Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Conan: The Summarian

The box features artwork by the incomparable Boris Vallejo. I had two books of his paintings before my mother found them and threw them away.
      
Conan: The Cimmerian
United States
Synergistic Software (developer); Vigin Games (publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started:  9 June 2017
Date Ended: 14 July 2017
Total Hours: 24
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

If nothing else, the Conan game has interested me in Conan mythology. Prior to this week, I had never read any of Robert Howard's original stories. I had seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger films, but about 30 years ago and in bit and pieces as I caught them on UHF stations. 

I was surprised to find Conan already King of Aquilonia in Howard's first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword." He is restless in the position, particularly since the populace has begun to romanticize the tyrant that Conan killed to get the throne in the first place. The plot concerns a conspiracy of nobles, an assassin, and a minstrel to sneak into Conan's chambers at nighttime and kill him. Conan is alerted to the threat by the spirit of a long-dead sage named Epemitreus, who brands Conan's sword with the symbol of the phoenix.

Thoth-Amon is long-fallen from power, ever since he lost his Serpent Ring to a thief, and now serving as the slave to the assassin Ascalante, who is working with the conspirators but secretly plans to kill them and take the throne for himself. On the fateful night, Thoth-Amon finds that a fellow servant of Ascalante's actually has his Serpent Ring. Thoth-Amon kills him, reclaims his ring and his power, and summons a demon to kill Ascalante.
      
This plot point also plays a role in the game.
     
The climax takes place in Conan's chambers, where he stands armored and waiting for the 20 assassins as they burst in. As he slays them one-by-one--reluctantly in the case of Rinaldo the Minstrel, as Conan admired his music--Thoth Amon's demon shows up and enters the fray, killing Ascalante. The story ends with the wounded-but-victorious Conan convincing the priests of Mitra that he really was visited by Epemitreus.

The text is a bit thickly-written for my tastes, although there are some memorable lines, such as this explanation for Rinaldo's involvement in the plot: "Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next." Of Conan's style, we learn: "He was no defensive fighter; even in the teeth of overwhelming odds he always carried the war to the enemy." And of course the text that opens the story is wonderfully evocative:
           
KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
         
The game's abbreviated version misses a lot of the poetry.
              
I didn't realize until looking at summaries of Howard's other stories that Conan's adventures jump around in time, and that "The Phoenix on the Sword" is one of his last tales in Conan's internal chronology. Howard wrote it at the same time as "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," one of the stories earliest in Conan's life. I read it and found it a little less compelling than "Phoenix"; it's basically about Conan chasing a woman through the tundra so he can have his way with her.

As for the movie--it wasn't what I remembered or expected. It replaces Howard's over-wrought prose with equally over-wrought music and set pieces, far more pompous and stylized than other sword-and-sorcery films of the era, like The Beastmaster or The Sword and the Sorcerer. (Oliver Stone is credited on the script and part of the directing.) The film re-writes Conan's history, turning him into a survivor of a massacred village, a slave, and a gladiator before beginning his adventures. (Side question: Why does his master free him? There's no explanation in the film for it.) He is far less intelligent and articulate than in Howard's stories--perhaps inevitable with early Schwarzenegger. Everyone's hair is ridiculous, and man has cinema come a long way in the realism of fight scenes.
      
I remembered the line about Conan being "destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia on a troubled brow," and I assumed he was "troubled" because he was too intellectually inferior to properly grasp statecraft. Howard's original stories make it clear that the trouble is more a case of wanderlust, and Conan is actually quite smart.
      
There are some highlights. I somehow remembered Sandahl Bergman as being unattractive; either I was thinking of someone else or I had really bad taste as a kid. Bergman, James Earl Jones, and a scenery-chewing Max von Sydow are the only ones who actually seem to be "acting" in the film (which must top out at less than 50 lines of actual dialogue). Schwarzenegger only seems mildly annoyed at being crucified. Mako is . . . Mako.

But it was useful, because it helped me understand how much of the game is based on the film rather than the original stories. Conan's origin story is virtually the same, with Thoth-Amon destroying Conan's village in the game, in place of the film's Thulsa Doom. (In the original stories, Thoth-Amon is a sorcerer of Set but not the leader of a horde, and he barely crosses paths with Conan. Conan is a blacksmith's son who just decides to start adventuring.) The use of giant snakes as enemies, and the importance of stealing the Eye of the Serpent, also seem to be inspired from the film, and there are a lot of stylistic similarities between the game's and film's versions of Conan's visit to the ancient king's tomb and retrieval of his sword.

I guess Bergman's character, named "Valeria" in the credits but never in the movie itself, appears in Howard's "Red Nails," but has attributes more in line with Belit, "Queen of the Black Coast."
        
I think the "riddle of steel" from the game's copy protection only appears in the film.
     
Returning to the game: I liked the wide open first chapter amidst the large city, where despite my exhaustive explorations I managed to miss several side quests. The rest of the game's episodes were a bit too linear and short, although if they'd all been as broad as the opening, I'd still be playing the game until October. Character development and combat remain weak until the end--a theme that goes all the way back to Robert Clardy's earliest titles--but the economy is quite strong. I expect it to GIMLET higher than the two Excalibur games, and slightly in "recommended" territory. Let's see.

1. Game World. Given the richness of the setting, you can't possibly go wrong with an RPG set in the Hyborian Age. The backstory and ongoing narrative are both quite fun, and the map of Shadizar with its temples and quarters evinces much of the compelling nature of Howard's introduction. How do you look at a map with labels like "Thieves' Quarter" and "Bazaar" and "Inn of the Veils" and not get a tingle? I talked in an earlier post about how there are almost too many buildings in the city to visit every one, which is nice. It's just too bad that the game world didn't adapt much to the plot. NPCs still dismiss Conan with, "You insult me, barbarian!" long after Conan should have been famous. Score: 6.
      
The final game world consisted of 6 locations.
      
2. Character Creation and Development. A low point. Conan starts the same for everyone. There is no reward for combat, only for completing each stage, and even then it's just a measly +5 to his "defense" score. The only way you really develop is by spending money on training, and you can only afford to do that a couple of times during the game. Why the developers didn't award a point or two of combat skill for each victory is anyone's guess, but it would have made several aspects of the game much better. Score: 1.

3. NPC Interaction. You learn a lot about the backstory and about available quests by speaking to and bribing the various NPCs, and I like that NPCs can shift between NPCs and enemies depending on their dispositions. There are no real role-playing or dialogue options, but no one is really offering those yet. Score: 4.

4. Encounters and Foes. The game has a simple but effective stable of enemies, many with special attacks or defenses that need a particular approach to defeat. Non-combat encounters are frequent and informative although lacking in any choices or role-playing. The few puzzles are on the easy side, but still offer some welcome variety instead of making everything about raw combat. Score: 4.

5. Magic and Combat. There's no magic system, and the combat system--when it works at all--involves selecting a combat style and swinging away until you or the enemy is dead. It's boring and predictable. Score: 1.
       
Only the visuals redeem the game's approach to combat.
       
6. Equipment. A strong point. You can find and buy a nice variety of items, including sword upgrades, magic items, potions, and typical adventuring gear like ropes and torches. A generous but not-infinite number of inventory slots makes prioritization important. It's too bad there isn't any armor, but I guess maybe it would go against Conan's raison d'etre to wear any. I like that most of the items you can buy, you can also find, and most useful quest items (like the Gem of Sight) have duplicates elsewhere. Score: 4.

7. Economy. Another strong point. There's a real incentive to burgle as much wealth as possible, because even after you've purchased all the required equipment, you can always sink money into training. Conan is explicitly named as a thief, and thus plundering treasure chambers is both rewarding and keeping with Conan's mythos. I just wish slain enemies had offered a few gold pieces. Score: 7.
      
Spending money on some late-game character development.
      
8. Quests. A clear main quest paired with rewarding side quests and optional areas. There are no choices (except, I suppose, whether to keep some of the quest items or turn them in) nor role-playing, but in general this game does as well in this category as any game in the era. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. No complaints. To me, the graphics are excellent, with each of the interior "scenes" well-composed and detailed. Sounds are sparse but realistic. The game supports redundant mouse and keyboard controls, which is all I ask for. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. It starts nonlinear and becomes linear, but even in the later chapters, you can break off and spend some time exploring the city. I just chose to do most of my wandering during the first chapter. Unfortunately, I don't see it as very replayable, but the level of difficulty was moderate, and the overall length of the game was perfect for its content. Score: 5.

Our final score is 42, making Conan a rare game that manages to top 40 (which marks roughly the top 20% of the list) while scoring miserably in the two categories I prize the most in RPGs. Nonetheless, it reflects the overall fun I had with the game despite its flaws, and it out-performs Spirit of Excalibur (33) and Vengeance of Excalibur (34).
        
          
Charles Ardai's review in the February 1992 Computer Gaming World is oddly fixated on the fact that you're role-playing Conan's origin story, instead of a mature, skilled Conan. He has the same complaints that I do about limited character development and lame combat. "It is perhaps the most rudimentary role-playing game ever made," he says, a sentiment that echoes my scores of 1 in the two most vital RPG categories. But like me, he praises the game's aesthetics and concludes that it's relatively uncomplicated, undemanding, and fun.

The aesthetic attention, I should add, goes beyond the game. The manual has 7 full-page illustrations of Conan rescuing maidens and fighting monsters and whatnot. Since they're uncredited, I assume they're original to the manual rather than adapted from classic sources.
          
Conan must still be Level 1 in this image.
     
I'm a little jazzed about Conan now, which is too bad, since we won't encounter him again on my blog until Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (2008), an MMORPG which I guess has a single-player campaign. A handful of other licensed titles from 2004-2017 are action-only. Maybe I'll honor him by being better-predisposed to playing a barbarian in other games.

This won't be our last experience with this engine, which Synergistic called "World Builder." They adapted it for multiple characters in Warriors of Legend (1993), as well as for the non-RPG The Beverly Hillbillies (1993). I love the fact that Lancelot, Conan, and Jethro can all go on adventures i the same game engine.

Going all the way back to the "Campaign" series, Synergistic doesn't do things quite the same was any other RPG developer. This has produced both bad and good results, and Conan fortunately balanced on the "good" side.

****

Further Reading: Check out the other games made with Synergistic's "World Builder" engine: War in Middle Earth (1988),  Spirit of Excalibur (1990), and Vengeance of Excalibur (1991).



Sunday, July 23, 2017

Game 255: Quest for Tanda (1991)

There is no title screen for the game.
     
Quest for Tanda
United States
Independently developed and published
Released in 1991 for Atari ST
Date Started:  17 July 2017
Date Ended: 17 July 2017
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
  
The unlikely story of Quest for Tanda's survival is more interesting than the game itself. I originally drafted a relatively scathing posting on the brief adventure and its horrible sense of spelling, but then I heard from the author, Jonah Schwartz, who said he was only 13 when he wrote it on his school's Atari ST. It was just an exercise to teach himself GFA BASIC, uploaded as a lark to several San Francisco Bay-area BBS sites. He never received a single envelope with the requested $5.00 shareware fee. And yet, somehow, 17 years later, a programmer in Sweden decided it was worth cataloging on MobyGames. I wish I could fill in the blanks in between, but I wrote to the contributor and he doesn't even remember listing the game.
     
A ransom note puts the brief plot in motion.
      
The setup is that you are the lover of Princess Tanda of Khlad. One day, Tanda is kidnapped by the evil Istvan. He leaves a ransom note promising to torture and kill Tanda, but he frankly acknowledges that the requested ransom (1 million gold pieces) exceeds the total wealth of the kingdom. King Aahz, Tanda's father, promises her hand in marriage if you can rescue her from Istvan.
     
The proper names are drawn from Robert Lynn Asprin's MythAdventures novels (1978-2002), which I've never read but gather are humorous, almost satirical fantasies in the same vein as Terry Pratchett. The game doesn't go beyond the names themselves, as in the novels Aahz is a reptilian magician and not a king, and Tanda is an assassin and not Aahz's daughter.

The castle graphic that leads this entry is shown during the backstory and when the player visits either of the other two castles in the game. The image is not original to the game, but Schwartz doesn't remember where he got it. A reverse image search finds it on a few web sites (and one jigsaw puzzle box) without conclusively answering the question of its origin.
      
The extent of character creation.
       
Character creation consists of choosing from three names. The player does not know until after making the choice that "Skeeve" is a Level 2 fighter/Level 4 wizard; "Garkin" is a Level 0 fighter/Level 5 wizard; and "Frumple" is a Level 3 fighter/Level 2 wizard. Each character begins with 40 or 50 hit points, water and food, 20 or 40 magic points, and some basic weapons and armor. I don't think there's a mechanism for the characters to gain levels during gameplay (I suppose making it not an RPG under my rules), but it's hard to tell since you only fight a handful of combats.
     
The "character screen."
       
The only other choice during character creation is whether to play on easy or hard mode. Easy-mode characters start with a boat and can go anywhere. ("I know that it is not possible to carry a boat around," Schwartz apologies in the "readme" file.) Hard-mode characters have to visit the towns and learn where they can obtain a boat. The more important difference, though, is that easy characters start with 200 gold and hard characters start with only 10. It's nearly impossible for those latter characters to make enough money from the game's few random combats to remain healed, watered, and fed and pay for the NPC clues and items necessary to win the game.
    
This master screen appears between every move.
    
Gameplay takes place on a small 8 x 7 map. After every move, the screen reverts to a kind of "master control panel" where the player can eat, drink, cast a spell, view statistics, sleep, or refresh himself as to the nature of the main quest. You click an image of a directional pad to move, but the master screen appears again after the move is completed.
      
The entirety of the game world.
      
Each of the five towns is laid out the same, consisting of a weapon shop, an armor shop, a food shop, and two houses with NPCs who will give you hints for a price.
     
One of the NPCs gives you a summary of the entire game world.
      
Three of the houses in the game are locked and require you to find a sequence of keys to open them. None of that is necessary on "easy" mode, as the game simply tells you where to go for instructions on how to defeat Istvan. 
      
Visiting the "wepons shop" in a town.
   
It makes little sense to spend money at the weapon and armor shops. The game's best weapon is available from winning a battle (see below), and it's tough to buy armor because the game warns you that you'll be replacing the armor you already own, but it never bothers to tell you what armor the character starts with.     
     
Options in the weapons shop.
     
Each of the empty grass squares has a chance of an encounter with a ghost, a wizard, or a spider. These three enemies, plus a zombie who only seems to attack while you're sleeping, and a couple of enemies you fight at fixed encounters, seem to be the extent of the game's menagerie.

In combat, you specify whether to attack or cast a spell. If you attack, you then specify your weapon and watch the results. That's it. If you cast a spell, you choose between wizard spells ("Fireball," "Disrupt," "Turn Undead") and cleric spells (heal, create food or water) and put a designated number of points into them. I never found that the offensive spells worked even once. "Turn Undead" explicitly doesn't work on ghosts, the only undead that you regularly encounter.

"Combat options." You can't even use the 1-3 keys. You have to click on the answer.
     
There is one optional side area in the game: Badaxe's castle, where you can fight an ogre and get Badaxe's axe as a reward.
      
I'm always down for a tryst.
          
By now, you will have noted the numerous spelling mistakes that populate every screen. I originally wrote that the game featured "spelling that would appall you even if you discovered the developer was a toddler," along with unnecessary capitalization and frequent but inconsistent use of pseudo-"olde English." Schwartz actually apologized in the "readme" file for "mixing medieval and modern language" and for being "a bad speler." Knowing that he was 13 dilutes my venom a bit, although I'm not sure why he didn't just grab a dictionary or a playtester.
     
As small and short as the game is, it's a struggle to get to the end before your pools of money, food, water, and hit points deplete, leaving you with no way to regain them. "Easy" mode characters really just need to visit two towns--one to get the instructions from an NPC, and one to buy the missile spell that she recommends. "Hard" mode characters have to find the boat first and earn enough money to pay the NPCs.
       
Explicit instructions on how to win. This costs 40 gold pieces.
    
For both characters, the quest path is the same. You go to the square with the bridge and fight the "Halk" guarding it; he is vulnerable only to a bow and arrows or the "Magic Missile" spell (which, confusingly, appears as a weapon instead of a spell). Once you kill him, you loot the key to Istvan's castle.
    
Once you make it to Istvan's island, the plot resolves itself on three text screens with no player input. And the game is over. It takes about 15 minutes on "easy" mode and perhaps 2-3 times as long on "hard" mode, if indeed you're able to survive the latter. There's no way to save the game, so the brief play time is an advantage.
       
 
         
The game earns a 13 on my GIMLET, which is close to the minimum a game could possibly earn and still be considered an RPG. In doing so, it has spawned a new rule in my sidebar: If the game is independent or shareware but won no awards, garnered no positive reviews, has no fan pages--and if I fire it up, play a few minutes, and find nothing charming or original about it--I have the option to reject it. I mean no offense to Mr. Schwartz, who accomplished something relatively remarkable at a young age, but there's no reason other than pure luck that this game found its way to MobyGames and thousands of similar efforts from young students of computer programming did not.

Mr. Schwartz was understandably startled when I wrote to him about this 26-year-old project and said I was going to blog about it: "It's a bit like finding out your 8th grade science project is being reviewed by a scientific journal." While it leaves something wanting as an RPG, it did accomplish its purpose. Schwartz went on to a long and prosperous career as a software developer and entrepreneur. Among many others, was the co-founder and CTO of Rumpus, a San Francisco-based company that made games for iOS and Android, including Mo' Monsters, a Pokémon-inspired game that is, ironically, not cataloged on MobyGames.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Conan: The Valedictorian!

I think this "troubled brow" bit is lifted from the films, albeit less poetically here.
          
The rest of the plot of Conan unfolded much as the part I've already related, in a series of short, linear episodes with light inventory puzzles. In between, I sold my accumulated riches and used the gold for healing potions and training to increase my skills. But other than having to frequently backtrack to obtain a missing item, the game never posed much of a challenge.

As I closed the last time, I was heading for Zamboula to rescue Princess Zosara and thus get the support of the Kuigar nomads, whose king was set to marry the princess. I had to sneak into the city via a four-level maze of catacombs swarming with rats and spiders. There were some nice treasures to pick up along the way, including a Horn of Valhalla, which I never used.

The princess was held captive by a wizard who turned himself invisible the moment I entered the chamber. I couldn't kill him with regular sword blows, so I started going through my inventory to see if anything would help. When I used my staff, it somehow slid into a hole on the floor and activated a trap door, sending the wizard plummeting to his demise. Good thing I kept that staff, I guess. I don't think I would have figured out the puzzle otherwise.
       
Why did he even have a trap door in his chambers?
      
The denouement to the episode related that Conan led the Khan's forces in battle against Thoth Amon's armies and won a bunch of victories before Conan returned to Shadizar.

Back at the Red Dog, a wizard named Akada approached Conan with intelligence about Thoth Amon: specifically that the evil priest had lost his Ring of Power. He said if I could recover the ring, I could wield it against the villain. A nearby sage told me that the location of the ring was unknown, but some thieves had hidden a map to the ring in the ruins of Larsha.

Before I continued on this quest, I returned to the jungle ruins and looted the pyramid, obtaining a bunch of gems and an Enchanted Sword, the best sword in the game, doing +100 damage.
      
A treasure chamber looking appropriately treasure-y.
       
Larsha was another jungle ruin, populated by lizard men. I had killed a score of them before I found a Lizard Sword, which is supposed to do more damage to them than the Enchanted Sword. I frankly didn't notice any difference. 
      
Fighting a Gorn.
           
Ultimately, I found the map to Thoth Amon's ring. It showed it back at the Governor's Palace in Shadizar. Fortunately, I also found a Marble Key to access the doors inside the palace. I returned to the city, crept into the Inner City, evaded the guards, and entered the palace.

I had to kill a couple of guards, but there were numerous rooms with treasures in gems and gold, a Skeleton Key, and of course Thoth Amon's ring. At one point, I blundered into the chambers of the Governor and his wife or mistress.
     
They weren't happy to see me.
    
Finding the ring concluded that episode. The next one began with Akada telling me that I would need to find the Scrolls of Skelos to interpret the Ring of Power. They were supposedly back in Larsha, protected by an "indestructible demon made of iron."
      
Talkative for a demon made of iron.
     
The iron golem attacked me the moment I entered the ruins and he was immune to damage from anything that I had in my possession. When I fled from the battle, he followed me, appearing even on other maps. This provided me the solution. I led him back to the jungle ruins to be snared by the monolith (which draws in all metal).
       
Sucks to be you!
      
After that, I was able to explore Larsha unmolested. The Skeleton Key opened the way to the chamber with the Scrolls. I retrieved them and the final episode began.
         
         
Text related how Conan and his allies moved on Thoth Amon's fortress of Tarantia. The Great Khan, Taurus, and Belit all engaged various forces while Conan sneaked into the fortress itself.
            
You wonder why Synergistic didn't incorporate the army combats from the two Excalibur games into this one. It would have been more fun than just reading about it.
            
Inside, I faced several of the enemies previously encountered in the game, including mummies, lizard men, giant snakes, and priests of Set. I guess if I'd kept the Snake Sword and Lizard Sword, I would have had an easier time, but as it was, I didn't have many problems with just my regular Enchanted Sword and my potions.
     
Killing giant snakes is like a Tuesday these days.
     
The fortress consisted of about 20 rooms. I had to run around finding a series of keys to open new areas. I was blocked from a few areas by more iron golems; if there was any way to defeat them, I never found it, but it was easy enough just to skirt around them.

The only problem I had was this living statue. It killed me the moment I approached it and didn't respond to any of my magic items. (My Horn of Valhalla summoned a berserker, who the statue instantly killed.) After exhausting everything I could think of, I Googled a quick hint and found that I needed a Freeze Amulet (which I'd completely forgotten about). I don't know if there was a place in the game to find one, so I had to buy it back in Shadizar for 1,600 gold pieces, which required me to sell a few excess magic items to raise the amount.

Back in Thoth Amon's fortress, I froze the statue and continued past him to Thoth Amon's private chambers. Like so many other enemies in the game, he was immune to damage in combat.
  
That statue sure doesn't look like Set. Who are you worshipping on the side, Thoth?
      
I had to push past him to his chambers and shatter the jar containing his heart. When it was destroyed, Thoth turned into a skeleton and died, and the endgame screen above immediately appeared.

Thoth-Amon suffers a grisly fate as I smash his heart. He might have thought about hiding it instead of leaving it sitting on his desk.
       
A few miscellaneous notes:
          
  • The city has a handful of "seers" who never did anything at all. They would take my coins, fiddle around with their crystal balls, and never say anything.
  • After the first scenario, there wasn't much NPC dialogue. Most of them simply said they couldn't help me.
  • I never made use of several items I carried the entire game, including two Staves of Power and the Horn of Valhalla. I guess these items would have allowed me to instantly win some of the tougher combats, but I didn't find any of the combats particularly hard.
  • I didn't mention it above, but the rope was necessary to climb out of some pits in the Zamboula catacombs and Thoth Amon's fortress.
  • According to a spoiler site that I looked at after winning, I missed several side quests. I could have given the ruby Amulet of the Undead to a tavern owner; there was a fortune in gold hidden in the Shadizar underground in an area accessible only by teleport; the priests of the Temple of Adonis would have rewarded me for one of the Staves of Power; and there was a way into a secret Thieves' Guild vault under the city. I apparently need to invest more in bribing people.
            
In the end, Synergistic did a good job adapting the linear, "chapter" approach from the two Excalibur games, ensuring this time that things undone in early chapters wouldn't leave the player in a "walking dead" state for later chapters. It still isn't a great game, and particularly not a great RPG, but it was fun and undemanding, and it led me to fill in some gaps in my knowledge. More on that in the final entry.

Final time: 24 hours

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Game 254: The Dungeon Revealed (1987)

     
The Dungeon Revealed
United States
John Raymonds (developer); Woodrose Editions (publisher)
Released in 1987 for Macintosh after a demo shareware version (The Dungeon of Doom) was released in 1986
Date Started:  15 July 2017
Date Ended: 16 July 2017
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 72/253 (28%)

I arrived at college in 1992 with a Brother typewriter. I thought it was awesome because it had this tiny screen that stored your current line of text, not committing it to paper until you'd reviewed it, made your corrections, and hit ENTER. But I soon grew envious of my roommate's Brother word processor and purchased one of those instead.
               
That held me for about 6 months until I took a mandatory class on computer applications and was introduced to the modern personal computer for the first time. The class was probably 14 weeks and consisted of 7 weeks on the Macintosh and 7 on the IBM PC with MS-DOS. Of the two, the Mac was so manifestly superior that I couldn't imagine why anyone would buy anything else. By the end of the semester, I had gone down to Sears, opened a credit account, and purchased one.
      
A typical Dungeon Revealed screen shows me fighting a vampire with some food, a wand, and the exit stairs nearby.
      
Imagine my disappointment when I then wandered into a CompUSA, looking for RPGs for my shiny new machine. There was an enormous wall of PC games and a tiny shelf of Mac games. Incredulous, I flagged down a store clerk and demanded answers. "I think most developers are moving away from the [Mac] platform," he said. I was outraged. But of course he was right. I hadn't done enough research. I only knew about my own experience using the platforms, not how easy or difficult it was (both on the technology side and the business side) to develop software for them. I don't recall that I ever bought or played a single Mac-based RPG. What I did eventually do is purchase a product called SoftPC that allowed me to run DOS and Windows on my Mac, and play their associated games. That's how I finally played Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld, years after they were released.

Despite its strengths in whatever areas people think it has strengths, the Mac is definitely not an RPG PC. (I originally said "gaming PC," but I don't know enough about other genres, and I definitely did burn a lot of hours playing Descent on mine.) My master list shows exactly 17 games released solely for the Mac--less than one a year between 1986 and 2000--and a few of them are only identified as RPGs by GameFAQs, which usually is wrong when it conflicts with MobyGames and Wikipedia on a game's classification. The real total might be as low as 13. OrbQuest (1986) should have been the first one, but I can't find a copy. 1987 brought three of them: The Dungeon Revealed, Quarterstaff, and Scarab of Ra. To play them, I've had to learn yet another new emulator--Mini vMac--which will be good enough for the 1987-1989 games. For anything in the 1990s, I'll have to switch to something that supports a more recent version of the operating system, like Basilisk, which made me want to kill myself when I tried to use it for Shadow Keep (1991).
          
Early TDR levels are open and easy to navigate.
       
The Dungeon Revealed is a black-and-white graphical "roguelite," clearly inspired by Rogue (1980) but eschewing permadeath. The developer circulated a demo version, later upgraded to a full shareware version, as The Dungeon of Doom a year earlier. I don't know if the commercial version came with a printed manual--I haven't been able to find one--but the setup seems simple enough: the character has entered a multi-level dungeon and can't leave until he finds the Orb of Carnos on Level 40.

Character creation involves only a name and a choice of class from 7 options: knight, fighter, sage, wizard, alchemist, jeweler, and "Jones." Each class has a fixed set of starting attributes (from the D&D list) and a particular item type that they're able to identify without an Identify Scroll. For instance, fighters can always figure out weapons and jewelers automatically identify rings. Some of the attributes are a little mysterious; I'm not entirely sure what wisdom or charisma do. There are some original uses of attributes here: once a character has 16 strength and 18 dexterity, he can dual-wield weapons; 18 strength is needed to push boulders; and having 16 intelligence automatically activates the auto-map.
         
Character creation.
     
You begin on Level 1 of a 40-level, randomly-generated dungeon, randomly seeded with treasures and monsters. Movement is with this key group...

I O P
K   ;
,  .  /

...which I never fully got used to. Other actions, like using potions and eating food, are tied to specific keys, but since this is a Mac, you can also select the options from the various menus.
     
Starting on Level 1 and checking out the menu options.
  
Monsters appear and respawn randomly, each tied to a particular range of dungeon levels. About half are fantasy standards--for instance, giant bats, ettins, centaurs, skeleton warriors, shambling mounds, vampires, and dragons--and the other half are original to the game, with names like sethrons, schwein hunds, pirbolegs, drackones, and electric penguins.
        
"The Floor" can also come alive and attack you.
       
A lot of them have special attacks and defenses. Fire lizards roast you with fire and are immune to fire-based attacks; ice whirlwinds are the opposite. Giant scorpions have a chance of reducing your strength by 1 with a poison attack. Vampires are the worst. They don't drain your levels, as in most games, but rather drain a bit from your maximum hit point bar. More on this in a bit.

To contend with the creatures, you have a typical roguelike variety of equipment, including melee weapons, throwing weapons, armor, gauntlets, helmets, potions, scrolls, wands, and rings. As in the typical roguelike, you don't know what each colored potion or type of scroll or wand does at the outset. You have to learn through Identify Scrolls or trial and error that yellow potions are Healing Potions and ruby rings are Regeneration Rings. Fortunately, Identify Scrolls are plentiful and often come with multiple uses. A lot of potions and scrolls permanently boost your attributes; the maximum is 25. Some items are cursed and require a Remove Curse scroll to take off once you equip them.
         
Using an Identify Scroll on a ring.
          
There's a food meter that needs periodic refilling, but food is extremely plentiful, and I never found that this was a problem as in Rogue. You have to be careful not to overeat because your stomach bursts and you automatically die. There is no system for eating enemy corpses here; this is Rogue, not NetHack.

You don't see your experience points, but you level up at regular intervals, which improves your maximum hit points. You hit a level cap at 25, well before the end of the game.
      
A "magic map" scroll shows the level. At Level 27, I'm about halfway between the wide open spaces of Level 1 and the tight, twisty corridors of Level 40.
      
The developers did an original thing with the levels. The early levels are wide and spacious--more like rooms than corridors. As you descend, they get narrower and narrower, so that by the time you're in the 30s, each level is a large maze of thin corridors and dead-ends, making it tough to avoid monsters. Still, the nature of the procedural generation doesn't allow for "islands," so if you just stick to one wall or the other, you always find the stairs. A couple of levels have secret areas full of treasure, and you need a Digging Wand to blast through the walls to get to them, but I found I was generally overloaded with regular treasure anyway.
            
Opening my way to a secret area, with a bunch of weapons that I really don't need.
               
The game lets you backtrack to earlier levels, unlike Rogue. Equipment doesn't get better as you descend--it's jut random--so a careful player could just hang out on the early levels, killing easy creatures, until he's identified practically all the equipment and has used enough scrolls and potions to boost his attributes to 20 or above. I didn't have that kind of patience, but I found that I had what I needed by about Level 20.
    
My inventory about halfway through the game.
      
I didn't get much use out of throwing weapons, since you have to go through a cumbersome process of unequipping your melee weapons to use them. Wands, particularly Death Wands, are a godsend. I learned to save Speed Potions, Invisibility Potions, and some wands for the very tough combats.
            
Some of the scrolls are just a waste of time.
         
Every 5 levels, your descent is blocked by a Gate Keeper who gets harder and harder each time. I spent most of my high-end gear on him. The Gate Keeper on Level 9 drops a Wishing Scroll (I otherwise never found one in the game), which doesn't help much for your first game because without an exhaustive list of items in the game, you don't know what to wish for. Plate armor turns out to be the best armor, along with gauntlets and a helmet. I guess a two-handed sword is probably the best weapon. For rings, a Regeneration Ring almost makes the game too easy, but I didn't have a strong opinion on the second ring (you can only wear two); Resist Fire, Resist Cold, and Stealth all seemed to have their uses.
       
I finish killing the Gate Keeper on Level 9.
      
Making your way to Level 40 is about as hard as in Rogue, but without permadeath, so not really hard at all. I had an embarrassing number of reloads, but I was more interested in documenting the game than meeting any kind of challenge.
       
Battling a dragon on a higher level. Note the maze shown on the auto-map.
       
There are two Orbs on Level 40, one in the middle of some boulders that you have to push away, and one under a suit of plate armor. One is the real Orb of Carnos and the other is a plastic ball. An Identify Scroll can sort them out.
      
Finding the Orb of Carnos amidst some boulders.
     
Once you have the Orb, it's time to backtrack up 40 levels. Fortunately, you don't lose your auto-maps. Unfortunately, monsters seem more plentiful, treasure much less plentiful, and a Dark Wizard dogs you the entire way. Even worse are the vampires. They knock down your max hit points permanently and the only way to regain them is to drink a Life Potion, which is pretty rare. I would highly recommend that all players keep at least one Life Potion until they reach Level 30 on the return (at which vampires stop appearing), then chug it to undo all the damage vampires have done. I didn't have one during my return, and I ended up limping along at half-health for about 35 levels.
        
Trying desperately to find the exit stairs, I am dogged by multiple enemies including two vampires.
      
I guess the Dark Wizard is killable, but I wasn't able to do it (I ran out of Death Wands long before the endgame). I just kept fleeing him when he found me. Teleport Scrolls are very useful towards the endgame for this purpose. As you reach earlier levels, the other monsters become much easier, but the nature of the level layouts (more open space) makes it easier for the Dark Wizard to find and kill you. I had to reload a lot during the return.
      
The Dark Wizard continues to harangue me steps from the end of the game.
     
At the end, you get a nice victory screen, a number of points based on how much treasure you hauled out, and placement in the Hall of Legends.
      
Wow, do I look happy.
      
The title screen, death screen, and ending screen are well-composed graphically, and the icons are serviceable enough during the main game. The lack of color is jarring, but I guess the Mac wasn't capable of color until the Macintosh II, released the same year. Sounds are sparse but effective, with little "oofs," "ouches," and "uh-ohs" punctuating key moments.
               
The nicely-drawn death screen.
             
I don't know if the original game shipped with any documentation. The commands themselves are well-documented in-game, and there's a section in the "Help" menu called "Rumors" that offers a series of cryptic hints about characters, enemies, and winning the game, such as that "there are two Orbs" and "a sage knows scrolls."
        
A different game might force you to uncover these clues from pieces of paper or NPCs.
     
Overall, it's cute enough. Impressive for an independent game. But it doesn't offer much more than Rogue offered 7 years earlier except an easier time. It earns a 21 in a GIMLET, hampered by no backstory or NPCs (0s) and an economy that only matters for the final score (1). It does best in the area of equipment (4), and graphics, sound, and interface (4), mostly for the interface. I suppose I could see remembering it fondly if I had a Mac in the 1980s, but I don't think it's a great example of a Mac-specific game. I think maybe we'll have to wait until Quarterstaff for that.
      
The very brief Hall of Legends on my version of the game disk.
     
Judging by comments on his LinkedIn page, John Raymonds created the game on a lark while attending M.I.T., mostly to teach himself C. His career took him to various manufacturing and technology companies at the managerial and executive level, and he now seems to be involved in producing films (he has an IMDB page). I don't know if "Woodrose Editions" was his own company. I can't find any mention of it that doesn't connect it to The Dungeon Revealed.

Thus ends our first Mac game and my first use of the Mac OS in about 20 years. Fairly soon, we'll have Quarterstaff and Scarab of Ra from 1987 and Shadow Keep from 1991. For now, let's see if I can wrap up Conan.