|Becoming the bearer of the Ring of Darkness doesn't exactly feel like "winning."|
The Ring of Darkness
Wintersoft (developer and publisher)
Date Started: 19 July 2014
Date Ended: 22 July 2014
Date Ended: 22 July 2014
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I ended the last post wondering whether Ring of Darkness had an original bone in its body. It turns out that it really doesn't. It lifted almost everything from Ultima, including the basic plot outline, the names of most of its monsters, the types of equipment, and just its overall ideas of how such a game should work. It is an RPG made by people who seem to have played only one other RPG, and didn't realize that its quirks were specific to that game, and not universal conventions of the genre.
Ring of Darkness takes place in four main chapters, all of which have direct mirrors in Ultima. In the first, you're just trying to get your character competent, stocked with food, and capable of withstanding more than a few minutes in the wilderness. In the second, you do a series of quests for regional kings, some involving visiting signposts and similar special locations, some involving killing specific monsters in the dungeons. Four of the kings reward you with rings of silver, bronze, gold, and copper--direct analogs of the colored gems you receive from the Ultima kings.
Ultimately--and I found this out only through trial and error--you have to descend to the 10th level of one of the dungeons and slay a "gorn," at which point your class changes to "gorn-slayer"--this game's analog to achieving the "space ace" credential in Ultima. In the third act, just as in Ultima, you kill the hapless jester for his key, slay all the guards that attack you in consequence, and rescue Princess Xandra from her cell. (Just like in Ultima, the same princess is present in all cities.) Instead of giving you a time machine, she directs you to a special dungeon called "Xandra's Quest."
|Leading Princess Xandra out of her cell.|
There, where Ultima had you battle Mondain, losing almost all your hit points, before you could approach his gem, Ring of Darkness has you battle "Gron," a servant of the "Evil One," before you can get past him and take Shedir, the One Ring.
I teach classes for a couple of universities, and I often catch my students plagiarizing from their sources by copying text directly but using a thesaurus to change a few words here and there to avoid exact phrase-matching in Google or TurnItIn. This game does something similar with its monster list. Ultima's gelatinous cube becomes a "jelly cube"; an invisible seeker becomes and "invisible slayer" (with a separate "seeker" monster type, no less); a balron becomes a balrog and a zorn a "gorn." But the developers didn't even bother to find alternate names for some of the others, like the "tangler" and the gremlin who steals a bunch of your food with each successful attack.
Aside from its blatant plagiarism, Ring of Darkness does do its job by serving a basic, primal CRPG need: fight monsters, improve the character, amass gold, buy better equipment, fight more monsters. As you increase in levels, better equipment becomes available at shops. (I can't remember if Ultima did this, or if the equipment was entirely dependent on geography and gold.) Again, just like in Ultima, the best armor was a "reflection suit" and the best weapon was a "blaster," though we went past a "light sword" on the way. In transportation terms, a high level results in the ability to buy a "hovercraft," although Ring of Darkness's doesn't come with lasers.
Let's look at a few quirks specific to this game:
- The entire game has exactly one dungeon level map. The 24 x 19 map is used for all levels of all dungeons. The locations of secret doors and traps remain unchanged. The only things that change are the locations of up and down ladders and randomly-placed barriers.
|The only dungeon map you'll ever need.|
- The game offers some additional spells that Ultima doesn't have, and without exception I never found a single use for them. This includes "Bridge," "Remove," and "Create." Since spells only work in dungeons, I cannot for the life of me figure out what "Bridge" would have done. Throughout the game, I only used "Up Ladder" and "Down Ladder" to make dungeon navigation easier.
- Some enemies, including all sea creatures and "hidden archers," can only be damaged by ranged weapons, which you don't get until you reach Level 4.
- Wilderness encounters are useless throughout the entire game. In the early stages, they're too deadly; in the latter ones, they take up too much time for too little reward. The game has a moronically simple method for determining how many enemies you face in each "stack"--either once, twice, or three times your current level. When I hit Level 10, I would either meet 1, 20, or 30 "evil rangers" in a single stack. Spending 30 moves killing an entire stack one-by-one would have been an absurd waste of time, and you spend most of the game brushing by wilderness encounters like annoying gnats.
|Taking time to kill 13 bandits is more trouble than it's worth.|
- Trying to open a chest in a dungeon (they start to show up on Level 2) has a chance of generating a monster appropriate to the level.
- The "transport" shops in towns, which are oddly labeled "smith," offer an option for selling equipment but then bark at you that they don't buy second-hand mules and such. Why offer it, then?
Throughout the entire game, despite using it everywhere I could think of, I found no function for the (S)teal command.
I spent an insane amount of time on the game. For a while, I couldn't figure out how to get to some key locations I could see on the other sides of mountains (it turns out you have to buy a hovercraft and fly it down a particular river pass). In desperation, I actually tried mapping the game. Have you ever tried mapping a tile-based iconographic game? I discovered it was something like 84 x 110 in size, but I kept missing tiles and screwing up the proportions, so eventually I abandoned it.
|A partial, but mistake-ridden, world map.|
Character development throughout the game is mostly through the accumulation of hit points. In the last post, I said that delving dungeons rarely rewards you with more hit points than you lose fighting monsters. This is true in the early game, but as you get better equipment, you can often come out ahead. This is good, because you can only spend a maximum of 50 gold pieces per transaction with the kings, netting you 125 hit points each, or about one-fifth of the amount of damage done in a single attack by a balrog. It really is extremely annoying to stand in front of the king and type (T)ransact, (G)old, and "50" hundreds of times in a row.
|Hit points are awarded upon leaving dungeons based on the number and level of enemies you killed.|
Eventually, you get to the point where you get tens of thousands of hit points (from a starting 250) and can delve to the bottoms of dungeons and shrug off attacks from balrogs, gorns, and other fearsome creatures, including a "mind whipper" who does direct and (as far as I can tell) irrecoverable damage to your intelligence.
As I said, the game comes to an end after you perform the quests for the four kings that give you rings, descend to Level 10 of any of the dungeons and kill a gorn, thus becoming a "gorn slayer," and then rescue the princess from one of the castles. She tells you to go to the special dungeon, Xandra's Quest. Earlier in the game, this is just a regular dungeon, but if you visit after hearing from the princess, you get a special cut screen where you unlock it with the four rings. This is a direct parallel to a screen in Ultima where you put the four gems into the time machine.
You then get a bit of text:
Five hundred years ago the Evil Sage called forth the Darkling Ring. T'was then the Wizards forged the Four to seal it from the minds of men. Five hundred years has darkness slept in is tomb of stone. Yet now strange forces come to play . . . and SHEDIR stirs again.You must enter the Gate of Mist. A sense of evil and foreboding surrounds you. Then the mists begin to clear . . .
You're taken to a chamber with the ring on a pedestal on the far side. An evil minion of the Dark One called Gron leaps to his feet and intercepts you as you try to reach it.
|Mondain tries to stop me from reaching his gem.|
Gron is a tough customer. At the beginning of the battle, he does over 1,000 hit points damage per hit and you do less than 100 to him. Spells only make him stronger, so you need to fight in melee combat. As the battle wears on--dozens of (A)ttacks--the ratios slowly even out, then reverse, and finally he falls to the ground , and the game says, "Gron is DEAD!! Or is he??"
Well, of course he isn't. He springs back to life immediately, and you have to kill him again. You have to kill him about eight times before he stays down long enough for you to maneuver around him to the ring and (G)et it.
Even then, the game isn't done screwing with you. You get a message that "AHHHHG! It's HOT!" and half your remaining hit points burn away. This happens several times before, just when you're on the brink of death, the game allows you to take the ring and the end-game screens appear.
The penultimate screen has you telepathically contacted by the "people of Ringworld" who charge you with returning the ring to their planet "from whence it was taken by the Evil One," promising that this story will be told in Ring of Darkness Part 2. This game was made in 1984; it's titled Return of the Ring, and it wasn't on my master list until now. Judging from screenshots, it's a text adventure rather than an Ultima-style RPG, but I'll check it out to see if it has RPG elements.
|In its last act, the game manages to draw from Tolkien and Larry Niven as well as Richard Garriott.|
As I mentioned in my first post, if I was a young RPG player in the U.K. in the early 1980s, computer stores bereft of any offerings for my platforms, I would have greeted Ring of Darkness like the holy grail. Even in 2014, aside from occasional moments in which my mouth was agape at its blatant thefts from Richard Garriott, I didn't hate it. It offers just enough character development to give you an occasional shot in the arm, and by not making you go into outer space and fight TIE fighters (I assume the developers didn't know how to program it or couldn't fit it), it actually has a more sensible plot than Ultima. In a GIMLET, I give it:
- 3 points for a bare-bones game world.
- 3 points for a character creation and development process that offers a few options and does make your character feel notably stronger as time passes, though the different "classes" don't seem to have any point (again, something it shares with Ultima).
|My main character, late in the game. Some kind of mind flayer has irreversibly drained my intelligence.|
- 1 point for extremely limited NPC interaction with kings, the jester, and the princess.
- 2 points for encounters and foes. The various creatures, most stolen from Ultima, are distinguishable mostly by how hard they hit. Some of them have special attacks: jelly cubes dissolve armor, gremlins steal food, and mind reapers drain intelligence.
- 2 points for magic and combat. The "purchased spells" magic system is nothing new, and combat offers few tactics, though once you have a ranged weapon, you can try to use chests and pits to your advantage, as enemies won't cross either.
|Keeping an object or pit between you and the enemy is really the only "tactic." Unfortunately, there aren't many such objects.|
- 2 points for equipment, including transportation options.
- 3 points for an economy that's vital in the first third, but you soon amass much more gold than you need. Having the king only accept donations in 50-gold-piece increments really puts a damper on what you can do with 20,000 gold pieces.
- 3 points for having a main quest with steps the player (in part) has to puzzle out.
|Solving part of the main quest by killing a jelly cube.|
- 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The sound actually isn't bad for 1982, the graphics serviceable. The keyboard mostly makes sense except for the QWOP movement keys, though I got used to them surprisingly fast.
- 4 points for gameplay, which is open, mostly non-linear, challenging without being too frustrating, and over before long. I wouldn't call it "replayable" in any way.
That gives us a final score of 24, not bad at all for the year, though still under-performing Ultima by 10 points.
|At no time in the game does this happen.|
Do I subtract points for being such an obvious (but unlicensed) copy of Ultima? I guess not. I've never docked points for such a reason. I'm just a little surprised that no other reviewer has noted it. Dragon 32 and ZX Spectrum reviews of the time were generally positive (links to samples) but don't say a word about Ultima; in fact, the only suggestion I've found that anyone noticed the connection is an incredulous Reddit poster. I suppose the easy answer is that Ultima didn't make it to European PCs until long after Ring of Darkness was published, and the game just never gained enough traction for anyone to remember it years later.
There was some discussion on my last post about whether the developers directly copied the Ultima source code. Without knowing much about programming, and how the code might translate from the Apple II to the Dragon 32, my guess is they didn't. I'm certain they played it. I suspect they had or had access to an Apple II and continually referenced the game as they developed Ring of Darkness. But I also suspect they wrote their own code rather than directly copy Ultima's. Things work just differently enough in Rings to suggest they were working around things they didn't otherwise know how to program.
Since I've tossed around words like "ripoff" and "copy" and "plagiarism," though, I want to make it clear that we don't really know what happened. This is still in the Dark Ages of RPGs. For all we know, Humphreys and Briskham got permission from Richard Garriott to use Ultima. Perhaps they licensed the "look and feel," just like Questron would famously do in 1984. The developers certainly did something unimaginative, but unless we hear from either them or Garriott, we don't know whether they committed a tort.
Wintersoft was located in Enfield, Middlesex, founded by John F. Humphreys and David A. Briskham, both credited as the developers of Ring of Darkness. I can only find evidence of four games from the company: Ring of Darkness (1982), Return of the Ring (1984), Operation Gremlin (1984), and Juxtaposition: Barons of Ceti V (1985). MobyGames doesn't have any of them. Judging by screenshots, it's possible that all of the latter three are pure text adventures, which makes Ring of Darkness the odd one out.
I made an effort to locate both Humphreys and Briskham, but their names are more common than you might expect, and I couldn't trace any of the potential matches back to Wintersoft. It's probably for the best: it would have been an uncomfortable conversation.
Let's see if we can finish Quest for Glory II and a couple others before the end of the month.