Sunday, April 21, 2019

Star Control II: Why Can't We Be Friends?

Home planet encounters make it clear that you're not getting on the ground without going through a lot of combat first.
Star Control II is easily the most information-rich game that we've had so far. The two Starflight titles were well above the average RPG, but even they didn't have half the dialogue and lore of this one. That's good for me as a player, but not so much as a blogger--and perhaps not so much for you as a reader. I could describe what I did in the last six hours in about two paragraphs; what I discovered will take many more, and I'm not sure if you want entries that long. You're going to get this one anyway, but I welcome your feedback on whether it's too much.

Imagine when I get to the modern era and a game like Skyrim. The simple act of entering a dungeon, reading two skill books, killing a draugr, and finding a shrine to Clavicus Vile might take 10 minutes of game time, but I could get 10,000 words out of that with the associated descriptions and lore. As the genre has a whole becomes more information-rich, it's going to be difficult to determine where to draw the line.
Even with the dialogue summaries the game provides, you have to take a lot of screenshots.
But I have no complaints as a player. One of the finest moments I've ever had with an RPG came with Morrowind about 15 years ago, the first or second time I'd played, before there were wikis all over the Internet that spoiled plot developments. One of the great mysteries of the game is what happened to the dwarves, whose ancient ruins dot the landscape, and I found myself more interested in solving that riddle than progressing with the next official quest. I looked at the map that came with the game, identified every little dome that even hinted at a Dwemer ruin, and started to explore them systematically. And the amazing thing is, my explorations bore fruit! The developers rewarded this kind of "side-curiosity" with enough evidence among the ruins that you can basically piece together the story (although you need some plot-related events to make it 100% clear).

Most of the time, your effort in an RPG rewards the character, which in turn rewards the player somewhat vicariously. When you have a curious player, however, and you reward that curiosity with information, you are directly rewarding the player. This is something that Bethesda does exceedingly well and, in my opinion, does not get enough credit for doing. Whether you like Fallout 4 for its RPG mechanics, you have to admire how information-rich its world is. Every building has a story to tell. You'll stop by one building and read a computer log about how they were expecting some kind of shipment on October 23. You know that's the day the bombs fell. A few hundred yards down the road, you find the remains of the truck carrying that shipment. It clearly ran off the road into a tree. There will be a skeleton a couple dozen feet beyond the tree, as if ejected from the cab of the truck. If you just tromp from quest to quest, blowing through all the areas in between, you're cheating yourself out of a world of detail. 
Star Control II doesn't quite reward random exploration this way. Particularly given the time limit, I don't think you could solve the game by simply visiting random systems. You have to follow some kind of quest track. And I suspect that most of the information I'm discovering will turn out to be necessary, not ancillary, to the plot. I also prefer my plots a bit more serious than Star Control's. But even with all those limitations, this game is a welcome relief from era titles that are nothing but combat.

A recap is in order. I am a young starship captain in an era when the human race has become "fallow slaves" to the squid-like Ur-Quan, confined to Earth under a red shield that prevents off-planet travel. The Ur-Quan give conquered races a choice between "fallow slavery" and "thrall slavery" in which they fight for the Ur-Quan Hierarchy as battle thralls. I grew up off-world, son of a marooned group of scientists studying the ruins of an ancient race called the Precursors, and I've been able to stay alive because I'm flying a Precursor ship. Now based out of a starbase in orbit around Earth that the Ur-Quan mysteriously abandoned, I have been collecting advanced technology, improving my star-ship, and finding allies to throw off the yoke of the Ur-Quan.
My starmap has been annotating various territories as I discover them.
I originally assumed those allies would come from races that were part of the old Alliance against the Ur-Quan, but it's becoming clearer that all races--including Ur-Quan allies and non-affiliated races--are up for grabs, partly because the Ur-Quan have been distracted by a distant war. This is the rundown of the races I have so far:
  • Androsynth: Old enemy of Earth because they had once been Earth's slaves. They seem to be gone now, destroyed by the Orz who now inhabit their system.
  • Ariloulaleelay: An old Alliance race that mostly disappeared after the Ur-Quan victory. Classic "little green men" who may have been responsible for abductions and experiments on Earthlings in the past. Current whereabouts unknown. They may not live in regular space.
In fact, as we're about to find out, they do not.
  • Chenjesu: Crystalline beings who originally drew Earth into the old Alliance against the Ur-Quan, now trapped on Procyon under a "fallow slave" shield, along with the Mmrnmhrm.
  • Kohr-Ah: Some new race that the Ur-Quan are currently fighting, distracting them from my attempts to rebuild the Alliance.
  • Ilwrath: Cruel spider creatures, allies of the Ur-Quan, whose only weakness seems to be a fanatical belief in their gods. The Umgah are currently exploiting that weakness.
"Subtlety" does not translate well in Ilwrath.
  • Melnorme: A neutral race that trades in information. They're responsible for half my clues.
  • Mmrnmhrm: Robotic species, member of the old Alliance. Now trapped with the Chenjesu on Procyon under a "fallow slave" shield.
  • Mycon: Fungoid race allied with the Ur-Quan. I haven't met them yet in this game, but they've apparently taken over Syreens' old system, and I suspect they had something to do with the destruction of Syra.
  • Orz: Weird yellow fish-flowers who come from the same alternate dimension as the Ariloulaleelay. Seem to have destroyed the Androsynth and taken over their space. They appear to have allied with us, but it's hard to understand what they're saying.
  • Pkunk: An unknown race currently being attacked by the Ilwrath.
The Pkunk end up being somewhat weird, but no more than most of the creatures on this list.
  • Precursors: An ancient race within whose ruins the main character grew up. Members of the "sentient milieu," Their technology built my flagship. Probably extinct.
  • Shofixti: Cat-weasel warriors given advanced technology by the Yehat. Destroyed their own star to avoid surrendering to the Ur-Quan. One lone male warrior with a thin hold on sanity still keeps a vigil from orbit. A group of females are possibly in the hands of a VUX admiral.
  • Slylandro: New to the galaxy, this race has sent probes all over the place. The probes, after first claiming to be on missions of peace, are attacking everybody. In the last session, I got a clue as to where they might be coming from. One of their damned probes is almost always on my tail when I sail through hyperspace.
Captain Chester has lost all hope when it comes to these probes.
  • Spathi: Race of cowardly mollusks who surrendered to the Ur-Quan despite having decent ships and technology. Now serve them as battle thralls. One of them was assigned to monitor Earth but instead joined my crew early in the game.
The Spathi have a particular outlook on life.
  • Syreen: All-female race of buxom sirens. Joined the old Alliance after their planet, Syra, was destroyed by what they thought were natural disasters. After they surrendered to the Ur-Quan, given a new homeworld called Gaia. Accepted fallow slavery (red shield) and unwilling to break their treaty.
  • Taalo: Another member of the "Sentient Milieu," a cooperative of ancient races. Probably extinct, though I had this theory that they're the "Talking Pets." I have one of their artifacts, a stone that blocks psychic influence.
  • Talking Pets: Little frog-like creatures who do all the communicating from the Ur-Quan because the Ur-Quan feel it's beneath them to speak directly to lesser races. Unknown if they have their own history or world.
  • Umgah: Blob-like creatures with a cruel sense of humor. Allies to the Ur-Quan. Lately amusing themselves by impersonating the Ilwrath gods with something called a "HyperWave Caster."
These guys turn out not to be the likeable kind of jokesters. They're just jerks.
  • Ur-Quan: Putative enemies of the game. They want to conquer every other race in the galaxy. They've been around a long time, as they were also "Sentient Milieu" members. Willing to let conquered races live out their own destinies as "fallow slaves" under red shields, and demand that the decision be put to a popular vote.
  • VUX: One-eyed, snouted race allied to the Ur-Quan. Humanity apparently insulted them the first time we met, leading to an enduring hatred. I hadn't met them yet when this session began.
The VUX are maddeningly vague on the nature of the supposed insult.
  • Yehat: Race of pterodactyls who chose to be battle thralls under the Ur-Quan.
  • Zoq-Fot-Pik: Cooperative of three small races from one planet. Caught in the crossfire between the Ur-Quan and the Kohr-Ah, glad to ally with us in the last session.
I'm going to relate what I found this session below, but as I do, it's important to keep in mind that I usually only had a constellation, sometimes a star, as a hint. This means that for every encounter, I might have had to explore several stars and dozens of planets before finding it. Naturally, I mined those planets that had minerals and took life forms when I found those, but those tasks have become so rote and procedural at this point that there's no point narrating them. I still haven't found a "Rainbow World" yet.
I've learned to prize heavy "biological" worlds as much as mineral ones, as it gives me more to sell to the Melnorme.
As this session began, I had "to do" items related to almost all of these races, if only to make contact and find out where they stand. Because I was sick of spending so much money on fuel (I hadn't even had enough money to purchase the "Fusion Blaster" the Melnorme gave me), I prioritized the locations closest to Earth, at least at the beginning, which is how I found myself in the Giclas constellation, looking for a rumored other neutral race. It turned out to be the Pkunk, a race of hippie birds who believe in reincarnation and positive energy and all that New Age stuff. My negotiations with the first ship I encountered went well, and they directed me to their homeworld.

The Pkunk are aware that the Ilwrath are only attacking them because someone is impersonating the Ilwrath gods. They didn't seem to mind much. They happily agreed to join my Alliance, gave me an artifact called a Clear Spindle, and also gave me four ships (with crews) for my fleet. (I'm going to have to stop using my flagship for every combat.) Before I left, they predicted my future and said that the Ariloulaleelay would give me the ability to summon dimensional doors and travel in a way that's even faster than hyperspace.
Well, that sucks.
The "other dimensions" thing gained even more traction with another visit to the Melnorme. I sold them the bio scans I'd made since our last contact and used my credits to buy plans for some kind of laser defense system for the Prydwen plus some information. One of the things they told me is that there is a "weakness in the division between dimensions" that manifests itself in between the Chandrasekhar and Columbae constellations on the 17th of each month (we'll just ignore the absurdity of that).

My next trip, again based on proximity, was to the VUX (no idea why that's always capitalized) worlds, hoping to find the Shofixti females and otherwise gauge their status. Conversations with the ships were mostly futile; the captains refused to explain the specific nature of the offense we gave them, only that they hate us forever, and even if they didn't, they'd destroy us because that's what the Ur-Quan want. One of them did mention that if I wanted to meet a "friendly" VUX, I should try Admiral Zex at Alpha Cerenkov. VUX encounters inevitably led to combat, so I didn't stay in their system long.
Maybe I'll just skip those planets.
At Alpha Cerenkov, Admiral Zex proved to be an affable, if perverted, member of the species. A hero of the earlier war, he retired to a hedonistic lifestyle years ago and seems to fetishize other races. He was willing to give me the Shofixti females if I could bring him some animal from a planet that "basks in the yellow light within the eight-star constellation of Linch-Nas-Ploh," which he translated as "the snake-like creature who has swallowed the elephant beast." Studying the star map, I think this probably refers to Lyncis, way up at the "north" edge of the galaxy.
Unfortunately, I think he means that last part literally.
I next went to the Yehat space nearby. When I finally encountered a Yehat ship, they were surprised to see a human outside the red shield around Earth. The crew of the ship I encountered was reluctant to kill me because of our former friendship, but their desires were at odds with the mandate from their queen to follow Ur-Quan orders. They seemed to respond when I told them that the Shofixti were still alive, but they demanded proof that I didn't have.
At least they feel bad about it.
Around this point, I returned to starbase, where Captain Hayes told me that they'd received a distress call from the Zoq-Fot-Pik, whose home planet was under attack from a "black destroyer." I bought an extra fuel pod, fueled, up, and headed for the ZFP homeworld.
While at starbase, I was able to buy the "Fusion Blaster" and "Point Defense" upgrades.
On the way, I encountered a Spathi ship in hyperspace. They said they wouldn't attack but begged us not to tell the Ur-Quan that they'd let us go. Conversation with them solved one mystery: why they, as cowards, accepted "battle thrall" slavery instead of "fallow slavery." They said they'd meant to do the latter, but the Umgah had interfered with the voting as a joke. I still have to visit the Spathi homeworld.
The Spathi and Tyron Lannister would get along.
The first major surprise came when I arrived at the ZFP world, encountered the black ship of the Kohr-Ah, and found myself speaking to an Ur-Quan! (Or, more accurately, to his Talking Pet.) It turns out that the Kohr-Ah are a faction of Ur-Quan, not a separate race. They call the regular Ur-Quan the "Kzer-Za," and the two sides are fighting over "supremacy of Doctrine and possession of the Sa-Matra." "We cleanse," the captain explained. "You are the filth."

When I asked why they were destroying us, he gave me a big info-dump of Ur-Quan history. It basically went that their species is hostile and territorial by nature. Even civilization among their own kind came late to them, and only with great difficulty, and it was even worse when they started to explore the stars and meet other races. Their only friends were the rock-like Taalo, "the only people we could stand with, or talk to, without the hunter inside us screaming, 'Kill the interloper! Rip out its life!'" (Their description of the Taalo as sentient rocks makes me wonder if I don't have a Taalo, rather than a Taalo "artifact," on my ship.) Eventually, a psychic race called the Dnyarri wiped out the other "Sentient Milieu" races. They enslaved the Ur-Quan and used them to destroy the Taalo.
The Ur-Quan goes through his history.
Twist #2 came in further conversation. The Dnyarri are actually the Talking Pets! (At this point, my Taalo=Talking Pet theory was completely debunked.) They kept the Ur-Quan as slaves for thousands of years, experimenting on them genetically and splitting them into two species: green ("effete scientists and bureaucrats" and black ("the builders, the fighters, the doers"). The green became the Kzer-Za and the black became the Kohr-Ah. The Ur-Quan eventually discovered that excruciating pain could block the Dnyarri influence, so they created devices called "excruciators" to wear and thus maintain their independence.

Once the Ur-Quan achieved victory over the Dnyarri and enslaved them in turn, they decided they'd better destroy all other life in the galaxy to avoid ever being enslaved again. The Kzer-Za faction insisted that they only enslave or neutralize (i.e., fallow slavery) other races, while the Kohr-Ah demanded that they kill them outright. The schism led to the Kohr-Ah fleeing the galaxy until just recently.

The captain attacked when he was done with his speech. The huge Kohr-Ah ships fire giant throwing stars, which linger until something hits them. But you'll be happy to know I was able to destroy the dreadnought with the BUTT missiles of the Spathi ship. I'll talk more about combat next time, but suffice to say that I'm starting to get the hang of it.
The Ur-Quan dreadnought spams giant iron swastikas.
The ZFP were grateful for their rescue and gave me several more ships for my fleet. My flagship now has about as many escort ships as I think it can accommodate.

When the battle was over, I checked my notes and found that I was pretty close to a few other "to do" items. I started with the Umgah. I don't know what I was expecting. Clearly, I wasn't going to have an encounter in which they just handed me the HyperWave Caster with instructions on how to use it. Instead, in about six encounters in a row, they laughed at me and attacked. Each battle involved multiple Umgah ships. Their primary weapon has a limited range, but they have a special weapon that can suck you into proximity. I got pretty good at destroying them with the Spathi, but eventually the attacks became too much and I fled the system.
BUTT missiles home in on the Umgah ship while his weapon fires in vain.
The 17th of the month was near, and I was near the weak point in space, so I headed there. Sucked through it, I found myself in a place called "quasi-space." Time passes there, but it doesn't seem to use any fuel. The map showed a bunch of small blobs and one big blob. The small blobs were portals back to hyperspace, but the big blob was a portal to a planet.
Beyond hyperspace.
The planet turned out to be the homeworld of the Ariloulaleelay. The representative who contacted me explained a bit about the history of our two species, which came across as less sinister than I expected, although of course I was hearing his side. He suggested that the Ariloulaleelay had been guiding human development for a long time, and that they made themselves known, and joined the old Alliance, as a way of protecting us against other hostile species. When they were no longer needed because humanity was "safe" under the red shield, they disappeared for a while. I'm the first human to reach their homeworld. There was this chilling sequence, which may be the best RPG text so far in my chronology:
Part of what we do on Earth is for your own protection. There are parasites. Creatures who dwell Beyond. They have names, but you do not know them. They would like to find you, but they are blind to your presence, unless you show yourselves. The Androsynth showed themselves, and something noticed them. There are no more Androsynth now. Only Orz. Ignorance is your armor. They cannot see you now. They cannot smell you. Much of our work with your people involved making you invisible, changing your smell. If I tell you more, you will look where you could never look before, and while you are looking you can and will be seen. You do not want to be seen.
Traveling in quasi-space is how the Ariloulaleelay get around so fast. The alien said he'd give us a "portal spawner" so that we can use quasi-space, but we'd need to find a warp pod first. He suggested we'd find one on the wreck of an Ur-Quan dreadnought at Alpha Pavonis, not far from our current location. He mentioned that the Ariloulaleelay had recovered a Talking Pet from the same wreckage and had given it to the Umgah for care. He wanted us to stop by the Umgah and see how it fared.

We returned to hyperspace, sailed to Alpha Pavonis, visited the right planet, and got the pod.
My lander crew loots the wreckage.
At this point, I noticed that I wasn't too far from Vega, which was one of the possible sources of the Slylandro probes. It actually turned out to be nearby Beta Corvi, but I found it. The Ariloulaleelay had said that the probes came from a world with no surface, so I hunted for a gas giant until I found the right one.
This looks promising.
I was surprised to find myself talking to a friendly group of gaseous creatures named "Content to Hover," "Joyous Lifting," and "Sullen Plummet." They explained that they hardly get any visitors since the "Sentient Milieu" races were destroyed eons ago. (They went on for a while about a race that used to visit them called the "Shaggy Ones" that seemed worried about something and seemed to be seeking something.) Lonely and unable to leave their planet, they were excited when the Melnorme visited and sold them a probe.

In further discussions, it transpired that the Slylandro had mis-programmed the probe. It was supposed to seek out life forms and communicate as its top priority, but somehow "self-replicate" got set as the probe's top priority, which means that it sees every ship that it encounters as a source of replication materials. Horrified, the Slylandro promised to try to recall the probes. In the meantime, they gave me a self-destruct code to use if I encounter any more. I thought these probes were the main quest, but it really just turned out to be a side quest.
The Slylandro reach a horrifying conclusion.
I end here, poised to swing by the Umgah (though I'll probably just get attacked again) and then return to the Ariloulaleelay. I might need to use that portal spawner immediately because I'm running pretty low on fuel. I have three questions on my mind:
  • When I joined the Orz to the Alliance, did I give some unspeakable evil from another dimension access to Earth?
  • Are the Melnorme necessary? Meaning, are the clues that they offer exclusive to the Melnorme, or do they exist largely as a kind of backup in case a player spends more time randomly visiting planets than following the initial clues? It feels like most of the things they've told me have been double-confirmed in later encounters.
  • I've mostly been diplomatic in my encounters with other races, but there are also some very aggressive options. Is there a more aggressive path through the game? If I was better at combat (and enjoyed it more), could I be subjugating the other species? Could I beat Admiral Zex into submission instead of doing his quest?
Captain Chester briefly considers a different path.
The game began in January 2155, and Earth is scheduled to be destroyed in January or February 2159. It is now November 2156, so I'm about halfway through my available time. I'm hoping this portal spawner allows me to accomplish more in less time. We'll soon see!

Time so far: 21 hours

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Game 326: Sorcerer of Siva (1981)

Sorcerer of Siva
United States
Automated Simulations/Epyx (developer and publisher)
Released in 1981 for Apple II and TRS-80
Date Started: 7 April 2019
Date Ended: 7 April 2019
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Sorcerer of Siva was supposed to be a quick detour--a kind of coda to my recent coverage of Keys of Acheron. I was so sure I'd finish it within a couple of hours that I originally planned to slot this entry, which I thought would be short, as a "bonus" between two regular ones. The game ended up taking most of an entire Sunday, and when I was done my desk was covered with scribbles and maps. "This was not the MicroQuest I was promised!" I wanted to scream.

But therein lay the problem: Epyx never said that Siva was a "MicroQuest," the label it used for two early Dunjonquest spinoffs: Morloc's Tower (1979) and The Datestones of Ryn (1979). When I played them in 2013, Morloc's Tower took less than an hour, and Ryn was time-limited by design to 20 minutes. Siva is within that tradition--a standalone title with a fixed character, limited RPG mechanics, a short duration, no ability to save, and a final score that encourages replay. But it's much longer and much harder than its predecessors, such that it pushes the boundaries of decency when it comes to its lack of a save capability.

(I should mention that a commenter, Redhighlander, warned me all about this in 2015. I overlooked his comment before beginning the game.)
In a typical Sorcerer of Siva screen, I'm standing in the center of a room with a wolf nearby. A bit of treasure (a ring) is waiting for me after I defeat him. This game is unique in the Dunjonquest series in that different types of treasure have different icons.
The two 1979 titles, featuring a hero named Brian Hammerhand, was at least given attributes and items (although since they were unchangeable, they were constants, not variables), but the magic-using hero of Siva doesn't even have a name. What he does have, for the first and only time in the Dunjonquest series, are spells: "Open," "Heal," "Fireball," "Reveal Distance to Stairway," "Jump," "Bolt of Lightning," and "Teleport," each mapped to a different key (usually the first letter). The player starts with a number of spells from 0 to 7 depending on the chosen difficulty level. Actually casting the spells depletes an "aura" bar that recharges slowly. Spells can be forgotten but remembered (or discovered for the first time) by finding "touchstones" throughout the dungeon. You find them in a fixed order, so if you have only one spell, it's always "Open"; if you have two, it's always "Open" and "Heal"; and so on through the list above and ending with "Teleport."

The other commands, including "L," "R," and "V" to move and turn, using the number keys to move forward a number of steps, "A" for attack, and so forth remain the same as previous Dunjonquest entries. "Y" has you drink a healing elixir if you've found any; "E" examines the wall for secret doors; "S" searches for traps.

The setup is that the character is stuck in the Mines of Siva, pursued by the minions of the infamous Sorcerer of Siva, and must escape. Escape is on the fifth level of the mines, and the character must find the exit within 4 game hours or the door will shut for the night, and "nothing human can survive a night in the Mines of Siva." Along the way, you pick up treasures and kill monsters to increase your final score, and you can even kill the Sorcerer himself. The game begins on Level 1 of 5. The large dungeon has more than 300 rooms, and of course you don't try to explore them all each game. You can even get sent below Level 1, to a shifting "Underworld" full of monsters, where you have to struggle to escape to the regular difficulty of the Mines.

The game invites you to set both a skill level and a "speed factor" at the beginning of the session, encouraging you to play for the first time on Level 1, which starts you with 7 spell slots and always starts you in the same location. Higher skill levels randomize your starting location and lower the number of starting spells. The speed factor adjusts the real-time length of a turn, and thus the speed at which the clock counts down. Functionally, a high speed factor means that you end up "passing" a lot of turns unless you're prepared to act quickly. The ultimate challenge is to win the game at skill level 8 and speed factor 10.
The only options before beginning the game.
It's pretty hard even on Level 1. A turn lasts about 6 seconds, and there are 5 turns per game minute, meaning you have about 2 hours to escape the dungeon. Monsters appear relentlessly as you stand around--vampire bats, demons, giant spiders, ghouls, goblins, skeletons, trolls, and elementals among them--and blasting them with your spells drains your aura quite fast. Even worse is the fatigue meter, which goes from "Fresh" to "Exhausted" (at which point you can't do anything) in the space of about a room and a half. Attempting to stand still and rest to restore both meters tends to just encourage more monsters to appear. It's very easy to get into a cycle of exhaustion that you can't get out of.

The dungeon is huge, each level containing a maze of 64 rooms in an 8 x 8 configuration (except Level 2, which for some reason uses 16 x 4). Although there are theoretically multiple staircases upwards, they tend to be clustered in one part of the dungeon. Finding one could take hours; in my first attempt, I was on Level 1 for 2.5 game hours (about 1.25 real hours). If you don't start with all the spells, touchstones are extremely rare. You could easily make it to Level 5 without finding more than two or three. A decent portion of valid paths are blocked by secret doors, which take multiple rounds to identify and may take multiple castings of "Open" to allow passage. Monsters tend to spawn while you're searching.
The south wall has a secret door. It will take multiple castings of "Open" to open it.
You can fight monsters with your dagger in melee range, but that's a last resort. Injuries make spell and fatigue restoration last much longer, and it's easy to get into a inescapable downward spiral if your health drops too low. "Bolt of Lightning" usually kills monsters in one hit; "Fireball" does the same for some of the lesser monsters.
I blast a "Fireball" at an ogre.
The worst part of the game is the existence of trap doors, which spawn randomly in corridors. You can often only avoid them with the "Jumping" or "Teleportation" spells, or by turning around and finding another path. If you fall into one, you end up in the "Underworld," below Level 1, and you have to find your way back to the place that you started. There's really no point in continuing the game when this happens, since it leaves you in a worse position than when you started.
Another menace is the titular Sorcerer, who can show up in any room on any level. But he's a coward, and he only appears if you're already fighting another monster. He sits in the background and makes you forget spells every round, so that you need to find touchstones to remember them. Because he always pops up behind the monsters you're fighting, you can't target him directly--and he's only vulnerable to "Bolt of Lightning" in any case. 

My plans for a quick game thus collapsed when I found myself unable to progress without cheating with save states, and even then I was unable to get out of the dungeon in the time limit on my first try. Resisting the temptation to abandon it completely for a Star Control II session, I girded myself with soda and Cape Cod chips, warned Irene she wouldn't be seeing me for a while, and settled in for a long period of testing and mapping.
The box quite notably says "MicroQuest" nowhere.
A few strategies came to light, most of which Redhighlander had already discovered. You almost never want to just walk through a room. That leaves you vulnerable to monsters appearing in front of you and trap doors. The "Teleportation" spell, which moves you one room in the direction you're facing, is a godsend. It takes almost all of your spell points, but sometimes casting it and replenishing is faster than walking through a room, fighting a combat or two on the way, and having to wait for your fatigue to replenish anyway. If you're unable to teleport a particular direction, you know you're at the edge of the map.
"Locating a Staircase" is also helpful, but it only tells you the distance, not the direction. You basically have to triangulate with it. "Jump" can get you through a room in two castings and is thus often as useful as "Teleportation."
Monsters chase you to the edges of rooms but they never leave their rooms. And when you leave and re-enter, they're always in the center. So if you need to rest up, you can straddle the door between two rooms, resting for a couple of rounds in each one and exiting just as the monster approaches you. Another strategy is to find a room where a secret door blocks you from the room's center. Since enemies only spawn in the center, these are free rest places.
As for the sorcerer, I found a decent strategy for dealing with him. You have to be on guard, but the moment he appears, you have to hit "9" to run past the monster you're fighting so there's nothing in between you and the sorcerer. Then you can blast him with "Bolt of Lightning." He usually managed to drain one of my spells ("Teleportation" is always the first to go) even when this worked, but it's worth it because once the sorcerer is dead, most of the high-level enemies like demons and efreet stop appearing.
Here's a shot of me killing the sorcerer. It looks like the zombie is in between us, but I think I jumped past him and the screen just hasn't refreshed yet.
Most important to my success, however, was my map. The dungeon has a fixed layout, including the position of secret doors. Treasure locations are randomized, but staircases remain in the same position. I didn't map the entirety of every level, but I mapped enough to find the way to the up staircases on each level. 
My mostly-completed map of Level 4. The alternating shaded/non-shaded areas are the game's "rooms."
With these strategies and resources, I was able to get a new character out of the dungeon in a little over 3 hours on Level 1.
My best attempt.
Higher levels mean starting with fewer spells. At Level 2, you don't have "Teleportation" until you find a touchstone. At Level 4, you don't have "Jumping" and thus have to walk everywhere. (You functionally cannot outrun creatures unless you enter the room with no fatigue. Even then, you might find that you're unable to move the last two or three steps to the exit while the creature closes in on you.) At Level 8, you have no spells whatsoever. I can't see beating the game at Level 5 or above unless you're extremely lucky with the positioning of touchstones and trap doors. I tried it a few times, but I kept getting killed by enemies quickly or tossed down to the Underworld.
I accomplished nothing and still got 498 points.
I should also mention that I played the game at 250% emulator speed. Playing at era-accurate speeds redefines "excruciating." I wouldn't give it to someone on death row.

Sorcerer of Siva isn't really an RPG by my definitions, lacking any character development, inventory, or stats-based combat. It thus performs pretty miserably on the GIMLET, earning only 11 points (2 points each for game world, magic and combat, interface, quests, and gameplay, plus one for encounters). This is the lowest total yet for a Dunjonquest game; I just gave Acheron a 24 two days ago. But if nothing else, it shows how the same engine can be used for extremely different types of games. This one wasn't for me.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Game 325: Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual (1992)

Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual
Motelsoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for Atari ST
Date Started: 9 April 2019

This is my third attempt to play a title from the German developer Motelsoft, which cranked out at least 23 mostly-forgotten RPGs (as well as lots of non-RPG titles) between 1988 and 2003. A partnership between two developers, Harald Breitmeier and Heinz Munter, Motelsoft favored the Atari ST for their first 7 years but ultimately switched to DOS and then Windows. To call their games "obscure" is almost an understatement: Of the few sites that carry any information about Dark Stone Ritual, almost all of them have overlooked the fact that the main title of the game is Magic Tower I. But Motelsoft made up for notability with quantity. Based on the information on their web site, just two programmers produced between 5 and 12 games per year for almost two decades. If they borrowed many of their elements from other games, the speed and skill with which they did so is still impressive.
A subtitle screen supplies what most sites think of as the main title.
My first attempt at a Motelsoft title, 1988's Seven Horror's, went okay, but without documentation I never really knew what I was doing. The main party was composed of monsters, with weirdly-named character races like "hunches" and "megrims." The goal seemed to be the collection of seven artifacts from various dungeons, which I did, but I still couldn't figure out how to win. It just occurred to me that the game ought to go on the "Missing and Mysteries" list. My attempts to play Sandor (1989) were also hurt by a lack of documentation, plus the fact that I only seemed to have an evaluation copy. The game was a little more developed as an RPG and seemed to draw inspiration from SSI titles, particularly Demon's Winter (1988). I never found any obvious source for Seven Horror's.

It was thus without much expectation that I fired up Dark Stone Ritual and almost immediately found myself intrigued. To start, the creators had clearly been exposed to Might and Magic III (1991), which means they had to program Dark Stone Ritual quite fast. Not only have they replaced the attributes of the previous titles with the standard Might and Magic set (might, intelligence, personality, endurance, speed, accuracy, and luck), not even bothering to translate their abbreviations to German, but they've done a decent job mimicking the Might and Magic III character and inventory interfaces. Not only did they do this visually, such as the separation of equipment into different categories, but many of the mechanics also work the same way; for instance, clicking on an item in one character's inventory and then clicking on a different character will transfer the item.
The character screen. Note the odd mix of German text and English abbreviations.

And the inventory screen.
The outdoor interface remains top-down like the previous Motelsoft titles, but it's very in keeping with the Might and Magic III experience. The world is tiled, with little huts and caves dotting the landscape, most offering a textual encounter with an NPC. There are forest and mountain squares you can't navigate until you have the appropriate skill.

Once you enter a dungeon, castle, or other indoor area, the game switches to a first-person view that at first reminds you more of Dungeon Master than Might and Magic III, particularly with its navigation arrows and the switches to open doors. But the nature of the encounters within the dungeon are more in keeping with the Might and Magic tradition.
The question mark is akin to the "countertops" that Might and Magic III used to signify encounters in towns.
Combat goes its own way, slightly. The developers unfortunately didn't have the ability to show monsters in the environment, so combats pop up randomly as you explore, more like Might and Magic II than III. You get two combat options: schnell ("fast") and strategie ("strategy"). Fast combat plays a lot like Might and Magic III, just on a different screen. Each character acts in turn, attacking, parrying, using an item, or casting a spell, and the actions execute immediately like in the Might and Magic series (and unlike the Wizardry and Bard's Tale series, where they line up and then execute together). You cannot specify a particular enemy in this method.
"Fast' combat.
The strategic method offers the same options, but on a gridded map, where you can position your characters around specific enemies. It takes longer because you have to move and specify facing directions, but it's a better way to fine-tune your combat and prioritize specific foes.
Strategic combat. The compass is appreciated.
This is all a huge step up from Seven Horror's and Sandor (in between, I haven't played 1991's Projekt Terra or Sandor II yet), and it has the makings of an authentically fun game. I'm still figuring out quite a bit. In addition to being in German, which requires a translation pause on many screens, there appears to be no extant manual, and I have no idea what the main quest is.

I'm particularly keen to see how the spells develop. The cleric starts with just "Close Wounds" and the mage starts with just "Identify Monsters" and something called "Single-Shield." Other classes have spell points, suggesting they will eventually get spells. The game requires gems for some spells, again borrowing from Might and Magic.
Starting out with a new game.
Unfortunately, there are a few underdeveloped areas. The game seems to have no character creation process. It just starts you with a paladin named Monky, a knight named Sirus, a thief named Ellie, a priest named Knorr, and a sorcerer named Laura. (The classes have also changed to Might and Magic standards, though not all of them.) "Monky" and "Knorr" were also default character names in Seven Horror's. If there's any way to dump the default party and create your own, I haven't found it yet. But perhaps the worst part of the game is that absolutely nothing is accomplished with the keyboard. You have to click around with the mouse to do anything.
The party starts on an overland map with a few visible structures. The closest, a hut to the west, a guy named Kalak offers to sell grundausstattung ("basic equipment") to the party for 2,500 of its 12,000 starting gold pieces. This automatically equips each character with a kleines messer (small knife), a cap, a frock, sandals, and a wooden shield. This is a nice shortcut, though I would have still preferred a full equipment shop.
That guy doesn't look like he knows much about adventuring.
Nearby, entering a cave brings up a screen that challenges me to press four buttons in the correct order. No matter what I do, I find myself in a dungeon. A large castle-looking building to the south also has a dungeon.

Southeast of that is a tent where "Mira the Ranger" offers to teach me "Forestry" for 15,000 gold pieces. Either that or the "Mountaineer" skill is going to be necessary to progress very far, because in almost any direction there are objects that tell me I need those skills at a particular level to move on. In another hut, a guy is selling "information about Umure" for 200 gold pieces. I say yes the first time, and he tells me that there are 9 "marauding groups" lurking in the city, and that I should come back when I've "done it."
Notice the player's only reaction to not having enough skill.
Combats and treasures show up as you explore wilderness squares. So far, I've determined that the game has a skill system that determines what items you're able to wield and wear, but not much more than that. There's a food system and a rest system. Clicking other buttons brings up screens that suggest that someone with "Clairvoyance" skill can get an automap of the area. There's a button that seems to automatically take the party to the exit of the dungeon if they're deep into it, and another that allows you to wait in ambush for enemy parties. I haven't yet explored the nuances of any of these things.
I did finally find a weapon shop.
I leave you exploring Umure, which seems to be more a city than a dungeon. It has some marauding enemies, yes, but also a proper equipment shop, a tavern, a temple, and a training facility, again much like a Might and Magic town.
The tavern gives me the ability to sleep, eat, drink, and buy food, but not create new characters.
I haven't made a lot of progress, but I think I'll leave things here for the opening entry. My readers have a way of turning up documentation that I can't find. Motelsoft may have "borrowed" a lot for this one, but so what? It looks like the result is going to be fun.

Time so far: 2 hours

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Star Control II: Building the Empire

The aptly-named "Orz" do indeed make me want to kneel down and bang my head against the floor.
If I do end up running out of time and having to start over with Star Control II, at least I'll get to revise my decision to name my new alliance "The New Alliance of Free Stars." I didn't realize I'd be giving that name to everyone I meet. Next time, I'm going with "The Empire of Chester."

The Empire is growing. In contrast to my last session, where I didn't seem to make much progress, I did nothing but accomplish things this time around. It began with a slight rewind. After I reloaded from my fatal (for him) encounter with the Shifoxti rogue ship, I was back at starbase. I returned to Delta Gorno, but by way of the Melnorme ship at Alpha Centauri, where I sold a heap of biological data and now had enough credits to actually start buying things.
No rainbow worlds yet, though.
When dealing with the Melnorme, you can buy a piece of technology, information on current events, information on alien races, or historical information. You only get to choose the category; they choose the next item to give to you. I altered among the categories and ended up obtaining/discovering the following:
  • A schematic for blaster weapons twice as powerful as my current ion-bolt guns
  • A schematic for faster lander speed
  • In addition to the Shofixti warrior I'd already met, there's another solo warrior out there plus several females in the menagerie of the Vux admiral Zex. If I can bring the females to the two males and things work out, there will be millions of new Shofixti within a few human generations. The Melnorme recommended that we adopt an approach of insulting the Shofixti and then fleeing if attacked.
  • The Ur-Quan are presently at war with a race called the Kohr-Ah, which are not the alien probes, so I was wrong there. The major fighting is in the middle of the galaxy. The Kohr-Ah seem to be winning. Their war has caught the Zoq-Fot-Pik in the crossfire (something I'd already heard from that race).
  • The Ur-Quan are part of an ancient alliance of races called the "sentient milieu."
  • The blobbish Umgah, one of the races in the Ur-Quan hierarchy, renowned for their sense of humor, has begun screwing with the Ilwrath (the spider-like creatures) by using a device called a HyperWave Caster to impersonate the Ilwrath gods, Dogar and Kazon. When the Ilwrath priest caste decried this fakery, the rest of the Ilwrath population slaughtered the priests. If we could get our hands on this Caster, we could effectively neutralize the Ilwrath.
I ran out of credits at this point, but I'd added a few new items to my "to do" list. On we went back to Delta Gorno, where I ran into Tanaka the Shofixti again and this time insulted him. When he attacked, I fled. I re-engaged him almost immediately and noted that I had different insults among the dialogue options, so I figured I must be getting somewhere. He attacked again; I fled again. I think on the third attempt, he realized that the Ur-Quan had never insulted him before, and thus slowed down enough to figure out that we were his allies. Although glad to hear of a new alliance against the Ur-Quan, he declined to join us, preferring to stay and guard his old system. I assume I need him there for when I bring back the Shofixti females.
I'm going to try to get you some company.
Back I went to my quest list. Let's divert for a moment to note that this is one of the few games of the entire 1975-1992 period in which you have anything like a "quest list." It's extremely common now, of course. Fire up any modern RPG, and you've got a dozen items on your "to do" list (which the game now helpfully keeps for you) before you've left the first town. There are multiple approaches to deciding what item to pursue next, and I'll explore the consequences in a future special topic entry. Briefly, some of them are:
  • Gingerly: Do the easiest item (or what sounds like the easiest item) next
  • Chronologically: Do the oldest item next.
  • Geographically by Proximity: Do the closest item next.
  • Geographic by System: Explore the game using a systematic geographic approach (e.g., west to east), solving quests along the way
  • Consequentially: Do the most important item next.
  • Comprehensively: Do all the side quests before the next step in the main quest; the side quests are probably prioritized using another approach here
  • Organically: Do the item next that you'd really do next if you were the character, which probably juggles a lot of these options.
  • Mercenarily: Do the item that sounds like it will give you the greatest reward next.
  • Randomly: Count the number of items on the list and roll a die.
  • Anarchically: Explore the game completely at whim without regard to quests, solving them if you happen to stumble on them.
(Let me know if you think I've missed any.)

I find that altering your approach to quests makes a lot of modern games extremely replayable. I tend to play the first time using a "consequential/geographic proximity" combination, meaning I prioritize by importance but pick up side quests as they exist along the route. This ensures that I actually finish the main quest. I don't want to be one of those people that says things like, "I have 1,200 hours into Fallout 4 and I still haven't won the game." I go for the win the first time. The second time, if I'm motivated to play again, I might try a chronological approach to ensure that I explore more of the side quests. Lately, though, I've been prioritizing a random approach, such that Irene is sick of hearing me say, "Hey, Siri, give me a random number between one and twenty-five" before heading off to bag a Legendary Elk.

With Star Control II, I've been using the random approach, mostly because none of the quests seemed obviously more important than the others. But by the end of this session, I had decided to revise my system and use a geographic proximity approach instead, mostly because I nearly ran out of fuel twice while in the fringes of space.

Still using the random roll, I next chased rumors of an unknown ancient race who used to make their home in the Vulpeculae constellation, in the middle of Androsynth space. I didn't expect much from the expedition. Indeed, I figured I'd be attacked by Androsynth and that would be the end of it. Sure enough, I arrived to a swarm of ships who immediately started approaching my own.
Well, this doesn't bode well.
They weren't Androsynth, though. They were bright yellow things, looking like a combination between a fish and a flower. When they made contact, my translation program warned that it was having trouble with their speech, and it put asterisks around words they weren't sure about, so in an early speech, we got:
Hello extremely! I hope you like to *play*. Some *campers* are not so good for *games*. . . Who are you? You are not Orz! We are Orz! Orz are happy *people energy* from the outside. Inside is good. So much good that the Orz will always *germinate.* Can you come together with Orz for *parties*?
At first I thought something ribald was going on here, like "parties" meant "orgies" or something. But things didn't develop explicitly along those lines. The best I could work out from their many lines of only partly comprehensible dialogue is that the Orz come from another dimension, that the individual Orz we perceive are all just "fingers" of a single being (like a happy version of the Uhl from Starflight), and that they destroyed the Androsynth for some unknown reason. (They got mad when I even asked about it.) They also don't seem to like the Ariloualeelay, whom they suggest are from their dimension, but from "above" while the Orz are from "below."
Let's just make sure we agree on a safe word.
Anyway, they seemed to join the Alliance. They let me land on their planets, and they gave me specifications for an "Orz Nemesis" ship that I later had built. Good to know that the Androsynth aren't a threat anymore.

On one of the planets--the second around Eta Vulpeculae--my scanners picked up energy signatures for the first time since (I think) Pluto. There were a lot of them--destroyed Androsynth cities, it turned out.

As my lander explored these cities, the game again invented names and personalities for some of my interchangeable crewmember-hit points. Their reports together created a kind of mini horror story. It began with "xeno-historian Kilgore" reporting that some kind of land war destroyed the cities but left no corpses. Later, "science officer Bukowski" reported that the Androsynth had been researching "Dimensional Fatigue Phenomena," based on their discovery of some Precursor artifacts. They were generating waves that allowed them to see into other dimensions. They ended up making contact with some life form on the "other side," after which their research degraded into rantings about ghosts and poltergeists before abruptly coming to an end.
Multiple lander reports deliver a growing horror story.
In continued reports from the lander, "Ensign Hawthorne" radioed that Bukowski had continued his inquiry into the Androsynth research project and had himself gone insane, ranting that "they" could now see him and that he had to stop "them" before "they" could see everyone else. Stigmata started appearing on his body, as if he was being cut by an invisible source. The crewmembers on the lander begged to be brought home, and running them into other cities didn't seem to generate any new reports, so I complied. Lots of mysteries here. Are "they" the Orz? The Ariloualeelay? Some other beings from another dimension? Just who have I allied with here?
That sounds ominous.
On another old ancient ruin, my crew found an "unusual glowing rock-thing" that seemed to make some people sick with headaches and "mental disarray." It was said to be Taalo in origin, this name appearing for the first time. I assume it's the name of the ancient race that lived in Precursor times.

Back at starbase, Commander Hayes praised the design of the Orz Nemesis. Later, he reported that the Taalo rock seemed to have something to do with blocking psychic attacks. Those that had become ill were those with some psychic ability. (He referred to them as "espers," either a reference to 1988's Star Command, or just a term that's more common than I thought for someone with E.S.P.)
Adding the Nemesis to my fleet. Now I have four ships that I can't pilot effectively!
For my last expedition, my random roll gave me the Zoq-Fot-Pik homeworld, which is in the middle of the map but the farthest I've traveled so far. I stopped at a few systems on the way to search for minerals and whatever else. I'm finding that I hate planets with a "weather" score higher than 2. I can usually avoid earthquakes, and thus deal with a high tectonics score, but lightning bolts often seem to target my lander specifically, and none of my dodging and weaving helps. 

One of the worlds I stopped at randomly was Betelgeuse. There, I was surprised to find a red force field covering a planet and a starbase in orbit. It turned out to be Gaia, the new homeworld of the Syreen, their old one having been destroyed before the events of the first game. When the Alliance surrendered, the Syreen--like Earth--chose to live under a dome rather than serve as battle thralls.
This seems familiar.
In a long conversation with the Syreen Commander Talana--in which the game seemed to delight in giving me boorish, inappropriate dialogue options--I learned quite a bit about the race. They used to live on Syra--which we call Beta Copernicus--before an asteroid impact caused such volcanic upheaval that the planet had to be abandoned. Now, the entire system seems to have been taken over by the Mycon.
The game gives me one professional option and three takes on sexual harassment.
When the Syreen surrendered to the Ur-Quan, they chose the shield but noted that they had no actual planet. The Ur-Quan asked them about their requirements. The Syreen talked about Syra ("about the color of its sky, about the abundant, varied lifeforms, about the fertility of the soil and seas"). The Ur-Quan took an hour, then communicated back with the coordinates of Gaia, which the Syreen found to be absolutely perfect. "We'd been searching for a home planet for seventy-five years," Talana said, "and in the end, it was our enemies who gave one to us." Naturally, they were now uninterested in violating their treaty and upsetting the status-quo unless I could give them a good reason, and I had nothing. But I put their old planet on my "to do" list for investigation.

On to the Zoq-Fot-Pik system (ZFP from here on). When I arrived, I found it swarming with Ur-Quan, and before I could escape, one of the Ur-Quan dreadnoughts approached. Our dialogue just consisted of the Ur-Quan captain making threats. In the ensuing combat, I couldn't do anything. I tried about five times. The dreadnought fires huge metal swastikas or something--I think they're actually supposed to be autonomous ships--that fly around until they hit something. They have as many hit points as my own flagship. None of my smaller ships lasted more than a few hits and even with my flagship, it became clear that if I won, it would be with about 10 crewmembers left over. I really hope it's possible to win this game without being good at the space combat.
I missed the shot of the enemy's projectile. It's just crashed into my cruiser.
So I ultimately sighed and escaped combat, which leaves your ship immobile for about 10 seconds as it jumps to hyperspace, which is enough time for the enemy to destroy a couple dozen crewmembers. I dodged the rest of the Ur-Quan ships and made my way to the ZFP homeworld, where the faintly ridiculous species agreed to join my alliance.
The Pik is the emotional one.
I leave you on my way back to starbase. The trip to the ZFP system took so much fuel that I have to keep my eye on the gauge as I explore for elements. But I do have to explore because if I don't, I won't have any money to buy new fuel when I get back. 

Lots of fun and progress this trip, though I'm not sure what it's amounting to just yet.

Time so far: 15 hours