ask a favor of my U.S. readers. I'm looking for places across the United States that sell Diet Coke with Ginger Lime in 20-ounce bottles. Exactly that--no other flavors, please, and no cans. Just Diet Coke with Ginger Lime in 20-ounce bottles. If you happen to see them at a local convenience store, drug store, or whatever, I would appreciate an e-mail to crpgaddict@gmail.com. Thank you!