Thursday, August 28, 2014

Captive: A Long Stretch

"Ladder-scumming" fails with the quick-reacting mad scientist. Time to reload.

Captive has perhaps the highest reload count of any game I've ever played, making a hash out of my normal rules. In a less difficult game, every time one of my droids was reduced to scrap, I'd haul his pieces to the nearest shop and have him repaired. But when a game makes you do that roughly every 5 minutes, it becomes unfeasible, and death is now an occasion for reloading. Even getting whacked for more hit points than I'd like--especially if I've just finished getting repaired--is an occasion for reloading.

Captive is far more difficult than Dungeon Master, primarily because of the lack of any ability to rest and heal. In Dungeon Master, if you could get away from an active combat, you could wait for hit points and spell points to regenerate and keep making healing potions. Captive offers no such breaks. "Getting away from active combat" usually means hustling your crippled party to the dead end of a corridor where you can sit and rest as long as you like, but your bent and broken limbs won't get any better. The only time you're "safe" in Captive is when a) a store is nearby, b) a power outlet is nearby, c) you have a clear route to both, d) there are no wandering monsters in the area, and e) you have enough money to pay for repairs.

Knowing this, the game screws with these variables every chance it gets, primarily by forcing you to walk on pressure plates that seal the walls behind you. Until you find the switch that lets you back, you're in limbo, not knowing how much damage you can afford to take from each encounter. If you're unlucky enough to save when you're at 50% health and it turns out there's 10 more packs of difficult enemies between you and the switch--and none of the tricks you're normally use to survive them--you're basically walking dead.

My characters are in really bad shape. The first two are almost dead and have all their arms disabled; the back two have plenty of health but each has one arm disabled. I really hope there's a shop behind this door somewhere.

The beginning of each base is also quite difficult, before you've found any stores or power outlets, because there's no way to get back out. Even if there was, there wouldn't be anywhere to go. Both Bases #5 (Salstee) and Base #6 (Seavy) required me to explore for over an hour before I found my first shop, right about the time I was sure I was going to have to reload a saved game from outside the base and try again.

But of all the variables, it's the money that I worry about the most. The game has a closed economy, since enemies don't respawn. I'm so paranoid about running out of money for repairs that I haven't been purchasing potentially-useful upgrades and tools. I keep envisioning a scenario in which I load up on batteries, weapons, ammo, and better droid parts, and then I hit the famous "dungeon with no money" that everyone knows about except someone playing blind.

Better droid parts are available, but I've been reluctant to spend the money.

Dungeon Master offered stair-scumming, the side-step dance, and the merciless closing doors as options for beleaguered players, but in Captive, these tricks are essentially necessary. Standing face-to-face with an enemy and trading blows simply results in a quick death, unless I'm missing some tactic somewhere.

Believe it or not, you can punch these to death, and like all other enemies, they explode into blood when killed.

Base #5 offered up a couple of new enemies, including (nonsensically) tanks, plus demons with flaming blue swords. (Again, with no names assigned to the enemies, I have to make them up.) Base #6 had smiling computer monitors somehow capable of spitting fireballs.

And they look so friendly, too.

Oh, and these trolls. I forgot where they first appeared.

But none of the previously-encountered foes held a candle to the bastards I encountered in Base #6: deadly "hovercraft" capable of blasting my characters out of existence with one shot. Not only that, they hover so high that you have to be inverted on the ceiling to hit them. They attack in pairs of two, and I must have encountered 10 pairs throughout the base. I found only one way to effectively deal with them: ladder-scumming. If I could lead them back to a ladder, I could pop down, save, invert myself, pop up, get off one or two shots, then pop back down before they could retaliate. It didn't always work; these guys react fast. I saved after every 2 or 3 successful shots, and had to reload that save frequently when they reacted too fast. This is not my idea of a fun game.

These guys kill me so fast that it took several tries to even capture a screenshot in time.

Oh, and to make matters even more fun, when the hovercrafts die, they leave landmines behind! I haven't found any way to effectively disarm them yet. I can't seem to throw things at them from a distance (rarely do I have an unobstructed hallway anyway), and fiddling them from one square away causes significant damage (though not as much as walking on them). I can avoid them by walking across the ceiling, and a couple of times, I've led other enemies to them, which is always satisfying. The shops sell mines I can buy for my own use, but they're expensive and I've been hesitating to splurge.

The hovercrafts left me a present.

Enemies can be divided basically in two ways: movement speed, and whether they have missile weapons. If an enemy is slow, I can usually lead him to a room where I can do the two-step and hit him from the sides and rear while he struggles to turn. If the enemy has no missile weapons, I can use a shooting retreat or take potshots at him from the other side of a fire or water barrier (most enemies don't cross water; so far only hovercraft have crossed fire). But enemies that are fast and have missile weapons are nightmares.

Shooting a pack of Go-bots across a field of fire.

The size of the bases is also getting worse. I haven't had to map yet, but they still last bloody forever. I was in Base #6 for about 8 total hours--longer than some entire games. Every time I thought I'd explored everything, I'd find some new movable wall, ladder, or switch to open a door, leading to some vast new area. Technically, you can get out of a base as soon as you find at least one probe and the generator room, but the only way to make sure you get all the gold and experience is to to fight all the monsters. I'll be happy to end the last base prematurely; until then, I need every advantage I can get.

Late in Base #6, I did finally spend about half my gold on a battery, because I was sick of having to find my way back to the infrequent power outlets to recharge. The one I bought stores enough power to fully recharge a droid four times, which should be enough to tide me over when outlets are scarce.

I cannot figure out what these are for.

In terms of navigation obstacles, Base #5 introduced a "spinner" square, but it was pretty pathetic, simply rotating me once clockwise. I think there was only one. Both Base #5 and #6 had areas with fire barriers. They also had hydrants, and at first I was sure that the purpose of the hydrants was to put out the fires. Only that didn't work; the hydrants would just flood the areas but stop at the fire barriers. So I'm left not knowing what the hydrants are for. I couldn't figure out any reason why I'd want to flood the dungeon. It just makes navigation a lot harder, since droids take damage when they walk in water, and the only way to navigate the areas safely is to walk on the ceiling (again, at a huge power drain). The bases had enough water areas on their own without my contributing to the problem.

Using a computer while upside-down to avoid the flooded floor.

Base #6 had one small "dark" area that I needed the visor to get through.

Making my way through the dark.

As I mentioned, I've been slow to upgrade weapons even when I could seriously use them. My lead characters are still using melee weapons and my two rear characters are still using magnum pistols even though I found a shop selling laser pistols some time ago. The skills went through "Rifles" and "Automatics" before offering me "Lasers," but I'm not sure I ever saw any rifles or automatics for sale. I'm not sure they'd be better for me anyway, as my characters have a skill level of 24 in handguns but are only up to 3-5 with lasers so far. If I'm not mistaken, this would maybe let me use the worst laser weapon. Is the worst laser better than the best handgun?

Speaking of skills, an anonymous commenter told me that "24 is always the highest skill requirement for the best version of a given weapon," but nonetheless, "more skill still helps." That may be true, but the experience points needed to raise any skill from 24 to 25 seems to be 35,399, whereas the highest experience cost I've encountered to raise a skill below that is only around 2,200. So I probably won't be saving up for that 25th point any time soon.

In my first post, I said that the bases were "randomly-generated." After doing some more reading on the subject, I realize this was probably misleading. Procedurally-generated is probably a better term. Every numbered base will look exactly the same for every player. But Anthony Crowther didn't map them all out; that would have been functionally impossible, since there are theoretically thousands of bases. (Apparently, the maximum number is 65,535, but some bug keeps you from going past something like 25,476. I've also read that the PC version has a bug that limits the bases to 2,816. No matter what, you'd have to be simply insane to hit those limits.) Instead, Crowther designed a map generation routine that uses the base number as a seed and generates the rest of the layout based on it.

I don't deny that it's an extremely impressive bit of programming, but it has the effect of limiting the types of puzzles that the game can provide to the player. Dungeon Master fans often talk about the game's navigation puzzles as a highlight of the game, but complex navigation puzzles can really only work in a hand-crafted dungeon. A procedurally-generated dungeon will allow for a wall that closes behind you, and a switch that later opens the wall, but not much else. Certainly nothing like the puzzles in Chaos Strikes Back where you had to herd skeletons onto four pressure plates, or the one in Dungeon Master where you had to use riddles on a scroll to identify four pieces of equipment to put into four alcoves. Thus, I would think that this aspect of the game would be disappointing even for fans of the sub-genre.

I prepare to extinguish a wall of fire with a switch. By design, any fire wall is going to have a nearby switch to disarm it.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • It took me a while to figure out how to use the dice. If you hold them in your hand while facing a combo door and right-click, the die shows you the location of the next button in the sequence. I keep finding more dice, and as far as I can tell, you only need one of them. The shopkeepers aren't interested in the excess. They don't work on the bases' front doors, where you really need them.

The die saves me from having to try up to 24 different combinations.

  • It turns out that if you accidentally leave your gold in the hands of shopkeepers, it's not only always there when you return, it will also be in the hands of any other shopkeepers you visit in the same base. I'm not sure if it will also appear with shopkeepers in the next base, but I'm going to leave a small amount when I escape Base #7 so I can test it. 
  • The "root finder" finds the front door of the base--very handy when you're trying to escape the base after planting the charges. Then, once outside the base, it guides you to your ship.

The device indicates the way to the exit is through this door.

According to my commenters, I still have four bases to go in the first mission; my vague understanding is that you can consider the game "won" after the first mission, since you can keep generating new ones indefinitely. At this rate, we're looking at another 30-40 hours in a game that I've sunk almost 30 into already. This is why it burns me that these Dungeon Master clones never have any kind of plot progression. All I'm asking for is a single screen at the end of each base that reveals more about why I was imprisoned, and who was behind it--a slow return of Trill's memories as the droids fight to reach him. Or maybe a dialogue option or two with the shopkeepers: something that alerts me to dangers in the next section. Anything. But none of the ones I've played--Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back, Bloodwych, and Captive--can even offer the tiniest bit of story to the player. They expect players to just delight in their mechanics and let their imaginations do the rest.
This works for many players but not for me. I'm going to keep Captive on my "active" list, but I'm not going to give it more than a couple hours a week. If it takes the rest of 1990 to win, that's what will have to happen. That said, the difficulty I've been experiencing probably has a lot to do with my reluctance to spend money and try out all the weapons and tools, so I'll try to do better with that before the end.

Moving on to yet another base.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Game 161: The Stone of Telnyr (1990)

The game is called Telnyr I - The Stone of Telnyr or Telnyr Part I in most online databases, but on all screens in the game, it's just The Stone of Telnyr.

The Stone of Telnyr
Peter R. Boothman (developer); Brunswick Publications (publisher)
Released 1990 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 24 August 2014
Date Ended: 24 August 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

The Stone of Telnyr, an independent title from an Australian developer, published in a disk magazine, may be the most obscure game I've played since beginning this blog. Except for its appearance in the GameBase64 database (whence I downloaded it), all references to it online are placeholders on gaming sites awaiting content (which I hate, by the way). I cannot find any information about the author, Peter R. Boothman. The publisher, Brunswick Publications, seems to have existed only for this game. And yet someone found it valuable enough to "crack" it--my download starts with an obnoxious splash screen from the team that accomplished this bold feat--and Boothman kept working on the series, churning out two or three sequels, each more obscure than the first one. It's odd to find such a mystery, even among independent games, so deep in the Golden Age.

The game begins. I guess the land's major problem is an inability to cross those mountains.
The back story, told in a file on the disk, is relatively goofy. I found it after winning the game (I autoloaded the program at first and didn't think to check the disk file for documents). In-game, the world appears to be just a high fantasy kingdom whose denizens want you to recover a magic stone from a dungeon. No fuss, no frills. The actual back story, however, presents Telnyr as a hidden island in the southwest Pacific Ocean, where a "freak combination of magnetic forces has created a virtually impenetrable area," keeping ships and planes from approaching it or even seeing it. (One wonders if J. J. Abrams played this game before creating Lost.) The mages of the island have an ability to suck in individuals from the real world to help with problems--much like Lord British does in Ultima--and they have recently done so as part of a quest to find the Stone of Telnyr and restore peace to an island overrun by monsters.

In basic gameplay and look and feel, Telnyr takes obvious inspiration from Ultima, but with far fewer features and a much smaller game world. Character creation consists only of assigning a name, after which the character appears in the wilderness, just north of the city of Telnyr, with 250 hit points, 30 gold, and 50 food. Food decreases by 10 every 100 steps, so just like Ultima, an early game goal is to get food stores up to a sustainable level.
I approach the island's one dungeon. I have a good complement of hit points, gold, and food, and I have the best weapon int he game.

The game is tiny, consisting of a relatively small island with one menu city (Telnyr), a mage's tower, and a dungeon. The dungeon is itself very small and completely linear. You could walk from the starting position to the endgame in something like 200 steps. Despite the size, it takes considerable time to actually win Telnyr, as the dungeon is extremely deadly and you have to grind your character to appropriate strength on wilderness creatures before braving its depths.

The only city is just a "menu town."

There are no levels in the game, and killing creatures does not reward you with experience. Everything depends on gold, which you use to buy progressively better weapons, to buy a stock of spells, and to rest at the inn--the only mechanism for increasing hit points, which increase of 5-15 for a 10-gold-piece stay.

Spells--which can only be cast in combat--are sold at the nearby mage's tower. There are four of them: "Confuse," "Strength," "Healing," and "Banish." "Banish" completely kills an enemy party, so it's naturally the most expensive, going for 100 gold a pop. "Strength" doubles your attack damage for the duration of combat. The other two have questionable value. "Healing," like all the other spells, can only be cast in combat, and you often lose more hit points during the round than you heal. I never saw the effects of "Confuse."

Casting a spell in combat. Spells serve as the game's only real "inventory."

The mage's tower also offers the ability to talk to the mage, where you learn about the main quest to recover the Stone of Telnyr from the dungeon.

The main quest.
Monsters are mostly unoriginal: orcs, rogues, robbers in the outdoors and ghosts, demons, giant bats, and giant spiders in the dungeon. They vary only in how hard they hit; there are no special attacks and enemies don't have spells.
Combat lies somewhere between Ultima and Phantasie in sophistication. You're taken to a separate screen with your enemies arrayed in front of you. You have options to (M)anually attack them one at a time, (A)uto attack repeatedly until one of you is dead, (C)ast a spell, (R)un away, or (G)ive gold to bribe them into leaving you alone.

Fighting some orcs.

Slain enemies drop gold, food, and spells, with an average value of around 20 gold pieces per combat, at least in the outdoor area. It takes a while to amass the 2000-3000 gold pieces you need to get a good complement of hit points, spells, food, and the best weapon (a crossbow) for the endgame.

The game's one interesting innovation is in the "library" in Telnyr, where you can read three tomes for 10, 100, and 200 gold pieces. The tomes reveal the coordinates of buried treasure that you can find with the sextant (40 gold pieces in the weapon shop). These treasure caches consist of various gold and spells that help propel you to the next level in your development.

Learning about the location of buried treasure . . .

. . . and finding it!

Once you can survive at least a couple of battles in the dungeon, character development becomes a little easier, as you find gold, spells, and food randomly on the dungeon floor. But whether in the dungeon or outdoors, it is easy to occasionally find yourself "backsliding"--losing more hit points in combat than the gold from the combat will replenish.

Inside the dungeon. Those yellow circles are caches of gold.

At first, I thought I'd be grinding for many hours to develop the character enough to take on the dungeon, but since the game offers no save feature, I figured it must be winnable in a smaller time frame than I was anticipating. It turns out that the stone is just sitting there at the end of the (short) dungeon maze, with no final battle in front of it, so you really just have to survive the 8-12 random battles that appear in the maze before the stone. This can be achieved with the right combination of "Banish" spells--which kill every enemy instantly at the beginning of combat--running away, and bribing. This is the only game in which I've considered those latter two options as viable role-playing decisions, but sometimes you just have to keep your eyes on the prize.

320 gold would allow me to rest and heal about 320 hit points. Each of these enemies is capable of doing about 75 hit points of damage to me before the end of the combat. Since 75 x 6 = 450 > 320, it makes sense mathematically.

When you grab the Stone of Telnyr, the game world dissolves:

The final screen recounts that you've been teleported back to the mage's castle and that the Stone's "teleporting powers will enable us to cross the mountains and trade with our neighbours." Isn't that the cutest main quest you've ever heard of? There's no Armageddon imminent, no evil wizard looking to rule the world--just a desire to stop being so isolated.

Approaching the end of my quest.

Anyway, the endgame screen seems to suggest that Telnyr I is just a prologue/demonstration project for a more extended game with a "huge playing area, sound effects, more spells, etc." More on this below.

The "winning" screen/second game announcement.

The best I can do on the GIMLET is a 15. It earns something in every category except NPCs, but the game really offers the minimal amount necessary in each category to be considered an RPG at all: character development consisting only of increased hit points; a selection of a few weapons and spells in the "equipment" category; less than 10 monster types and fairly rote combat. It does best (3) in the "economy" category, since everything is dependent on gold.

Still, it's a promising start for an independent developer. I fired up Telnyr II for a few minutes just to see if it lives up to the author's promises, and it does have a couple more spells ("Kill," "Teleport," "Revive"), multiple dungeons (some of which require keys to enter), potions, the ability to cast spells outside of combat, and other more advanced RPG features. Unfortunately, it looks like the one character creation option--the name--has been taken away, with every PC called "Nova."

Telnyr II has more elements and a different look and feel.

Let's talk a little about the sequels. The same database where I downloaded this game also has Telnyr II - The Golden Chalice and Telnyr III - The Four Runes. A file dated 1995 and inserted by the "crack team" on the first disk also alludes to a Telnyr IV. A throwaway line in one instruction file suggests that the games may have been offered via Loadstar, a Commodore 64 disk magazine based out of Louisiana.

The copyright date on the main screen of I is 1990 and the date on the main screen of III is 2000. Even though the C64 was essentially dead by 2000, the latter date is possible, as Loadstar continued to be published well into the 2000s. But the game is referenced in the 1995 file, and it seems unlikely that it would have been announced 5 years before its release, so I suspect the 2000 date on III is an aberration or an update. As for II, I can't find a whit of information about when it was published. There is no date on the copyright screen, in the disk documents, or on any online site that I can find. I've tentatively listed it as 1995--halfway between I and III--but since I suspect the III date is wrong, I think this is probably too late. As for IV, I can't find a single mention of it except on the "want list" of a Hungarian web site.

(The GameBase64 site indicates that Telnyr I was published in Loadstar #191 and the two sequels followed in 192 and 193. I haven't been able to find a full magazine index, but based on the few issue numbers and dates that I can find, it would appear that issues 191-193 wouldn't have been out until 2002, so something is wrong there.)

Given the relative sophistication of this game and the third one, I suspect Mr. Boothman released Telnyr just to prove that he could do it and see if there was any interest before tackling a more complex game. I look forward to trying his other offerings, and I hope I can eventually track him down and clear up some of these issues.

Speaking of series with promising sequels, the next game on the list is Warriors of Ras, Vol. 2: Kaiv. I thought the first game was promising, but lacking in a lot of RPG elements that apparently make an appearance in Vol. 2.

And I am still working on Captive. I've destroyed two more bases since my last post, but there just isn't a lot to blog about. I'll try to get another post out soon.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Game 160: Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983)

The game title is abbreviated "Mt." everywhere but the title screen.

Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash
Keith Zabalaoui (developer); Sierra On-Line (publisher)
Released 1983 for Commodore VIC-20; ported to Windows in 2003
Date Started: 23 August 2014
Date Ended: 23 August 2014
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

This is the story as it's been told in plenty of places elsewhere: In 1983, Keith Zabalaoui wrote a 3-D dungeon run for the Commodore VIC-20 and had it published through Sierra. (Sources vary as to whether Zabalaoui wrote the game independently and then offered it to Sierra, or whether Sierra approached Zabalaoui with the basic idea of the game already in mind.) Zabalaoui was a friend and colleague of Richard Garriott (he has credits on Akalabeth, Ultima, and Ultima II), and Sierra had been Garriott's publisher for Ultima II. Garriott thus granted permission to slap the Ultima label on the otherwise-unrelated game. (Some sources say it was done without Garriott's consent, but this seems to have been debunked by Garriott himself.) For the subtitle, the publisher chose one of the random dungeons in the first Ultima: Mt. Drash.

Technically, the Ultima dungeon is the Mines of Mt. Drash.

By 1983, the VIC-20 market was in serious decline, and Drash couldn't even be played on a vanilla machine: it required an 8K memory expansion and a cassette reader (most VIC-20 games were sold on cartridge). Sierra never had any faith in the game, only advertised it once, in the July 1983 Compute!, and only produced about 3000 copies on cassette. Sales were low, unsold copies were destroyed, and for years Sierra denied that the game ever existed.

The game didn't even merit its own ad.
(For a longer summary debunking common myths, I highly recommend Jimmy Maher's May 2013 article at The Digital Antiquarian. Keith Zabalaoui went on to have a productive career, founding Atomic Games and serving as lead developer for well-received strategy games like the V for Victory series and the Close Combat series, the latter of which was apparently so realistic that the U.S. Marine Corps contracted with Atomic to produce tactical training games.)

Naming the game Ultima had been a cheap attempt to cash in on the growing fame of Garriott's series, and while this didn't work in the way Sierra intended, it ironically worked decades later. Over the years--particularly as Ultima fame grew--Drash became known as a famous "lost" game. When copies first started to emerge in the early 2000s--one famously discovered at the bottom of a cliff in Vancouver, where some retailer had dumped unsold games--they sold at auction for thousands of dollars. Only about a dozen or so original copies are currently known to exist. For most games, we don't even bother to tally the number of known physical copies, but the Ultima title has made Drash undeservedly famous.

The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History has this box, famously recovered from a trash heap at the bottom of a cliff in Vancouver.

The box image was taken from an ad for Ultima's Sierra re-release.
The consequences of this undeserved fame extend to my blog, where, for the sake of its Ultima pseudo-history, I am offering an entry on it despite it being 1) not an Ultima game and 2) not an RPG. It is specifically lacking all three of my core RPG elements: there is no character development, there is no inventory, and combat is entirely action-based. Your character has no attributes, never finds anything, never gets any stronger, and doesn't even have a name. To play, I took time to find a VIC-20 copy rather than the PC remake everyone else seems to play. This VIC-20 version was presumably copied off one of the recovered tapes, though I haven't yet found anyone taking credit for that.

The back story, which is not referenced in-game and has no impact on gameplay, is that you are the prisoner of "the evil, wretched Garrintrots" (an obvious and weird play on "Garriott") and must escape 15 levels of timed mazes. The levels get progressively harder as you make your escape. Starting on Level 5, for instance, you have to find one of two gems before you find the exit. Starting on Level 7, the maze's corridors no longer appear on the automap. Starting on Level 9, monsters no longer appear on the automap. On level 11, you lose your compass and position on the automap, and Levels 13 and 14 require you to find both gems.

Level 6 in Mount Drash. You can see the revealed part of the automap in the upper-right. The X's on the map are monsters and the diamonds are gems (I've retrieved the one in the upper-right corner). My character is the blue circle, and the exit is ahead of him in the upper-left corner.

By Level 8, you can still see the monsters and gems, but the corridors themselves no longer appear on the automap.
All 15 mazes have you start in the bottom-right and exit in the upper-left, with the two gems in the other two corners. You have only 99 seconds to complete the levels, which are randomly-generated for each new game. Because of the nature of the random generation, some of the levels are remarkably quick and easy--at least until the penultimate two levels, when the need to collect both gems means you're running around the entire dungeon and fighting the timer.

This gameplay could have been exciting as an action game, but the lack of any other features makes it fall flat. You don't even see monsters or gems in the 3D view--only on the automap (at least until Level 9). The game could have strengthened its ties to Ultima by using the same monsters, but alas the two games share only "gremlins." There are only four other monsters in Drash, and they are unique to the game: floating orbs, dancing demons, phantoms, and purple slimes. Functionally, the different monster "types" make no difference, as they either die in a single hit or kill you in a single hit.

Lunging at some kind of beholder thing. I'm on Level 10 here--note the absence of monster features on the automap.

Monsters move to intercept you as you near them in the maze. On levels after 9, when you stop seeing them on the map, you have to keep a finger on "C," ready to use a timed thrust the moment you abruptly switch to the combat screen. Mercifully, the timer pauses during combat.

Combat is blunt and dumb, slightly reminiscent of Crown of Arthain from a couple years prior. You face off against the foe in a side-view. He minces towards you, the speed increasing as the levels get higher. Your three moves are thrust, "counterthrust," and return to the "ready position." If there are any tactics associated with this--such as the need to ever return to the "ready position"--I don't see it. The trick to combat is more to do with timing than anything else: if you thrust right when the monster has closed about 4 or 5 steps, he'll immediately die. I found that if I missed this shot the first time, it was virtually impossible to kill him after that. He'd keep encroaching on me, and none of the flailing I did ever killed him. I understand the PC version is much easier.

You start the game with three "lives," and if a monster kills you, you lose one. Fortunately, this also removes the monster from the maze. If you lose all three lives, you get a quick message that you've failed, followed by a new maze on Level 1.

Losing a life.

Beyond this, the only tactics you have are in the form of three spells: "Blast" destroys the wall in front of you; "Sleep" puts all monsters to sleep for three turns (allowing you to walk over them); and "Teleport" moves you to a new location within the level. You can cast three spells per level and "Blast" only three times in the entire game. You don't really need any of them until the last three levels, when they become vital.

When monsters aren't on the screen, the game displays your current rank, from "Qwimby" to "Questor," with a "Cadet" somehow outranking a "Corporal" on the way. I have no idea what a "Qwimby" is supposed to be; The Simpsons hadn't aired yet, so no help there.

Level 15, the last one, has no gems and no maze--just a long, winding corridor with about 10 combats, culminating in a flashing screen and a message that you've achieved "Questor" level. The game then resets and starts a new maze. A winning game takes less than 20 minutes, but it takes considerable luck to win, particularly given the mindless and unpredictable nature of combat. You have to get lucky with the maze designs, avoid as many monsters as possible, run past some with "Sleep," and get lucky in your hits with the others. Despite all of this, I was able to win "mostly honestly" in a couple of hours. I say "mostly honestly" because I used save states just before I wanted to capture particular screen shots, and I reloaded if a monster attacked and killed me while I was taking the screen shots.

The victory screen leaves me feeling nothing. Nothing.

I've seen some sources praise the music, which plays on a constant loop in the background. Among the selections are bits of Camille Saint-Saƫns "Danse Macabre" (1874), Johann Sebastian Bach's "March in D Major" (c. 1722), and--during combat--Robert Schumann's "Knecht Ruprecht" (c. 1854). These are not in any way commonly-known pieces, especially (and sorry to trade in stereotypes here) by the average Texas teenager in the early 1980s. That he included them instead of something trite and obvious like "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is remarkable, although I can't say the VIC-20's sound capabilities do the music justice or sound good to modern ears. Still, if you're interested in the music, it's a good reason to play the VIC-20 version, as the PC port doesn't have any.
Lacking any RPG credentials, I expect Drash to provide one of the lowest GIMLET scores on record. Let's see:
  • 1 point for the pitiful attempt at a back story that makes up the game world.
  • 0 points for no character creation and development.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for the tactically-indistinguishable foes.

Of all the monsters to keep from Ultima . . .

  • 1 point for the strategically-bereft combat system
  • 0 points for no equipment.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 1 point for a quest that technically has an ending, but no actual plot.
  • 2 points for the graphics, sound, and inputs. The automap works reasonably well and the music is an original touch. But the controls are sometimes unresponsive and the blank corridors don't deserve any credit.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Too much is based on luck and I can't imagine wanting to replay it. It has the virtue of being short.

The final score of 8 puts it at the second-lowest rating I've given. To be fair, it never claims to be an RPG--it's much more an action/arcade game--and as a erstwhile VIC-20 owner, I think I might have had a modicum of fun with it when I was 10.

Because of its limited release, there are few contemporary reviews. A single paragraph in the July-August 1983 Computer Gaming World calls it "an intriguing adventure game because of its unique graphics and marvelous musical score," but it's not clear from the article (which is a long summary of available games) that the writers were doing anything other than parroting the press materials. Reviews from the post-rediscovery period have been far less kind, with Hardcore Gaming 101 calling it "absolutely, horribly unplayable," Ophidian Dragon calling it "truly, truly awful" in his "Blogging Ultima" series, and the one review available on MobyGames summarizing it thusly: "Without the Ultima brand on it, this game would be justly long forgotten."
Nonetheless, decades of Ultima fans have fallen for Sierra's cynical marketing gimmick and continue to fuel its legend. Despite his disdain for the game, Ophidian Dragon worked the story into a non-canonical history of Ultima in which clearing the monsters from Drash was the final quest of the hero of Akalabeth. Game programmer Kasper Fauerby produced a PC version in 2003. In 2006, Santiago Zapata (aka "Slash") created Mt. Drash: The Roguelike as part of the annual "Seven Day Roguelike Challenge." And now, look, I've gone and added to the unnecessary and unproductive perpetuation of the game's memory on a blog that's supposed to be about games that Drash is the opposite of.

Ironically, I'm leaving this faux Ultima for an Ultima clone. Let's see how Telnyr performs in comparison.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Keys to Maramon: Won! (with Final Rating)

I think this is the first game to end with the PC giving a speech.
The Keys to Maramon
Mindcraft Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS; 1991 for Commodore 64 and Amiga
Date Started: 18 August 2014
Date Ended: 21 August 2014
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I have a friend who thinks he's funny. When you take him out for a meal, and later ask him how it was, he'll often say, "It satisfied its core mission of providing base nutrients to my organs and fending off starvation." This is his obnoxious way of saying that it wasn't very good. If he played The Keys to Maramon, I suspect he'd say, "it satisfied its core mission of preventing me from being unamused for about five hours." It did for me, anyway. I spent most of those hours waiting for a delayed flight in an airport, so I'm not ungrateful, but I don't think my life will be any different now that I've finished it.

The game is excruciatingly linear. You encounter monsters in a multi-level dungeon. The various parts of the dungeon are separated by doors requiring various types of keys; you find the key to the next area just as you finish killing all the monsters in the previous area. A few monsters require special weapons to kill; you find those weapons just before encountering those monsters. Eventually, you reach the final encounter and the game is over. There really isn't a single role-playing choice--or even much of a character-development choice--along the way.

Finding the final key to Maramon.
As I covered in the first post, the core quest of the game is to save the denizens of Maramon from the monsters that keep swarming out of the city's towers at night. Monsters appear every night at 20:00, and you want to try to kill them all before the morning, leaving dungeon exploration and character development for the daytime. For a while, I was afraid of the consequences if I didn't return to the city at 20:00 to deal with the latest assault, but eventually it took so long to get to the last-explored dungeon level and back that I stopped going back to the town. It didn't seem to have any consequences.

Occasionally, I could anticipate what tower they would emerge from, and just kill them as they came out. Otherwise, I had to chase them around town all night.
The monsters progressed in difficulty throughout the game, using the same creatures introduced in The Magic Candle: orcs, goblins, wolvingas, gnolls, trolls, barges, fermigons, zorlims, darkwolves, and so forth. Towards the end of the game, the most difficult creatures were packs of darkwolves and "tigrets," often led by someone called a "wolflord" who invariably had the next key.

The RPG elements were weak and provided little challenge. Every 1,000 experience points, I could level up and choose to increase one of my attributes by one point, but this only happened 15 times throughout the game against a collective base attribute total of 135. Thus, my character only improved by 11% throughout the game. I'm reasonably sure that you could win the game without ever leveling up.

The NPCs had little of value to contribute. The weapon shop and armor shop provided a few upgrades throughout the game, but these were quickly overshadowed by special weapons and armor found in the dungeon (which mercifully never break).

The library offered tomes (at 200 gold pieces per reading) on the major challenges in the dungeon, indicating that I'd need "Kalb's Mace" to kill demons called "Bazards," a "Star Axe" to slay dragons, and a "Brightsword" to defeat an evil magician--all of which were somewhat unnecessary to read, as these weapon upgrades all occurred immediately before the enemies that I needed to kill with them. It would have been impossible to miss them. [Edit: apparently, the weapons don't show up in their storerooms until after you've read the relevant books, so the tomes are necessary.]

Fortunately, I found a Brightsword moments before needing it.

Combat remained a blunt, SPACE bar-mashing process throughout. The only "tactics" were in the use of the environment to avoid letting enemies attack from multiple sides. Dropped gold also served this purpose--for whatever reason, enemies won't walk on it. There was also some minor strategy associated with when to use missile weapons and wands, both of which were too expensive to rely on exclusively.

Melee combat remained absurdly deadly: even average enemies are capable of killing even the best-armored character in a few seconds, especially if the character is accidentally facing the wrong direction. Mushrooms mitigate this danger, and before particularly difficult combats, I would load up on nifts, migrets, luffins, and gonshis. These are so plentiful throughout the game that I never had to buy any from the herbalist.

I thought the numbers were how many she had in stock, but they turn out to be how many you're purchasing at a time.

Late in the game, I started finding more "potion jars," which instantly heal the character to full hit points. Once I had read all of the rare books in the library and stopped having to save money for that, I used that money to load up on these potions. When I first went to buy them and saw that the price was 50 gold pieces, I thought this was expensive but fair. Then I discovered that the 50 GP charge includes eight of them. This is absurdly cheap for what they do, and I ended the game with dozens of them still in my inventory. The ability to instantly regenerate all hit points for $6.25 makes the late game far too easy.

The end of the game featured a series of quasi-bosses, starting with "Bazards," requiring Kalb's Axe to kill, then followed by dragons, requiring the "Star Axe" to kill. Again, both weapons were found in storage rooms immediately preceding these encounters.

A dragon breathes fire at me as I charge him with the Star Axe.

The library had given me the impression that the final encounter would be with an evil wizard, and that I'd need a "Brightsword" to defeat him. Reading the tome about wizards actually damaged my character, leaving him with only one hit point and permanently reducing his hit point total by one.

Eneri finds the ultimate weapon, which I never actually got to use.

When I found the Brightsword in the dungeon, I knew the end was near--in fact, it was on the very next screen. Disappointingly, it played out entirely as text:

Eneri has found the lair of the evil wizard Alvirex! Eneri recognizes Alvirex from a picture in the book in the library! Eneri remembers when bargs and gnolls were her biggest worries. She gathers her courage. She demands: "What is the meaning of this!!"

"Ahh! The hero!" says Alvirex. "Eneri, is it not? I must congratulate you. You have been quite annoying. Shortly, however, you will cease to be a problem."

"I am delighted that the Hero of Maramon takes an interest in my work," says Alvirex. (Eneri detects a subtle hint of sarcasm.) "I have come to Maramon to experiment with . . . you might call them portable teleportals. With them, I have brought the minions of Darkness to Maramon from all over the continent of Gurtex."

Eneri is furious. "You have treated Maramon as your playpen and its people as your toys!"

"I have no time for childish oratory," sneers Alvirex. Eneri can wait no more. She must destroy this monster of monsters!

Eneri crashes into an invisible energy shield! Even her Brightsword cannot penetrate the shield. Alvirex lifts his staff. A ball of dark energy speeds towards Eneri! Eneri raises her Brightsword. The ball of energy flows into the blade of the magic weapon. The sword blazes bright.

Alvirex scowls. "We seem to have reached a standoff. Perhaps you should leave." Eneri refuses.

"Perhaps we can settle our dispute another way," says Alvirex. "What say you to a foot race? Name the distance."

For a moment, I thought the game really was going to end with a foot race. That would have been a unique, if stupid, RPG ending.

Eneri is tempted. She has never met her match in such a contest. She would have jumped at the challenge a month ago. Yet Eneri has learned something in Maramon. Humility? Maybe. Caution? Surely. Wisdom? Who knows?

The air beyond Alvirex begins to shimmer. "My studies here are complete," says Alvirex. Alvirex turns. As he steps through the shimmering portal, Alvirex lifts his staff. The walls shake. Alvirex vanishes! As Eneri leaves the chamber, the waters of the Sea of Oshmar pour into the cave!

Fleeing the deluge.

What follows is a sequence in which I had to flee the caverns across the tops of rocks as they flooded with water. I'm not sure if there was a time limit to the thing, but if so, I got out in time.

It's about time NPCs started treating me like this.

I reached the surface to meet cheering townsfolk. After a quick parade through the streets, Mayor Andello gave me a set of blue pearls and the key to the city. I delivered a "short but inspiring" speech, concluding with me trying to decide whether to return to Deruvia or "travel onward to Castle Oshcrun and Gurtex." The game concludes by letting me save Eneri for use in The Magic Candle II.

Hence, the game's title.

The footrace thing was a bit weird, and I was slightly disappointed that the final confrontation didn't involve any actual playing or decision-making, but overall not a terrible ending. It suggests that the entire game is something of a prologue to The Magic Candle II. I have a feeling we'll run into Alvirex again, and perhaps even his teleportals.

Here's the GIMLET:

  • 4 points for the game world. In this, I'm not giving it credit for the overall Magic Candle universe, but it's little piece of the game world is still reasonably-well outlined, and the back story fits well with the gameplay.

The "pay to study" system was an interesting, if ultimately unnecessary, way of introducing the game's lore.

  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation offers only two options: class and name. Leveling up is a matter of studying a tome in the library, which raises a chosen statistic by one and your hit point total by two. Neither really has the effect of making you feel stronger or more capable.
  • 3 points for NPCs. The game offers them but makes them mostly inconsequential. Most of them hang out in the two taverns, and every day you can talk with a different selection of them, but most of what they tell you is either obvious or red herrings.
  • 4 points for encounters. Enemies come in three varieties: those that hit, those that hit harder, and those that shoot things. The dynamic by which they swarm the city at night--forcing you to track them down and wipe them out--is reasonably original. Theoretically, you could grind against them indefinitely, postponing visits to the dungeon, but the nightly attacks get old after a while. There really aren't any other puzzles and special encounters in the game.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Combat is a bunch of action RPG key-mashing, and there isn't any magic aside from magic wands.

Taking on a bunch of darkwolves.

  • 5 points for equipment. The character can have one type of armor at any given time but can carry a large number of melee weapons, ranged weapons, and wands. There's nothing special here, but just as with The Magic Candle, I give the game credit for creative use of mushrooms to increase abilities. The game also deserves some credit for the "fire globe" mines.

"Pearl plate" was the best armor in the game. Maramon has a thing with pearls.

  • 5 points for economy. With money needed for studying, buying weapons and armor, buying and recharging wands, buying arrows, fixing weapons, and (theoretically) buying mushrooms, gold has value through most of the game, and you don't find very much of it. Only towards the end of the game does the character get too rich.

Considering that a new longsword only costs 50 gold, I think I'm going to pass.

  • 3 points for quests. The main quest is clear, and the nightly attacks form something of a "side quest." There are no choices or alternate outcomes, and the endgame is a little lame.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I found the graphics and sound tolerable--nothing particularly creative, nor anything particularly bad. The keyboard interface mostly worked, but I found the directional keys unresponsive in the worst place: combat. The game is incapable of registering more than one key at a time, so you cannot effectively turn while also hitting the SPACE bar to swing your weapon, and it takes more discipline than I have to calmly stop swinging in the middle of combat, pause, turn to face a specific enemy, and start swinging again.
  • 3 points for gameplay. Not very challenging and extremely linear, the primary virtue of the game is that it doesn't drag on. I guess you could consider it mildly replayable in that the different classes face slightly different levels of difficulty. I suspect a scholar faces the most difficult game, as his primary strength is in the use of magic wands, and they cost quite a bit to recharge.

This gives us a total of 36, just on the cusp of what I call "recommended." It certainly doesn't hurt to play it for the few hours that it takes to win, and when you're done, you have a character for use in The Magic Candle II. But like Hillsfar--another game weirdly sandwiched between bigger titles--it's not really worthy of its franchise.

This won't be the last time Mindcraft does this. We'll return to Deruvia in The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty (1991). In between that and The Magic Candle III (1992), Mindcraft published Siege, set on Gurtex. Then, between Magic Candle III and Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale (1993), we got Ambush at Sorinor. (Both Siege and Sorinor are strategy games that don't appear on my list.)

In the September 1990 Computer Gaming World, Alan Emrich praises Maramon specifically for its simplicity and brevity and seems to like all of its mechanics. However, he also notes that he is not an RPG fan in general ("I am not Scorpia," he says), and he admits that "some might consider [Maramon] a cheese puff when they really wanted a steak." I'm fine with an occasional cheese puff, but I don't think Maramon works particularly well even as that. MobyGames's round up of reviews finds mostly middling ratings, with even the easily-impressed Dragon giving it only 3 out of 5 stars.

At best, the game serves up a preview of themes to come in The Magic Candle II, and I look forward to playing this true sequel next year. Next up, we'll be toggling Captive with Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash.