Sunday, June 17, 2018

Game 294: Bones (1991), and a stymied attempt at Stone Mist (1992)

A bare-Bones title screen.
United States
Independently developed and published as freeware
Released in 1991 for DOS based on several earlier versions going back to 1981
Date Started: 16 June 2018
Date Ended: 16 June 2018
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2/5), except that I can't figure out how to win
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

What a depressing few days. I've done nothing but waste time. After some failed starts (recounted below) with a few games, I ended up settling my efforts on Bones, which upon investigation is neither a 1989 (backtracking list) or 1992 (current list) game. It's hard to place it in a specific year. The author, Bruce N. Baker, originally wrote it on the DEC system at Eastern Montana College in 1981, with contributions from an Arron Barnhart. In 1987, Baker "revived" the game and produced several versions in several languages between 1987 and 1991. I decided to tag it as a 1991 game because Baker's notes indicate he didn't develop the mapping system until then, and I think it's a key part of the gameplay.

Left unstated in Baker's notes is that Bones is another adaptation of Joseph Power's The Wizard's Castle (1980; link to my review). This curiously long-lived line of quasi-RPGs takes inspiration from Mike Mayfield's Star Trek (1971) and includes titles such as The Yendor's  Castle (1986), Leygref's Castle (1986), and Mission: Mainframe (1987). Bones is subtitled The Game of the Haunted Mansion on most online catalogs, but the subtitle appears nowhere in the game, only in one of the documentation files.

What these games all have in common is an organization of the "game world" into multiple levels consisting of square grids of cells, the contents of each cell--monsters, treasure, items, special encounters--randomized for each new game. You move cautiously from room to room, with the ultimate goal to find a particular artifact and then escape the dungeon. In the case of Bones, the game consists of 4 levels of 49 cells in 7 x 7 arrangements. The goal is to find a Transportal Globe and get out of the haunted mansion.
I fail to get out alive.
As is de rigeur for these titles, graphics are minimal and the game is controlled through a text interface. It works pretty well here. You can arrow through the options and hit ENTER to select, or you can hit the first letter of the option you want. Most of the screen is wasted except in combat.

Bones's opponents are all skeletons, but of various types--closet, flying, fire, dancing, mystic, etc.--some of whom are immune to regular weapons and some of whom are immune to magic weapons. Thief skeletons steal your things. To fight these monsters, you find a magic sword, a magic bone, a magic mace, spellbooks, a laser, and an Uzi (with numerous clips) scattered through the maze. (The Uzi's popularity in juvenile film and literature throughout the 1980s continues to baffle me.) Other treasures include gold, jewels, healing potions, a and "warlock's shield" that provides extra defense. (I guess maybe you can encounter the warlock, who steals back his shield, but I never did.) One of the game's shticks is that it's not always clear what item is in the room with you; you must intuit it from the description; for instance a "box full of metal pieces" is almost certainly gold and something that "looks like a bug" is probably a RAM chip. As you find treasures, your score increases, which improves your effectiveness in combat.
Fighting a group of skeletons.
In a strange twist, you can also try to "Communicate" with the skeletons, offering to be their friends, threatening them, or asking them for help, with your effectiveness based on your relative strength and how much you've already damaged them. Whether you kill, charm, or cow them, you get points added to your score.
The skeletons aren't buying it.
There are no "special encounters" in Bones the way there are in The Wizard's Castle, but there are a few special rooms. "Transfer rooms" teleport you somewhere else in the maze, "mist rooms" deplete your hit points, and "smoke rooms" deplete your hit points and cut off your exits; you must blow up the walls with explosives or attack them to escape. There's at least one room full of laughing gas in each dungeon, where you can't accomplish anything.

Like most of its predecessors and followers, Bones can be arbitrarily deadly. Sometimes a potion kills you instantly, for instance, or you may wander into a smoke room from the starting square. That's a consequence of the randomization. You don't really mind because a winning game only takes an hour or so. (There isn't even a save feature.) I found it relatively easy as long as I could survive long enough to find a couple of potions and weapons.
My mid-game character stats and inventory.
All of the games in this line offer an auto-mapping feature. Bones's take on it is that the map is computerized, and you need to find RAM chips to store the maps and V-RAM chips to display them. Each kilobyte of RAM stores or displays one room, so if you run out, the game stops auto-mapping. This isn't a huge deal because you can theoretically just keep paper maps.
I have plenty of RAM and V-RAM, so the automap is working well for me here.
To keep things interesting, the game randomizes descriptions of each room: "A picture on the wall seems to be watching you"; "A room full of burning candles"; "Just a black cat on a Persian rug"; "You see an old rocking chair and it's moving." Unlike most games, Bones doesn't re-use many of these descriptions. They're part of the initial randomization and then permanently attached to each room.

Eventually, you find the Transportal Globe, and what's currently infurating me is that I can't figure out how to use it to win the game. Using it on one of the upper floors simply transports you up and down. If you use it on the first floor, your options are "Up" and "Door," and if you choose the latter, it says that you "struggle furiously with the mansion door," but you can't get out. Use it more than twice, and the globe overheats, causing you to drop and break it. No amount of waiting between the second and third use causes the globe to cool down.
Finding the Transportal Globe.
I tried using it in every room on the first level. I explored every room in the dungeon looking for a key or some other object that I might have to use with the globe. There are a couple of rooms that the game says are cold, or contain water, and I tried bringing, dropping, and using the globe there, thinking something might cool it off. I can't get anything to work. So now I have to carry this game as a loss until someone comes along with a hint. I should have rejected it as an RPG and preserved my statistics.

The game only earns a 15 on my GIMLET. It has no backstory, no NPCs, and only minimal character development. Its best category is "gameplay" for at least being short and replayable. The rating sounds bad, but none of the games in this line are really intended to be taken seriously as RPGs; they're more like computerized board games or enhanced versions of something like Solitaire. You play them as lark for a few hours a few times a year and enjoy them for what they are. Let's hope whatever comes up next on the list has some more meat on it, though.


My experience with Bones came after a depressing couple of days in which I couldn't get my Apple IIgs emulator to run 2088; it crashes shortly after loading, complaining of some corruption with one of the disks. I suspect it's an emulator problem and I confess I didn't try that hard to solve it yet, so don't kill yourself trying to give me help. I'm leaving it on the list until I exhaust more options.

Advanced Xoru turned out to be an interesting text adventure, but not even an RPG hybrid. I keep seeing it compared to Beyond Zork, but that game had attributes, experience, and combats that drew upon them. Thus, I put it in the rejection pile.
All of Bit Brothers' 1992 title screens look pretty much the same.
I spent about four hours with Stone Mist (a lot of sites put a 1 after it, but the game itself doesn't, although it does call it "version 1"), the first of several games that we may see from "Bit Brother Software" of Littleton, Colorado--basically a sole proprietorship of (then) 21-year-old Michael Ramsey. He's not a famous developer but neither is he an unimportant one. After cranking out Stone Mist (1992), Dragon's Shard (1992), Teradyne (1992), and Stone Mist 2 (1993), he went on to specialize in 3D graphics engines for companies such as Trillium Software, Devil's Thumb Entertainment, Idol Minds, and Blue Fang Games. He's still in the field, working on virtual reality games at San Francisco's Linden Lab. Thus, I wanted to give Stone Mist a fair shot.
Combat with a giant spider.
The title was intended as an engine for any number of modules, and thus supports a huge number of classes (fighter, knight, priest, druid, bard, cutpurse, wizard, thief, barbarian, ranger, shaman, monk, rogue, sage, and hedge wizard), races (human, dwarf, mountain dwarf, hill dwarf, elf, wood elf, dark elf, gnome, halfling, and half-elf), and attributes (strength, dexterity, constitution, body, intelligence, ego, presence, and comeliness).
My first character. He turned out to be too ugly to get very far.
The game, or at least the module that comes with it, was never going to be epic. It plays like a thousand other games we've already seen. Shreland is in trouble from an evil wizard named Yesmar (sigh), and King Telisx gives a staged series of quests leading up to defeating him. There are NPCs who offer one-line bits of advice, enemies to fight, dungeons to search and loot. There are a handful of spells and a variety of weapons so you can pick the most effective one in combat.
The king sends me on the first quest.
The monsters are mostly from the standard D&D bestiary, though often with an adjective in front of them (fury dragons, crazy trolls, rogue orcs, etc.). Some of them are capable of spells or special attacks that can easily wipe out a first-level character, and you find them almost right away. But the game doesn't have permadeath and running from combat seems to be 100% effective. These facts plus the fact that you can rest and heal at any time makes the game a bit easy, at least in the outdoor areas.
Taking on a tough enemy--someone didn't know how to spell "otyugh"--too early in the game.

However, the game seems to have a couple of bugs, one of them fatal. First, a lot of the items that you can buy from shops, including herbs and potions, don't seem to do their intended thing. When you use them, the game asks you "Allright?!" and does nothing to your statistics. This is fatal if you start the game with too low a "comeliness" score, because NPCs won't talk with you (they just say "Hmpf!") if the score isn't high enough, and only a potion can raise it.

Even if your score is high enough, the game doesn't load some of the dialogues for some NPCs; talking to them just produces a blank screen and then "Leave me Alone!" if you try again. One helpful bug is that the game somehow thought I had completed the king's first quest when I hadn't done anything at all.
That was a freebie.
The fatal bug has to do with the game's many keys, which you need to enter certain areas of dungeons. They simply don't work. You're supposed to walk up to the dungeon door and press (U)se, which should then bring up a menu of keys, but 9/10 times, nothing happens, an the 10th time, the game crashes to the desktop with a runtime error.
Unable to do anything at a door.
I might not have been able to get very far anyway. The unpaid shareware version of the game caps the player at Level 5. For registration, Ramsey offered packages ranging from $5.00 to $35.00, the higher ones offering a larger game world with more side quests, extra campaigns, the ability to build your own dungeons, and exhaustive documentation including a treatise on designing RPGs. Alas, these features are not part of the versions I've been able to find for download. Barring the discovery of a registered version--or at least a demo version that works--we'll have to render this one "not playable" despite my having spent more hours on it than Bones. I'll try Ramsey's other titles later in the year and see if I have better luck.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Wizard's Lair: Chasing Leads

This is intriguing...
I'm having authentic fun with this obscure little game, though not making a lot of progress. When I first started it, I thought I would like it a lot less than UnReal World, to which it seemed passingly similar, but now I think I might enjoy it more. It doesn't have a roguelike's "sandbox" feel in which anything can happen, but it's well-crafted, making up for a certain graphical paucity with an interesting narrative and set of encounters.

A few months ago, while playing some roguelike, I noted that I've come to dread top-down games with large game worlds. This is still true. I've found no good way to map such games. If they come with at least a sketch of the outlines of the world, that's enough to help, but I hate starting a new top-down game ignorant of the size and configuration of the land. This caused a bit of frustration early in the game, as it took me a while to find the major cities and get myself oriented. The "wilderness," which seems to be one of several outdoor maps, occupies a 80 x 160 grid, but frequent encounters and impassable mountains make it seem bigger. The navigation window is almost unforgivably tiny, but a "Map" spell helps a bit if you're willing to sacrifice the spell points.
The "Map" spell alerts me to a shrine at the end of a mountain pass.
If the game has one major flaw, it's the frequency of random encounters in the wild, which creates a frustrating experience when trying to explore. I also wouldn't mind if the day/night cycle had been extended a bit more. Day can turn to night and back again, with 12 encounters in the meantime, while your party is poking down a dead-end mountain pass.

Nonetheless, combat got a lot easier once I hit Level 5 or so, and in particular once my sorcerer could cast more than a couple mass damage spells in between sleeping. By the time everyone was Level 8, I could blast through most wilderness encounters by holding down the ENTER key and accepting the default options, taking charge only when light on hit points.
The "HARPIES" spell helps a lot against large groups.
Outdoor foes include bandits, giant humans, rock trolls, mountain trolls, lesser trolls, berserers, black orcs, gray orcs, high orcs, goblins, giant boas, and something called a "cuspis" (I wish the game had monster images). Perhaps the oddest is the (presumably giant) turtle, which hits pretty hard. You'd think fighting turtles, giant or otherwise, would be pretty easy.

Eventually, I had explored the other cities: Oceanview, Mountainview, and Forestview. Only Forestview offered a service not present in the other cities: an herbalist where anyone skilled in "Alchemy" can mix potions. You have to pay for the privilege, so it's basically the same thing as buying potions in most games, except that you have to have a character with a high skill level.
I have to pay 463 gold and you want me to mix it myself?!
More important, NPCs among the towns gave me a number of new hints:
  • I had been previously told to ask a guy in Oceanview about ELVES. His hint was some kind of password (HRYLYM), but I don't yet know where to use it.
  • A sorcerer named Gerrmy once created a magical amulet to enhance his abilities. He disappeared in the Wasteland.
  • To defend against lycanthropes, I should find wild wolfbane, which grows in narrow river valleys. I should check southwest of Forestview.

A very descriptive hint about surviving werewolf encounters.

  • In the ruins, I'll find the Decrepit Castle, which has a secret about the Amulet of Callus. But before I enter, I'll need "certain safeguards," including the Ring of Stef, which protects against undead attacks. I'll also need three holy words to enter the Crypt of Callus, which I'll find on Level 4 of the Grey Dungeon.
  • To survive combats against demons, I need the Blessing of the Elders.
  • To solve the Ice Castle, I will need the Rings of Ghen from the Demon Castle.
In addition to these, I chased a group of hints that led me to Thieves' Hollow, a hidden town on the northeastern coast. I had to get its location and the password (ERESTHENES) required to enter. The small town had two vital services that the other towns didn't offer: training in lockpicking and trap-disarming for my thief, and a store selling a set of lockpicks.
My thief finally gets some training.
Another group of rumors had to do with the Shrine of the Ancients. A grotto on the north coast, behind a dried waterfall, gave me the mantra: UL GURA SANCTORUM. The Shrine itself was along a mountain pass that included a gap where I needed a rope to cross. Fortunately, I had bought one.

Speaking the mantra at the shrine caused a scroll to appear, and reading the scroll led to the images at the top of this entry. I don't know if they refer to the game's quest as a whole, or just a part of it, or even a side quest.
Speaking the mantra at a holy shrine.
My explorations had shown me the locations to the Grey Dungeon, the White Dungeon, and the Ruins. I got the idea that I wanted to explore the Grey Dungeon first. The levels are relatively small--about 20 x 20, I think--but just as with the outdoors, frequent encounters make them last longer and seem bigger. Enemies increased in difficulty the moment I entered, and I only got through the first level for the purposes of this session. 

The dungeons have Phantasie-like dots to mark special encounters. There are doors to unlock and traps to disarm. Secret doors are revealed with the "REVEAL" spell, but my conjurer is only capable of casting one of those between rests, so I have to use it judiciously. 
Encountering a locked door in the dungeon.
Note the special encounter to the northwest of the party.
I had been hoping to find a lot more gold in the dungeon, because my primary problem right now is that my characters are ready for a lot more training (not to mention equipment upgrades) than I can afford. There are 10 skills--swords, axes, pole arm, bow, picklock, trap disarm, cast spell, languages, magic sense, and alchemy--and you can train any or all of them up to your current level. I don't have enough money to train even a single skill past 5 or 6 (most of my characters could go up to 9 now), let alone multiple skills per character.
Lining up training.
Fortunately, the cost of training does not increase as the skill increases, so if I just stand outside Angston and grind for a while, I should eventually make enough money. I was just hoping that the dungeons would start delivering treasure chests or something.

A few other notes:

  • Every major location has a metal-walled chamber outside it. Clearly, these are teleporters of some kind. I assume I have to learn the codes to use them. I think there was a hint that a hermit in the Grey Dungeon would tell me about them.
  • There's a "steal food" command that I haven't explored. You can only use it while standing near the food store, and if you get caught, you spend 2 weeks in jail and have to pay a fine. I'm guessing this is an homage to Ultima II, where you had to steal food to survive. Here, it's easy to forage for it and cheap to buy it.
  • The equipment store sells furs, but I don't yet know why.
  • The developer did a good job programming shortcuts for commonly-used sequences of commands. ALT-H automatically has the druid attempt the HEAL spell and ALT-M automatically has the conjurer attempt the MAP spell. The function keys also offer shortcuts to check the entire parties armor, weapons, encumbrances, and health status. I also like how, when you're in a shop, you can easily change characters without backing all the way out. Few games have offered that so far.
F5 brings up a quick summary of party health.
Wizard's Lair feels like it's going to last about 20 hours, maybe two or three more entries, which is about as long as it should last. It's not earth-shattering, but the authors at least blended elements from previous RPGs in an original way.

Time so far: 8 hours


I might be reaching down pretty far in the list for the next. I'm having trouble finding a full set of 2088: The Cryllan Mission disks that don't have a virus attached; I'm on the cusp of rejecting Advanced Xoru as an RPG; and the obscure Stone Mist (which may also fail the RPG test) seems utterly unplayable. But I have to spend a little more time with all of them, so we'll see what happens.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Game 293: Sword Quest 1: The Search (1992)

Sword Quest 1: The Search
United States
NGS Software (developer); GT Interactive (publisher)
Version 3 released in 1992 for DOS; unknown if there were earlier versions
Date Started: 9 June 2018
Date Ended: 10 June 2018
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Sword Quest 1 is an afternoon RPG that lingers into the early evening. If, when I was poor and 19, I had found this in a shovelware compilation, I don't know, I might have liked it enough. It satisfies the most primitive RPG urge to explore a fantasy setting, fight monsters, and level up, but it doesn't do much more than that.

You play a court jester in the kingdom of Ferd. An Evil Warlock has flooded the land with monsters, and all the king's knights have failed to stop him. Desperate, the king sends forth his only remaining employee, the fool, hoping that he can succeed where everyone else has failed. It's a somewhat original background, I grant, but other than a few lines of NPC dialogue, your jester status doesn't really play a role in the game and is easily forgotten.
Late in the game, an NPC refers to my profession.
Character creation consists of a random roll for strength, skill, and dexterity, and then a name. The name doesn't appear on the screen and is never use by NPCs, and is really only referenced when you reload a saved game. The attributes can't be improved during gameplay, and they make quite a difference, so it's worth waiting for a generous roll, which doesn't take too long.
The brief character creation process.
Gameplay begins outside the king's castle, on a small island to the southwest of the mainland. The game ultimately consists of about 200 x 200 tiles holding the king's castle, the Evil Warlock's castle, 6 or 7 towns, and 6 dungeons. It seems a lot bigger than that because you have to stop for combat every half a dozen steps. The ultimate goal is to slay the Evil Warlock in his castle, but to do so you have to assemble several artifacts, including a magic armor/sword/shield set, plus boots that let you levitate across pits, plus a magic key that opens doors. The lack of the last two items until late in the game causes a lot of backtracking, since towns and dungeons cannot be fully explored without them.
The hopeless king assigns the quest.
The game offers a stunning difficulty curve during the opening hour and remains pretty deadly throughout. You start with no gold, no weapons, and no armor. You can get a few hundred gold pieces in chests in the castle, but you still have to make your way to a town to buy equipment, and the closest one (an NPC offers this hint) is a few dozen steps to the northwest. Surviving that initial journey is nearly impossible. The game has no compunction about putting you face-to-face, mere steps from the starting point, with Level 10 dragons, Level 15 vampires, and other foes that will remain difficult hours later. They kill you easily in one round. Running hardly every works.
Not what you want to see when you have no weapons and 0 experience points.
The only saving grace is that it doesn't take that long to save and reload. During this initial stage, you basically have to save every step or two, slowly mincing your way to the first town, where you can buy a staff and leather armor. That hardly makes you Hercules, however, and well into the first half of the game, you're gratefully saving after every combat and ruefully reloading at least once every few minutes. You have to spend quite a bit of the first hour grinding near a town with an inn where you can rest and heal.
This happens a lot in the first hour.
Towns all offer armories selling weapons, armor, and shields, inns, and stores where you can buy magic potions. There are only a few levels of progression with equipment. For weapons, it's staff, dagger, short sword, long sword, and great sword; for armor, it's leather, chain, half plate, and full plate. There are only three levels of shield. Not all towns sell all items, either.
Purchasing armor.
Every town has about eight NPCs who offer hints, sometimes quite explicit, as to the locations of the quest items as well as the other things you need to do to get to the endgame. Many of them are behind locked doors and cannot be consulted until you find the magic key.
A helpful NPC.
And one who isn't happy with my magic key.
Outside and in dungeons, you get attacked by the same selection of seven enemies: globlins, jellies, griffons, wizards, vampires, warlocks, and dragons. These creatures can be any level from 1 to 60, and of course the level makes more of a difference in difficulty than the type of creature. In combat, you can fight, cast a spell, use an item, or try to flee. Whether you live or die, most combats don't last more than a few rounds and take mere seconds to resolve. This is good, because you can't so much as cross the street without fighting 5 enemies along the way. It got so bad that if I accidentally wandered 20 steps in the wrong direction, I'd reload rather than turn around and walk back.
Dragons are capable of devastating damage.
Easily the most annoying part of the game is the way it introduces combat. You don't see enemies in the environment. You just suddenly enter combat while you're walking along. Once the combat screen appears, which only takes a blink of an eye, the game reads any errant keystroke as "passing" and gives the enemy a free hit. You can imagine what happens. Eager to get somewhere, you hold down one of the arrow keys. Then suddenly you're in combat and the game reads a few extra arrow presses as "passes" and the enemy has pounded half your hit points away before you know it. Yes, you can avoid this problem by being patient and pausing between movements, but it gets a bit boring.

The good news is that leveling up is rapid. You max out at 9,999 experience points at Level 80, which for me occurred just before the final battle, so throughout the game I leveled up every 4-5 minutes on average. Leveling increases your hit points and spell points. You acquire new spells every few levels and have them all by Level 15. The spells are "Heal," "Injure," "Cure," "Kill," and "Return Home." "Heal" heals a random number of hit points between 1 and 2 times your level, roughly. "Cure" heals them all, and once you're capable of casting a few of them, it really extends the range you can explore away from towns. "Kill" does a great job killing any one enemy, but it costs so much that it's generally a better idea to save the spellcasting for "Cure." "Return Home" warps you back to the starting castle, which is rarely useful because most of the action takes place on the main continent.

The main continent is accessible through a dungeon in the starting island. Once you arrive, you go through the difficulty curve all over again because enemies on the main continent have a much higher average level than the ones on the starting island. But you keep leveling and improving. Once you've bought the best equipment, you can spend your excess funds on potions, which basically duplicate spells. There are potions that heal, cure, and poison (kill) as well as "wings" that perform the same as "Return Home." You're capped at 8 heal potions, 15 poisons, 5 cures, and 5 wings, so after that money is just wasted. I spent most of my second half of the game with my gold at 9,999, unable to earn any more.
Finding the magic shield late in the game.
You explore the main continent slowly--all the combats ensure that it's slow--assembling your items. The magic armor and shield are found in outdoor locations; NPCs give you specific coordinates, which you check with the (L)ocate command. The magic key is with a sage in one dungeon; the magic boots in a chest in the other. Dungeons are just linear mazes with plenty of combats, treasure chests (which you don't need), pits, and doors.
Fighting a vampire in the dungeon.
Once you have everything but the sword, a southern dungeon takes you to a small island with the final town. That town has a teleporter that takes you to the Evil Warlock's castle. The magic sword is in the dungeon of the castle.
Finding the sword.
Shortly after you find the sword, the Evil Warlock appears as a random encounter in the dungeon. He's pretty tough, but as long as you have enough magic points for about 7 "Cure" spells (or 2 plus 5 analogous potions) during combat, you'll outlast him.
The adorable Evil Warlock.
Once you strike the killing blow, you get a single text screen that indicates that the Warlock mysteriously disappeared. The text says that you make your way back to the castle, where the king knights you Sir Jester. Kick to DOS prompt. Presumably, we find out what happened in the sequel, Sword Quest 2: Tail of the Talisman (1993), which seems to offer new monsters and an automap but (groan) also includes a food system.
I was going to complain that the king should have knighted me with my real name, but then I realized it's basically indistinguishable.
On the GIMLET, the game gets 2s across the board plus a 3 in "economy," ending with a final score of 21. I should mention that in addition to the graphics, which as you can see are adequate, there are some basic sound effects plus a couple of background tunes that play in town and during combat. The combat tune sounds like a modified version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Except for the issue above, the commands work well, but the space wasted in the game interface by the title and company logo is a crime against nature.

Sword Quest is a product of Sequim, Washington-based NGS software, which seems to be a sole proprietorship of the game's author, Erik Badger. (Sequim, incidentally, is pronounced "Skwim." It is in one of the most beautiful parts of the United States. I got to spend three days there a couple years ago, and I nearly tried to convince Irene to move there. My trip was marred only by my striking an elk on the final evening and causing $1,700 damage to my rental car. I think the elk was all right.) A lot of sites list it as a 1986 game, which makes some sense as the version I played is explicitly labeled "version 3." On the other hand, I can't find direct evidence of a 1986 version--even sites that claim to have it turn out to have the 1992 version once you download it. Badger was only 17 in 1992; it seems a stretch to imagine he originally released a game when he was 11 in 1986.
Cute tag line.
There is some evidence that Badger distributed the game and its sequel as shareware, probably on BBSes. At least one download package for the second game has a text file requesting $12.00. But at some point in 1993, the pair of games was picked up for publication--and given a slick box--by none other than GT Interactive, founded that year in New York City. If anyone ever bought or played it, I can't find any evidence, but I'm sure GT didn't care, as they were about to make $10 million for publishing DOOM. Badger, meanwhile, seems to have gone on to a career as a dentist and never published another game.

As I say, Sword Quest gets the job done in a basic way. I'm certainly not going to complain about single-entry games in such a voluminous year.

Friday, June 8, 2018

UnReal World [v. 1.00b]: Won? (with Summary and Rating)

My "winning" character.
UnReal World [v. 1.00b]
Three Relaxed Byte-Biters (developer)
Released in 1992 for DOS as shareware
Date Started: 27 May 2018
Date Ended: 6 June 2018
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5). Would be easy (2/5) except for permadath.
Final Rating: 38
Ranking at time of posting: 232/294 (79%)

UnReal World continued to offer enjoyable mechanics for the rest of its short length and moderate difficulty. I say "moderate difficulty," but of course any game with permadeath has unique difficulty considerations even normal gameplay is quite easy. As it turns out, UnReal World is quite serious about its permadeath. After my priest died, I started taking copies of the save game every few levels. When my third character got killed--like the first, by a minotaur--I restored the backup and fired up the game again. This is what I got:
This game is hardcore.
Wow. The game doesn't just delete your character when you die; it actually stores the fact of his death in one of its files, so you can't just restore and reload. I couldn't figure out how it was doing it. I tried deleting the character from the "high score" file, but that didn't do it. I looked at all the files that had been modified at the same time the character died, but I couldn't find anything explicit in any of them. Re-naming the save game file did no good. I opened the save game file in a hex editor and re-named the character, but the game still saw right through that. The developers did not want people to cheat.

I'm sure I could have figured it out eventually, but I decided to move forward honestly. The game isn't so hard that you can't win without cheating, even with permadeath. As we'll see, there are few NetHack-like threats to your well-being. There are no spellcasting enemies, no dragons, nothing capable of stoning or paralyzing you. I think it even prevents you from dying from poison by setting a minimum hit point threshold, after which the poison wears off naturally.

I won with my fifth character, a dwarf hunter. Hunters have a reasonably easy time because as long as they can find a single tree, they can search repeatedly for food and healing herbs.
That one tree is going to cure my hunger and wounds.
I used the hunter's ability to self-heal to game the virtue system. When you level-up, you get bonuses for each virtue that you've raised over a certain threshold. You can slowly build these virtues by the way you act in the game (though I never did figure out how to build honesty), but the easiest way is by praying at an altar and sacrificing hit points. All I had to do was find an altar near a tree, and I could sacrifice my hit points, run to the tree to heal, and run back to the altar. Soon, I was getting the bonuses on every level increase.
Not "cheating" so much as "exploiting."
The dungeon consists of 18 levels, and they're not quite as random as the typical NetHack dungeon. In NetHack, you can theoretically find special encounters like shops, altars, and treasure zoos, but there's no guarantee that you will. Some games never generate a shop. In UnReal World, on the other hand, it seems that the same encounters and special areas will be found in every randomly-generated dungeon, just in different places. Some of the things I always found on the way down were:

  • Copious altars and confessionals.
  • A potion store-room guarded by a zombie alchemist
  • An ancient library full of magic scrolls, guarded by several zombie librarians
  • One level with a single tree and one level with a small copse of trees
  • Beds for getting a better night's rest
  • A room where all the doors close when you walk into it, but there's a pick-axe somewhere in the room and you can use it to get out
  • A priest looking for a holy item; he gives you a salt jar if you find it for him
  • An alchemist who will sell and identify potions
He's apparently from New Jersey.
  • A mage who will identify wands and staves
  • A warrior priest proselytizing about a god named Thunder 
Levels 6, 12, and 18 are special levels in which all the squares are open. Each has one of the three keys that you need to enter the Doom-Tower. Level 6 is a giant swamp full of "bloodsuckers" and sinkholes. Level 12 is a "Dryad Forest" full of wood nymphs. When they're near they can cause trees to smack you with their branches and weeds to trip you. It's a pretty easy level for a hunter, though, because he can just stop and heal whenever he wants.
Getting through the slightly-annoying Dryad Forest.
The monsters get really tough after Level 12, and I decided to avoid them as much as possible. Minotaurs, Olog-Hais, cave bears, and pythons are capable of pounding away more than half your hit points in a single blow. Two unlucky rounds are enough to kill you. I used the resources I had--Wands of Confuse Monster, Scrolls of Teleport, and so forth--to get around them as much as I could.  
One of the more amusing combat messages, as I battle a minotaur.
Level 18 is a weird level called "Emptiness," which is literally just a huge square of empty tiles except the one that has the third key. There are no monsters, traps, or anything.

Once I had all three keys, I returned to the surface and entered the Doom-Tower in the northern part of the outdoor map. The single tower level had about 8 doors that I had to unlock with the keys. There was another altar and confessional, and a bedroom with two beds.
The interior of the tower.
The center part of the tower had a winding corridor that ended in a single square. When I stepped in it, I got the message below.
A crummy commercial?
Huh? I have no idea what this message is referring to. There is no inn anywhere in the outdoor map. "NIGHT CAP" seems to be some kind of password, but I can't find anyone to give it to, and you can't just feed keywords to most NPCs anyway. Is it setting up a part of the adventure that was never built? Is it a tragic joke about how just because there's a big formidable tower in the center of town, there isn't always something valuable inside? I've no idea. I wrote to Mr. Maaranen, but no response as yet.

Lacking anything else to do, I guess I'm going to consider that a win. Obviously, the end--if that's what I experienced--is a bit of a let-down, but I'm not letting it detract from the things I liked about the game. A few things I discovered since last time:
  • The game rewards you with experience for much more than just killing enemies. You get it for finding gold, successfully using (and identifying) magic items for the first time, finding traps, using your class's special skills, transitioning levels, and probably some other things I didn't notice.
  • If you have a lockpick, you can use it to lock doors behind you and prevent enemy pursuit.
  • You can find horses in the dungeon and ride them, allowing you to easily outrun enemies. You can't fight with melee weapons from horseback, but you can shoot missile weapons.
Mounting a horse.
  • Like NetHack, you find fortune cookies that give you hints.
I think this is referring to an encounter where you open a barrel and there's a zombie inside.
  • There's a potion that allows you to eat any item as if it was food. Late in the game when I was out of food and didn't have a tree nearby, I used the potion and ate an extra staff.
  • If you find a flute, you can use it to charm snakes.
  • You can climb up on furniture and jump on enemies like you're in WrestleMania or something.
Uruk-Hai would be a good name for a wrestler.
  • Much like Ultima V, you can move items of furniture--beds, chairs, cabinets, and so forth--to block certain passages.
  • The engine supports keyword-based dialogues with some NPCs but doesn't really employ it very well.
Following his prompting, I said "death to orcs," and he gave me a lamp.
There were a few things I disliked, principally the fact that when you get tired, you have to acknowledge the message every single move until you sleep. Also, you have to sleep multiple times successfully to stop being tired, and every one causes you to wake up hungry.

There were some game elements that I never understood. Here are a few:
  • For a while, the game seems to be interested in assigning titles to the various character levels. You start as "Stranger in a Strangeland" at Level 1, then move up to "Coward," "Believer," and finally "Clergyman." It stops there no matter how many levels you attain. All classes get these same titles, which are obviously a bit weird.
  • Every time you kill a zombie, you get this message: "You hear frightening, gruesome laughing echoing in the room! Human zombie screams as maniac. Some winged and horned creatures appear and catch the soul coming from human zombie's body . . . and everything is silent again." No other creature has a death message like this.
  • You can get friendly monsters to follow you by speaking to them and using the "leadership" option. Once they start following you, they disappear, and the only way you know they're with you is that every time you invoke the "chat" command, the game asks whether you want to chat with your follower. I have no idea what they do for you. They don't seem to increase any statistics or act in combat. I carried an orc with me the entire game before letting him go in the tower. As he left, he complained that he didn't know why I'd dragged him all the way there.
Getting an orc follower. For some reason.
  • No enemy in the game is capable of causing fire damage, and yet there are potions and wands of Resist Fire.
  • One of the items you can find is a makeup kit, which does nothing for you but can theoretically increase the charisma of NPCs. Why?
  • There's a "pull lever" command that's never employed.
  • A "drink" command allows you to slurp from bodies of water, but there's no "thirst" statistic so no real reason to do so.
  • Even though the random generation process can create disconnected areas in the dungeons, I never found a single secret door. I only got into the hidden areas by bashing through with my pick-axe.
Most of these points are probably answered by the fact that the engine was intended to support multiple campaigns, including some of greater complexity.

In a GIMLET, the combination of the engine and this campaign earns:
  • 1 point for the game world. The backstory about the creation of the universe really has no relevance in the game itself, and the game itself tells no story.
  • 5 points for character creation and development. The selection of 6 races and 6 classes offer a variety of approaches to gameplay, with each class (in particular) facing a different experience. Leveling up occurs frequently and offers relatively tangible rewards. The virtue system is under-developed but still an interesting addition.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. There are wandering NPCs who offer services, conversation, and the occasional side quest. I'm not sure I understood what all of them were about. Some will even join you but, as above, I don't know to what end.
An elf taunts me for no reason.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are mostly D&D-derived standards, with few special attacks. I did like the way that some of them responded to specific objects: salt kills zombie, holy items turn skeletons, flutes charm snakes, and so forth. I also loved how you could look at them and get a sense of their condition and equipment.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. The game has a typical roguelike's sense of tactics, with the addition of allowing multiple attack types (including shield bashing, which I didn't cover) depending on the weapon and each character's set of special abilities. Clerics, mages, and priests also have a small selection of spells.
Fighting with a two-handed sword.
  • 5 points for equipment. In variety, it's not quite as good as NetHack or even Rogue. I think the engine supports magic weapons and armor with various pluses, but I never found any in this campaign. There are otherwise fewer types of wands, scrolls, and potions with fewer effects. On the other hand, any game that gives you a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, missile weapons, and separate armor slots for head, arms, hands, torso, waist, legs, feet, and back can't be all bad.
  • 4 points for economy. It holds up pretty well, with the ability to buy items in shops, identify items with wandering NPCs, get specialized weapon training (I didn't really explore this), and sacrifice gold at altars for virtue boosts. There's even a casino, though I didn't spend much time there. On the other hand, you can get through most of this campaign without doing any of those things.
A wandering merchant saves me from starving.
  • 2 points for quests. I was so disappointed with the end that I only give it one point there, but there are also a couple of NPC-based side quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface, mostly going to the interface, which like most roguelikes is easy to master. I thought the graphics worked reasonably well, but the sound was just bloops with the occasional unwelcome passage of music.
  • 6 points for gameplay. A bit linear, but with an excellent sense of pacing and a lot of replayability given the randomization and different classes. More important, I like the difficulty level here. It has NetHack's permadeath, but much milder gameplay and a smaller dungeon make it far less punishing than the typical roguelike.
That gives us a final score of 38, which doesn't sound very high but puts the game solidly in my "recommended" zone, and it beats every roguelike I've played so far except NetHack v. 3 (44), which had better character development, combat tactics, and the best approach to RPG equipment that we've seen so far in the chronology.
Kicking this door open conferred something of a bonus.
As we discussed last time, this is only the beginning of the UnReal World saga. Principal developers Sami Maaranen and Erkka Lehmus (with Jussi Kantola, they make up the original "Three Relaxed Byte-Biters") would continue to issue near-yearly releases all the way to the present day. (Incidentally, Maaranen was only 15 when the first version came out in 1992. This may be the first game I've played whose developer was born after me.) The official development history shows that the next major releases, in 1994, greatly expanded the wilderness and introduced a lot more survival elements, with skills such as fishing, foraging, swimming, and tracking. Instead of classic D&D-derived character classes, you play as a fisherman, hunter, legionnaire, or locksmith--although fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, etc.) are still present.

I'm not sure that the 1994 editions (v. 2.00b-2.03) still exist anywhere. The earliest I've been able to find after v. 1.00b is v. 2.09 from 1996. By then, the game had been fully stripped of its high fantasy themes, all characters are human (from different tribes), and surviving in a harsh world became the primary quest.

When I reach 1994, I'll take another scan and see if those versions have turned up; otherwise, we'll have to wait until 1996. Either way, I look forward to seeing how this unique and clever series develops.