Sunday, January 26, 2020

Game 353: The Legend of Zelda (1986)

Yes, I'm as surprised as you to see this screen on my blog.
           
The Legend of Zelda
Japan
Nintendo (developer and publisher)
Released 1986 for NES in Japan; western release in 1987.
Date Started: 14 January 2020
Date Ended: 25 January 2020
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

A number years ago, I participated in a Reddit thread. The original entry was just a funny comic, but at some point the discussion evolved into "generation gap" complaints--about things that people didn't understand about the younger generation. One commenter opined that he didn't understand Pokémon. I replied to agree:
          
Glad I'm not the only one. They look . . . cute. Since when is "cute" "cool"? Aren't things like dragons and ninjas cool? When I was a kid, I played with robots that changed into trucks. These kids play with . . . little yellow mice or something.
              
Well, that sparked a furor. More than one respondent wrote to tell me that Pokémon does feature dragons and ninjas. One of them slammed down three image links with the comment "looks pretty cool to me," then left the forum as if he'd dropped the mic. These were the images:
           
        
I was so flabbergasted that I couldn't begin to think of a response. Fortunately, another commenter came along to say what was in my head: "They look like toys . . . baby toys." The idea that someone thought these three pictures countered my "cute" argument says as much about the gap as anything could.

I'm not convinced that the gap is strictly about age. After all, I was 14 when The Legend of Zelda was released in the west--not exactly out of the target age range for the title. But I didn't own a Nintendo console and never did, and I guess for that reason never learned to value heroic archetypes different from the traditional western conception. As I put in my "10 most controversial opinions" entry:
            
If I'm going to play a racing game, I want to race race cars, not goofy little go-karts piloted by mustachioed plumbers. If I'm going to pit monsters against each other in gladiatorial matches, I want them to look like monsters, not characters from the Island of Misfit Toys. And if I'm going to play an action-adventure, I want to play a classic hero, not an effete little elf with bare legs and a pointy hat.
              
I'm sucking up these prejudices to give The Legend of Zelda a try. Yes, we agreed several times that it's not an RPG. But it's RPG-ish, and its own sequel is an RPG, and had an influence on RPGs. I've always seen that influence as an infantilization--infantilization in character, in complexity, and in controls. But if I'm going to hold such an opinion, it ought to at least be an opinion informed by actual gameplay. At the worst, perhaps it will habituate me a bit, so if I ever deign to play your precious Chrono Trigger--which from videos looks to me like a bunch of children scurrying around--perhaps I'll be inoculated to some of its conventions.
          
Neither the complexity of controls nor the depiction of the "hero" fill me with interest to play this game.
         
While I didn't own a Nintendo, I had friends that did, and I remember at least watching them play a little Zelda even if I didn't handle the controls myself. I remember being astonished that the console was capable of saving the game--something that until then I thought was confined to computers--and I wondered without satisfaction how that was accomplished. I now know that there was a battery within the cartridge itself that kept the save files, which is admittedly one thing that would have impressed me in 1987.
          
I'm beginning to worry that it's not really eight.
             
As everyone but me knows until now, the Zelda games are set in a kingdom called Hyrule, ruled by Princess Zelda (reportedly named after F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife). Magic in this realm concentrates in golden triangles known as "triforces." As the first game opens, a Prince of Darkness named Gannon has sacked Hyrule and pilfered the Triforce of Power. Zelda also had the Triforce of Wisdom, but she broke it into eight pieces and hid them around the realm to prevent its theft. Meanwhile, Zelda's "nursemaid," Impa, fled the castle to find someone to help. (The fact that the heroine of the title is young enough to still have a nursemaid is another strike against it.) She was rescued from Gannon's soldiers by a "young lad" named Link, who vowed to assemble the Triforce of Wisdom and destroy Gannon.

(I gather that the name "Link" is meant to be taken somewhat literally, as in the character is the "link" between the player and the game world. As such, it's not much different than "avatar," although that was a title rather than a name.)
           
The manual provides a map of most of the overworld, which helps greatly.
          
Hyrule takes up 16 x 8 screens, with the character starting along the south edge in the center. On 9 of those screens are entrances to dungeons, numbered 1 to 9 in rough order of difficulty. The first eight have pieces of the Triforce, and the ninth has the confrontation with Gannon. There are also numerous entrances to caves where old men and women give hints, offer gems, and sell items. Many of these entrances (including the final dungeon entrance) are hidden and require bombs or other mechanisms to reveal.
          
An old man in a dungeon gives me a hint.
           
On just about every screen is a collection of various enemies, the creators did an admirable job giving each enemy has its own strengths, weaknesses, and movement and attack patterns. We saw something of this in Deadly Towers, but Zelda carries it to an apex. So you have "ropes" (I had to look up the official names in the manual since they appear nowhere in the game), which are snakes who move around randomly until they get to your column or row, at which they make a sudden and swift attack directly at your character. There are "darknuts," knight-like characters whose shields make them immune from forward attacks. "Peahats" look like chickens, and they can't be damaged while flying; you have to wait for them to land. "Dodongos" are immune to just about everything except that they'll eat any bombs that you leave in their path. There are at least a few dozen enemy types, and you have to learn each one.

Helping you out are a variety of inventory items that Link can find and buy, starting with a wooden sword, found in the cave on the starting screen. Failure swiftly followed any player who didn't go into that cave first. Later, you find a "white sword" and then a magical sword. Once you equip a sword, it is always activated by the "A" button, but the "B" button can cycle through a variety of other things that you can acquire, including boomerangs (regular and magic), bombs, candles, and bows and arrows. There are also artifact items used to solve particular puzzles. For instance, you need a whistle to defeat a particular enemy, a ladder to cross one-square water, and keys to open doors. Shields and rings reduce damage done to the character and potions heal it.
           
Link gets a magic sword. Note that he has three keys, eight bombs, and eight gems.
             
Life force is represented by "hearts," of which you have a maximum of three at the beginning. As you explore, you find more "max health" hearts. I suspect there are 13 in the game (plus the original three), but I only ever found 12. Regular hearts, which heal, are dropped randomly by slain enemies, which puts Zelda in that odd genre of games in which when your health gets low, you need to head out and find something to fight.

The game does an interesting thing where when your health is at its maximum, you can fling your sword across the screen like a missile weapon--a weird idea that we seem to find in a lot of Japanese titles--but if you take any damage, you can only swing at the square in front of you. Thus, you have a lot of incentive to keep Link at his maximum. This is pretty hard.
        
Link's inventory screen about halfway through.
          
In fact, I was surprised at how hard the game was in general. I had originally thought to explore the world in some kind of systematic order, but that went out the window within the first few minutes, as I got my ass handed to me by enemies only two screens from the starting screen. (I particularly hate "zolas," which live in the water and pop up every few seconds from a random location to spit a missile at you with unerring accuracy. There is no time in the game in which these things aren't a menace.) I tend not to be good at games that require a lot of fast reaction anyway, and Zelda really put me through my paces. Earlier, I had a line that said something like, "If it's a child's game in content, it certainly isn't in difficulty," but on reflection, I suspect children are better equipped to handle the swift reactions that the game requires. It made me feel old.

Balancing the difficulty is a somewhat charitable approach to reloading. When Link "dies," the player need only "Continue" from the starting square of the wilderness or dungeon that he's in, with no loss of items. (In fact, saving requires you to die, then choose the "Save" option.) I "continued" to more du dungeon entrances than I cared to count. I deliberately died a lot in the outdoors just to make navigation easier, as most of the shops are more convenient to the starting area than the far-flung dungeon locations.
        
Confronting the first dungeon boss.
         
Some commenters have questioned what RPG credentials Zelda lacks, but only a few hours with the game illustrates it perfectly. The character never really gets any better, excepting increases in maximum health. But even that only prolongs death. No matter how many hearts you possess, you have to try to avoid damage as much as possible. Upgrades in weapons and armor make killing enemies faster but don't fundamentally change the tactics that the player has to employ. Winning the game becomes possible when the player improves, not the character. [Edit: I didn't mean to necessarily attach any value to that final statement. Clearly, games in which the player gets better and wins via his own dexterity are fun, too. I was simply distinguishing Zelda from an RPG, in case anyone still wonders what makes it different.]
            
One of the game's "stores."
          
No amount of time killing low-level mooks puts Link in a better position to take on the dungeon bosses. Even "grinding" for money to buy things like potions is mostly a hopeless undertaking, since enemies drop money so slowly and rarely. I probably only bought and used five potions in the entire game. Oh, and some action games would allow the player to advance ever-so-slowly by focusing on one enemy at a time, a worthless tactic here since screens respawn.
         
A bow is the artifact in the first dungeon.
          
Another aspect of difficulty is found in simple navigation. Each dungeon is a fairly large labyrinth. Eventually, you find a compass, which shows the location of the piece of the Triforce on a little mini-map. Then you find the dungeon map, which fills in the mini-map with rooms. At some point, you find that dungeon's artifact item--I think each one has one--and the whole thing is capped with the dungeon boss and then the piece of the Triforce. Picking up the Triforce piece restores all your health and warps you out of the dungeon.

But getting through all of the dungeon rooms is a huge pain. If you don't find keys in the right order, you could end up facing a locked door with no way through it. Some navigation requires planting bombs against the walls and blowing open secret holes. (You can only carry a maximum of eight bombs at a time, and these go fast, so I was constantly running around, in and out of the dungeons, looking for enemies that dropped bombs.) Other times, you have to push blocks on the floor to reveal secret stairways. Sometimes, you have to kill every enemy in a room before a door will open or a key will drop.
          
Typical dungeon room swarming with various enemies. One I kill them all, I'll have to push the west block out of the way to reach the stairway.
            
In the outdoors, it's almost as bad. You also need bombs there to explore caves, but they're much more sensitive to specific locations, and you can easily miss the secret entrance if you're a pixel off. Basically, you have to bomb every inch of cliff face to make sure you're not missing anything. Trees disguise other entrances, but they can't be bombed. You have to toss a candle on them--a process that works only once per screen until you find the "red candle" late in the game. So to make sure you haven't missed anything, you have to run on and off the screen multiple times, testing the candle on each tree. Some screens have dozens of trees.
       
Blowing up a wall to find a secret cave.
          
To be fair, there are hints in the manual and throughout the game that help with this process, but I never found any hint that would have led me to the secret entrance to Death Mountain, the final dungeon, nor to many of the in-dungeon secret areas, and especially not to the dungeon entrance where I had to blow a whistle to drain a lake. Then again, I don't think Zelda was meant to be a 12-hour game. I think it was meant to be a 120-hour game in which the player was meant to explore every inch of every screen, to become so familiar with the landscape that he could have thrown away the map that came with the game, and to trade findings with friends. There are RPGs that require such investments of time, too, but at least you're earning levels and experience points in those.

If you sort it all out, you make it through the final dungeon and confront Gannon in a room where unkillable things in the corner shoot fireballs at you. He turns invisible after the first hit, but you can kind of figure out where he is from where his missiles are coming from. You keep running around, attacking, throwing bombs, whatever, until he turns brown, at which point you have to shoot him with a silver arrow (there's a hint to this somewhere), at which point he explodes and drops the Triforce of Power. The final screens show Link presenting the Triforce to Princess Zelda, and the two kids present their respective Triforces while a text screen talks about peace returning to Hyrule.
               
Gannon is apparently some kind of ape with a Mercedes hood ornament for a belt buckle.
             
And then something terrifying happens. The screen says: "Another quest will start from here." You're dumped back onto the game map with three hearts, no equipment, and apparently a second mandate to find the pieces of the Triforce and to defeat Gannon, only with the maps changed and items in different locations. I trust a player doesn't have to complete both quests to have "won" the game.
            
No! What kind of reward is this?!
          
In any event, I was less interested in "winning" Zelda than experiencing and documenting it. I have to confess to some cheating. Nestopia is about the easiest emulator in the world for save states, requiring you to only hit SHIFT and a number to save, and then just the number to reload. I used these gingerly at first, much more liberally towards the end. I particularly remember one room with three dodongos in which I had six bombs--exactly enough to kill them if none was wasted. I saved after every successful bomb. I also looked up locations of secret areas when I got stuck. The final battle with Gannon took me so many tries that I was motivated to look up an invincibility cheat code, and found one, but I couldn't get it to work, so I defeated him with just regular save-state cheating.

Nonetheless, I got the experience I was looking for, which was mostly negative. I admit there is a natural addictive property with just about every action game. If RPGs pull you along for "just one more screen" with the promise of the next upgrade, action games have a way of propelling you from screen to screen with sheer momentum.

I also like the idea of the occasional "boss enemy" who fights by his own rules and requires the player to discern patterns and test tactics to defeat him. These are common even in RPGs today, but in the 1980s and early 1990s, developers were too concerned with consistency and following an established monster manual. You never meet a formidable warrior with 200 hit points in a Gold Box game who shoots lighting from his swords because there are rules about "hit dice" and there are no Swords of Lightning.
          
A dragon with multiple heads serves as a dungeon boss.
            
But overall, Zelda still represents to me a malevolent influence on RPGs: reduction of tactics to a couple of buttons, the kawaii character style, character development via found items rather than earned ones, limited inventories and economies, and ridiculous swarms of floating, flying, spitting, belching enemies on every screen. I'd be more upset about it, but it's not like people stopped making more traditional RPGs. Heck, even if I limited my list to games that I actively wanted to play, I doubt I'd be much further than 1996 by now. The point is, there are plenty of games for everyone's tastes.
              
This doesn't come anywhere close to ending the story.
           
And Zelda was clearly to a lot of players' tastes. As with Final Fantasy, I'm not sure it's possible to pin an actual number on the titles in the series, what with all the sequels, spinoffs, expansions, and remakes. The series doesn't show any signs of ending, even in 35 years later. There have been cartoons, comics, albums, a television series . . . a freaking cereal. Why doesn't The Witcher have a cereal?

I remain mystified. In their best depictions, Princess Zelda and Link look like pre-teens, and their best games (I based this on reading descriptions of the major sequels), they approach the level of complexity that you find a good RPG. I don't quite understand what motivates people, let alone full-grown adults, to want to play these titles.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Realms of Arkania: Ei im Gesicht

That about sums up this entire session.
        
Today's subtitle comes from a conversation I had this week with Irene. My wife occasionally takes an interest in my hobby and asks about what I'm playing. She usually begins by asking, "What year are you up to?," to which whatever my reply she responds with "still?" That's always a bit depressing. But a few weeks ago, her first question was about the country.

"Germany," I replied enthusiastically. "This one is based on a German tabletop game called Das Schwarze Auge."
       
"The . . . black . . . owooga?" she asked, attempting to translate.

"The Black Eye," I corrected, not also mentioning that most people translate schwarze as "dark" in this context. 

Two weeks later, she came into my office while I was playing. I tend to interlace hours of work with hours of play, and without fail, if she opens the door and sees what's on my monitor, it's during one of the hours of play. Sometimes I don't think she thinks I work at all.

"Are you still playing that German game?" she asked. "Egg on Your Face?"

After some confusion, I realized she had confused one metaphor for an embarrassing facial blemish for another. I suspect for the rest of my life, I'm going to mentally translate Das Schwarze Auge as Egg on Your Face. Das Schwarze Auge probably has an actual rule about egg on a character's face, with an associated temporary loss of 3 charisma points.
           
I definitely don't want these eggs on my face.
        
This session, I mostly continued my town-to-town explorations, trying to find the pieces of the map that will lead me to Hyggelik's tomb. These travels were interspersed with more side explorations that I sure hope aren't tied to the main quest, because I've been doing awful at them.

Take the spider's cave, where I started. There were two levels to the place, and it was swarming with spiders and some kind of spider cultists. The combats were of average difficulty, made easier because the occultists tended to drop vials of spider venom, which I could then apply to my own weapons and thus do about three times the damage--oddly, even against spiders.

But aside from the combats, I screwed up everything in the caves. First, I chose to burn some spider eggs, and I guess that caused the caverns to fill up with smoke, which caused my characters to choke to death if they kept exploring. I had to reload from before that decision. Then I ran into an alcove where I was asked a riddle: "What is as impenetrable as an iron wall and yet as transparent as glass?" Now, the answer to this is literally nothing, or perhaps "REALLY THICK GLASS," but I suspected the developers were going for WEB or SPIDER WEB or something. No matter what I entered, I couldn't get it right, or at least nothing happened.
          
Ran out of letters!
         
I did solve another puzzle, probably the one that commenter Alrik von Prem was talking about last time. The riddle was in the basement, behind a one way door, and getting it right was the only way out of the area. It was, "Who is the lord of all spiders?" I figured the answer had something to do with a statue I'd seen on the first level, where "the letters S, N, A, T, C, A and M form a heptagram." I probably could have figured it out anyway just from trying different combinations, but I've known for years--god knows why--that the scientific name for the black widow spider is Latrodectus mactans, and thus figured correctly that's what they were going for.
             
Or else the authors were fans of SCATMAN Crothers.
          
That was probably my only success. I fell into several traps and damaged my party horribly. I set off several chest traps, and there were at least two chests that I never got open because of the traps. I found a bunch of crystals and two Amulets of Someone that I never found any use for. I finally left the caves dispirited and annoyed. One condition I didn't experience, to my surprise, was poison.

I returned to the road and made it to the harbor city of Ottarje, where a visit to Hjore Ahrensson produced another piece of the map as well as a new name in Clanegh (where I've already been).
               
This was prescient of him, as I was never able to find any Thinmarsdotters living in Clanegh.
               
From Ottarje, I took a ship to Prem--a huge town without much interesting except an abandoned mine. I wasted a bunch of time exploring the mine, which had no enemies but lots of locked doors and traps. The mine kept caving in, which took half a day or more for my characters to clear, and they started starving and complaining of thirst. Some things that I thought would be promising treasures turned out to be nothing. I broke my only set of lockpicks in a locked door. I left a second dungeon dispirited.

I kept circling the game's western "horn" with the goal of hitting Hjalsingor and then reaching the island of Manrek, both of which were clue locations. From Prem, we sailed to Treban, Kord, Guddasunden, and finally Hjalsingor. Algrid Trondesdotter said she used to have a map, but she sold it to merchant named "Kollborn or something." She also gave me a new name in Breida.
            
This NPC wasn't very useful.
          
From Hjalsingor, we sailed to Royik and then across the strait to the city of Manrin in Manrek. I had been told that my quarry was on Manrek, but not which of the two cities. Manrin was a bust, so I set out overland for Brendhil. On the way, I stumbled upon a third cave and had my third failure, largely because I hadn't been able to find a new set of lockpicks at any shop since my original set broke. I frankly don't even remember where I bought the originals. I opened some doors with spells but soon ran out of points. I fought some pirates, failed to figure out how to work a lever puzzle, and to cap it all off, decided to sail out of the caves in a boat we found at the back. In a scripted event (I'm not sure if high skill in anything would have prevented it), the boat foundered and sank and I had to reload from back in Manrin. I didn't even bother to stop at the cave on my second trip to Brendhil.
          
Why did we sail out into the open ocean anyway?
          
In Brendhil, Thomas Swarfnildsson gave me my fifth map piece but nothing much else happened. We hopped a boat for Liskor back on the mainland and then walked to Clanegh for the second time. I was utterly unable to find Yasma Thinmarsdotter, who was supposed to have another map clue. I checked every building and got drunk in every tavern hoping for a clue.
          
This is where I am at this point.
         
My pub crawl in Clanegh paid off in another way, however, when my first NPC companion joined the party in a tavern. Nariell, a huntress, comes with a bow and 40 arrows. I haven't done much with missile weapons since my early unsuccessful attempts, so I thought I'd keep her and see how it goes. She is highly skilled in nature-related skills and at Level 6 is much higher than my own characters. The downside is that NPCs exist in their own box off to the side, which means you can't put them at the front of the party, which means you can't take advantage of a lot of their skills.
         
Whether accepting or rejecting the NPC's offer to join, the party leader is a jerk.
        
My next clue was way over in Phexcaer, a long journey overland back to Felsteyn, then down the river branch to Vilnhome, then east along the river through a long wilderness stretch. On we went through Orkanger, Felsteyn, Upper Orcam, and Vilnhome, fighting some random bandit battles on the way, stopping in each town for a proper meal and bed rest. In Vilhome, we loaded up on rations and water for the long trip upriver.

After a couple of uneventful days, the game warned that we were entering orcish lands, an event punctuated with a skull stuck on a stick. In a scripted encounter, we got stuck in a marsh for a while, and Dormauera got some kind of disease that miraculously Halberman was able to treat.
         
My first battle with orcs.
         
The fourth day out, we fought our first party of orcs--a pack of four, which wasn't so bad. The next day, we were ambushed by eight, which was much harder. On Day 6, we met a traveler who warned us that Phexcaer is swarming with thieves--unwelcome news, as Halberman's pocket had been picked back in Brendhil for about 80 ducats.
        
It turned out that I didn't get anything for anything.
      
We finally reached Phexcaer after a week on the road. Halberman immediately leveled up to 4 from the fights in transit. Another large city, Phexcaer had a few features I hadn't found in other cities, including a "gentleman's club." It was interesting for several reasons. First, a detailed screen that showed several scantily-clad workers or patrons, plus an animated woman dancing, was almost immediately and continually covered up by text boxes. Second, upon entering, the party was approached by a young man who asked if we wanted to purchase sex. Two of the three resulting options are to express outrage at even being asked (in which case you get thrown out) and to get down to business and ask about Hyggelik (although, oddly, the game has us say that we're looking for Hyggelik rather than his tomb or descendants). But if you do want to take the brothel up on its services, the only option to do so is within the context of the party unanimously declaring themselves to be pansexual.
         
Three weird choices.
           
Meanwhile, if you ask about Hyggelik, the young man asks you to meet him in half an hour, "two houses to the north." The problem is that the building two squares to the north is an armory, not a house, and none of the nearby houses had any resulting encounters. Moreover, the game doesn't even track time in increments smaller than a whole hour. I tried nearby houses in all cardinal directions to no avail.

There's a "gambling hall," but you can't actually play any gambling games. I just lost 15 ducats in a scripted encounter. A town hall had a promising option to "use its archives," but after we paid a 10 ducat fee, we were told that a decision would be made at the next city council meeting in 3 weeks.

There were several options to talk with NPCs about Hyggelik, but they all acted like he was still alive. A guy in a bar told us he had "moved to Hermit's Lake," and a healer said that he had gone to Riva, which isn't even on my map.
           
I'm pretty sure he died centuries ago. Are we talking about the same person?
         
Unfortunately, I seem to have come all the way upriver for nothing. The person I was looking for, "Gerbald," turned out to be a smith running a shop in the southeast part of town. But no dialogue options would get anything out of him, and the most aggressive options turned into a brawl. I left the city frustrated and confused.

I figured while I was already so far west, I'd check out nearby Groenvelden--the furthest-east town on the map. But it was a tiny place with no special encounters. So now I have to make my way all the way back down the river to Thorwal and turn my explorations to the cities south of it. Maybe while I'm back in the big city, I'll see if I have any luck in the lower levels of the old fortress.

Miscellaneous notes:
         
  • I'm having major inventory annoyances. Between all the equipment that I feel like I should keep for when it's necessary, backup weapons, rations and water, potions and poisons, and herbs, I'm constantly running out of room.
  • Potions would be a great money sink if they stacked.
  • Sometimes, the game doesn't seem to apply its Scandinavian naming conventions accurately.
            
Or else that's one ugly daughter.
        
  • Treasure chests never seen to have anything I actually want, such as weapon and armor upgrades.
           
A bonanza for a party of mountaineers.
         
  • I continue to be amused by the absurd dialogue options when dealing with shopkeepers.
           
No comment.
            
  • I give 50 silver pieces to every temple I come across and yet my prayers are never answered. I don't even know what they're supposed to do in theory.
  • I've had some weapons break, but it's so annoying to wait the 6 hours it takes to repair them that I've been throwing them away and replacing them.
          
One thing that really struck me during this session was the overwhelming purposelessness of most of the cities and towns. Even the smallest is maybe 20 x 20 squares with a dozen buildings. In any given town, about half its buildings will have random citizens or will be empty, and the others will consist of interchangeable shops, inns, taverns, and temples. Maybe 1 in 3 cities has an NPC's house. Prem was like 20 x 60 but hardly had anything more interesting than the smallest town. And there are over 50 cities! The developers spent an awful lot of time building numerous large spaces in which not much of anything happens.

This was also true of Spirit of Adventure, but that game had only like 3 towns. This one has several dozen. It takes forever to fully explore each one, but you must lest you miss that one important house.

I've just crossed the game's 20th hour. By the same time in most Gold Box games, I was over halfway through the plot, had leveled up 5 times, and had six or seven magic items among the party members. For this game, I still feel like I've just started, I've leveled up twice, I still mostly have my starting inventory, and I keep spending hours exploring places that offer no sense of reward or resolution. I'm beginning to think that this isn't a very good game.

Time so far: 23 hours

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Game 352: Dungeons of Avalon II: The Island of Darkness (1992)

This screen is the same in both the German and English versions.
              
Dungeons of Avalon II: The Island of Darkness
Germany
Zeret (developer); published by CompuTec Verlag (German) and Amiga Mania (English)
Released in 1992 for the Amiga
Date Started: 7 January 2020
       
It was over three years ago that I played the frustrating Dungeons of Avalon (1991), which exceeded the typical diskmag game (a game that was distributed via an electronic magazine) in technical quality. But I wasn't able to win it, first because the final battle was unbelievably hard--I can't imagine anyone winning it "straight"--and second because even when I cheated to win the final battle, I couldn't get any flag to trip to show me the endgame screens. Said screens did exist in the game, as attested by the various files.

So the ending was a bit of a downer, but the gameplay experience until then was very good, and we find the same experience in Dungeons of Avalon II. As far as I can tell, the game mechanics, graphics, and sound haven't changed at all between the two versions. The only thing that's changed is the layout of the dungeon and the ostensible reason for being there.
            
The German version supplies the backstory.
         
The games look a lot like Dungeon Master and indeed follow some Dungeon Master protocols when it comes to door switches and navigation puzzles. In everything else, however, they are much more products of the Wizardry lineage. In particular, enemies can't be seen in the environment--you just stumble upon them--and combat is run by having each character specify an action and then watching as they execute in conjunction with the enemies' actions. In their use of grotesque graphics and ambient sound, the Avalon games arguably exceed the best commercial Wizardry derivatives of the era.

I had expected to import characters between the games, so I was glad to see that the sequel starts things over with a new party. It takes place 49 years after the defeat of the Dark Lord in the first game. Avalon has become an empire and expanded to the sea and beyond. On one of its islands, evil has befallen the city of Isla. Monsters have appeared out of nowhere, overwhelming the trading port and slaughtering the city guards. The mayor, Roa, has written to the king for help. The king has dispatched several parties of soldiers and mages to the city, but none have returned. Finally, in desperation, he organizes one more small party, hoping they can succeed where the others failed.

The backstory specifies that "five heroes were chosen . . . two fighters and three magicians," which conflicts with the fact that you can create a party of six and you're not in any way limited by class. The races and classes haven't changed. Races are human (mensch), elf, half-elf (halb-elf), dwarf (zwerg), troll, "gnom," "lizzard" (echse), and "stembär," the last an homage to music composer Rudolf Stember. Classes are fighter (krieger), thief (dieb), knight (ritter), hunter (jäger), monk (mönch), magician (magier), healer (heiler), and wizard (hexer), the last four equipped with spellbooks as well as melee weapons.
            
Creating a new character.
       
Once you specify race and class during creation, the game automatically rolls for intelligence, dexterity, wisdom, luck, strength, and constitution, modified by race. You can spend a lot of time re-rolling, but these attributes increase between 2 and 11 points per level anyway. Character portraits are automatic based on class and always seem to look human. All are male.

Even though I didn't play with them--I never do--I noted that the default party starts at Level 3, which puts them at a major advantage over a party that you create yourself. 

I went with:
           
  • Armin, a human knight
  • Fomorus, a troll fighter
  • Ferry, a half-elf thief
  • Jolson, a dwarf monk
  • Aurion, an elf magician
  • Taliesin, a lizzard wizard
         
I had a tough time getting things started. There are multiple German and English versions of the game on the web, some "patched" in some way, others not. I started with a WHDLoad version of the English edition, but halfway through Level 1 I ran into some problems--the same problems that a period reviewer found when he tried to play the game. It essentially had to do with the wrong encounters showing up in the wrong squares, making it impossible to pass those squares.
         
The shopowner is proud of his limited wares.
         
I couldn't find any English version in which that problem had been repaired, so I switched to a "patched" German version (although I don't know if that's one of the things it patched), which meant starting over with new characters and losing a couple of hours of progress. Fortunately, the game is not that text-heavy, and I can read a lot of it without needing a translator, thanks to previous German RPG experience. Also, a lot of the text is in English even in the German version, including the title.
          
Not only is this encounter in the wrong place, he doesn't actually give you a key.
         
There are 10 levels of 32 x 32 to explore (with worm-tunnel walls), divided into two structures: the dungeon and the Tower of Roa. (The first game had 50 x 50 levels, but fewer of them.) A menu town with a shop, a temple, and a training guild sits outside.

Exploration is not entirely "open," but it's less linear than the typical dungeon crawler. Each level has multiple sections, some disconnected from the others, and at any given moment you're probably looking for at least three keys, objects, puzzle solutions, or other necessities to uncover different areas.
           
You have to check all walls for these little floor buttons. Pressing them removes the wall.
         
The levels also wrap, which always disappoints me. Wrapping dungeon levels give you a momentary navigation pause, but they otherwise offer little extra challenge to justify tearing the player out of any sensible reality.
           
My map of Level 2 of the main dungeon. Note the north/south wrap on column 8.
           
The levels are full of the types of light puzzles I remember from the first game. Small grates at the bottom threshold of the walls indicate secret doors; sometimes you have a dozen of these in a sequence. Other secret doors are revealed by pressure plates or wall switches. There are teleporters, traps, spinners, magic barriers, and occasional "ice floors" that send you careening down long hallways with no ability to stop. Fortunately, a group of spells keep you oriented and solve most of the navigation issues, including "Vogelblick" ("Birds' View") "Magier Auge" ("Magic Eye"), and "Falkenfeder" ("Levitation").
            
The game's automap is quite good, though not enough that I could rely on it exclusively.
            
Combats occur at fixed locations (with no respawning), but most have random compositions. Sometimes, you lose to two groups of three zombies, reload, and face a single skeleton on your second try. You don't see the enemies themselves in the environment, but there are very faint blue lines on the tiles where a fixed combat is going to occur; whether this is intentional or some kind of side-effect of the game's coding is unknown. Fighting follows a Wizardry model in which only the first three characters can attack in melee range. You specify actions for each character and watch them execute (threaded with the enemies' actions) all at once. One nice thing is a "quick combat" option that just runs through the actions without narrating the results. At the end of combat (whether you win or flee), you get a little summary of who did and took how much damage, and how experience and gold were allocated. The only other game I remember ever offering such a feature is the German Legend of Faerghail (1990).
           
Combat options when attacking a "pest baby" include attacking, using an object, casting a spell, and defend.
         
The game strikes a good balance in difficulty. It allows you to save anywhere, but you can only camp (to recover health and magic points) on rare fixed squares that have an emblem with the letter "C." You have to keep spell points in reserve to handle the occasional blindness, poison, disease, or petrification.
             
Final statistics after a battle with an "invisible."
           
There's been some nice ambient sound--creaks and groans and moaning wind as you explore the dungeon corridors. Unfortunately, it's a bit repetitive and can't be turned off independently from the music, which is well composed but (as always with me) unwelcome. Thus, I have been playing mostly in silence. 

Perhaps the best part of the game is the grotesque monster portraits and other unusual graphics. The graphics are credited jointly to Hakan Akbiyik, Frank Matzke, and Klaus Ehrhardt. I've checked out their individual portfolios and don't see anything quite the same as the Avalon games, so I'm not sure who to credit.
           
The authors' conception of a "zombie."
This dragon wants a "dragon stone."
This "voodoo man" might be considered a little "questionable" today.
            
Unfortunately, the game has a lot of negative points, too:

1. I don't care for the controls much. Too much depends on the mouse. You can move with the arrow keys but not activate doors or switches. Number keys open the characteristics of the characters, but you then have to use the mouse to switch to inventories or exit. When you're given numbered commands on the screen, you can't activate them with the number keys--you have to click on them. Things like that add up.

2. As with its predecessor, characters in Dungeons of Avalon II start hitting their level caps with two or three game levels left to go.

3. There might as well have been no economy. After you equip your characters at the beginning, the only thing to spend money on is the occasional temple healing and leveling up. For your first 4 or 5 character levels, you're chronically under-funded and almost always waiting for enough gold to advance half your party. Pretty soon, the situation reverses and you have tens of thousands of gold pieces.
       
If you don't get diseased or killed much, money doesn't have a purpose.
              
4. It's too goddamned long, particularly where the encounters leave you no reason to fight once you've hit the level cap except that all the encounters are fixed. A diskmag dungeon crawler of this quality would have been perfect at 12-16 hours. Instead, I think it's going to come very near to 40.

As the game begins, you can enter either the dungeon on Level 0 or the Tower of Roa on Level 5. But the part of the Tower that you enter takes you only a short distance before you run into either locked doors or an encounter with a giant named "Argha" who wants you to bring him a dragon to grant passage.

You thus have to explore a while in the main dungeon. The game follows European hotel tradition by designating the first floor "0" and the second floor "1." Level 0 is full of long, snaky corridors with a lot of false walls that have to be opened with switches. In the far southern corridor is a teleporter that takes you to a central area with four pressure plates (and four camping squares), the combinations of which determine which corridors are open at which times. The pressure plate is preceded by message squares that say "BEAM ME UP SCOTTY" in the German version but misspell "BEAM" as "BAEM" in the English version.

The northern half of the level is suggested as a "jail" with numerous cells curving off the main corridor, most hosting fixed combats. A guardian blocks the way to this area until you give him a letter of invitation, which is found in a treasure chest to the southeast.

Monsters on Level 0 are mostly giant turtles and giant frogs, neither of which has any special attacks. They ease you nicely into the combat system.
        
A freaky-looking turtle.
         
Two of the "cells" have special encounters. A dragon is looking for a "dragon stone" for some reason. A group of thieves offers to trade a key for their freedom, although I neglected to write down what I had to do to achieve their freedom. Their key ends up opening the "map rooms" in the Tower of Roa, allowing some further progression on its first level.
        
Some thieves complain about being locked up.
       
A teleporter brings the party to a long north/south corridor that leads to the stairs to Level 1. There, things get more complicated. A small, winding corridor leads you immediately to the stairs to Level 2, which you must nearly fully explore before you find stairs back up to Level 1.

The main part of Level 1 is presented as a rectangular hallway with six crypts jutting to the east and west. The crypts belong to royalty of ages past--kings and queens and princes of Avalon, Isodor, and the Isle Rachon. A couple of them are answers to later puzzles that otherwise block progress. One of the kings is given as the king of "ZD and CT," which is I assume a reference to Zeret and CompuTec.
             
Zouth Dakota and Connecticut?
           
In a chest deep in the level, you find the first truly good equipment. Until then, you've mostly been stuck with the stuff you bought at the beginning, plus perhaps a few scrolls, potions, and regular missile weapons for the rear characters. Here, you find Arc's Helmet and Ara's Armour, Arc and Ara being heroes of ages gone. Mysteriously, you also find a few treasure chests that go into your inventory as whole chests. I've tried everything, and I don't think there's any way to open them. I think maybe you're just expected to sell them whole.
         
What am I supposed to do with these damned chests?
          
I'll stop there so I have something to talk about next time. I poured hours into this game over the weekend, hoping to finish it for a single entry, but it was to no avail. Cross your fingers and hope I can win this one.

Time so far: 24 hours