Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Game 177: Caverns of Zoarre (1984)


Caverns of Zoarre
Thomas Hanlin III (developer); published as shareware
Released 1984 for DOS
Date Started: 26 February 2015
Date Ended: 1 March 2015
Total Hours: 6
Reload Count: 8
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
This is going to be a quick one. In July 2010, about five months after I started blogging, a reader gently informed me that my master game list was so incomplete as to be laughable. I had been relying on Wikipedia's chronology of RPGs, which at the time maybe had 1/3 of the games that were actually released, at least in the 1980s. The reader clued me in about MobyGames (now, I can't believe there was ever a time that I didn't know about MobyGames), and the resulting research more than doubled my list--and I was still on my DOS-only rule at the time!

For the next couple of weeks, I engaged in a series of "backtracking" postings to quickly cover the games I had overlooked, giving each a scant few paragraphs and giving none of them an official game number or GIMLET rating. I later rectified this with The Wizard's Castle and Oubliette, and now it's time to do so with Caverns of Zoarre, a game that I originally covered in two paragraphs in a longer posting about similar games.

Zoarre  is a shareware game written by Thomas Hanlin III of Springfield, Virginia, who offered the manual for a $25 fee. It is an entry in a long line of games that goes back to the first extant CRPG, The Dungeon (aka "pedti5"), developed by Reginald Rutherford for the PLATO system at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1975. The Dungeon soon inspired Ray Wood's and Gary Whisenhunt's The Game of Dungeons, better known by its file name, "dnd." These games pioneered the classic top-down adventure in which a little character icon finds random monsters, treasures, and special encounters.

The first game in the DND line is also the first extant CRPG.
Purdue University in Indiana was also connected to the PLATO system. Sometime in the late 1970s, Perdue student Daniel Lawrence played The Game of Dungeons and liked it enough to program an adaptation (or, as Game of Dungeons contributor Dirk Pellett has it, "a blatant copy...without the knowledge or permission of any of dnd's original authors") on Perdue's DEC PDP-10 mainframe. The game spread in popularity and was copied to a number of different platforms.

We no longer have Lawrence's original DND, but we do have a large number of its spawn, including C. Gordon Walton's Dungeon of Death (1979) for the Commodore PET, Lawrence's attempt to commercialize the game as Telengard (1982), Bill Knight's DND (1984), Caverns of Zoarre (1984), and the variant known as Heathkit DND (1985). Looking at the histories, I can't tell exactly which versions simply copied the original code and which ones reverse-engineered it to offer the same experience.

Telengard was a commercial version of games in this family.
The games in the DND line always start by rolling a set of standard Dungeons and Dragons attributes followed by a quick descent into the dungeon. After that, the random encounters come relentlessly. There's a map, but it doesn't really matter--you can stand next to the entry stairs and still encounter a continuous wave of monsters, treasures, and special encounters. Death is swift, frequent, and permanent--you can go through dozens of characters in an hour--and generally the only goal is to get to as high a level as possible.

Most of the variants use crude graphics to represent the character, the walls of the dungeon, and monsters (Zoarre has no monster graphics). You could almost describe them as roguelikes, but they lack the sophistication of Rogue when it comes to inventory and varieties of monsters. There's also no Amulet of Yendor waiting in the DND dungeons--just the inevitable death screen. There are no real tactics or role-playing opportunities, except your general tendency on the risk-caution scale.

Command options in Caverns of Zoarre
Zoarre is a typical representative of the DND family, better than some but not as good as Telengard. It has lots of random monster encounters and a handful of special encounter types, but no equipment at all (making it technically not an RPG under my rules). There are two character classes, fighter and sorcerer, and the latter has a selection of D&D-derived spells.

Creating a new character.

As you traverse its corridors, you fight off attacks from goblins, hobgoblins, fell dwarves, white wraiths, wargs, "ugluk-hai" trolls, and other creatures drawn from both Dungeons & Dragons and the Tolkienverse. Though influenced by your level and attributes, combats are heavily dependent on random rolls, and the only options are to attack, flee, cast spells (for mages), and bribe creatures to leave you alone.

The throes of battle.

One unusual and fun feature of the game is that losing monsters will sometimes offer you a bribe to let them go.

As you defeat monsters, you gain experience points and gold, and occasionally (quite often in the early game), you want to go back up the entry stairs and turn in your gold for experience points. This gets  more difficult as your character starts heading downward in the dungeon. and further away from the stairs. You gain one level for every 1,000 experience points; rather than increase the number of experience points needed for each level, the game reduces experience point rewards for killing monsters as you increase in level.
In between monster encounters, there's a small selection of special encounters. They include:

  • A witch who sometimes steals your gold before disappearing, sometimes heals you. (This might be influenced by charisma.)
  • Fountains of varied colors. Drinking from it may increase or decrease attributes, hit points, or experience.
  • Altars, where you can pray or donate gold. I haven't seen any effects from either option.
  • Thrones, where you can sit down or read runes, also to random effects.
Note the similarity with the Telengard screenshot above.
  • Machines with buttons. Pressing them produces a random punishment or reward.
  • A wishing well, in which you can deposit gold or take gold. The effects of doing so seem to be random, as with the fountains.
  • Chests and random piles of treasure.
  • Traps, including gas traps, pits, and trap doors.
  • A blue-green glowing area that "soothes your troubles away" by restoring hit points and spell points to your maximums.
  • Random messages about hearing noises, finding indecipherable runes, hearing a "boom" in the distance, and other bits of flavor.

If they can survive the first few levels, sorcerers have an easier time in Zoarre than fighters, since their selection of spells (including both offensive spells and healing spells) gives them more options. You can only cast a limited number of spells per combat (I'm not sure what affects this)--you have to fight like a warrior for the remaining rounds--but some of the spell selections are massively powerful, including "Death Spell," "Stun Beam," and "Charm Monster." Mages also have a "Glyph of Recall" that takes them back to the inn, although at a loss of a couple hundred experience points and all their gold.

The cruel result of a "Charm" spell.

Fighters regenerate hit points as they walk. Sorcerers don't, but they regenerate spell points that they can use for healing spells. Either way, the regeneration is very rapid.

A full list of combat spells.

There are a couple of mysteries in the game that would probably be cleared up with the manual, but I haven't been able to find anyone with a copy, and I haven't been able to track down creator Thomas Hanlin. The first mystery is called a "freen." When you start a character, the game asks if you want one, and if you say yes, the character profile says that you're "wearing" it. During combat, it absorbs damage from poison. This makes it sound like it's some kind of magic item, but you can also be attacked by freens and "call" them with a spell, which causes you to lose hit points permanently. I don't know how to reconcile a freen as a creature and something you wear.

The second mystery concerns a command: "(A)activate mad Uncle Sisten's device." The command fails most of the time but occasionally randomly teleports the player. The back story probably tells more about who Uncle Sisten is.

Zoarre doesn't scale the monsters very well, and after my sorcerer character hit Level 8 or 9, I found it very difficult to die, even with occasional level drains from undead. An area of gas raised my sorcerer's strength to 18, which made him as effective in combat as a fighter. I explored downward maybe five levels, ultimately rising to Level 27, until I noticed that I wasn't finding any more down staircases or trap doors. I started mapping the level and soon discerned that it was a large 35 x 27 squares.

I screwed something up in that area in the lower-left,, so I ultimately gave up.

An area in the upper-right corner seemed closed off, so I used my "Melt Through Wall" spell to enter. The game informed me that I had found the "Kinoben Cat," an item that appeared permanently in my inventory from thereon. Clearly, this was supposed to be some kind of main quest.

After I got the Cat, I noted that "Glyph of Recall" no longer worked, so I began to slowly make my way up the five levels to the surface. With such large levels, it took forever--especially since trap doors kept knocking me down again. I started using "Melt Through Wall" to systematically explore each level, recharging in place when necessary (my fighting skill and level meant I didn't have to waste spell points in combat). Eventually, I made my way to the surface and got a winning screen!

Main quests and winning conditions are rare for games in the D&D line, so I'm glad I explored this one long enough to find it. It only took me about 8 characters, which makes this one of the easier D&D games. In 6 hours, I would have gone through 157 Telengard characters.

The winning character.

I haven't been able to find much information about Thomas Hanlin III. He was living in Springfield, Virginia at the time of Zoarre and he developed at least one other game, a text adventure called Moon Mountain Adventure (1987). MobyGames's trivia section says that that Zoarre was originally titled Dungeon of Mirador and was developed for the TRS-80 after Hanlin played Telengard in 1983. These claims are unsourced and not reported anywhere else, so I'm not sure where the MobyGames contributor got the information. I've messaged him for clarification but haven't received any replies yet.

The game earns only a 17 on my GIMLET, hampered by no backstory, no equipment, and no NPCs. It gets 3s in "Magic & Combat" for its selection of spells and effective use of bargaining (from both sides!), in "Encounters & Foes" for its variety of random encounters, and in "Gameplay" for being swift and simple.

An area of Level 4 is called the "Ancient Dragon Lair," and it has multiple fights with ancient dragons, all of whom have far more gold that the character is capable of carrying.

The DND derivatives are fun in a mindless way, but they never rise to greatness. True roguelikes offer similar gameplay but with many more features, and it's hard to imagine spending time on DND or Caverns of Zoarre instead of, say, Moria or NetHack. Nonetheless, it's a fair enough independent effort and it effectively occupied me for another 6 hours before my inevitable death. Let's see if we can win Tunnels & Trolls.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Space 1889: Won* (with Final Rating)

We are the winners!

Space 1889
Paragon Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, Atari ST; 1991 for Amiga
Date Started: 22 February 2015
Date Ended: 28 February 2015
Total Hours: 22
Reload Count: 9
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at Time of Posting: 59% (105/177)

I sacrificed most of my Saturday to barrel through to the end of Space 1889, doubling the time I spent on the first two postings in a single long session. This, in turn, is going to create a very long posting, for which I apologize, but I really wanted to just get this one finished and move on.

The "treasure hunt" nature of the game never really changed, except there were several places in which I ran out of clues and wasn't sure what to do next. In a couple of those situations, backtracking and visiting cities randomly helped me out, but in a couple of others, I confess that I gave up and sought out hints. Since the game's official clue book (housed at the always-awesome Museum of Computer Adventure Game History) is the lamest thing ever (seriously, check out the ASCII maps with hand-drawn annotations), I relied in part on Black Cat/Crooked Bee's May 2011 LP of the game on RPGCodex. This would be a good source if you really want to read the blow-by-blow, because I'm going to be summarizing a lot here.

The cut screen between planets and space.
The game ended up being a lot more like MegaTraveller 1 than it seemed at first glance, first in the lame combat system, second in the almost non-existent character development, and third in the way that an economic barrier forces you to spend a lot of time on side-quests. The plot is arguably a little better in Space--needlessly elaborate, but not completely pathetic as in MegaTraveller.
As I last posted, I was preparing to leave Earth for Mars. This involved going to the spaceport (there's one on every planet; Earth's is on the Pacific coast of Asia) and purchasing a an aether ship. Suddenly, the game's approach to the economy became clear. While my starting characters had plenty of money to buy weapons and equipment--at least 10 times what they seemed to need--they were vastly underfunded when it came to buying a ship. Even choosing the lowest-level specs, I was looking at 2.4 million pence against a pot of around 500K that I was carrying. (Most of the game's transactions are in pence, which are worth 240 to a pound.) I had only about a fifth of the required funds.
I solved it in the short term by selling King Tut's jewels, coincidentally for exactly 2.4 million; they must exist for precisely this purpose. This got me the lowest-level flyer, but it was enough to start exploring the planets.

My first flyer didn't have much, but cost a bank.
Space navigation is rather annoying. The solar system is large, you move very slowly, and it's difficult to find planets by just flying around, especially since they're in constant motion. Instead, you have a character with a high science skill (and preferably navigation equipment) identify a (c)ourse to the desired planet. The game gives you the course in terms of the constellation backdrop, which you have to cross-reference with a crude map in the game manual.

A character plots a route.

Unlike the planets, the constellations don't change positions.
By following the star patterns, you get to the general area of the planet, and then you have to hunt for it. There's no danger during this process: there are no other ships in space (more below on planetary combat), there's no danger of colliding with anything, you have unlimited food on the ship, and the ship is solar-powered so you never run out of fuel. It's just boring.

From the Earth to Venus.
The solar system is ringed by an asteroid belt, through which an aether ship cannot pass, the logic being that if you go too far from the sun, the propulsion systems stop working. More on that in a bit.

Eventually, I found my way to Mars, and the rest of the game's story proceeded in four major sections:

1. The German Conspiracy. The action after my last post shifted to Mars, then to Venus, then back to Mars, as I infiltrated a series of German bases, killed their leaders, and acquired the items and intelligence needed for future exploits. The German plot to take over the solar system depended somehow on monopolizing the "liftwood" trade on Mars, using the Martians as pawns. The plot culminated when I killed Baron Hasso von Gruber, the mastermind behind the plot, and his Martian ally, King Hattabranx.

Baron von Gruber makes the mistake of revealing everything in a villain's exposition.
This is a good time to mention that I mostly avoided combat throughout the game. Killing random mooks offers no rewards (except occasional weapons that you sell for small cash), no experience, and no character development, so it was easiest just to run past them and head right for the bosses. I made it a policy to fight anyone with a name, as they were the ones carrying needed keys and documents.

A looted pass gets me through a door.
I didn't describe the combat system in detail in my other posts, so I'll talk about it briefly here. (It isn't good or complex enough to be worth explaining in detail.) When you want to fight, you hit "F" and your single character icon immediately breaks out into five individual ones, scattered somewhat randomly, which was a frustration throughout the game. Combat begins paused, giving you a chance to cycle through each character and issue orders, including attacking, moving, reloading, and changing weapons.

After you've issued the orders, you ESC and watch the characters follow your commands. Attacking characters keep firing until you tell them to stop, and they automatically reload. If you want to pause and issue new commands, you just hit "N." You have to manually control one character--it doesn't matter which one--so I developed the habit of controlling Griffin, who specialized in "fisticuffs" and carried no weapon. I found that the manually-controlled character was able to attack and move far more often than the automatic ones, and Griffin's punches generally won most battles.

Fighting space pirates. My enemy is the top one closest to the door. Griffin is just south of him, standing on the bones of his defeated comrade, attacking with fists. Right now, only the two frontmost other characters can fire at the foe.
Most of my reloads are from cases in which one or more characters were killed in combat. I found that just like in MegaTraveller, combat was so random that a simple reload would produce vastly different results. Other than the positioning of the characters (party members won't shoot through each other, so you have to give everyone a clear shot), I never felt that there were any tactics I could exploit to improve my chances. Since equipment and skills generally don't improve throughout the game (every weapon and armor item is available from the beginning, cheaply), combat remained at the same difficulty level from beginning to end, even with the ostensible "boss" enemies.
When you're not in "fight" mode, only the party leader takes damage from enemy shots. It's easy enough to pause after every bit of damage and just have someone skilled in medicine cure wounds repeatedly until the party leader is at full health again. Thus, you could walk (albeit slowly) through a room of attackers, never fire a shot, and suffer no permanent consequences.
2. The Ancient Alien. King Hattabranx thought I had been sent by Baron von Gruber to assassinate him. He revealed contempt for his German allies and said that the "Worm Cult" would crush the German conspiracy. After I killed Hattabranx, I found a "worm cult key."

This was one of the places where I got stuck. I had no idea what to do next. I had to consult the LP to discover that the next step was to talk to a random wandering NPC in the city of Moab (on Mars), who provided me with a map to the Worm Cult's hideout in Boreo Syrtis (also on Mars).

Directions were vague. I had to do a lot of digging.
The Worm Cult turned out to be a bunch of lunatics--again, I ran past most of them while exploring the caverns--who worshipped an ancient alien named Kleuht Na Vriss. When I showed him that I had the Scrolls of the Ancients, he told me his story: he was a member of a race that inhabits Europa, Jupiter's moon. His people study human civilization, and he had lived on Earth for a couple hundred years. When he left to return to Europa, he crash-landed on the moon and befriended another cast-away, Professor Tereshkova. Eventually, he was abducted by Martian pirates, leaving his friend behind.

This game is fond of long monologues.
Kleuht Na Vriss suggested that we journey to Europa to learn the secret of his people. He suggested I start by seeking out Tereshkova on Luna.

3. Ship Improvements. Some bartender had told me that Thomas Edison had been kidnapped by some pirates aboard a ship called the Whisperdeath, and I noticed the ship hanging around when I went to leave Mars. As I said, there are no enemy ships in space, but there are enemy ships in the atmospheres between each planet and space, and you can engage in a primitive combat with them. The bottom of the screen shows your respective armor levels, and you can reduce the enemy's by hitting ENTER to fire top or bottom guns or by ramming the enemy.

Blasting an enemy ship in the atmosphere.
There's also the option to (l)ink with a damaged enemy and then (b)oard the ship. Naturally, this is what I wanted to do to rescue Thomas Edison, but the problem was I couldn't catch the Whisperdeath. It flew off at high speed the moment I approached. It soon became clear that Space 1889's equivalent of the $2 million "Jump 2" drive in MegaTraveller was a set of obscenely-expensive upgrades needed to improve my ship's speed and armaments. My ship had originally cost 2.4 million, and I ended up needing to spend something like 15 million to improve the engines and speed. This, in turn, meant running around to collect treasure and solve the side-quests that I'd been ignoring for most of the game.

I don't deal in "roughly."
At some point, I'd discovered that using lockpicks next to a chest causes it to open and dispense cash, so my first solution was to revisit all the castles, keeps, mansions, palaces, and museums and loot them. This got me around 1.5 million, and I solved some side-quests along the way that brought in another 2 million.

This cash allowed me to upgrade the ship a little, and from there I made most of the rest of the money by shooting down pirate vessels on the planets. There's an enemy vessel on every planet every time you take off, and destroying it is good for around 1.5 million in the party account. After seven or eight of those, I was all set.

Big rewards for a quick combat.
With a ship able to chase down the Whisperdeath, I linked and boarded it, ran past most of the guards (I had to kill two in front of a door), and found Thomas Edison. He gave me the rest of the clues needed to get to Europa: I would need a special propeller, special fuel (he suggested ammonia), and a huge "glow crystal" from Mercury that would be capable of storing the sun's rays.

I'll bet Tesla would have just given me some special "space coil" or something.
The propeller came from Professor Tereshkova on Luna. When I showed him the emerald, he was overjoyed that Kleuht Na Vriss was still alive and happily gave me the propeller from Kleuht's crashed vessel.

The ammonia came from mines in Mercury's only city, Princess Christiana. That left the glow crystal. A bartender suggested I could find one on the banks of the "world river" on Mercury, but no matter how long I traversed the banks, I didn't see anything. Finally, after consulting the LP again, I determined that the counter-intuitive solution was to walk along the banks hitting (t)ake until the game told me that I found something.

That was lucky.
With the three items in my possession, the game outfitted my flyer automatically. I was now able to fly past the asteroid belt and to Europa.

Alas, you hit an artificial barrier shortly after this. You cannot fly to Pluto.
4. The Endgame. On Europa, I found the ruins of a saurian civilization whose inhabitants had deserted the moon when it became unstable. Evidence suggested that they had moved to Earth, which turns out to be hollow. The notes indicated that the saurians conceal the entrance to the interior of Earth via a hologram at the North Pole.

I returned to Earth and found the entrance to a set of caverns in Greenland. I didn't have to dig for it or anything, but later I confirmed that the entrance is not there at the beginning of the game.

Entering the "city of Inner Earth."
A long and pointless maze followed. Within it, a bunch of saurians congratulated me on being the first human to discover their lair:

After a long period of navigation, I reached a spacious chamber in which a member of Kleuht Na Vriss's species greeted me, calling himself Eoger Luirv. He's clearly different from the saurians, but the game didn't seem to explain that.

The endgame text was quite long, and I won't reprint it all. Basically, he congratulated me, saying that he's been waiting a long time for some humans to solve the mystery. When we asked about the power and immortality promised us, he related that his species had been subtly (and, presumably, psychically) influencing key humans throughout history. Some of the "chosen" turned out to be Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Columbus, King Tut, Confucuius, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Eroica was clearly influenced by aliens.
He went on to name some of the young people on Earth that they were keeping an eye on, intending to influence with knowledge and inspiration, including Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Our reward was indeed immortality, but of a special type: we would leave the caverns and forget everything we'd found out, but we'd be gifted with perpetual reincarnation, and in each life, we would be "giants of our time."

Perhaps you will be a popular sports figure whose talent and charisma encourages an entire generation of youth. Maybe you will be a small black child, born in poverty, who emerges as a leader of equality and human rights. You might be a noted writer, whose work inspires and entertains mankind for generations to come, or possibly you will become a world leader whose integrity and compassion will save mankind from power-hungry madness and aggression. Your accomplishments will live on forever. Yes, my friend, you will be rewarded with the greatest gift of all. Your spiritual essence will remain immortal, influencing and shaping the destiny of the world for ages to come. You are our chosen people... you are the winners!
Before we could protest that we wanted actual immortality, a little tune played and we were back at the DOS prompt. The final message was a little depressing. There are no actual heroes of human history, just a bunch of individuals influenced by aliens.

At least one day, we'll get to be Michael Jordan, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. Space 1889 is a game in which you must earn the right to role-play a black character.
Thus, from King Tut's tomb to Atlantis to Mars to the Hollow Earth to spiritual immortality...Paragon didn't really leave much for the sequel, did it? Good thing there wasn't one.

The story wasn't bad, just a little overdone, but the game mechanics are poor and the limited character development means that it barely qualifies as an RPG. In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 5 points for the game world. The tabletop setting is highly original--kind of a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that beat the comic by a decade. It's rendered somewhat dull and lifeless in the CRPG version, but the the game still gets points for being the first steampunk-ish CRPG, and while the main plot more often than not strays to goofiness, it has enough original and fun ideas to make it work.
The party rows through the sands of Mars in a special boat.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The creation process is a lot of fun, but there's hardly any development during the game--just an occasional one-point skill bump (for a single character) for solving a side quest. At least half the skills appear to be useless.

I think "Bargaining" only affects how much money you need to bribe people.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. There are quite a lot of them, and interacting with them advances the game plot and imparts information and lore, but there are no dialogue options.
I'm surprised Jules Verne isn't considered the god of this universe.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. Foes are distinguished only between humans and animals, and you don't really ever have to fight the animals. Humans all behave the same way. There's no point to fighting. A few inventory-based puzzles are easy.
  • 2 points for combat. Boring, trite, tactically-bereft systems for both ground combat and space combat.
  • 4 points for equipment. A small selection of weapons and armor and a large selection of adventuring equipment that you mostly use to solve puzzles. The inventory does a decent job evoking the themes of the setting, with miner's helmets, lanterns, ropes, camping gear, and so forth, but the game loses points for not ever offering upgrades after the initial purchases. It gains a point for being one of the only CRPGs so far in my chronology with detailed item descriptions.

Mid-game, Julian is carrying a medical book, mail, a water-breather, dynamite, detonite, navigation equipment, some other book, and a German uniform.

  • 3 points for the economy. It's very badly-balanced. You have too much money for most of the game, except a brief period when you're trying to afford the first set of flyer upgrades.
  • 4 points for quests. The multi-staged main quest is okay, and the game gets credit for its many optional side quests. If they had been more than simple fetch-and-carry missions, this category would rate higher.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The sound is really bad, consisting mostly of a constant rat-a-tat as the party moves, annoying enough that I played the game mostly with the sound off. Graphics are okay, but hampered by some bad contrasts, particularly in the game text. The interface is functional enough.
  • 3 points for gameplay. The world is somewhat non-linear. After you have enough money to afford a flyer, you can visit the solar system at your leisure--it's just unclear why you'd want to do so. The plot, on the other hand, is extremely linear, non-replayable, and too long for the game's limited mechanics and content.
This gives us a final rating of 33, yet another 1990s game that hovers in the 30s, not quite crossing my "recommended" line. Paragon didn't create an awful game here, just a soulless one. Although you meet every major historical and literary figure of the period, the game never really evokes the spirit of Victorian science fiction or steampunk aesthetics. Moreover, with both Space and MegaTraveller, it doesn't feel like the developers bothered to do any research into the conventions of the genre. Most of their innovations create a worse gameplay experience than a boilerplate Gold Box title or Ultima clone.

Even in its time, ratings were mediocre. The best is an 87% from the January 1992 issue of CU Amiga. The author, Mat Regan, praised the setting but criticized the graphics and sound. "I wholeheartedly recommend it," he said, "for those searching for a game with an original concept and"--I am not making this next part up--"lashings of creamy playability and atmosphere."

The worst review came from the April 1991 German Power Play, which said that the "illogical and frantic" combat system "no longer corresponds to today's standards" and basically concludes the same way I do: the CRPG developers made a hash of a good tabletop RPG setting and system. Other reviews put it in the 50s-70s. Todd Threadgill's Computer Gaming World review criticizes the combat and wandering nature of the plot but praises the interface and setting.

I covered the history and future of Paragon in my final MegaTraveller posting. The company is going to have three chances to impress me in 1991, with MegaTraveller 2, Twilight: 2000, and X-Men II: The Fall of the Mutants (if indeed this one turns out to be an RPG), but I'm not holding out a lot of hope.

For now, we'll have a brief dip into Caverns of Zoarre (1984) before breaking my nearly year-long hiatus on Tunnels & Trolls. I'm still playing Quest for the Unicorn bit by bit, but I haven't quite amassed enough material for another posting.

One step closer to 1991!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Space 1889: Roleplaying Belloq

The five-member party bravely takes on the single member of a German archaeological team.

Space 1889 is turning into a giant treasure hunt in which one clue leads to another, and that one to another, ultimately to some distant goal that's left nebulous given that the party solves the instigating adventure within the first few hours.
When we last left the game, my party was in New York, which had an Army office, an inn, a pawn ship, a tavern, and a weapon shop. I found Hans Ogleby at the inn and gave him the "London Report." He told me that he was the wrong person to speak to, that Nathaniel Johanssan in San Francisco was the guy funding the expedition to King Tut's tomb. He suggested I speak to Johanssan to see if he would "permit me to join the excursion," which is not what I was after at all, but whatever. Ogleby gave me a letter of introduction to give to Johanssan.

In the Army office, I found a "Doctor Vincent Buembats," who offered to train me in medicine if I brought him a new doctor's bag. Since I had just purchased one from a pawn shop a few moments earlier, I gave it to him and was rewarded with a 1-point skill increase in medicine. This type of character development is probably all I can expect from the game, as you don't get any experience from combat or otherwise employing your skills.

Time to go to San Francisco! Let's check out the journey:

I just walked across the country in 10 seconds. Even in the game's internal clock, it only took 5 days to walk from New York to San Francisco. The entire North American continent is about 15 squares wide and consists of New York, San Francisco, Teotihuacan, and some random shops. At last, folks, we have a game that's less realistic in its geography than Ultima II.

San Francisco was indistinguishable from New York or London except that there were numerous entrances to caves. There, the game simulated the famous Gold Rush (of like four decades prior) by allowing me to interact with other miners (sample dialogue: "We don't need another gold-digger around here. Why don't you beat it?") and dig at random places on the floor for a cash reward.

Ah, the famous caves of San Francisco.
Nathaniel Johanssan said I was too late; he'd already funded the German expedition. But he gave me a map of the excavations and told me to head to Egypt.

Blowing open a wall with dynamite--the way real archaeologists do.
The "City of Egypt" contained a few buildings and an expanse of desert. At the far south of the desert, I found an entry into a tomb. I couldn't get very far into the tomb--just a couple of corridors--until it occurred to me to try using my dynamite on one of the walls. Even then, I kept blowing up my own characters with the dynamite, until I realized that a character with a high "Engineering" skill needed to be the one to set it off.

On the other side of the wall, I met some unhappy Germans.

I guess he's evil because he's a "henchman."
I had to kill about three of them in combat. Ultimately, one of them had a note indicating that we were in a "false tomb" and the real tomb was 14 paces south from "the Eye of the Desert." (Why were the Germans still in the false tomb, then?) Returning to the desert, I found a sand formation that could reasonably be called the "eye," walked 14 paces south, dug, and found the entrance to another tomb. (Given that there were people in it, why did I have to dig for it?)

What is this supposed to be? A hatch? A manhole cover?
Inside, I killed maybe 5 more Germans, including the leader of the expedition. Johanssan's map led me to dig at the location of a secret stairway to King Tut's real tomb.

There, I was rewarded with a pile of "King Tut's jewels" plus a stone tablet with a map of the solar system. This was a bit of a mystery.

Anyway, my party basically just ambushed and killed a legitimate archaeological expedition, blasted through ancient walls with dynamite, and stole priceless treasures that ought to be in a museum. We also stole a priceless mask from a museum and gave it to Heinrich Schliemann for $240,000. I don't think we're the good guys of this universe.

Heinrich, if you ever get to Troy, here's some advice: dynamite!

The treasure hunt continued. In Egypt, a woman named Mary needed a "fever serum" that I finally found at a doctor's office in London. She gave me a message to bring to Alfred Hobbs in New York. He, in turn, gave me a set of lockpicks that he had crafted to open a tomb in "one of the pyramids in Mexico." Off to Teotihuacan we went, where we solved a puzzle that would take longer to describe than it's worth in order to reveal the lost location of Atlantis, behind a wall that I needed to, you guessed it, blow open with dynamite. Yes, in this game, finding Atlantis is a small step in the main quest path.

My favorite part about this process was the "map of the Latin America shore." Unless I misunderstand the term, I'm pretty sure the "Latin America shore" includes both coasts of Mexico, Central America, and South America, not to mention several Caribbean islands. Of course, in this game, that's about seven tiles.
Preparing to blast a hole in a fairly obvious place.

It took me a while to figure out that we all needed to be equipped with "water-breathers" to reach Altantis. Once I arrived, I was greeted in the most boring manner possible by the Atlantians.

I can't understand a German without a bunch of gibberish on the screen, but ancient Atlantians speak perfect English.

Somewhere in Atlantis, I found the tomb of Captain Alonzo Quinton, one of the "five legendary Red Captains," who must be a big deal in the tabletop game setting but aren't mentioned at all in the manual for the CRPG.

That's a lot of decomposition for two months.

The tomb wasn't ancient: the Atlantians releated that Quinton had visited them just a couple of months ago, looking for "a set of sacred manuscripts written by our remote ancestors" that "existed long before Poseidon punished [the Atlantians] for their arrogance and betrayal." Unfortunately, the captain died when he was unable to survive in the highly-pressurized oxygen atmosphere of the city, something that didn't seem to bother my characters at all. Quinton's notes said that if he could find the scrolls, "the mystery in Angkor will be solved."

The Atlantian scrolls, recovered from Quinton's tomb, translated the stone tablet I had found with King Tut. The translation refers to Tutankhamen as "God King of the Stars, sent to rule Egypt by an immortal race of supreme beings whose kinship to the Earth and its people is everlasting." It went on to say that since his job on Earth was finished, his spirit could journey to the stars and "once again drink from the Fountain of Immortality and Ultimate Wisdom" or some nonsense.

You don't suppose that the Fountain of Immortality and Ultimate Wisdom is the main quest of the game, do you?

The Atlantians turned hostile on the way out--they wanted us to stay and teach them about Earth or something. After a few pointless battles (all battles are pointless with no experience or character leveling), I just started walking past them and managed to reach the exit alive. They shot at me, but it doesn't really matter, since healing is so trivial in the game. You just enter the "Cure" screen, select a character to perform the doctoring, and select the patient. Sometimes, the action doesn't restore the character to full health, but you can immediately do it again.

Off, then, to Angkor, where the scrolls translated the carvings on a stone altar: "For the valiant in mind, body, and spirit, the secrets of life, wisdom, and immortality lie hidden in the bowels of the sacred companion of the Red Cyclops." I don't know what that means, but red is generally associated with Mars, and I've already explored everything on Earth. I guess it's time for the game to live up to its title.

Translating a stone tablet in Angkor. If you were going to pick only 6 cities to exist on Earth in 1889, one would certainly be the capital of Cambodia.

During this process, it became clear, in a kind of ex post facto way, that perhaps my merciless slaughter of the German archaeological expedition was somewhat justified. According to one NPC, the Germans "are out to conquer the universe." Look, I'm all aboard with making the Nazis villains of films and games, but I'm not sure it makes sense to demonize "the Germans," especially in a game set in 1889. Granted, the Second Reich was a bit imperialistic, but so was almost every European power of the time.

The funny thing is that the setting has some natural villains. Reader BronzeBob wrote with some additional information about the Space 1889 setting, including that the Confederacy won the Civil War after Lincoln died of an illness in 1862, so slavery was never abolished. The game's villains could have easily been CSA expansionists looking to extend the slave system off-world.

Using the water-breather lets us walk on the water.

In content, Space 1889 feels much more like an adventure game than an RPG, and not a particularly good one. Only a few puzzles have required more than a moment's thought, and almost all of them have been solved with dynamite. So far, I've seen little need for the various skills that the game assigns to the characters, but maybe that will change when I finally get to space.

Time so far:  7 hours
Reload count: 2*
*Only 2, but one was a whopper. I had just blown open the wall to Atlantis and didn't realize that one of my characters had been caught and killed in the explosion (I guess "detonite" is a lot more powerful than dynamite). It was several saves later before I realized I was toting around a dead guy, and the only other saves I had were from before visiting Egypt. I ended up replaying a huge part of the game. That's why I finished up in Angkor at 308 days when some of the earlier shots from Teotihuacan show me in the 400s.