Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Savage Empire: Neither Savage nor an Empire

Love or hate the game, this is a pretty awesome scene.

I've often remarked that while Origin was competent at "creating worlds"--better, indeed, than any other developer of the 1980s--they generally fell short of greatness. Their world-building often falls apart under scrutiny. The gargoyles, presented as misunderstood victims, are actually pretty vile when you think about it, and their virtue system makes no sense. The explanations for the extinction-level physical changes to Britannia's landscape are just absurd, and don't even get me started on Ultima II and its planets. When the world-building doesn't fall apart under scrutiny, it's just a little too tidy. Britannia's eight major cities, each based on a virtue, with docile NPCs spouting platitudes like "STRIVE FOR HUMILITY!," seem more like one big cult than a viable socio-political system.

Given its history, I've been alert for The Savage Empire being a little too cute. For instance, the three "totems" needed to cast spells are Heluzz, spirit of knowledge and vision; Aphazz, spirit of emotion and strength; and Molazz, spirit of battle--which of course correspond with the three principles of truth, love, and courage. For a while, I thought the various tribes were somehow going to be organized around the eight virtues, and that may in fact be the case. (There are actually nine tribes, but the Urali are supposed to be weird outliers who no one knows where they came from.) For instance, the "Disquiqui" are said to be "happy, musical, and rather notoriously amorous," which somewhat fits with the bards of Britain in the main series. The Pindiro have a "one with the land" thing going on that may associate them with the rangers and the virtue of spirituality. But on the whole, if this is what the developers intended, it's very subtle.

The manual's depiction of some of the tribes.
More specifically cloying for this game is the way that each tribe represents some aspect of "primitive" Earth cultures. The character portraits and NPC dialogue hint at this, but the game book makes it explicit. The Yolaru are Africans,  the Nahuatla are Aztecs, the Barrab are Asians, the Disquiqui are Polynesians, the Kurak are South American Indians, the Haakur are Neanderthals, and the Pindiro are North American Indians. Eodon is about the size of EPCOT, and yet these tribes have managed to maintain distinct cultural identities over what must have been thousands of years.

Whether by ignorance or design, Origin does a good job treading the "cultural sensitivity" line sometimes, as we discussed in association with Tangled Tales and Ultima VI's "Miss Mandy." They're never actually what I would call "offensive," and yet they sometimes elicit a groan, as when the Barrab are described as having yellow skin, or in Professor Rafkin's note about the Polynesian Disquiqui: "I always recall how and where Captain Cook died, and keep my wits about me when dealing with the Disquiqui." For the record, Captain Cook died while trying to kidnap the King of Hawaii to hold him for ransom.

I don't want to give the impression that I really care about this stuff, because I don't. I don't really think that anyone at Origin hated Mapuches, or that the game somehow hampered Caucasian-Polynesian relations. If I was an ethnic Zulu, I wouldn't feel offended. It just suggests a certain failure of imagination. Like a million things they did, Origin started with the germ of a good idea but failed to take it beyond the usual tropes.

'Cause nothing says "Native American" like feathered headdresses
As gameplay goes, it's been tolerable so far. Not Ultima VI quality, but a decent quasi-expansion. It follows the typical Ultima dynamic of offering a large game world which you navigate by a non-linear approach, taking notes as you talk to NPCs and find clues, juggling multiple quests at a time.

I decided to explore the north part of the map first and see if I could find Topuru, the exiled ex-shaman of the Urali, who supposedly knows where the Urali live (no one else does). The first camp I ran into belonged to the Pindari. From them, I learned that Topuru lives on an island west of the Barako camp, and that I'd need a raft to get over to him. A raft, meanwhile, requires four people to paddle in unison; the Pindari get their paddles from the Disquiqui far to the south.

Fortunately, I found my fourth party member in short order. Shamuru--Shamino's doppleganger from the introduction--was waiting on the road between the Pindari and Barako villages. Like Triolo, he said he had been found by the tribe after wandering out of the jungle with no memory, so it's possible that he actually is Shamino. His fellow Barako villagers revere him as a "great hunter." Talking about things like Lord British elicits a faraway look. Another clue was that Shamuru was wearing leather armor, which wouldn't otherwise seem to exist in Eodon. I gave the armor to the Avatar, the only character who fights with a melee weapon. Everyone else has a bow.

Another clue: Shamuru is white.

The Pindari had told me about a stranger living in a cave north of the village, and I found him after some exploration. He turned out to be Fritz, a colleague of Professor Spector; as per the backstory, both had disappeared while studying the rogue moonstone, which they recovered from a dig in Guatemala.

And the German scientist manages to insult about a dozen cultures in the space of two sentences.

Fritz related that after they were in the Eodon, Spector found a crystal skull in an underground city to the southwest. He referred to the crystal skull as a "brain" and said that he (Spector) could use its energies to conquer the Earth. (One wonders if the crystal skull drove Spector insane, or whether Origin thinks that a German's default use for any artifact is to try to conquer the world.) Fritz ended up stealing the "brain" from Spector and fleeing to the cavern. He gave me the skull and 60 rounds of ammunition but declined to join me for fear that he'd run into Spector again.

The Barako village was astir because a great ape had recently kidnapped the village chieftain's daughter, Malisa. The villagers say that they can see the ape on the top of a cliff, but they can't get to him. I, too, found him lurking at the top of a cliff, but I couldn't find any way up to the plateau. There were a couple areas where it looked like I should be able to perhaps attach a rope to a tree, but maybe I need to find or fashion some kind of hook first. Nothing I tried worked. Mild hints welcome here.

I suspected I'd have to travel all the way down to the Disquiqui village to get paddles for the raft, so I was surprised when I found a bunch piled next to it. I nearly didn't see them--the color contrasts in this game are the worst I've ever experienced. As usual, I suspect it's my colorblindness, but those of you without that problem can tell me your opinion. I suppose it makes sense, given that we're in a jungle, that everything seems sort-of camouflaged.

Can you see the four paddles just south of my lead character?

Using the paddles (one in each character's inventory), I made it over to Topuru's island. Topuru is the insane, exiled shaman of the Urali tribe, banished by his own apprentice, Wamap. He promised to tell me where the Urali "hide" if I would bring him his "mind," which he claims he lost in a magic battle to Balakai, shaman of the Barrab tribe, far to the southwest.

Topuru makes a reasonably funny joke about Aiela's abductor.

In the meantime, Professor Rafkin had given me a list of some items necessary to build rifles and grenades. For instance, a grenade requires a strip of cloth soaked in tar, gunpowder (charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulphur ground in a mortar), and a hard clay pot. I started looking for these items in the wilderness and in the villager's huts. Eventually, I assembled the rifle items, but Rafkin insists he needs to be in his lab to make one. His lab is supposedly southwest of the Kurak (starting) village, but I haven't been able to find it yet. I'm going to search a little while longer and then continue with the main quest if I can't find it.

Soon, I'll be able to defeat the Gorn.

Given the name of the game, I was expecting a lot more combat, particularly with hostile tribals. Maybe that comes later, but so far the only enemies have been random dinosaurs. Since they are, you know, dinosaurs, I feel rather bad about killing them, and I would have expected my party members to offer more incredulous exclamations. There have been a few attacks by big apes, too. So far, I don't think any of my party members have increased in levels. I don't know if there's something I have to do to get that to happen, or if I just haven't earned enough experience yet.

Fighting a pteranodon while walking across a rope bridge feels very cinematic.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Night comes very fast. I'm constantly having to rest for the night to make it go away. Bumbling around a village and finding all the NPCs to talk with can easily burn a day or two.

Fighting at night. The game won't let you rest until you've cleared the area of monsters.

  • While I love the engine's ability to designate an active character, I sometimes forget to turn "party mode" back on until my main character has wandered miles away. It's annoying to have to get everyone back in the same area again.
  • NPC dialogue is my favorite part of Ultima games, and this off-shoot didn't adapt it very well. Each village has maybe three important NPCs and 6-8 generic NPCs. None of them, even the important ones, have very many things to say. I had hoped that through dialogue, we'd learn more about the game world and its relationship to Earth or Britannia, but nothing that I cue them with enlists anything more than a few stock lines or issues of purely local concern. Again, maybe that comes later.

I feel like maybe I should have been able to get further with him.

  • I found a potentially game-breaking bug while talking with Fritz. When he first gave me the crystal skull, my lead character was already at the maximum of his encumbrance, so the item simply didn't show up in his inventory. I suspect this is going to be a necessary item later. Fortunately, I noticed what happened when it happened and reloaded.
  • When I enter combat, it's a complete crapshoot whether any of my party members fire their bows, even though I've set all their actions to "ranged." I may have to just take manual control of everyone.
  • The game has poison swamp patches just like Ultima VI. So far, I haven't found any mechanism for healing poison, so I've been avoiding them like the plague they are.
  • Using a knife on a slain foe results in meat and sometimes hides.

Dian Fossey had better not be around here.

  • The consensus from the last post is that there's no penalty for taking whatever you want to take from the villages. I've been trying not to go overboard with this, and only take what I absolutely need.

Such as arrows.

  • In the middle of the jungle, I found something that looks like a portal. Rather than investigate it and screw up my adventuring path, I marked it for later investigation.

You just know that this is going to be important.
  • I don't know what was happening with graphics outside the RPG genre, but I think this waterfall represents the most advanced water effects we've seen in RPGs so far. This reminds me: a few weeks ago, Irene and I were playing Dragon Age: Inquisition on one of the seaside maps, and we were remarking how awesome the water effects were. I couldn't remember any previous RPG that actually had waves. Anyway, I said to her, "No matter how good we think these graphics look, I guarantee you that there are people online complaining about how much they suck." The Internet did not disappoint.

Sorry it's been a week since my last post. Irene and I have had to move out of our house and put all of our stuff in storage while the interior is completely gutted and replaced. (The house suffered horrible water damage this winter.) Eventually, this might result in more time for RPG playing, but alas not just yet.

Time so far: 5 hours
Reload count: 1


Let's talk about Angband. I'm not sure I shouldn't regard it as a 1993 game instead of a 1990 game. My general tendency has been to play roguelikes in the year that they had their first general release, not in the year that they were first a gleam in someone's eye. Hence, I played Moria in 1983, not 1981, and I'll be playing Hack in 1984, when it first appeared on Usenet, not 1982, when some students at a Massachusetts high school were able to mess with it.

From what I understand, Angband first appeared on some Warwick University computers in 1990, but that was just a variant of Umoria. The first version that seems to have achieved general release under the name Angband--and the earliest version currently accessible--is from December 1993. (The official Angband site actually says it "eventually became Angband some twenty years ago in 1994.")

Hence, unless someone comes up with a compelling counter-argument, I'm going to bump it to 1993 and get one step closer to getting out of 1990.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Game 185: Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990)

Re-use of a game's "engine" appeared in some of the earliest RPGs. For instance, Epyx built a dozen titles off the Dunjonquest engine between 1979 and 1982, and the programming framework of Wizardry (1981) served untouched for three games and slightly modified for two more, all the way through 1988. Eamon (1980) gave us the first engine specifically built to be modular, and Stuart Smith offered us a "construction set" for RPGs in 1984. By the end of the decade, we'd be knee deep in "Gold Box" games that offered the same interface and mechanics, and almost all of them are great games. These days, the fact that a game re-uses a popular engine is a selling point, not a point of criticism.

Given that, it's always surprised me how reluctant Origin was to re-use its Ultima engines. Ultima V, in particular, was brilliant. It could have sustained titles all the way through the mid-1990s and I'd be raving about them. But they used it once.

Thus, it's a good thing that the company got some additional mileage out of Ultima VI, one of the best game engines we've seen so far. Yes, none of us like how limited the map window is. Let's get past that. No other top-down game of the era--and few of any era--offers a more complex approach to inventory management and world-interaction. I like the Infinity Engine moderately better for combat, and of course the graphics improved, but in Ultima VI there are a score of things I can't do in the Infinity Engine, or the Aurora Engine, or almost any other engine for that matter, including repositioning objects to get a tactical advantage in combat, smashing furniture, setting fires, and using objects interactively with each other, such as storing common objects in their own bags.

(U)sing a random tree gives you a branch from it. Putting that branch in fire gives you some charcoal.
I wasn't looking forward to The Savage Empire going into it, and I still have some reservations about the content, but almost all of my fears evaporated when I started playing the game and remembered how much I liked the "sandbox" feel of Ultima VI. Add to this the detailed dialogue and virtue-based roleplaying that the Ultima series has become famous for, and I'm already hooked.

As with most Origin titles, the manual is particularly well done. It's credited to Aaron Allston, prolific writer of game manuals, D&D supplements, and novels set in the Star Wars universe. This, Wing Commander, and Wing Commander: The Secret Missions--all 1990 games--are his first video game credits. He died a little over a year ago, at age 53, after suffering a heart attack at VisionCon.

The creatively-presented game manual.
The manual is presented as a pulp magazine from the early 1900s, most of it written by the Avatar himself using that pen name. ("He's a modern-day adventurer who prefers to keep his identity a secret," the editorial introduction says, "But we've heard of him for several years and can attest to his courage, resourcefulness, and truthfulness." Note how "resourcefulness" replaces "love" in the three principles of virtue here.) The writing has taken place after the Avatar's triumphant return from The Savage Empire, but since this is only the first issue, we only get enough information to impart a backstory and a description of flora and fauna. The backstory covers 16 pages and is recapped in the game's opening screens.

The Avatar has been experiencing disturbing dreams of a faraway jungle and an endangered princess. Lord British has been showing up in these dreams, commanding the Avatar to find out more about a "ruined moonstone," so the Avatar decides to see his friend, Dr. Rafkin, curator of a local Museum of Natural History, because clearly a paleontologist is the right person to analyze a stone capable of opening portals to other worlds. At his office, the Avatar runs into "ace reporter" Jimmy Malone. "Oh, what a file we have on you," Malone says. "Every so often, you disappear for days on end. Usually come back really tanned. Your neighbors are curious about all that, you know...What's the story? You CIA? Helping US-backed rebels somewhere?" Why they don't assume I'm just flying to St. Croix for a long weekend is anyone's guess.

Is this the 1940s?
Anyway, it turns out that Dr. Rafkin has been analyzing a damaged moonstone, sent to him by a former student, who discovered it on a dig in Central America. The student's employer, a Dr. Spector, disappeared while examining it. When Dr. Rafkin starts frigging around with the moonstone, it opens a moongate and sucks the Avatar, Rafkin, and Malone into The Lost World, complete with dinosaurs and Amazonian tribesmen. Within moments, they come across a pterodactyl attacking a "she-warrior," Princess Aiela of the Kurak tribe. ("She didn't have the pouty, perfect features preferred by modelling agencies, but oh, she was beautiful.") The four of them manage to kill the beast before they're surrounded by Aiela's tribe. One of the tribesmen looks exactly like Shamino but calls himself "Shamuru."

The visitors pass some time with the Kurak people and learn that they're in an isolated valley called Eodon. Princess Aiela has lately been dreaming about someone who looks like the Avatar saving her from an insect creature. Shamuru is agitated because he thinks he recognizes the Avatar but can't place him. The Avatar is forced to explain to his companions about Lord British and Britannia.

I've told you I occasionally do favors for a foreign dignitary who goes by the name of Lord British. That's true. I sort of led you to believe that he was European, that his name was a code-name, but that's not true. British lives in a place--a world--he calls Britannia. I like to think of it as a distant reflection of our world. I get the impression, from his choice of names and other clues, that he's had some contact with our world, but I've never gotten the whole story out of him. [It's hard when all you ask about is NAME and JOB.]

The Avatar is about to go spend some private time with Aiela when the Urali tribe attacks, led by Darden the Huge, who wants Aiela for his own. The attack scatters the companions, the Avatar is knocked unconscious, and Aiela is kidnapped. Begin character creation.

She looks a bit like Courtney Cox, but she wasn't famous yet in 1990.
The character creation process mimics the gypsy from Ultima IV but with a tribal wise man in a dirt-floored hut, presented as Intanya, a healer who is trying to rouse the Avatar from unconsciousness. "In order to heal your spirit, Intanya must known your spirit," he says, and progresses through a series of role-playing decisions. 

  • You fight a warrior you hate, and knock his spear from his hands. Another blow and he will be dead. Will you (a) let him surrender, and spare him if he does, or (b) slay him where he stands? The fact that I hate him doesn't seem enough to warrant the death penalty. I hope I would choose (b), but who knows what I'd justify when the adrenaline is pumping?

I didn't get this one with my final character. It's the only one that offers a true dilemma.
  • One warrior borrows another's spear and fails to return it. Days later, he mislays his own spear and you find it. Do you (a) return it to him, or (b) give it to the warrior who is owed the spear? Another warrior's debt is none of my business. No one asked me to get involved in this. It's (a), naturally.
  • A huge, powerful warrior stands against you and demands you give him your food. Will you (a) throw his demand in his teeth and attack him, or (b) give him your food, since it is clear he is hungry? This is like the time I got mugged. I'd like to say (a), but in reality I'd probably do what I did in New Orleans, and go with (b). Since this is a fantasy game and I'm creating an ideal character, it's (a).

There's a larger bank of questions--I got different ones when creating different characters--but you only get three of them when you start the game. Instead of determining class, the answers seem to determine your starting attributes.

My starting stats. Don't I look like a proper H. Rider Haggard hero.
The game begins with the Avatar waking up to the ministrations of Intanya. In short order, the Avatar is having a dialogue with him, learning the fates of his companions. Scattered after the Urali attack, Rafkin found refuge with the Yolaru tribe to the east, Jimmy ended up with the Disquiqui tribe to the south, and Aiela's fate is unknown but presumably she's a captive of the Urali. Intanya loans his apprentice to the Avatar to help with his travels; the apprentice, Triolo, looks suspiciously like Iolo. He might even be: Triolo claims that he "came stumbling from the jungle, bereft of name and memory" some time ago and was taken in by the Kuraks. Anyway, the Kurak chief wants to see me before I head off looking for my friends.

I hope those wash off.
All right, let's get the backstory stuff out of the way. Yes, it's kind of stupid. The Avatar from Ultima IV was supposed to be the player's "avatar," not some specific guy who lives in a specific city, has a friend named Dr. Rafkin, and writes stories for pulp adventure magazines. Yes, Origin has reversed themselves, and the Avatar can no longer be anything but a white male with blond hair. Yes, the stuff the Avatar says about Lord British contradicts previous dialogue and manual text (the Avatar knows he's from Earth). Yes, in the real world of 1990, reporters didn't look and talk like a character in a Howard Hawks film. Yes, the game has perhaps too-literally adapted the conventions of pulp magazines when it comes to certain ethnic caricatures. I thought I was going to go on about all of these things for an entire post. But that's all I'm going to say--one paragraph. I'm going to seal all of that in a box and try to enjoy the game.

Gameplay starts in Intanya's hut, and even in this little space, we can see many of the things possible in the engine. I can (L)ook at the various objects on the floor (the three skulls are magic totems); (T)alk to Triolo or Intanya; search his pot for reagents and (G)et them; pick up some food; get or extinguish the torches on the wall, move the various items around to different positions, and finally open the door to leave.
Outside the Shaman's hut.

A couple of tribe members lurk outside. I talk to them. The game's dialogue system hasn't changed from Ultima VI. Everyone responds to NAME and JOB, and keywords that will lead to further conversation are highlighted in red, green, or brown. As in all Ultima titles, dialogue promises to be a huge part of the game, imparting quests and game lore. 

One change soon becomes apparent, though. Outside Intanya's hut, a woman named Tindira tells me that the Kuraks are the greatest tribe, at war with the Yolaru, Urali, and Myrmidex.  The Yolaru are a fierce tribe of black warriors. I'm going to have to talk to a madman named Topuru to find out where the Urali live (he's apparently a Urali defector). The Myrmidex are human-sized insects who "live only to kill." Their nest is to the west.

I then talk to a man named Padrag, and he tells me the same things, using the exact same language. So does the next guy, a tribesman named Enokor. And a woman named Jana, and a woman named Shalan. In all previous Ultimas, there were generic guards and whatnot, but usually all named NPCs have unique dialogue. Here, I guess we're going to see a lot more re-use.

The tribe's chieftan, Aloron, does have his own things to say. He's pretty upset about Aiela's kidnapping. He also directs me to Topuru, somewhere on an island in the far north, to learn about where the Urali live. His second daughter, Tristia, is nearby. She seems a little spoiled.

She also looks kind of mean.
And that's about it for NPCs in the Kurak village. The game doesn't seem to have a strong opinion about where I should go next. I could seek out Rafkin or Jimmy, or go look for Topuru to get intel on the Urali tribe, or go anywhere else, I guess.

In his initial inventory, Gideon (my Avatar) has only a knife. Triolo comes with a bow, some arrows, and some pouches filled with reagents. The huts around the village have a lot more stuff, including obsidian knives, food, cloth, spears, shields, and torches. I don't know if this is the kind of game where you happily loot that stuff or the kind of game where you lose karma for stealing. Figuring I'm off to rescue their kinsman, I take some food and a few other items from the huts.

Looting food from a house full of jaguar pelts.
By the time I'm done, night is falling. Knowing how much of a pain it is to navigate in the dark, I find an empty hut and (R)est until sunrise.
The world  map. You start in the upper-center.
I head north at first, looking for Topuru, before I realize I don't really have a plan for getting to an island and I don't know exactly where I'll find him on the large map. Since the Yolaru camp is much closer, I decide to turn east and go there.

Well, hell.
On the way, I'm attacked by an Allosaurus, who gets Gideon down to 2 hit points before we kill him. Combat in The Savage Empire is absolutely identical to Ultima VI, down to the way you can theoretically program companions to behave in specific ways, but they don't really follow the commands anyway. It was late in the battle before Triolo decided to finally use his bow.

I fight a carnivorous dinosaur with a knife while Triolo helpfully wanders off-screen.
Hit points don't regenerate automatically, so it's time to explore the magic system. There are three totem skulls in the game--Heluzz, Aphazz, and Motazz--and three reagent "offerings" you can make to each totem--chocolatl, pinde, and yopo. This leads to nine spells: light, eagle eye, detect hostile creatures, charm enemies, heal, protection, summon animal, curse enemy, and battle frenzy. You cast a spell by (U)sing the appropriate totem and then specifying the offering. I guess you have to be a shaman or shaman's apprentice to cast spells in the game. My Avatar can't, and among my companions, only Triolo can so far. Oddly, the game doesn't let me specify who to heal, but it seemed to figure it out anyway. Unfortunately, it only heals him 4 points, so I cast it a few times.

Triolo uses totems and reagents to slowly heal the Avatar.
Later, we fight another quick combat against a deinonychus. This would be a good place to mention that both the Avatar and his NPC companions start at Level 6 or 7. The character that makes the kill gets the experience.

The manual has Professor Rafkin's notes on the various tribes in the valley, and among his description of the Yolaru, we have the first hints that we might either still be on Earth, or that the people of Eodon (an obvious corruption of "Eden"?) originally came from Earth. "Their antecedents are definitely African," he says, and  "their dialect of the common valley language contains elements of what I believe to be Bantu."

I'm so grateful that he didn't say, "What up, blood. What it be?"
Rafkin is living among the Yolaru. He's educated them so much that they want him to be their shaman, but he has told them that he'll be their "schweitzer" instead, a clear reference to Albert Schweitzer who was, among many other things, an African missionary.

I found him in one of the huts. He seemed glad to see me and offered me recipes for creating bombs and rifles in case they should become necessary. He indicated he'd set up a lab somewhere south or southeast of the Kurak village (how long was I out?!). A simple JOIN got him into my party.

I suspect it's going to be necessary.

A few other notes before I wrap up the first post:

  • The interface has redundant mouse and keyboard commands. You could use one or the other exclusively or do what I do and switch flexibly between them.
  • There's some evocative background music, some of the most complex we've seen so far in a DOS game, with a a tom-tom beat and African rhythms underlying complex melodies. (It's credited to "The Fat Man" George Alistair Sanger. This was his first year in game music, but he later went on to score Ultima Underworld, The 7th Guest, and The 11th Hour.) Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any way to turn it off independent of the sound, and as much as I like the game music, I really don't want it playing while I play the game. Since other sound effects are sparser, and a combat theme appears jarringly every time you see an enemy, I've been playing with the sound off.
  • I'm not sure if there's any economy in the game. I don't have any gold (or other currency), and I haven't found any in a few hours of play. The manual doesn't really mention it.
Night falls, as it frequently does, and we camp on the road.

Definitely a fun game so far, and I am mildly intrigued to see what happens with the Shamuru/Shamino and Triolo/Iolo mystery. I hope it doesn't turn out to be really, really stupid.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Game 184: Wraith: The Devil's Demise (1990)

All of Nite Owl's games came with an "Amnesty" option that would auto-generate an apologetic letter sent by someone who'd pirated the game or received a pirated copy, allowing the player to return to good graces by sending in various amounts of money. I have to wonder if the company ever received a single letter.

Wraith: The Devil's Demise
John D. Carmack (developer); Nite Owl Productions (publisher)
Released 1990 for the Apple IIGS.
Date Started: 5 April 2015
Date Ended: 6 April 2015
Total Hours: 8
Reload Count: 5
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Wraith is a clear upgrade from Shadowforge (which we just looked at) while still using the same engine and graphics. It offers nearly identical gameplay to John Carmack's first game but adds more territory (instead of one city and one dungeon, we get three cities, four castles, and four dungeons), treasure chests, a few extra items, and a basic magic system. Unfortunately, many of the limitations of Shadowforge are still here: no character creation beyond the name, no attributes, no dialogue with NPCs, and the only result of leveling is a few extra hit points.

Part of the in-game backstory.

The land, an island, is called Arathia, and the player is a humble guard at the Temple of Metiria in the city of Tarot. An unknown power has recently emerged, stirring up monsters and conquering the castles of the lords of the realm. Metiria has come to the player in a vision, commanding him to find his way to Castle Strafire (on a small island off the coast) and there find an interplanar gate to Hell, where he can destroy the undead menace.

The pre-game documentation also has a map.
As with Shadowforge (and a billion other games), the player starts with limited gold and equipment and must slowly improve the character, including amassing a large stock of healing potions. Although the dungeons and castles are scattered about the land, the in-game manual offers a suggested order for exploration. Enemies only partially respawn in the dungeons, meaning you can kind of "half-clear" dungeon levels. Treasure chests never respawn.

Wraith is quite a bit harder than Shadowforge, mostly because the magic system also allows enemies to cast spells. They're much harder and often attack in packs, leaving you with nothing to do for round after round of combat other than keep quaffing your dwindling supply of potions.

The dungeon levels and towns are much larger here than the previous game. Towns are no longer violence-free, and in fact you're often attacked by monsters when straying from the main path. NPCs still offer no interaction, but you can kill them for experience and gold. You can kill merchants, too, meaning that you can never use that store, so it's a bad idea.

Accepting their offer results in them robbing you for all your money.
The game takes a step back from Shadowforge in its shops. Each armorer, weapon shop, and bowyer in this game sells only one item, so upgrading is a matter of visiting the town that sells the best version. Each spell is also only sold in certain towns, so restocking after a dungeon expedition means making a long circuit around the island to visit each set of shops.

Restocking on spells.

The spells consist of "Magic Missile," "Scare," "Lightning Bolt," "Fireball," and "Recall." "Magic Missile" performs about as well as a missile attack and "Scare" is a waste of time. "Lightning Bolt" (hits every enemy in a line) and "Fireball" (hits every enemy in an area) are indispensable. Later in the game, in a dungeon, you find a guy selling "Ice Storm," which acts much like "Fireball." "Recall" automatically teleports you back to one of the towns, so it's best to have at least one of these. Spells work in the early Ultima style, where you purchase multiple copies.

Confronting a big pack of enemies in a "ceremonial chamber." Three chests await me.

A big part of the game is finding secret areas in the dungeons, where you somewhat nonsensically find standard merchant counters and can buy special items. A "Detection Amulet" flashes when you're within 5 steps of a secret door (which is almost always, rendering the amulet a bit useles; I found it easier just to study the wall patterns). A "Stainless Ring" prevents your armor from being destroyed by rust monsters. A "Life Ring" protects you from paralysis and some other magical attacks. A "Demon Cleaver" is a powerful melee weapon. [Later edit: As an anonymous commenter noted below, I missed a few, including one that would have made some of the later battles a lot easier.]

As with Shadowforge, Carmack tries to give his dungeon rooms fun names and layouts, titled with text embedded in the dungeon walls (I think in real life, the character would have trouble reading these labels). Towards the end of the game, you start to see messages in the walls: "I WILL KILL YOU"; "ARE YOU READY TO FACE ME."

As he explores the castles and dungeons, the player eventually finds a key needed to access a secret enemy fortress, hidden in the mountains south of the starting town. This dungeon eventually leads to the small island where Castle Strafire is located. You have to explore the top level of the castle to find a scepter, and then explore the bottom level to find a portal to Hell.

There are a couple more dungeons and one wilderness area until you finally reach the Wraith's castle.

Where do evil megalomaniacs find contractors that build faces into the castle edifice?
The enemies get progressively harder, and before long you're wandering into packs that, if the die rolls go bad, can wipe you out in a single round with multiple spells and attacks. You have to use navigation tactics, like hiding just outside a door (enemies can't shoot through doors) or tricking them to arrange themselves in a line so that "Lightning Bolt" can hit all of them. Health potions disappear fast.

Towards the end of the game, choosing the wrong stairway takes you to an area of instant death. There's a fortune-teller's clue at the beginning that keeps you out of here.

Since you can only carry 99 health potions at a time, and 99 of each spell, you find yourself casting "Recall" to warp yourself back to the main island when you need to restock. This means you end up exploring this series of dungeons several times--for me, I think it was six--before you finally reach the Wraith.

Confronting the Wraith and his guards.

The Wraith is guarded by a couple of "grim reapers." It took me a lot of "Fireballs" and "Lightning Bolts" to kill them. Once the Wraith fell, I got the following endgame text:

As the remains of the Wraith dissolve before your eyes, you hear the voice of Metiria applaud your victory. "Well done, my son! One last time I return you to your home."

After the Wraith fell to you, his minions gave up their evil and surrendered to the mercy of Metiria. The temples returned to their former glory and peace spread through Arathia.

Huzza for CHESTER, savior of our nation!

Wraith isn't a very good game for 1990, but it's at least a competent one. Tightly plotted and programmed, it offers about 8 hours of classic RPG gameplay at around the Ultima II level of complexity. It earns a 24 in the GIMLET, compared to Shadowforge's 20.

In some ways, it's a little late in the genre's development for a game quite this simple--especially one with a commercial release--but it's interesting to see Carmack's growing competence as a game designer. Dark Designs is a clear next step in his evolution; well have the third installment on the 1991 list.

Finally, it's time for Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Game 183: Shadowforge (1989)


John D. Carmack (developer); Nite Owl Productions (publisher)
Released 1989 or 1990 for the Apple II.
Date Started: 4 April 2015
Date Ended: 4 April 2015
Total Hours: 2
Reload Count: 0
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 20
Ranking at Time of Posting: 42/181 (23%)
In preparation for this posting, I read the first few chapters of David Kushner's Masters of Doom and I was struck by the similarities I found between me and John Carmack. We're both about the same age, both nerdy and introverted as youths, more at home in front of computers than with other people. Our parents were both divorced at about the same age. We both experimented with burglary as teenagers (he was caught; I wasn't). We both got horrible grades in high school despite having the intelligence to do better. In our late teens, we both tried to break out of our "nerd" roles by investing more in physical fitness (Carmack studied judo; I joined the Army Reserves). And we both dropped out of college, made some of the most iconic video games of the 1990s, and became multimillionaires. Okay, that last part may have just been him.

From Kushner's account, Carmack got out of a year in juvenile detention in 1986 or 1987, was given an Apple II by his parents, and got to work on Shadowforge, his first game. Although admittedly based on the look and feel of the early Ultima titles, he programmed it from scratch and sold the completed game to Night Owl Productions, "a mom 'n' pop publisher that made most of its income from manufacturing camera batteries," for $1000. He used the money to purchase an Apple IIgs and used it to write his second game, Wraith: The Devil's Demise, after he'd dropped out of the University of Kansas. He used his developing programming skills to get a contract with Softdisk of Shreveport, Louisiana, and the result was the Dark Designs triology.

We, of course, have already had a look at Dark Designs I and Dark Designs II, both released in 1990. But some production issues at Night Owl also delayed the release of his first two games until 1989 and 1990. I naturally should have played them first. Rather than compound the error now by looking only at Wraith, I decided to reach back to 1989 and call up Shadowforge first.

Shadowforge feels like exactly what it is: a first game from a teenaged developer who grew up schooled on Ultima. It's so small that the only disk image I've been able to find also has half a dozen other games on it.

The game takes place in the town of Jaterus, which is being threatened by an evil mage named Greymere Shadowsender. Greymere's newly-constructed Shadowforge has given him unprecedented power, and the town needs a hero to descende into Greymere's three-level dungeon and destroy the device.

A dungeon scene from Shadowforge. I'm about to fire a bow at one of two enemies.

There's no character creation except designating a name. Each adventurer starts with 25 hit points, 0 experience, 100 gold, two potions, and has only his hands and skin for defense. Jaterus has an armorer, a weaponsmith, a tavern, a bowyer, an inn, a temple selling healing potions, and a casino hidden behind a secret door. You can bet 50 gold pieces on craps there; odds seem about 50/50.

There are miscellaneous NPCs running all over town, and one key difference between this game and Ultima is that you can't talk to any of them. You can't attack them, either; they really serve no purpose at all. The only "dialogue," as such, comes from tipping the bartender, who provides a handful of hints for the quest ahead.

The armorer, weaponsmith, and bowyer each offer 3 or 4 items escalating in price and quality. As you enter the dungeon--which is right off the city; there's no outdoor area--you start to encounter goblins, ogres, and such. Killing them gives you experience and gold, which you spend on better equipment and a stock of healing potions.

That's about all there is to it. At first, your expeditions to the dungeon are short, but once get the best equipment and can carry more than a dozen potions at a time, they last a lot longer. Cleared rooms remain clear while you're still in the dungeon, but they respawn when you leave and return.

None of the three levels is terribly large. Although there are no special encounters or treasures to find, Carmack does make use of the walls and textures to create "scenes," often with large letters giving some kind of room title like LABORATORY or GOBLIN BARRACKS. This shows a clear Ultima II influence.

You get a new level for every 100 experience points, and each one comes with another 3 or 4 maximum hit points. Resting in the hotel restores maximum hit points; potions convey only 1-12 per gulp.

Combat consists of hitting (S)hoot if you see enemies from a distance and (F)ight if they're adjacent to you. There aren't many tactics except to take care that you don't blunder into foes. You can make some limited use of the terrain to make sure you don't get attacked by more than one foe at once. Foes that have missile weapons have no melee capability, so the best approach to them is to close the distance and start whacking. There is no magic in the game.

I fight an elder demon in melee combat on the way to the Shadowforge.

There are a few secret doors in the dungeon, signaled by subtle breaks in the wall pattern. Behind these, you can find special encounters with "merchants" who provide special items. I got a suit of "water walking" armor this way, along with a "light blade." I needed the former to get to the stairs from Level 2 to Level 3, and the latter to destroy the Shadowforge. There was apparently a magic bow somewhere, but I didn't find it.

The introductory text warns you not to confront Greymere directly, "since he can kill even an experienced adventurer with only a few spells," but when I ran into him on the third level, I was able to kill him in a few hits.

Greymere a couple of hits before death.

That kind of rendered the rest of the quest moot, I thought, but I kept exploring until I found the Shadowforge and hacked it to destruction.

In my version of the game, the endgame text shilled Wraith, meaning this is either a slightly later version or Night Owl didn't publish the original until they had Wraith in hand.

Overall, it was pretty easy. I didn't die once, and it took less than two hours to win. The game does allow you to save, and it autosaves every time you enter a new area. Death has you resurrected in the town's temple with a slight loss in experience, only 5 gold pieces, and no potions.

I almost expected some encouraging words from Lord British here.

It's a promising game, certainly impressive for someone who was in his mid-teens when he wrote it. It showed that he was capable of whipping up a functional game engine that could serve as a basis for a more complicated experience, which he essentially offered in Wraith. Compared to other 1989-1990 games, particularly commercial titles, it doesn't offer much. It gets 1s, 2s, and 3s across the board in the GIMLET--its best categories are "Economy," "Interface," and "Gameplay"--culminating in a total score of 20.

Next up, we'll see how he adapted the engine in Wraith: The Devil's Demise.