Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fantasyland 2041: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Does that mean Guinevere is real?! Or have I just carried a robot out of the park?
Fantasyland 2041
United States
Crystalware (developer and original publisher); Epyx (later publisher)
Released in 1981 for Apple II and Atari 800
Date Started: 9 October 2019
Date Finished: 19 October 2019
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)


Fantasyland 2041 is an epic adventure on non-epic hardware: a long, difficult game with primitive graphics and mechanics. Set in a Westworld-like future of holograms and animatronics, guests proceed through a series of adventure scenarios--Congoland, Arabian Adventure, King Arthur, Olympus, Captain Nemo, and Dante's Inferno--and back again. Along the way, they must find certain items to rescue Lancelot or Guinevere from hell. They must also manage food and inventory, fight hostile parties, and solve a few light inventory puzzles. The interface is top-down, which often conflicts mentally with what looks like first-person graphics. The game's scope and intent are admirable, but ultimately it's too annoying and boring for the graphics, sound, and mechanical complexity of the era.
The manual to Fantasyland 2041 takes pains to emphasize the length and difficulty of the adventure.
[Y[ou may conclude that it is impossible to ever finish or win this game. We had to make it pretty tough. The average adventurer will probably never see the Throne of Lucifer or make it past the gates to the Underworld. We hope that just the experience of a single adventure will be sufficiently entertaining to satisfy our most critical hobbyists.
I can sympathize. Players expected, as they do now, to get a certain amount of playing time out of a $40.00 purchase. Arcade games satisfied that time minimum by being repeatable, but for adventure games and RPGs, a lot of the mystery was gone after you won for the first time. Thus, the developer had to prolong that time. Eventually, they would do that with bigger worlds and more game detail, but those weren't options in the early years of the microcomputer. (Less because of technology and more because of a lack of innovative templates.) So instead, they prolonged the games by just making them hard. Permadeath was a common solution. Fantasyland goes a different direction by allowing you to save anywhere but almost always rolling the dice against you.

There's a seed of a good game in Fantasyland 2041, and part of me wishes John Bell had waited several years and then developed it under the influence of, say, the Ultima series. I would have liked to experience it with more complex commands, more thoughtful puzzles, interesting NPCs, and tactical combat. Instead, game design is as primitive as the world it inhabits, involving a lot of trial and error before the player learns enough to make a successful winning run.

As we covered in the first entry, exploring the land is a very linear process. The Hall of Heroes leads to Congoland, which leads to the Arabian Adventure, which leads to King Arthur. These first three lands are all quite similar.
  • Each one has individual enemies visible on-screen who chase you around the map and attack you. In Congoland, these are tigers and gorillas. In the Arabian Adventure, they're samurai. In King Arthur, they're Modred and the Black Knight.
I'm not sure I remember this part of Le Morte D'Arthur.
  • Each has packs of enemies who can attack randomly at any moment (while you're standing still or moving) but are not seen on-screen. Across the three lands, these progressed from headhunters and Zulu warriors to Turks and scorpions to knights and archers.
  • Each has physical features that are dangerous to bump into, running the risk of losing equipment or companions. These include swamps, logs, mountain crevices, fallen logs, and cliffs.
  • Each has random environmental effects (earthquakes, sandstorms) that have the same effect.
  • Each has treasure chests to find and loot, and villages where you can buy and sell goods and companions.
  • Each has a special spellcasting enemy--witch doctors, genies, and sorcerers--who are necessary to have in your party to "solve" the area.
  • Each culminates at a door to the next world, where you must use the magic of one of your spellcasters to progress.
Each land is made of blocks of roughly 8 x 8. It's tough to count exactly because the screens continually scroll. Each block can have a particular type of terrain. The manual organizes these blocks into named sections ("Jungles," "the Desert," "Baghdad," "Stonehenge") and gives you clues about what you need to accomplish there.

King Arthur's world changed the rules a bit by allowing parties of knights and archers to join you when you (G)reet them rather than attack. This sounds like a good idea, but the most difficult feature of the game is keeping all your companions fed. You can only carry a maximum of 255 of any item, including rations, and every companion eats a meal roughly two game minutes. If you somehow get 100 companions in your party, you have at most about five minutes before they start to starve to death. You can barely move between all the death notices and the need to constantly stop and drop equipment, so once characters start starving, it's basically a reload.
I don't remember why this was here.
Thus, resource issues discourage you from developing a large party, particularly since enemy parties just scale to your size anyway. However, the "individual" enemies on each map--Modred and the Black Knight on King Arthur's map--all have high strength and need a large party to successfully counter, particularly if you want to minimize the chance that they'll kill your spellcasters. Thus, you have to find the balance between logistical annoyance and combat effectiveness.

King Arthur's realm features a dragon's lair, with the dragon guarding the sword Excalibur. The dragon has 50,000 strength, which can only be countered by a very large party. To defeat the dragon, I hung out near his lair, let hundreds of companions join me, killed him, grabbed Excalibur, and then dropped the companions. Having Excalibur among my equipment made the rest of the game a lot easier.
Fighting a dragon to get Excalibur.
There's also a second artifact to find in King Arthur's territory: a Ring of Power. The manual makes a big deal about the importance of Rings of Power, but I only ever found two, and as far as I could tell, they just sat in my inventory. I never employed them. Also in King Arthur's realm: Holy Grails (plural!) show up in treasure chests and can be sold for a lot of money.

King Arthur's world culminates in Merlin's Labyrinth, another maze. Getting past Merlin involves using one of the magic items you've acquired from the witch doctor, sorcerer, or genie. Once he's gone, you can progress to Olympus.

I'll pause here to note that (U)sing items is one of the more annoying parts of the game. Every time you hit the command, you have to scroll through multiple inventory pages before you get to the place where you enter the item's number. Since the "B" key also scrolls through inventory, the developers should have had "U" just take you right to entering the number, in case you already remembered it. A lot of items, like scrolls, feel like they should be useable but are not.
Inventory eventually gets very unwieldy.
The Olympus level changes the rules. You begin at Olympus itself, a town where you can buy and sell goods. You must buy the ship Argos, which appears off the "coast" to the west. To get to the ship, you have to buy a longboat and (U)se it at the edge of the Olympus screen. Once you're on the Argos, you need a sail, an anchor, and oars to operate it. You have to (U)se the anchor to lift it, and after that you can either row with oars, which allows you to go any direction but consumes more food, or sail with the winds, which is a little harder to master.
Sailing away from Olympus.
The level is populated with numerous islands. I couldn't figure out how to land on the Isle of Delos to the west. A northwest island had the Cyclops, who carried 2,000 gold pieces. A northeast island had the sorceress Circe, who carried the second Ring of Power. Finally, an eastern island, Thera, had the portal to the next land. I should mention that we get the only complex sound on this level, with a cycling shhhhh suggesting waves.
The Argos waits offshore while the party picks up the Ring of Power from the slain Circe.
There was a lot of inventory shuffling because to enter Captain Nemo's world, you need a submarine, which you can purchase in Olympus, but it's enormously heavy, so you need people without equipment to bear the weight. Once you choose to enter the submarine, however, your companion and inventory maximums drop precipitously, and you have to jettison a lot of people and stuff.
Handling logistics for boarding the submarine.
Captain Nemo's world is all underwater, and running the submarine into any object causes it to fall apart. I think you can fix it with "spare parts," but I had neglected to purchase any of these, so any time I accidentally rammed into a coral reef, I had to reload. There are treasure chests that you can send divers with diving suits out to retrieve, but only at certain depths. I found the whole level frustrating and thus wasn't unhappy when I found Atlantis in the northwest corner and immediately transitioned to the final level.
I never figured out anything to do in the City of Eelmen.
Dante's Inferno takes place among brimstone pits and rows of demons who just stand there until you run into them, at which point they kill your companions. The City of Dis in the northwest is the first place to buy and sell equipment and companions since Olympus. Demons and Nosferatu attack as you explore, although I found that around a dozen knights plus Excalibur made short work of them.
At least they make me feel "welcome."
Rivers of fire funnel you to the north, where you have to use a plank (sold in Dis) to cross an abyss. Finally, in the northwest corner, you find Lancelot or Guinevere being guarded by Lucifer. As long as you have the two Rings of Power and a Signet Ring from Camelot (the manual warns you to buy it), he or she will come along with you immediately.
All I did was walk up to him. This felt anti-climactic.
At that point--much to my furor--you have to reverse your steps and make your way all the way back to the beginning, traversing each of the lands in reverse order. That took longer than it should have because I had gotten rid of a lot of the items needed for the ship and submarine, thinking I wouldn't need them again.

Returning to the entrance gives you a brief message that "You made it back with Guinevere" and then a "Final Score" screen that summarizes your wealth, experience, and time. The screen encouraged early players to send their disks to Crystalware for a chance to win $1000, with the winner chosen from the highest scorer to solve the game before 1 December 1981.
201 days?! How do people take that much time off work in the future?
One outstanding mystery concerns, well, "The Great Mystery." This is what the manual has to say about it:
To win the prize, you must solve the Great Mystery and beat out your competitors in treasure and courage . . . The mystery is unlike any of the others. It is not an anagram nor is it found anywhere on the disk in basic or machine language . . . At the end of the game, if you make it, you will be prompted to send your disk in if you wish to enter the contest. Do not try to make a copy to send in; it must be the original. At our plant, we have a huge score board, with a list of all the fantasylanders and their achievements. The person to solve the mystery and score the highest will be awarded a trophy and receive $1,000 in cash.
So there's supposedly some Great Mystery that you have to solve to win the prize--but it's not the same thing as winning the game by finding Lancelot or Guinevere, which you presumably have to do, too. More important, the instructions only mention sending in the disk. How will the developers know that someone has solved the Great Mystery, too? Is it somehow recorded on the disk? Did they assume players would know enough to include a separate note? What did they mean when they say the mystery "is unlike any of the others"? Any of the other what?

A re-read of the manual produces few clues. There are poems that suggest using the rings or perhaps scrolls on the "666" of King Solomon's Temple, but nothing I try works. Messages just tell me that those items are "already in use." I've inspected the disks, and I can't find any text related to a bigger mystery, but then again the manual itself warned me that wouldn't work.
Here's a scene from Dante's Inferno. I have no idea what's going on, or who that guy in the center is. Touching any of the figures around him causes your companions to die. Maybe this had something to do with the Great Mystery?
Fantasyland 2041 isn't much of an RPG. It lacks any character development (I don't think the "experience" statistic does anything for you during the game) or personal inventory, and combat is as simple as a game of War. I give it an 18 on the GIMLET, with the best scores (3s) in encounters and inventory. I still don't know the purpose of half the stuff you can pick up. I don't believe I ever used a rope, a shovel, a spotlight, citrus fruit (I assume it was there to stave off scurvy, but no one ever ate it), quinine, a compass, a magic carpet, a box of sand, mushrooms, a lute, squid ink, a wooden stake, or half a dozen other items that didn't seem to be weapons, armor, or treasure.

We also leave the game with some out-of-game mysteries as well. Why did John Bell announce in the manual that this would be his last great fantasy? What happened to him and Patricia Bell after 1982, when the last Crystalware title was published? How did it morph into Crystalware Defense and Nanotechnology of the 2010s, and what did Bell do in the meantime?

I've been exposed to three Crystalware games at this point, and all of them are similar in their interfaces, mechanics, and suggestions that something deeper is happening beneath the game's surface. I have four more on my list and will probably be a bit less forgiving about their statuses as RPGs under my rules. Nonetheless, it was fun to see another example of a developer who, in the area of five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks, dared to dream big.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Game 341: Shape Shifter (1992)

Shape Shifter
United States
Independently developed and released as shareware
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 17 October 2019
Date Finished: 18 October 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Some years ago, I modified my rules to allow myself to reject independent games "if they are clearly amateur efforts with no innovations or accolades attached to them." I have never invoked the rule. The problem with the rule is that it almost seems like there's at least one innovation to explore. It's only after several hours, when you've committed to the game (or else you'll have nothing else to publish), that you realize that you've been hoodwinked.

In the case of Shape Shifter, the element that sucked me in was right there in the title. You play a non-human character who can polymorph from a tiger to a snake to a mouse. The tiger, we learn, is strong and good at combat, but also slow and obvious, thus inviting more encounters. The snake avoids most combat, the mouse almost all of it. I figured the game would feature some interesting puzzles and encounters that relied on the ability to shape-shift.
The game opens with the player as a tiger.
The manual establishes the land as Vor Terra. Creatures of Chaos are invading the world via a rift in the space-time continuum. To face the threat, Lord Drelx Axtvqar created the Absomal Fxile, a council of the most intelligent (which, ironically, the manual repeatedly spells as "intellegent") creatures in the land. The Absomal Fxile sequestered itself in an impenetrable palace. "It is the goal of every living creature," the manual offers, "to one day join rule with the Absomal Fxile," whatever that means. To gain access to the palace, the character will need to significantly increase his knowledge and solve a variety of puzzles.
I explore another part of the world as a snake.
Character creation asks only for a name, after which the character begins in tiger form. Statistics are strength, knowledge, speed, and health. The numbers redistribute every time you change forms; for instance, the starting character has 55 strength and 25 speed as a tiger, 25 strength and 45 speed as a snake, and 20 strength and 55 speed as a mouse.
Checking my statistics on a city street.
As you explore the land, random encounters mess with your statistics. Angry gnats, chill winds, and snare traps sap your health. A "horrible darkness" decreases health and knowledge. The goddess Sona Luna might suddenly decide to increase your health and knowledge, or "friendly wicker people" might give you a boost to strength, speed, and knowledge. Two of the cities have temples to gods who alternately boost and decimate your statistics.
A random event costs some health.
There are also combat encounters, and here the developer shows something of Chuck Dougherty's (Questron) inventiveness with monster names--if Dougherty had endeavored to make them all unpronounceable. You face off against Illio Mucks, Nubliagg Frimuth Teroptts, MetzoBraums, Altzo Mafts, and Thraxiax Runners, among others. You and they do an amount of damage determined by your speed and strength. You get "credits" with every victory.
Combat is a rote exchange of blows with weird creatures.
The game takes place on 9 adventure screens arranged 3 x 3. The palace is in the far northwest. There are five other cities and towns to enter, each consisting of a single street of structures. Some of them are random buildings that you can search and talk to the residents. Others are more classic RPG facilities like taverns, healers, temples, and shops selling potions that temporarily increase strength and speed. There are no explicit weapons or armor in the game.

An all-keyboard interface works reasonably well, with arrows for movement and the occasional use of easy-to-remember commands like (E)nter, (I)nventory, and (U)se. The screen shows your available options in special circumstances.
Getting a clue from a tavern patron.
So far, none of this sounds too bad, but the game simply doesn't add up to anything interesting or enjoyable. The world is extremely small, and you can explore the 9 screens and 5 cities and towns in significantly less than an hour. There are no puzzles in these locations. You have to acquire an inventory of artifact items, but you simply find them on your first search of the houses in which they're secreted. (And in a bit of amateur programming, you keep finding them every time you search the houses, even if they're already in your inventory.) There are also clues to find, but you get them by simply hitting T)alk in obvious locations.
A magical ring just laying about in an abandoned house.
Worse, there's really no reason to use the titular shape-shifting ability. No puzzle or encounter requires you to be a particular animal. (I think there's one tavern where they don't talk to snakes, but that's it.) You might want to swap out of tiger form to avoid combat, but combat is how you earn money, and as long as you replenish hit points by paying for healing, combat isn't all that dangerous.

Over the course of the game, you learn that a key artifact--the Crystal Heart--is in a tower in the southwest part of the map. To enter the tower, you need three keys. Two of them are found in deterministic locations in cities, but the third appears as part of a random encounter in the wilderness, meaning you have to wander around until you get it. By then, you've probably assembled most of the other items and clues you need to solve the encounters in the palace. 
Only one thing to do in the "tower."
You encounter one odd issue in that once you achieve a certain speed threshold--around 25--you successfully avoid all encounters. The problem is that a few key items and clues only appear with random encounters, so you can character-develop yourself out of victory unless you get lucky and pray to a god who takes umbrage and busts you back below the speed threshold.
One of the keys needed for the tower only appears as a random encounter.
The hardest part of the game is finding the Fire Lizard's Bladder that you need to--uck--eat to immunize yourself to a poison mist that surrounds the palace. It only shows up in random encounters, possibly after a certain knowledge threshold, and I began to despair that I would ever find it. I finally got it after wandering and fighting for about an hour.

Part of the endgame sequence involves dealing with Earth Demons . . . 

. . . and crossing a "Rainbow Bridge."
The endgame takes place at the palace, where you have to use all your artifacts in sequence. You eat the bladder to escape the mists. You use the "silk wings" to get over the wall. You use the Ring of Flame to destroy some Earth Demons. You use an Amulet of Knowledge to safely cross a Rainbow Bridge. You appease a guardian by giving him the Crystal Heart. Finally, you speak five words of entrance at the door to the Absomal Fxile. All of these solutions are provided in very straightforward clues throughout the game.

It would be easy to make a typo on this final screen.
The final message tells you that you have achieved the honor of joining the Absomal Fxile, "the most prestigious council in the land." A final victory screen precedes the DOS prompt.
I can't decide if it sounds more like a weapon or a tumor.
With 1s and 2s across the board, Shape Shifter earns a 17 on the GIMLET. It's ultimately too trite and unchallenging, and it fails to live up to the promise of its premise. 

The game's author was Jeffrey P. Kintz of Waukegan, Illinois. (He goes by "J. Kintz" in all the documentation.) A 1999 biography indicates that Kintz was 19 when he wrote Shifter. He claims his primary inspirations as the Ultima series, Moebius (1985), and the adventure game Below the Root (1984), although it's hard to see the influence of any of them in his own work.

Shifter was his second game; his first was a horror-themed adventure game called Dismal Passages (1992) in which a protagonist tries to avenge his family's death by tracking down a wraith. Over the subsequent decade, he would churn out half a dozen games, including The Dark Convergence (1993) and its sequel (1994), Elkinloor (1995), a 1995 remake of Dismal Passages, Vor Terra (1996), Borderworld (1996), The Darkest Night (1997), Savage Future (1999), and Lost Infinity Part 1: Roquan's Farewell (2001). All of them except Vor Terra seem to be adventure games, although some of them are set in the same world as Shape Shifter. Enough feature non-human protagonists that it seems to have been something of a thing with Kintz, and in his bio he brags about the appearance of several of his games in a "Furry Video Game Database."
A shot from Dismal Passages, which appears to have no character creation.
He sometimes published under the label of Aries Software and sometimes Midlothian Software. Although there are signs that his games do get better, Kintz strikes me as one of those Ed-Woodish creators (see this entry for more on Wood and developers I associate with him) whose enthusiasm for making games far surpasses his skill. I tried to see what he's been up to in the last couple decades, but my search led me down some weird paths perhaps best left undiscussed in case I accidentally picked up the trail of the wrong Jeff Kintz.

Apparently, registering Shifter got players a free copy of a sequel called The Sun Demon in which the character faced the origin of the Creatures of Chaos. I was unable to find an extant copy.

If nothing else, an independent one-and-done is a good way to build some momentum after a long break. We'll continue with Fantasyland 2041 soon. For those of you wondering about The Magic Candle III, for some reason I was unable to muster any enthusiasm when I fired it up the other day. I figured I'd best table it for a while longer and play a few games that intrigue me more.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Game 340: Fantasyland 2041 (1981)

Fantasyland 2041
United States
Crystalware (developer and original publisher); Epyx (later publisher)
Released in 1981 for Apple II and Atari 800
Date Started: 9 October 2019
I had already passed through the 1980s at least twice before someone recorded Crystalware's catalogue on MobyGames. The company was so prolific that it's hard to believe that its absence on my blog went unremarked for so long. Between 1980 and 1982, the company--founded by John and Patty Bell--produced at least seven games with enough RPG elements to make my list, including the already-covered House of Usher (1980) and Beneath the Pyramids (1980). They may have produced the first Japanese RPG, with Dragon Lair (1982) appearing the same year as the better-known The Dragon & Princess.

Fantasyland 2041 (the manual tags the title with an A.D. but the title screen does not) is clearly meant to be the apogee of John Bell's contributions to the genre as an author if not as a publisher. He even writes in the manual that, "This will probably be the last great Fantasy that I write." The game combines themes from several mythologies and shipped on seven disks, which must have been some kind of record for 1981. It's too bad that Bell wasn't writing in a technological era that could better accommodate his ambitions.
The game had epic ambitions, but these were not epic platforms.
Thematically, Fantasyland combines elements from Disney World, the film Westworld (1973), and the television series Fantasy Island (1977-1984). It takes place in a giant live-action-role-playing theme park, presented as the natural future of Crystal Computing, although one which the owners ("John B." and his "pretty young Swedish wife, Patty") have been forced by "religious zealots" to set up in the Australian Outback. The entrance fee is $3 million.

The park consists of seven sections, each contained on its own diskette: the introductory Hall of Heroes, Congoland, Arabian Adventure, King Arthur, Olympus, Captain Nemo, and Dante's Inferno. The ostensible goal is to rescue Guinevere (if you're a male) or Lancelot (if you're female), but beneath everything is a Great Mystery, and Crystalware offered $1,000 to the first people to solve it, with separate awards going to Apple and Atari victors.

The game begins with your little character standing at the entrance to the Hall of Heroes, although it tries to have things both ways by presenting what looks like a first-person view but then having the character walk "up" past the doorway, past the roof, and past the screen text to enter the opening that goes to the "real" hall. The background continuously scrolls rather than presenting as discrete screens.
The game often suggests a first-person perspective even though the character walks around the screen from a top-down perspective.
The rooms beyond the entrance are full of objects and companions that you can buy for various amounts of money. (You start with 5,000 gold pieces.) In the first room alone, I was offered a diving suit, a diver, a horse, a Zulu warrior, a zombie, rations, a submarine called the Tari, fuel, a blowgun, a samurai, a cabin boy, an archer, a knight, a crossbow, and a tunic.
Maybe later.
The items and positions are randomized for each new game. After a few false starts, I learned that you want to purchase as many resources as you can, and as many companions as you need to carry them, in the Hall of Heroes. You continue to find treasure and to get opportunities to spend it later in the game. You have to make sure you buy plenty of rations, or you and your companions will immediately starve to death.
Some of my inventory after initial purchases.
I had expected the other lands to branch off the Hall of Heroes like spokes, but instead you explore them in a linear order, starting with Congoland. The area consists of around 12 screens of various terrain features, offered in the manual as "jungles," "mountains," and "swamps." As you explore, you can find treasure chests with gold or valuables (e.g., bone necklaces, emeralds, diamonds) that you can later sell. Mountainous areas feature crevices in which you can lose your equipment and companions, and swamps feature sinkholes that perform the same function. Occasionally, you have to have a particular item to progress; for instance, a plank or boat to cross a river or a lantern to see in a cavern.
Losing a gem in the mountains of Congoland.
Controls are even more basic than the previous Crystalware games. The joystick moves the party, and the only keyboard commands that you use often (at least in the starting area) are A)ttack and F)lee when encountered by enemy parties, P)ick up, D)rop, U)se, and T)rade.

You get attacked a lot as you explore, by area-appropriate enemies like tigers, gorillas, headhunters, and Zulu warriors. The character doesn't really fight in these battles, instead trusting in his army of companions. (If they all die, the character dies soon afterwards.) Their numbers plus their weapons and armor make up the army's combined strength, pitted each round against the enemies', with round-by-round losses on both sides fairly formulaic depending on the variances in strength. Victories don't really confer any benefit to the party except the opportunity to loot enemy equipment, so I think it's a good idea to flee from most battles. Overall, the combat system is rather underdeveloped. Coupled with the inventory system and the way certain items are needed in certain places, the game feels not unlike Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979).
My party squares off against some natives on the other side of a river.
One repeated encounter is with a "witch doctor," who will join you if you defeat him in the first round of battle. He comes with a shrunken head and earth magic, which you can use like an item of equipment. He can die in combat, but if he does, eventually another will approach you.

Eventually, you cross a river in the northeast (you may have to fight a pack of piranhas) and make your way to Kabunga Village. There, you can stop at the various huts to sell valuables and buy adventuring equipment and companions, including most of what you need in Congoland specifically. North of Kabunga Village is a "banana grove" where every tree offers some rations.
Trading in Kabunga Village.
In the far northeast corner is the entrance to King Solomon's mines, a maze for which you need a lantern or else you lose an item every few steps.
In case we catch malaria.
It took me several abandoned characters and hours before I understood the game enough to make it to the mines. The manual recommends that you "conquer the sorcerer of Congoland" before you enter the mines. I wasted a lot of time looking for him before I realized that's simply a fancy name for the witch doctor that you encounter repeatedly.

The mines contain the same sorts of treasure and encounters as the wilderness area. At the center, I found King Solomon's Temple with the spirit of Solomon blocking a door and the number "666" on the floor. Using the witch doctor's earth magic made the ghost disappear, allowing me to enter the chamber beyond and transition to Cathay, the opening village of Arabian Adventure.
The final screen of Congoland.
Before I continue, let's talk about the manual and the so-called Great Mystery. I think I explored Congoland comprehensively, and I didn't find anything with any text except for the "666," although there might have been more to find in Solomon's Mine. I suspect that solving the Great Mystery is going to have something to do with the manual and the stories it relates about six sample adventurers and their initial explorations of each land. The first section relates the story of "Tisha: Queen of the Jungle," who gets this riddle as she enters Congoland:
Northeast as the crow flies deep in the bowels of the earth
The treasures of Solomon, his Gods, his worth
10,000 wives and concubines to make a temple fair
A young lad who he deeply loved with long and flowing hair
Bagies burnt on hilltop fires, a nation plunges down
A thousand temples to Pagan Gods the King has lost the crown
A magic ring the demons shrink and on that ring a sign
The eater of heads a mystery is hidden in the rhyme
One two three four five six seven -- 666 or 777
22 clues from here to there--from the bottom neath the squid
To the Dragon's Lair
Other than the 666, which I found on the floor of Solomon's Temple, none of the imagery in the poem seems to correspond to the features in Congoland. There's a similar poem to go with "Thomas of Arabia's" adventures in the game's version of the middle east.

Arabian Adventure switches background and text color but otherwise plays much like Congoland. You can purchase goods and companions in Cathay and in the city of Baghdad to the far northwest. In between are treasure chests, sandstorms that make you lose inventory, oases where you can gather food, and a curiously large group of locked doors that you can unlock with keys found in the chests. Monsters include scorpions and "Turks."
Reaching Baghdad ends this level.
A couple of chests refer you to the manual to look up, for instance, "Treasure #5." This turns out to be a giant golden Buddha that I can't even begin to carry. The use of treasure numbers with manual descriptions was earliest seen in the Dunjonquest series, and it's possible that the Crystalware titles owe more to Dunjonquest than I have previously speculated.
Six giant golden Buddhas on the outskirts of Cathay.
You escape the Arabian Adventure via a door in Baghdad. It's blocked by a genie who only moves when you use the air magic of your own genie. The door leads the player to King Arthur's realm and the third adventure and game disk.
I suspect the "sorcerer" will end up playing the same role as the witch doctor and the genie.
I have a feeling it's not going to be too hard to simply whisk through all the levels, find Guinevere, and "win" the game, but without figuring out the Great Mystery. So I'm going to slow down and repeat the first two levels and see if I can pick up any more clues.

Fantasyland isn't really an RPG by my definitions. There's no character development and no "personal" inventory. Nonetheless, it's an intriguing quasi-RPG from the days before RPG standards, and I'm impressed by its ambitions even as I'm frustrated by its limitations.

Time so far: 3 hours

Friday, October 4, 2019

10 Reasons I'm Still Blogging About CRPGs After 10 Years

In case you're not already aware, the 10th anniversary of the CRPG Addict is coming up on 15 February 2020. Other than my marriage, which turns 21 this month, I can't think of anything that I've stuck with for 10 years. Since 2010, I've moved five times (it will soon be six), switched primary jobs three times, started and abandoned dozens of diet and exercise programs, made and lost several friends, and, if we're being honest, even tried to quit the blog once. Spoiler: it didn't work.

In recognition of my 10th anniversary, I've decided that for the next four months, I will periodically pen a special entry plumbing this project's past. I've written down several ideas but I would welcome more:
  • The 10 best comments ever received
  • 10 times I was very wrong
  • 10 great discoveries
  • The 10 most frustrating threads
But I'm starting today--mostly because I haven't done enough with Fantasyland 2041 to round out a full entry--with my list of 10 reasons I'm still pursuing this hopeless task to play all CRPGs.

10. Commentary on art is important.

In thinking about art, in analyzing it, in discussing it, we make it part of us; we make it live in a way that transcends the creator's pen or brush. One of the things I was "very wrong" about is when I agreed with Roger Ebert that video games are not art. At first I thought I was wrong because of a failure of definition: "art" is too complex a concept to be subjected to, to be generalized with, an "is." Now I think I was wrong just because I was wrong. You hardly have to twist the definition of "art" to make it encompass video games; you only have to abandon certain unfortunate prejudices. 

Perhaps the most important proof that video games are art is the level of critique that they provoke. Over the last 10 years, you and I have dissected hundreds of games and discussed how their plots, themes, mechanics, and artwork do and do not work, do and do not satisfy, on every level from aesthetic to socio-political. These are the same discussions that people have about paintings, books, films, and music.

I believe that there is incredible value to this commentary--not because either the art or the commentary is necessary to human existence, but precisely because it isn't. The measure of a great civilization must surely be how much time it devotes to unnecessary things. Oh, we certainly have some lingering problems, but what more testament do you need to our victories over hunger, disease, and violence than the existence of Keeping up with the Karashians, pet chiropractors, and a blog that spends decades chronicling every video game in a niche genre?
9. It's a nice contrast with reality.

To protect my anonymity, I don't discuss my "real" job on my blog. But suffice to say it's unlike playing computer role-playing games. It does not involve any art or entertainment, or the creation thereof, or the consumption thereof. It is worldly and necessary, about making existence sufferable rather than actually enjoyable. I'm not going to pretend that I play computer role-playing games as an antidote--I was addicted to them long before I had this job--but certainly this blog, in contrasting with the work I do during the rest of the day, fills my life with more variety than I would otherwise enjoy.

8. It makes me a better writer.

Communication skills are important in just about every profession and every walk of society. Because of this blog, I've written over 2 million words, the equivalent of about 5 door-stopper novels, in less than a decade. I've certainly put in the 10,000 hours that are supposed to make you an expert at something.
7. I learn things.
Once, I scoffed at the idea that RPGs actually taught you anything. But 10 years later, I find myself with a nascent ability to read German, much greater knowledge of the history and culture of Finland, a better understanding of classical mythology, and a large number of new technical skills. A lot of this learning, of course, has less to do with the games than with the discussions that we have on the blog, but this post is about why I'm still blogging, not just playing.
6. Maybe one day I'll work on an RPG.
The more I think about it, the more I think it would be fun to participate in the development of an actual game. I can't bring any technical skill to such an endeavor, but at least I can say that I have overall subject matter skill.
5. It's making me some pocket money.
This obviously isn't a major consideration because I only started my Patreon account this year. But thanks to my awesome supporters, I'm taking Irene to Chicago in a couple of weeks. This makes her feel a lot better about the time I spent on the blog.
4. It captures what might otherwise be forgotten.

In the last 10 years, we've uncovered and exhaustively explored many games that would have been utterly lost otherwise. I'm not the only one doing this, of course--Jimmy Maher and Matt Barton deserve particular accolades. But I like that I play a unique niche in this community by often being the only one to fully play a game from beginning to end.
3. I no longer feel like I'm wasting time playing CRPGs.
I used to beat myself up--a lot--for how much time I spent on computer role-playing games. I felt particularly bad about playing them to the exclusion of doing things with Irene. I haven't felt that way in a long time. The blog "legitimizes" my hobby in a way that I wouldn't have anticipated--not only because it's my blog but because it engages me in discussions with other fans of the genre. Prior to 2010, my CRPG addiction was a solitary, lonely, shameful experience. Post-2010, it is a community experience that adds value to a global understanding of this art form. What a change.
2. I really enjoy the discussions.

Early on, I thought that I would probably keep blogging even if I didn't have any commenters, just because I enjoyed the experience of blogging itself. Now, I'm not so sure. I think my blog would be missing something without all of the great comments that expand, supplement, and sometimes correct my own observations. I find myself looking forward to what certain commenters will have to say about certain aspects of a game, and I eagerly check in with comments a few hours after each posting.
1. I still think I can make it.

I don't know why I persist in this delusion. I can see for myself how many games lie both behind me and ahead of me on the "master list." And yet some part of me believes that I'll reject a lot of them, or that the process will go faster as they get more "playable," or that I'll somehow find a lot more time to spend on the project. Either way, my quest to be the One Man who has played all computer RPGs continues with Fantasyland 2041. Very soon.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Game 339: The Magic Candle III (1992)

The Magic Candle III
United States
Mindcraft Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 7 September 2019
It's something of a paradox that we take naturally to narrative material organized as trilogies--so much so that "trilogy" feels like a natural word, whereas the comparative terms for two and four installments sound clumsy and foreign in our mouths--and yet the third of something is usually the worst. It somehow feels tacked-on and perfunctory even though we all expected it. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule that no sequel outperforms the original--that is, plenty of Part 2s that are better than Part 1s. But in what series is the third the best of the lot? Arguably Lord of the Rings and then . . . I'll wait.

There are, on the other hand, plenty of examples to confirm the rule. Most people name The Return of the Jedi the least of the original Star Wars trilogy. And that's probably the most controversial of them. Following that is a long list of Part 3s for which no one would advocate: The Dark Knight Rises, The Godfather Part III, The Matrix Revolutions, Smokey and the Bandit 3, Heaven & Hell (the third part to North & South), and we could go on for ages. Note that the same rule doesn't always apply to the third installments of things that went on for a while longer (Ultima III, Might and Magic III, Fallout 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, A Storm of Swords), just things that were conceived as trilogies in the first place. Maybe it's a good thing that we seem unlikely to ever see the third Kingkiller Chronicle.
Dutch Elm Disease is rarely a setup for an epic adventure.
All this was on my mind as I began The Magic Candle III. I don't like to go into a game with a bias, but there were some ominous signs. Before I wrote a word about The Magic Candle, it was mentioned in 55 comment threads on other entries. Before I wrote about The Magic Candle II, it was mentioned in 22. Commenters have only brought up The Magic Candle III four times, none of them offering anything substantive about it. It is the only one of the trilogy not to have its own Wikipedia page. It also, unlike II, doesn't have its own subtitle, which always strikes me as the creators saying "#$@* it--here's another one," without any attempt to give the new installment its own character. A general sense of this game being "tacked on" pervades the introductory sequences. Where I thought the plot of II flowed naturally from I, III definitely feels less necessary. It depends, quite early, on lands and people that are remarkably close to the events of the first two games but mysteriously went unmentioned within them.

You'll remember that in The Magic Candle (1989), the protagonist and his (later retconned to "his or her") party of locals scoured the land of Deruvia to find the items and rituals necessary to renew the magic prison (a candle) of the demon Dreax. In ancient times, Dreax had come across the sea from Gurtex with an army of invaders, but he had been bound to the candle by a ritual created by the now-mostly-lost race of Eldens. After the party's success in the first game, King Rebnard of Deruvia decided he was sick of living in fear of the demon lords of Gurtex. He gathered his armies and took the fight to them, crossing the ocean and landing on Oshcrun Island--on the way, conquering the island of Maramon as told in The Keys to Maramon (1990).
A map of the "Solian Lands."
In The Magic Candle II (1991), the hero of either the first game or Maramon or both continued the effort by helping the invasion of Gurtex from Oshcrun. At first just interested in discovering the fate of the "four and forty" guardians of the original candle, the party ended up rescuing Prince Jemil, Rebnard's son, from the clutches of the demon Zakhad. While the demon himself was immortal, Jemil was able to send him "far, far away" using a magic orb. (The plot ended up getting pretty ridiculous by the end, which you can see in my entry on winning that game.)

The third installment picks up four years after The Four and Forty. Despite some lines from the second game saying "Zakhad's pall of darkness has departed from Gurtex completely," Rebnard is apparently still trying to subdue the continent. My character, Gia, is back in Telermain, on Oshcrun Island, protecting Queen Alishia and Prince Jemil. A "strange blight" has begun to affect the forest, and the queen asks Gia to go investigate.
The queen kicks off the quest.
The import process works very well, almost too well. "Gia" came through from The Magic Candle II with none of her attributes or skills reduced. Her average attribute is 9.4 versus 6.8 for a newly-created character. She comes with magic weapons and armor, plus 1000 coins instead of a new character's 500. She has practically a full set of spellbooks. More important, many of her skills are already maxed or near-maxed, including 99/99 for "Sword," 70/80 for "Archery," 87/99 for "Researching," and 50/99 for "Leadership." Later, after they joined my party, I discovered that other NPCs who were still with me at the end of II also retained their equipment, attributes, and skills.
None of Gia's skills were diminished by the intervening years.
The game opening gives you the option to pick 3 of 8 potential volunteers. I was in the midst of evaluating their strengths and weaknesses when, I don't know, I hit the wrong key or something and ended up with Silva, Kark, and Bollo by default. I decided to just roll with it.

We started in the middle of a dark, twisty forest, with a skeleton on the ground in front of us. As we began to move around, one major change from the previous two games became clear: the Magic Candle III party happily takes itself out of formation to get around obstacles and to conform to narrow passages, instead of requiring the player to micro-manage the formation to, for instance, make the lead character poke out one square so he can search a 1 x 1 area. To be fair, The Magic Candle II managed to make something of a game of the formations, requiring the player at various points to figure out the most convoluted formation necessary for navigating a trap-filled hallway. Still, I'm glad to be done with it.

As we walked along the path, we were ambushed by a group of "Blightmolds" and "Blightworms." An orc named Garz stepped out of the trees to join the party's attack against the creatures.
The combat screen.
Combat takes place on the same tactical, turn-based screen as the previous games, with each character getting a certain number of actions dependent on his or her movement points. Combat seems a bit more streamlined here, and more in the Ultima VI mold. There's no pre-combat round, no positioning of characters, and less distinction between the exploration environment and the combat environment. Then again, I might just be noting the distinction between wilderness combat and "room" combat in the last game. I'd have to fight a few battles to check. I'll have more on combat details later.

The battle was pretty easy. At its conclusion, "Garz" introduced himself more properly as Garzbondgur, Crown Prince of Kabelo. He said that his land has been affected badly by the same blight, and that he came to Oshcrun to ask for my assistance. Just as I was wondering where "Kabelo" was, he continued that his father had forbade the trip, as the people of the "Solian Lands" don't normally trust "northern folk." I don't know if any previous Magic Candle had addressed these "Solian Lands," but I don't think so. It's the first major crack--the idea that a large collection of landmasses could lie south of Oshcrun and have gone unmentioned in the previous game.
A suitably orcish-looking orc.
Garz remained a member of the party as we continued on. (For some reason, the game asks me to explicitly confirm that I want to include him when I distribute things to the party.) We met some more worms in a battle that left three characters poisoned, so I had to look up what mushroom cures poison (Loka). Fortunately, the game started me with a few of them, as well as a few memorized "Healing" spells. A third battle gave us "Blightboars" as well as molds and worms.

Pretty soon, we were out of the forest and on to the Oshcrun overworld map. Nearby were Oshcrun Castle and the city of Telermain.
Between the castle and the city.
I entered the castle first. Instead of the sprawling, multi-storied structure that I could explore on my last trip, for this game (or, at least, this trip), I was confined to the throne room. There, I had a lot of trouble distinguishing people from furniture. The conversation proceeded much as in previous games, through the "Greet" and "Talk" commands. As usual, the game offers some stock selections while allowing the ability for the player to type in a keyword to ask about a specific subject or person.
Stop being so dramatic, Carl. It's called "jock itch."
Almost immediately, a servant said that, "There is talk of Blightlords, fierce, deadly, and ruthless creatures, emerging as the new rulers of the lands down south," thus providing me with more intelligence than the entire backstory and summary of the problem given by Queen Alishia.

A notepad stores all of your major observations and conversations, and it's been significantly improved. It no longer erases when you quit and restart the game; it lets you add pages to type your own notes; and it has a "Search" feature. This might be the first game where you can do all your documentation in-game.
The throne room. Jemil is as helpful as ever.
Two companions joined my party in the throne room, replacing two of the rank amateurs who had accompanied me to the forest. (I assume you can keep them if you want, but their skills are in the single digits.) Rimfiztrik the Wizard and Sakar the Dwarf I remember well from previous games. A third potential companion named Marsa offered to join, claiming to be skilled in the martial arts, but she's a hireling who you have to keep happy with gold, so I declined to take her. In inviting himself to join the party, Sakar noted that the Solian lands are dangerous and I'd need a good fighter at my side. I guess everyone in this game knows where I'm going but me.

In contrast to the castle, Oshcrun was as large and complex as I remembered it, with numerous NPCs and shops, and their availability changing depending on the time of day. I think they may have kept the same map from The Magic Candle II; at least, most things were where I remembered them. I stocked everyone up on food and bought some mushrooms and potions. I'm a little annoyed that the third edition still hasn't fixed the pooling/distribution problem. (Since no character can pool more than 99 of most things, there's no way to evenly distribute all of a particular resource once you earn above 99 of them.) It would have been nice if the developers had regarded food, mushrooms, and gold as party resources rather than individual resources.
Buying individual food in the shop.
As with the first two games, there are locked houses at which you can knock at the door, but you have to have some clue as to the occupant's name. There are trainers and tradesmen where you can ditch party members to learn or work for a wage. I soon found Eneri, my hero from Maramon, in the Eastern Breeze tavern, so I ditched the novice Kark b'Dang at the metalsmith, as he had some skill in that area, to make money for us to take later. This always feels a little mean.
For some reason, the Maramon character appears as "Ralle" until he or she joins the team.
I saved selling my gems and purchasing any weapons or armor for later, deciding to explore the rest of the island first. I soon remembered how quickly stamina runs out in the wilderness. You basically have to have everyone chew Sermin mushrooms every dozen steps or so. What particularly sucks is that energy depletes at inconsistent rates for the characters, so that when some of them get to 0 others are still in the 60s. But unless you want to micromanage levels for each character, you just have everyone eat at once, wasting a lot of potential energy.

I found the stronghold on Oshcrun (places where you can rest safely and send party members), and then a "brick building" with a much more elaborate teleportal than I remember from the previous games, and then finally the little halfling town of Ketrop. A mayoral election was underway between candidates named Miko and Punnik, but that didn't develop into anything. I replaced Silva with a more experienced halfling named Tuff; he seemed to remember Gia, though I don't remember him from the previous game.
The teleportal chambers look more high-tech than before.
I considered dithering around Oshcrun longer, selling excess items, buying more mushrooms, perhaps gambling a bit, getting better armor for some of my characters--but I decided screw it, the new islands will have those services (probably), and I might as well get to it. (I assume I can return to Oshcrun at any time, too.) Thus, I hired North Star, a ship parked near Telermain, from Captain Turgut, and we sailed south. Actually, I tried sailing east to Gurtex first, but the captain told me it was "unsafe to sail in that direction."
Making landfall on a strange, southern shore.
We soon made landfall on a large island. The journey was quick enough that it defies logic that these "Solian Islands" are being mentioned here for the first time. The island turned out to be the island of Kabelo on the game map. This is Garz's kingdom, and indeed as soon as I entered the first city I saw on the island, Garz welcomed us to Urkabel.
Garz jumps the gun (apparently) in welcoming us to his home city.
I think I'll leave off there for my first session. So far, it's been a pleasant game, but with all the weaknesses of the Magic Candle II engine in addition to the strengths. I should have a stronger opinion after a few hours of combat and dungeon exploration.

Time so far: 4 hours