Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Game 193: Antares (1991)

"Reaching for the Stars" is the subtitle translation.

As I noted in my review of 1990, we're beginning to see a lot more RPGs coming out of Germany, including Rings of Medusa (which I rejected as an RPG), Legend of Faerghail, and Dragonflight. In 1991 and 1992, we see Antares, Spirit of Adventure, Amberstar, and Realms of Arkania. I look forward to seeing if any themes develop that are peculiar to the sub-genre.

I had trouble with the "Dein Raumschiff von einer unbekannten Raumstation in Brand geschossen" part.
Antares is unique among these games in that it was released only in German, giving me a chance to learn a little of a language I otherwise have almost no exposure to. Just from the opening paragraph, I have a greater appreciation for how German forms compound words for concepts that we'd be more likely to express in two words or hyphenated words in English. (Although English, of course, forms compound words much more readily than Spanish or French.) Here's my translation:

In 2280, Earth launched the first interstellar spaceship, the Hope, to explore new habitats for humanity. When Hope broke off contact 34 years ago, all energy was put into a second mission. Aboard the Auriga, you have traveled to the Antares system, responding to an automated distress call Two minutes after arrival, your spaceship is on fire [might have missed something here]. Only 12 people in your crew manage to escape in a landing craft, about 80 meters east of the emergency coordinates...

You don't get to create characters (something Antares shares with Dragonflight; will this become a feature of GRPGs?); instead, you select your party of 5 from 12 pre-defined characters among your besatzungsmitglieder ("crew members"). There are slots for 6 characters in the party, but the game would only let me pick 5. If I've translated their "classes" correctly, the choices seem to be man, woman, android, language robot, combat robot, specter, mutant, and midget. Each is given a default name from a popular sci-fi novel or movie: Blade Runner, Petra, Highlander (appears twice), Marvin, Wanderer, Ford Prefect, ES, Xenia, Dao-Lin, Terminator, and Luke Skywalker.

Choosing a party from among the surviving crew.

Each character has a different balance in attributes (power, luck, IQ, skill, and creativity) and skills (fighting, technical, medicine, language, psi, and cooking). I assume the idea is to get a balanced crew, so I picked six individuals who complemented each other. I wanted to give them my own names. Casting about for a theme, I found a 2004 German film named Antares. The first character I went to rename was Petra (from Ender's Game, presumably). I went to the lead actress in the film and found out that she's named...Petra. Weird coincidence, but I went with the character name ("Eva") instead. A few clicks later, and I went to rename the android from "Xenia," and I found that the next actor on the film's list was named...Xenia. Did the filmmakers play this game or something?

Renaming "Terminator."

Once you select the party, the game loads, and you find yourself on your crashed landing vehicle, with options (revealed by "help") to use items, translate, cook, heal, see the time and date, check your location, sleep, and identify a device.

Leaving the craft puts you facing west in an area (or on a planet) called Lauree or maybe Kyrion, the landscape dotted with pits and trenches:

As I wandered around, I kept getting confronted by alien creatures. When this happens, your options are "fight," "flee," and beraten, which I translate as "advise." This latter option transitions you to a screen where the options seem to be "think about opponents" (uber Gegner nachdenken) and "negotiate/bribe." The former one here seems to assess your own characters' chances against the foes.

"Martina is the type never to come close?"

Anyway, if you choose to fight, each character has the options to attack, use an item, use psi power, defend, cook, or heal. I suspect I'm translating "cook" wrong here, but I'm not really sure what it means in the context of combat. Once you line up the attacks, they execute in order, with text describing the scene faster than I can translate.

I assume I'll learn to look for keywords here.
If you defeat the enemies, you predictably get experience and gold, but also the options to pick up...well, I guess food. The options below seem to translate to "rib bones," "sand asparagus," and "biospaltar ragout." Food does play a role in the game, so maybe this is how you acquire it.

Yum...biospaltar ragout.

The game does something interesting with the little pits and trenches scattered across the overworld map. I've never seen anything quite like it. At various points, marked by patches of dirt, you can descend into the trenches, which open up into larger areas full of houses and shops, kind of like the streets of Skara Brae.

The entrance to a food store. I believe the text translates to "Alas, Kyrioners appreciate their free time---CLOSED!"
It was in one of the trench homes that I found a man who introduced himself as Kirk Hammett (nice reference), a former pilot of the Hope spacecraft. He related that the Hope had also been shot down, 34 years ago, and that the crew had scattered throughout the area looking for information. Few returned. He suggested that I consult with his colleague, Marek Dvorak, about the planet and its inhabitants while he spread word of my arrival.

There were like 10 pages of this. It took a while.

So far, the game feels slightly Bard's Tale-influenced, at least where it comes to combat and navigation. I haven't figured out the inventory system yet. None of the characters seem to be equipped with anything that sounds like weapons.

The android has something called "electerium," plaster(?) and a Disk-Man?
This brings me to a major problem: I can't find any documentation for the game. Searching for keywords in the command list, inventory lists, or monsters hasn't produced anything; the best I can hope for is that there's a non-OCR'd PDF version out there somewhere. Because of this, rather than the language issue, I'm confused as to a lot of aspects of the game and interface. For instance, I don't know what all the meters below the character icons represent, nor the two meters in the lower-right. I don't quite understand how sleeping works, or healing. This is a tough enough game given the language barrier; it's going to be even tougher if I have to figure out every element of the interface and game mechanics without documentation.

There also aren't any walkthroughs, videos, hint files, or fan pages to assist. (At least, if they exist, they avoid mentioning Kirk Hammet or any of the game's monsters.) As such, it appears to be an obscure game even by German standards. It's the only title that I can find from its developer (Nightmare Productions) and designers (Michael Wyler, Kjell Marc Droz, and Olivier Schraner). I'm not even sure I'm playing it in the right year. MobyGames says 1991, but other sites have it in 1990, 1989, or even 1988.

However far I'm able to get with the game, I do need to thank one commenter for getting me this far: Abalieno pushed through my negative comments about the Amiga, Amiga emulaors, and Amiga enthusiasts and convinced me to rescind my policy of never wanting to have anything to do with "WHDLoad." He prepared a custom package for me, with the emulator and WHDLoad already configured, and numerous games already on the hard drive. It looks like this will keep me set for the next half dozen Amiga games, at least. I wouldn't have tried so hard to help someone as ornery about the Amiga as I was, so he deserves a lot of credit. I guess I still have Amiga magazines to complain about.

Time so far: 2 hours
Reload count:

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Elvira II: Won!* (with Final Rating)

I don't like the sound of that last bit.

Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus
Horror Soft (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released 1991 for DOS; 1992 for Amiga, Commodore 64, and Atari ST
Date Started: 20 June 2015
Date Ended:
04 July 2015
Total Hours: 21
Reload Count: 44 (mostly from trying alternate solutions to puzzles, not death)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

If nothing else, Elvira II helped me clarify why I'm a CRPG addict and not an adventure game addict. Although I value puzzles in RPGs--the occasional riddle, mystery, inventory puzzle, or navigation puzzle--I don't like games that are all puzzles. I don't always want to have a puzzle on the board, waiting to be solved. Rather, I want my puzzles to be punctuations after moderately-long periods of dungeon crawling and tactical combat. This probably explains why I'm not a huge fan of Dungeon Master-style games, where unsolved puzzles tend to rack up pretty fast.

As I wrapped up last time, I was preparing to navigate out of 6 levels of catacombs so I could grab some items of makeup and then navigate back through 6 levels of catacombs and fool the evil sorcerer into thinking I was his apprentice. As I had done with the mad scientist's assistant, I studied the picture that looked like a wizard's apprentice and dressed up in the appropriate garb, hat, and facial hair.

This was fun the first time.
Fortunately, it occurred to me to take all the makeup items back with me, in case I'd made a mistake, because I did. I forgot the fake nose. If I hadn't brought everything, I would have had to trek up and back again, and that probably would have killed my interest in finishing the game. (Later, though, when it became clear that I missed some fish bones needed for a "buoyancy" spell, I did have to trek down four levels again.) As it was, they were pretty annoying. Frequent traps pop up in your path, so you can't get into a rhythm where you're constantly moving forward, because this happens:

Instead, you have to pause after every step to make sure there isn't a trap ahead, and if there is, you have to click on it and "avoid" it.

Anyway, fooling the wizard just made him go away, allowing me to proceed into the small chamber beyond, where I found Elvira!

Or, at least, I thought so. The visage of Elvira turned into an acid-spitting demon. Once I dealt with it, I recovered the Indian's war lance.

It turned out that each of the three major areas--the "stages"--culminated in an encounter with "Elvira," followed by the recovery of one of the Indian's magic items. The first two times you find Elvira, she turns out to be a fake and you have to battle the creature that's taken her visage. The third time, it's the real Elvira, and after that until the end of the game, she appears in your inventory(!).

The caverns of Stage 1 were as large as the catacombs, but only four levels. They were crawling with giant mosquitoes, ants, grubs, and other vermin, but I clearly was supposed to have visited this area first, because I was way overpowered for them. Most of them died in a single blow with combat set to "berserk" mode. Occasionally, they poisoned me, but red mushrooms in the area were capable of creating the "antidote" spell.

The encounters in the dungeon were punctuated by rooms full of crystals and mushrooms that I could use to make helpful combat and healing spells. I ended up using hardly any of them because I had already conquered the place where I would have needed them most--the catacombs in Stage 3.

At the apex of the level was a giant spider and spider web. The spider was unkillable, I think, but I was able to evade him by trapping him behind an elevator door. In his web, I found a version of Elvira that turned into a hideous wasp-woman and the Indian's magic tomahawk.

Okay, enough of that.

Clearing the area meant finding a key to the elevator, and I had to look up a spoiler for that one. It wasn't obvious to me that a couple of pixels on an image of a dead man wrapped in a spider's web held a necessary item, or that I would need to use the "Telekinesis" spell to obtain it rather than simply cutting it out of the web. There are quite a lot of puzzles in the game that are like this.

Do you see anything obvious to be tying to take?

During my explorations of Stage 1, I maxed in level (10) and experience (9999). Even though I took multiple passes through the catacombs, I still think it was a bit too easy to hit the cap well before the end of the game.

Fighting a giant worm. Note all the crystals and mushrooms in my inventory.

With Stages 1 and 3 clear, I had to return to the haunted house at Stage 2 and figure out what I hadn't finished there. It turned out I had to bring Frankenstein's monster to life by casting "Summon Storm" on the house's roof and letting it strike a copper rod I inserted in a barely-visible slot. Again, I was relying on a walkthrough at this point.

The storm brought the monster to life, but what ensued was the most annoying puzzle of the game. Basically, you have to do two things with the monster: remove his headband, scalp, and brain, and get him away from the door that he's blocking when you first find him. This means that you have to animate him long enough to get him to walk a few steps from the door, but then stop him (by pulling out his brain wires) before he has a chance to kill you. The timing is hard to get right, and if you don't realize there's a door behind him in the first place, it's easy to put yourself in a "walking dead" scenario by taking his brain before he's moved away from the door.

Disassembling the monster.

Behind the door was, in my case, the real Elvira, along with the Indian's magic bag.

I don't suppose I could just leave her here?

I took all of the magic items to the Indian and he, one by one, in a series of identical animations, infused them with magic power.

You'd think a man of such ability could find a better job than janitor.

I now had all the items I needed for the summoning and binding ritual to kill Cerberus, described at length in one of the library's books, but I needed a holy man to draw the pentagram, and that meant resurrecting the dead cleric. Fortunately, now that I was at Level 10, I could mix the "resurrect" spell. I'm sure the ingredients were among the library's many tomes, but I just tried various mixtures of likely-sounding items (brain, heart, spleen, holy book, holy water, etc.,) until I got it right.

Trying various items to mix the "Resurrect" spell. Note Elvira sitting there in my inventory (second from the left). Could I have used her to mix a spell?

With the cleric revived (no word on how a clearly-Catholic priest felt about being resurrected via arcane arts), he took my chalice full of blood (I honestly can't remember where I got it) and went off to the parking lot to draw a pentagram. At this point, relying on the instructions in the book and a little help from the walkthrough, I completed the ritual necessary to kill Cerberus: light a series of 10 candles around the pentagram, use the magic bag to summon the beast, cast "Bind Demon" at him, throw the Indian's spear at his head, and hack his heart with the tomahawk. It took me a few tries to get it right because he kept killing me while I was trying to find necessary items in my inventory.

You'd think he could just do #2, but he just says "I don't perform that mumbo jumbo sort of religion."

The endgame animations were pretty good, and it's worth watching the video below of the entire sequence. Note the constant music. I played the game with sounds turned off on my computer; how long would you have been able to last with music like this playing incessantly?

Like the first game, this one ends with Elvira beckoning you to your ribald reward.

I'm not sure I like the look of that dagger.

I hope that the folks at The Adventure Gamer get to this one eventually, because I'm curious what they'd say about it from an adventure game perspective. I thought that some of the puzzles were rather obscure and illogical, and that there was too much screwing around trying to make sure you had the right inventory items in each situation. Add to this a number of "walking dead" situations (avoided in my case by breaking my rules and looking at spoilers), and I'm not sure it performs well as an adventure game.

On the other side, the role-playing aspects were under-developed. You do get notably stronger with each level-up, but the dungeons are long and boring and the combats bereft of anything you might call "tactics," so for me the role-playing elements were somewhat unwelcome. They mostly just padded the time.

It might score higher in a GIMLET than the first one just because it has more elements, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed it more. Let's see.

  • 6 points for the game world. This is one category that's notably better than its predecessor. It makes good use of horror movie tropes and characters by having the sets literally come to life. Elvira felt more like a standard fantasy game in Elvira's clothes; this one felt closer to a horror RPG.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Definitely better than the first. You get noticeably stronger as the game progresses and you gain experience and level up. I like that you get experience for a variety of actions and puzzle-solving, not just combat. But there are no meaningful character choices throughout the game; even the initial selection of "profession" is staggeringly unimportant.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. Between Elvira, the Indian, Frankenstein, and the sorcerer, there are a handful of NPCs with dialogue options, some of them even involving a small amount of role-playing (e.g., whether to insult the Indian by asking for "fire water").

Elvira's interpolations were usually unwelcome.

  • 5 points for encounters and foes. A variety of monsters undone by a lack of true strengths and weaknesses, plus puzzles that tended on the too-tough side. Balancing this were some occasional puzzles different than anything I've seen in a CRPG or adventure game. I like the use of spells as puzzle-solving tools.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The combat system is arguably worse than the first game, but either way it's just a click-fest. I did like aspects of the magic system, such as being able to create "Fireballs" from an combustible material. This would be a fun dynamic in an open-world game where items replenish. Here, because there were so many "walking dead" scenarios, I was reluctant to fully exploit the magic system. I could have gone the entire game without running out of "Herbal Healing," for instance, but there was only a single item available to cast "Telekinesis." Good thing I didn't waste it.

Killing a giant mosquito, like everything else, is just rapid clicking.

  • 3 points for equipment--a handful of weapons and armor. The game gives you no clues as to the damage or protective value of the items you wield and wear.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for the main quest, which offers only one outcome and no player choices.

Tossing a spear at Cerberus to win the game.

  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are lovely, but the relentless music is unbearable and makes it impossible to enjoy the other sound effects. And I can't excuse the all-mouse interface. If a game is going to feature long series of mazes, I want to be able to move through them with the arrow keys.

A well-rendered giant spider chomps me to pieces.

  • 3 points for gameplay. I like the non-linearity during the central acts, but I'd say it's just a little too hard and quite a bit too long.

That gives us a final rating of 33, a little higher than Elvira but not enough to cross into "recommended" territory. Elvira II is definitely a better RPG than Elvira, but being a "better RPG" doesn't count for much if you're still not a good RPG.

I've run out of ways to make fun out of Dragon giving everything 5 out of 5 stars, but they did it again here. You'd think a magazine focused on role-playing would recognize that Elvira II had some definite weaknesses in this area, but instead they offered a review that could have doubled as an advertisement: "From the opening screens, you'll be on the edge of your seat trying to rescue the beloved Elvira. This is a 'must' purchase."

Scorpia offered a more sober look in the March 1992 Computer Gaming World. Her primary problems are the "walking dead" scenarios: she was unable to complete the game because she'd used a crucifix needed to ward off a vampire in a spell; even if she could have gotten past this, she also used the matches needed to light the candles on a "Fireball" spell (which I also did; thankfully, I had VK to warn me). She also mentions the Frankenstein one. The entire second half of her review, in fact, is taken up with complaints about this specific issue, and I can see why. I was also happy to see that she complained about the music. On the other hand, she goes on for a while about a lack of save slots, which baffles me a bit. The game allows 48 different save slots in an era where the default is usually one. I only used 6 slots, but I grant you I tend to be overly conservative about this.

I'll tell you this: I wish there were more horror-themed RPGs. To that end, I'm going to be happy to give the Horror Soft/Accolade team another chance with Waxworks, coming up in 1992. Judging by the screen shots, it uses the same engine as Elvira II, but perhaps it improves elements of the gameplay. Either way, the setting looks pretty cool.

That will, alas, be Horror Soft's last game. The company renamed itself Adventure Soft in 1992 and produced the Simon the Sorcerer series but never tried again with an RPG. Of the three primary developers on Elvira II--Alan Bridgman, Michael Woodroffe, and Simon Woodroffe--on Simon Woodroffe seems to be active today, with some 2010s credits on action games produced by Sega. Michael Woodroffe last shows up as managing director of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2005), and Alan Bridgman last contributed to Simon the Sorcerer 3D (2002).

My acquaintance with the Mistress of the Dark was brief, but I can't say that breaks me up. It's time to finally get serious about Antares.


Further reading: My series of posts on Elvira: Mistress of The Dark from early 2014. YouTube user Lemm has a 3 hour and 20 minute LP that takes the game from beginning to end, and as a bonus you can check out Javier Juan Castro Sanchez's compilation of all of the game's death scenes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Elvira II: Gonna Search and Find that Preacher Man

This dead cleric might be a good candidate for a "Resurrect" when I'm able to cast it.

I liked the first one better. Elvira, aside from being about Elvira, was a decent adventure game that offered some sensible, moderately-challenging puzzles, cool graphics, and an interesting setting. Its RPG elements were introduced a bit ham-handedly, but it seemed to understand that and it didn't overemphasize them. Elvira II tries to go too far as an RPG for a game that isn't an RPG. One section, in which I'm currently mired, has a six-level dungeon crawl, which would normally be a nice RPG nod in an adventure/RPG hybrid, but not when you're so restricted in combat tactics and afraid to cast most of your spells.

That doesn't sound very much like someone who wants to be rescued.

Since the last post, I've explored most of Set #2 (the House of Horror) and I think most of Set #3 (It Came from Beyond the Grave). I haven't been able to fully explore anything, because inevitably I run up against some puzzle I need (or think I need) a higher level or some unfound reagent to solve.

My favorite puzzle was in the haunted house. In a basement room, I found a mad scientist who yelled that I wasn't his assistant and ordered me out. Since the game offered the dialogue button in the room, I figured there must be some way to talk with him. Later, in the hands of a corpse, I found some stills of the various movie characters, and I realized their costumes and makeup were identical to the items I found in the second-floor offices. I chose the one that looked most like a lab assistant and applied the right set of facial hair, a wig, teeth, and a lab coat.

Pictures of the cast of the various films.

Checking myself in the mirror as I apply the items. Looks like I still need eyebrows and teeth.

When I was wearing the "disguise" of the film character, the mad scientist talked to me, though the only thing I got out of it was a poison potion that I don't have a particular use for.

Maybe I was supposed to choose one of the others. I only had a recipe for a poison.

This dynamic became my least favorite puzzle in Set #3. I battled all the way down six flights of catacombs (more on that in a minute) only to find a wizard who attacked me (and turned me into a frog) after noting that I didn't "look anything like his assistant." Clearly, I have to dress up as another character again--the only problem being that I left all the costumes and makeup six long levels above me. I have to drag myself all the way back to the top and all the way back to the bottom again.

That's the major problem with this game. For every satisfying puzzle, there's one that grossly tests your patience. Most involve dying in some horrific manner before you even know there's a puzzle to be solved. To take one of many examples, there's a series of rooms among the 6 levels in the catacombs on Stage 3. Each of the rooms has a chest, and most of the chests are trapped in some way. Until you try to open the chest (or, in some cases, leave the room), there's no way to tell that there's a trap to be solved (I couldn't get the "Detect Trap" spell to do anything). You just have to let it kill you, then reload, and then try various things to keep the trap from going off. In some rooms, that means closing the chest after you open it; in others, you have to move some ornamental weapon on the wall or move the chest itself.

Another example: simply entering one room causes you to fall asleep and wake up to some buxom ghost leaning over your bed:

But the ghost soon turns into D. W. Bradley's worst nightmare and kills you:

The only way to survive this, that I could find, was to have "Courage" spell active before entering the room, but of course you'd need to die at least once to know that you had to do anything before entering the room.

And yet another: Stage 2 culminates in a vampire attack in the house's attic. There's no way to anticipate it; you just walk up a ladder and within seconds you're dead with a couple of puncture wounds in the neck. Once you know the vampire is there, you can plan for it (the solution involves using a tuning fork to vibrate and shatter a window, letting in sunlight and killing the vampire--I had to look it up), but it takes at least one death to know it's there.

A satisfying animation accompanies the vampire's immolation.
I like that a lot of the puzzle solutions depend on the right spell; I don't like that you face such draconian limits on some spells. It's much better than the first game (although the first game, being short, could be restarted without a lot of pain), but still problematic. There are only a few spells you don't have to worry about running out of; for instance, "Ice Dart" and "Healing Hands" require no ingredients and there are dozens of ingredients to use for "Fireball," so you're mostly set there. "Fire Resistance," on the other hand, requires fire extinguishers, and I've only found two. Together, they made 4 spells. "Mindlock" requires a padlock; I've only found one, and it only made 1 spell. I counted at least half a dozen locations in the catacombs in which both of these spells would have come in handy, and not being able to cast them ("Mindlock," in particular) meant I had to leave a lot of potentially-useful items behind.

(Someone's going to say that "Brain Boost" allows you to mix more spells than normal and I should have used that more often. Great, but I only found a couple of items capable of mixing "Brain Boost" in the first place, so I couldn't use it every time I mixed spells.)

As the witch dies, her eyeball comes popping towards me. I need it for the "Fear" spell. This has been the only witch in the game so far, so I hope I don't need more than one "Fear" spell.
The limited availability of some spells isn't the only problem with the magic system; another has to do with the amount of time it takes spell points to regenerate. In an earlier post, I said it was 22 seconds per point, but I must have mistimed it then, because it turns out to be closer to a minute. When I was exploring the catacombs, my spell point maximum was around 42, and I could easily burn them all in 3 or 4 combats. That meant I had to let my character stand still, twiddling his thumbs, for almost an hour sometimes. There were a few potions that allowed me to bypass the waiting period, but not many. It was like playing Bard's Tale III again.

Combat never got any more interesting, although I did learn that a status bar to the right tells you how much damage you're doing. This allows you to experiment with different areas of a foe and figure out where he's most vulnerable. Skeletons, for whatever reason, are most vulnerable on the legs.

A skeleton hacks at my weakened character while I click on his legs.

The catacombs in Stage 3 offered the most RPG-like experience of the game so far. There are six levels, mapped on roughly a 20 x 20 grid, full of skeletons, rats, ghosts, and little troll-like creatures. I haven't made a determination as to whether there is a fixed number of these enemies or if they respawn. Between killing them and finding various treasures (healing potions, attribute-boosting potions, weapons), this area has offered the most character development of the game.

Attacking some little troll thing.

Ghosts come screaming along the corridor, do a ton of damage as they pass through you, and move too fast to attack. Only having the "Courage" spell active keeps them from hurting you.

It still isn't good. The limited combat system isn't fun enough to support as many combats as the game throws at you. Like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder, there's no information about the relative damage levels of weapons, so I don't know which of the many items I've found--two swords, an axe, a hatchet, daggers of different descriptions--do the most damage. And there's an incredible amount of randomness in combat; a skeleton that kills me in one blow might miss me four times in a row on a reload.

The dungeon is full of traps that you have to click on and "avoid." Otherwise, this happens.

I made it to the bottom level without having to map, but now I need to go all the way back up to the top level and get the various makeup items to impersonate the wizard's apprentice. I can't seem to find my way out without mapping, so I'm settling in with some graph paper. I always get irrationally angry when adventure games want me to map corridors. I have no problem doing it for RPGs, but RPGs are what I'm addicted to. Having to map in an adventure game feels like someone who isn't your boss telling you that you have to work late.

Lots of other miscellaneous notes and encounters.

  • The haunted house had a library with about 15 readable books making up almost 50 pages of text. I dutifully screenshotted every one. It's a lot to read, but there are clues to defeating various monsters, as well as a process for binding and killing Cerberus in there.

One of the many, many book pages.

  • One of the books had a long screed about the "Resurrection" spell, which I won't get until Level 10 (I'm currently Level 8). I've found a couple of bodies that I might want to cast it on; the most likely candidate is a slain preacher in the Stage 3 chapel.
  • I'm wearing a hodgepodge of armor right now: the security guard's jacket from the beginning of the game, a helmet and gauntlet from a suit of armor (I couldn't take the breastplate, alas); a pair of boots found on one of the bodies in the pantry; and a shield taken from a chest in the catacombs. The game does a poor job indicating what's currently equipped.
  • The game is inconsistent as to how items are used. For instance, there are a lot of keys in the game, and you might use one by clicking on it and choosing "Use," but in another place, you use it by physically dragging it to the lock, and in still another, you use it by clicking on the thing you want to open and choosing "Unlock." To fill a test tube with water, I had to click on the water and drag it to the tube.
  • Choosing AdLib for sound did indeed provide some basic sound effects, but there's no way I can play with that jarring music score playing incessantly.
  • I keep encountering a bug where my icon gets stuck on the "attack" icon permanently. This wasn't so bad at first, but then it got stuck on "inactive attack" permanently, and I couldn't fight anything. I had to reload an earlier save.
  • This game is going to suffer in my GIMLET for not allowing any keyboard controls. Navigating 6 levels of catacombs by clicking the navigation buttons with a mouse gets old very fast.
  • Nudity in several places in the game--just not anything that anyone would want to see. I believe TVTropes calls this "Fan Disservice."

  • I still can't figure out how to get this key. You wouldn't think it would be too hard to outsmart a fish. Can't I just smash the tank? (Apparently not.)

At this point, I really have no sense of the endgame. I guess I'm supposed to be recovering those magic items for the janitor, but I haven't found any of the three so far. The various puzzles in the three stages aren't manifestly leading to anything yet, or opening up any clear plot points. Then again, I haven't finished fully exploring any of the stages yet.

As much as I'm ready for the game to be over, I can't stomach the thought of two more runs through the catacombs just now, so you might see me start on Antares before wrapping up this one.

Hours so far: 12
Reload count: 29

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Game 192: Dragon Slayer (1984)

Dragon Slayer
Nihon Falcom (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for PC-88 and FM-7; 1985 for MSX and Sharp X1; 1986 for Epoch Super Cassette Vision; 1990 for Game Boy
Date Started: 23 June 2015
Date Ended: 23 June 2015
Total Hours: 5
Reload Count: 8 characters; 7 reloads with final character
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

You'd think it would be hard to play things out of order if they all occurred in the same year, but I seem to have done so. Hydlide, which I covered earlier this month, appears to be the last of the three Japanese, top-down, arcade-like, bash-headlong-into-creatures-to-fight-them games released in 1984. The first, an actual arcade game, was The Tower of Druaga. It doesn't appear on my list because it makes no pretense to RPG elements. The character doesn't get stronger as he collects treasure and fights enemies; he just achieves a higher score. Nonetheless, it was enormously popular, was translated to several Japanese PCs, and influenced both Dragon Slayer and Hydlide.

A screenshot from the FM-7 version of The Tower of Druaga, courtesy of MobyGames.

Dragon Slayer was the second of the two games, and its debt to Druaga is obvious, including the arrangement of the screen and the use of a maze-like dungeon as the game world. The difference is a broader series of statistics on the right-hand side of the screen. Instead of lives, time, and a high score, we get hit points, strength, experience, gold, magic power, and crowns (the last one is important only at the end of the game). The introduction of these elements is the only thing that gives this game some slight RPG credentials that Druaga didn't have. It's still not really an RPG under my rules, given the lack of a traditional RPG inventory.

Hydlide is arguably the best of the three games, offering outdoor areas to explore in addition to indoor mazes, featuring a greater selection of inventory items to acquire, and not being as obnoxious on the mechanisms of carrying things. Did Hydlide take inspiration from Dragon Slayer, or was it independently influenced by Druaga? It's hard to say. The inclusion of your enemy's hit point level in the lower-right corner is something that both later games have and Druaga doesn't, which provides some suggestion that Hydlide owes its lineage to both previous games. On the other hand, the combat mechanism is a bit different.

A comparable shot from Hydlide.

Like Hydlide, Dragon Slayer is mysteriously in English. Unlike Hydlide, it lacks any kind of introductory screen that explains what you're doing in the dungeon. Presumably, you're there to slay a dragon, but there's no back story in the game itself. I don't know if it came with a manual that offered anything more specific.

The player starts outside a house, presumably the character's (living in a dungeon must suck), and he can return to it at any time to get hit points restored to the same number as his current experience (until his experience exceeds 1,000, the restoration is to 1,000). He starts with no weapons, meaning he can only damage enemies to the tune of 10 hit points--and the lowest-leveled enemy starts with 1,500. Finding a sword is top priority. One nearby, but behind a wall, is no help.

The beginning of the game. I could really use that stuff.

You're a bit faster than the monsters, but they can move diagonally and you can't (at least, not at the beginning). They can also gang up on you and trap you. Overall, the game is horribly, frustratingly difficult in the beginning stages. Most of my characters died before they ever even got a sword. It seems to have been designed with an arcade dynamic in mind--kill the player fast so he puts in more quarters.

My player literally one second before death.

As you explore, you watch out for the following items:

  • Gold coins, which, when returned to your house, give you 500 extra hit points above your maximum.
  • Rings, which, when equipped, let you push wall blocks around as long as they have a free space to go.

Pushing a block around after picking up a ring. One of three "warp" locations, which teleport you to other areas of the level, is to my left.

  • Bottles, which store magic power, needed for the various navigation spells.
  • Crosses, which prevent you from taking or dealing damage while equipped (enemies can still trap you and leave you nowhere to go)
  • Keys, which unlock chests.
  • Power stones, which, when returned to your house, increase your strength.
  • Warp portals, which take you to other areas of the dungeon or dungeon levels.

Enemies line up to attack, but they can't hurt me with my cross. Of course, I can't hurt them, either.

The particularly annoying thing is that, with the exception of gold coins and magic power potions, you can only carry one item at a time. If you want to grab that power stone to take back to the house, you have to drop the cross first. And since ghosts fly through the dungeon randomly redistributing things, you might not be able to get it back.

Once you have a sword, you can deal normal damage to enemies and start killing them for experience. Whether the enemy is attacking you or you're attacking the enemy, the damage dealt is the difference between the attacker's strength and the defender's experience. (This is tempered for the PC, however, who never loses more than half his hit points in a single attack.) If the attacker's strength is lower than the defender's experience, the attacker does only 10 damage, which essentially makes it impossible to win a combat because it takes too long.

Fighting a foot while some bucktoothed head with sunglasses waits to attack next. Since I have 84,000 strength to his 11,000 experience, I'll kill him in a single blow. His 13,000 strength against my 19,400 experience means he's not really capable of hurting me.

This system horribly unbalances the game. At the beginning, with your starting 200 experience and 1,000 hit points, you're vulnerable to every enemy in the dungeon, since they start with between 300 and a couple thousand experience. But once you kill just a few of them and tip the scales the other way, they only do 10 damage per attack. Once you start finding power stones, each one gives you a 2,500 strength boost (from a starting strength of 1,500), more than enough to kill the first few levels of enemies nearly instantly. Basically, every time you meet an enemy in the game, you either don't stand a chance against him or you slaughter him instantly.

Returning to my abode with a power stone, some fuzzy monster hot on my tail.

The other weird quirk of the game is that killing an enemy causes another enemy of the next level to respawn at one of the game's many tombstones. The enemies don't have names, but the first three levels of foes seemed to be skeletons, some kind of bird, and dinosaurs. All were present in the dungeon at the beginning. As I killed the skeletons and birds, dinosaurs replaced them. As I killed the dinosaurs, they were replaced by some insectoid-looking creature. I lost count, but there ended up being several dozen "levels" of creature in the game.

As I said, most of my characters were lucky if they managed to get a sword. Eventually, I found that a teleporter near the entrance took me to a sword (and two rings). If I loaded up on coins near the entrance, jacked up my hit points, and dragged a cross along with me, I could usually make it to the teleporter. I then picked up the sword, grabbed the cross again, and made it back to the house. But by then, the dungeon was swarming with enemies, and any time I dropped the cross to grab a ring or a power stone, I usually died.

Just as I was about to give up in disgust, the game got strangely easy. It turns out that once your strength exceeds theirs, enemies start to run from you. (At least, they did for a while. I'm frankly not sure how this works, because they stopped running at some point during the game even when I was well above their levels.) At that point, I was able to explore without getting swarmed. A bizarre strategy emerged: study the patterns of enemies as they appear, so you know their relative levels. Then study who's currently fleeing from you, and only attack enemies of a level below the highest enemy who's running away from you. That way, no enemy who's willing to attack you will ever spawn.

Late in the game. Monsters include a fuzzy guy with a spear, a foot, a deer, and some kind of ninja dude.

As I said, eventually everyone started attacking again, so I'm not sure what the actual rules were, but even the brief respite was enough. I found enough power stones to jack my character's strength way up, then killed enough enemies that my experience kept me from taking too much damage. As I amassed potions, safety was as easy as a "Return" spell, but I hardly ever even needed one of those.

The dungeon is about 80 squares east-west and 108 squares north-south. It wraps on itself on the east-west axis but not the north-south one. Early in the game, navigation is hard because you can't move diagonally and you have no way to get past walls. Eventually, when you hit 30,000 experience points, you can use diagonal movement. Spells become available at various experience levels (I generally missed exactly when), plus one ability that lets you smash a wall to pieces. Eventually, navigation is trivial because you can just blast your way wherever you want to go.

The "Map" spell helps a little with navigation.

The hardest part of the game is keeping hold of one of the very small number of keys. I think there might only be 3 or 4 in the entire game. When you have one, you can open chests, but if you stop to pick up some of the treasure, or leave the key behind while you run back to the house with a power stone, there's a decent chance that a ghost will come along, steal the key, and drag it somewhere else in the dungeon.

Note the house at the bottom of the screen. I moved it to take advantage of these chests.

The middle section of the game was extremely boring. I found the enemies unchallenging, and the biggest difficulty was opening all the chests and dragging all the power stones back to the house, one by one. Eventually, I realized that the ring would allow me to push my house as well as a wall, so I started dragging the house with me to major treasure chest areas, making it much easier to return "home" with my loot.

Some of the chests held skeletons that would immediately start following me around. They would ditch me when I got back to my house, but if I walked into an adjacent square, they started following me again. I never figured out what they were supposed to do. They didn't seem to protect me or do any extra damage. Because they prevented "Return" from working, they were mostly an annoyance. But I'd love to hear from anyone who knows what they were supposed to accomplish.

An area full of loot. Fortunately, I have a key. An unwelcome skeleton follows me.

Enemies cycled through fuzzy things, disembodied feet, records, disembodied heads wearing sunglasses, penguins, aliens, floppy disks, deer, reapers, vampires, and maybe a few others before reaching some kind of cross between an alligator and a boot. This guy was so much more difficult than the previous enemies that I assumed it must be a dragon, and killing him would end the game. I spent a lot of time building up my strength and experience before I could defeat him. When I did, it turned out he was just another generic enemy and there were still many levels above him.

The creature that I amusingly thought was the dragon.

Some of the enemies are capable of special attacks, such as stealing gold, stealing magic, or (worst of all) stealing strength. Fortunately, only the vampire-looking creatures do that, and I learned to attack first and finish them in one blow before they had a chance to hit me.

Enemies finally culminated in some kind of armored character who, I'm convinced, is impossible to beat. There simply aren't enough power stones in the game to get your strength high enough. The highest strength I achieved, after opening every chest in the game and finding every stone (albeit with a few drains from vampires) was 445,000. The warriors have an experience level of 520,000. Unless I missed 32 power stones, the only way to defeat them would be to whittle them down 10 hit points at a time. Since they start with 650,000 hit points, I estimate that would take over 9 hours at 2 hits a second. And for all I know, there's an even tougher creature above that.

Gingerly approaching the dragon. Note all the potions. You don't need THAT much magic in the game.

The real dragon turned out to be nestled within a maze in the southern part of the dungeon. He had three heads. If I approached from the tail, his tail flicked and knocked me back to the starting area. Each of the heads could breathe fire. Oddly, they only had 10 hit points, but with a strength of 600,000, I'd need at least that many experience points to avoid taking catastrophic damage.

After a long period of grinding, I finally achieved that level, returned to the dragon, and killed its three heads. At that point, three treasure chests that surrounded him burst open, revealing four crowns, which immediately scattered to points unknown throughout the dungeon.

Slicing off the dragon's three heads.

My house was returned to its starting location and was surrounded by spawning gravestones. The character icon never lost his "charred" look after having suffered dragon fire. The "Return" spell stopped working.

About this time, I noticed that I started taking heavy damage from every foe again. I realized that after 650,000 experience points, my total had rolled over to 0 again! Not willing to just suck that up, I reloaded an earlier save and made sure not to kill any more creatures.

"Fly" temporarily transforms you to a bird. There's the crown!
Finding the crowns wasn't hard. I used the "Fly" spell to quickly traverse the dungeon, find the crowns, and manually schlep them back. After I had returned all four, the game noted "Phase 1 Clear!!"

Until I got this, I had forgotten that the game started by saying something about "Phase 1."
At that point, I was taken to a new dungeon, with all my hit points, strength, experience, and other stats returned to their starting points, and given a screen that said "Phase 2 start!"

As it had taken almost 5 hours to get through Phase 1, I wasn't particularly eager to start all over with a new "phase." I don't know how many phases are in the game, but I'm going to count this a "win" for getting through the first one.

I won't tell you what I screamed here, but it ended in "....THAT!"
The game does poorly in a GIMLET, mostly because it's not a good example of an RPG. It scores an 11, nothing scoring higher than a 2, and with 0s in "game world" and "NPCs." (If anyone can demonstrate that the game came with a true back story, I'll bump it up a point or two in the former.) But of course a game doesn't have to be good to be influential. Nihon Falcom eventually published a couple dozen titles in the Dragon Slayer line, starting with Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II (1985), which judging by screenshots appears to be an entirely different type of game. MobyGames claims that the series goes all the way through 2007, with The Legend of Heroes III: Song of the Ocean, but I'm a bit confused as to how all the games it lists as part of the "Dragon Slayer series" are actually related to Dragon Slayer at all.

I have to thank Marc "Lord Karnov" Campbell for providing me the PC-88 version of the game. He actually provided several versions, and I'm not entirely sure about the history of their release. I played the original, 1.1. Version 2.0 looks exactly the same to me, including the layout of the dungeon. Another pair of disks marked "re-release" offer a different dungeon and character icon; it actually looks more primitive than the original.

The opening stage of the "re-release" doesn't look appreciably different except for the character icon, which looks worse.

Kurt Kalata has a good article on the game at Hardcore Gaming 101, from almost 10 years ago. It's worth checking out for the variety of screen shots across different platforms.

I'm sure I'll hear from plenty of people who loved Dragon Slayer in its day, or who want to defend it as a game, if not necessarily an RPG. For me, neither side of the Pacific is impressing me much in 1984. A Spectrum game called Out of the Shadows is unlikely to turn that around, but maybe Questron will after that. For now, let's get back to 1991 and see if we can finish Elvira II.