Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Game 20: Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony



What a difference a couple of years makes! I was amazed when I started up Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony and saw introductory screens like this:

He's not Chinese! Neither, incidentally, is the Moebius strip, which has no particular Asian origins. It notably appears in Ultima IV as the ultimate answer to the summation of truth, love, and courage: infinity.

I have no idea what's going on down below, but it's damned impressive.

Granted, the DOS version of this game is from 1987, two years after the original Apple II version, but it's still astonishing that photorealistic effects and animation have advanced so much in such a short time. I'm guessing the introduction of the VGA graphics card standard in 1987 probably had something to do with it.

Even though I haven't caught up with where I was at the end of Might & Magic, I've decided to stop "backtracking" at this point because I want to give Moebius proper attention. From what I can see so far, it's an authentic CRPG, and it's exclusion from the Wikipedia list is thus somewhat mystifying. (So is the fact that I'd never heard of it until a couple of weeks ago.) This means back to my original rules.

Moebius is notable in a lot of other ways. It is the first CRPG (that I know of) based on eastern philosophy and themes. Perhaps an exception is Ultima IV with its inclusion of avatarhood, but this is really just the use of a term. Moebius is set in a quasi-Asian fantasy kingdom with frequent use of Asian (or, at least, pseudo-Asian) symbology, names, weapons, and combat styles. Confucius quotes appear throughout the manual. There aren't many other games that do this. I think of Jade Empire and...any others? (Other than JRPGs, of course.)

The "yin-yang" symbol appears frequently in the Moebius materials. Fun fact: what I've always called the "yin-yang symbol" is properly called a taijitu. Variations appear in Celtic and Roman art, and it was introduced in Taoism in the 16th or 17th centuries C.E., representing the interplay of opposing forces. The light and dark halves are commonly and erroneously thought to represent good and evil, but "evil" is rather the consequences of imbalance in opposing forces. History/theology lesson over.


The game takes place in the formerly-peaceful realm of Khantun. The evil monk Kaimen has stolen the Orb of Celestial Harmony from his master, Moebius the Windwalker, and has set up a fortress on the Plane of Fire from which he is wreaking havoc across the land. Since the Orb "holds in effect the forces of dissolution that are inherent to our land" and allows passage through the elemental realms, Moebius is stuck on his own plane and Khantun is suffering a variety of natural and monster-based disasters. Complicating things is that Khantun has no army ("since the Windwalker showed our people the path of peace, there has been no need") to stand against Kaimen's horde of evil monks. That tasks falls to the player and the aged monks who will aid him.

Moebius was designed by a game developer named Greg Malone and released by Origin Systems. There are echoes of Ultima IV in the game, with its emphasis on virtue in the form of "karma," but you can also sense Richard Garriott's lack of direct involvement with this one, especially in the combat. Incidentally, ever since I reviewed all those shareware games that listed the names of the developers, I've become more interested in the "authorship" of particular games. This led me to Malone's current web site; it looks like he's putting his talents to good use today.

The initial stages of Moebius deliver two fairly original features. First, before you head off on your adventures, you go through three training sessions: sword combat, hand-to-hand combat, and meditation (which involves keeping a floating orb within a defined box through the use of the arrow keys). This is an early, if not the first, example of a feature I've come to like in later games: tutorials. I prefer to learn the interface a little before I head out into the game world. In this case, I learned a valuable lesson about your fatigue level: striking when it's low barely causes any damage.

Fighting mano-a-mano with a palace guard. Incidentally, "mano a mano" means "hand-to-hand" in Spanish, not "man-to-man" as some people think. That would be "hombre-a-hombre." Yes, I'm full of them today.

The second feature is action-based combat. You fight in real time by blocking your enemy's attacks and making attacks of your own. There are a variety of high, middle, and low kicks and punches (or sword thrusts) to choose from, and figuring out the best one to use in any given situation means carefully watching what your opponent is doing. Matt Barton calls the game "Ultima Meets Karateka," which I guess was a popular karate game of the time.

The assassin staggers from my sword blow. The word "assassin" comes from the Arabic "hashshashin," which in turn derives from the common belief that assassins were under the influence of hashish during their killings. This belief has led directly to current U.S. drug policy. Okay, I made that part up. I think.

In the final part of training, you have to learn to keep an agitated, floating taijitu within a box by using the arrow keys. It took me a while but I found it much easier once I reduced the CPU cycles in DOSBox.



Having finished training, I began the Moebius adventure by leaving the temple and heading out into the troubled land of Khantun and what in the name of Confucius is that disembodied head floating around?



It is, regrettably, me--and the subject of my next posting.

Edit on 07/15/2013: I didn't like this game so much that I stopped blogging about it after this posting, but because I didn't even play it long enough to assign a rating, I always felt bad about it. I finally went back and finished the game three years later. Here's the second and final posting.

29 comments:

  1. Good god, that floating head is frickin hideous.
    Anyway, the only other asian-themed CRPG that springs to mind is the Diablo-clone Prince of Qin ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_of_Qin ), which seems strangely lacking from the list despite being named an RPG in the article.

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  2. Never liked Moebius much at all, or windwalker.

    First eastern themed game I saw was Deathlord on AppleII/C64, 1987. Shame you are only doing DOS, its a crafy and cunning game.

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  3. Speaking of Asian themed Diablo clones...there is also Throne of Darkness released before Sierra went belly up. I remember liking it quite a bit actually.

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  4. I liked Moebius very much actually and I own the Amiga version, perhaps the graphically best version out there. On a stock Amiga it was still pretty slow and it couldn't be installed on a hard drive back then.
    It's approach to tile-mapping (somewhat 3D), weather effects and some interesting things like listening for sounds and also talking to the dead were not exactly overused back then.
    It's also quite colorful and it has a great automap.

    Hint: I found the fights a bit easier when using the low kick more often than anything else and with good timing (when enemy approaches).

    Windwalker uses an even more ambitious 3D-tiling engine but one needed a pretty fast computer for that one. Haven't played that and I don't think that I ever will.

    Apart from the already mentioned Asian-themed CRPGs there was also the German(!) low-budget C64-only-title "Nippon".
    I haven't played it (like probably the vast majority of your readers) but it looks like your generic Ultima-clone anyway.

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  5. Karateka was the predecessor to Prince of Persia. A clunky side scroller with pretty graphics and bad combat.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHNT7mR-8d0

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  6. Thanks for the info, everyone! (And welcome back, CannonFodder; I thought you'd ditched me.) I won't tell you how far ahead some of these games are on my list, but the general point is made: eastern-themed CPRGs are fairly rare.

    Stu, if you saw the length of my list, you wouldn't rag me for sticking with DOS only.

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  7. The second picture, what's Burt Reynolds doing in a video game? Does the assassin look like Darth Vader to anyone else or am I the only one?

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  8. I played Windwalker a bit around ten years ago (spotted it on Home of the Underdogs). It seemed pretty cool, especially the theme and battle system, which had an option to keep it turn-based. Once again, very interesting to read about this game.

    --Eino

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  9. I have a soft spot in my heart for both Moebius and Windwalker (and have frequently used both names in CRPGs for characters when appropriate. My Wiz monks are always called Moebius or Windwalker).

    It should be noted that Moebius is the first CRPG to reward the player with haikus on level up. I just loved that about the game. I think the level 5ish one in the first realm was boar, and it ended with "your foes flee or die". I remember that coinciding with what seemed like the first difficulty hump being surmounted.

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  10. Thanks for the note, peacedog. That gives me incentive to play through at least a few levels.

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  11. Another interesting aspect is that it does that tutorial which is also character creation, IIRC. I can't recall what is affected outside of available mental energy, but I had a sense that how far you progressed in the fighting part benefitted you somehow. It's rare that CRPGs employ minigame components that have a direct bearing on character development. Legacy of the Ancients is the only other one I can think of from the classic era. And beyond, for that matter.

    You are dead on about the crazy heads though. I really don't know what they were thinking. Windwalker followed that model.

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  12. I remember being a kid and for love of Ultima being curious and/or fascinated with any title from Origin Systems. I had a friend who'd played Moebius and gave it high marks. I never got a chance to play it back in the day.

    These days I'm revisiting some of the old CRPGs I missed; nothing like what you're doing, but we're covering some of the same ground. So I'm giving Moebius a whirl in between Wizardry VI sessions. So far I'm not thrilled with the gameplay. I don't have the hang of it yet, I guess, but the controls feel very sluggish and I keep starving. I have no idea where to get more food and water.

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  13. Judge, your experience mirrors mine. I'm moving on, but if you press forward with Moebius and find any gems in the gameplay, let me know. I wouldn't mind supplementing my own postings, especially for games I don't finish, with reviews from my readers.

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  14. i loved moebius when i was a kid, but... man, i was an origin fanboy growing up. i thankfully kept my favorite boxes... don't have moebius, but i do have my ultima iv and autoduel boxes (complete with cloth map and toolkit!).

    i totally forgot about this game. i have faint memories of it though... finding hidden yingyangs? something like that? man. i can't remember.

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  15. Another Asian-Style rpg would be Deathlord on the Apple II, it's basically Ultima 4 with a Japanese setting.

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  16. You just get through bashing dumb RPG names like Trebor and Werdna, and then you go and name your Moebius character "Hello".

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    1. I can't believe it took nearly three years for someone to notice that.

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    2. Shameful, really.

      I'm greatly enjoying wandering through your archives, by the way, though I may not be able to forgive you for getting me to bang my head against The Bard's Tale again.

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  17. Hello

    I've been with you from the start, but i am just going back and re-reading from the start (I am "working from home" all week and have to find someway of passing the time).

    I thought it was poor that I never commented despite reading, so I am going to try and rectify that.

    Anyway, your last comment really make me laugh out loud. God this is an ugly game. Never played it myself back in the day - thank god. But I do remember playing Ultima 3 for about a year (my 1st RPG if you dont count Zork text type adventures)- I couldnt believe how quickly you finished it. What on earth didIi spend my time doing when I played it?

    Jus - UK

    PS yes a UK reader!

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    1. Glad to have you with us. I was just thinking about this game because I'm probably going to have to re-visit it before playing its sequel, coming up before the end of 1989. Perhaps I can play it long enough this time to at least give it a proper rating.

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    2. I don't envy you having to revist it.

      On an unrelated note, I just did a "music tour" of the US, taking in New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville and I know you are a New Orleans fan for the music. Which music bars do you tend to go to, or can you reccomend? I seemed to spend a lot of time in "Fritzels" I think its was called...

      I only ask, as im thinking of going back to NO and Nashville again later this year, I loved it all so much

      Jus - UK

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    3. Fritzel's is one of the only two places on Bourbon Street that play traditional jazz, so you made a good choice there. I like that bar a lot, though I find the servers are somewhat rude.

      I spend a lot of time in Maison Bourbon, just down the street from Fritzel's. The music there is a bit repetitive--the two bandleaders play essentially the same sets every night--but it was the first jazz place I discovered in NOLA.

      But I like to spend the bulk of my time down on Frenchman Street. There are half a dozen excellent clubs within a short walk from each other, and it's the best place to catch the neo-trad scene.

      I hope you enjoyed your trip! It's my favorite city, and I'm going back at the end of July for work/Satchmo fest.

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    4. Yeah Frizels was great - I went there about 4 nights. I went to Maisons too - very nice. I utterly loved it. I'll definitly go back.

      (I even had a Gimlet in your honor - my 2 mates asked me why I was insitent on it, and the explanation didn't make me seem too cool....)

      I knew I would like NO though, but I was most surprised by Nashville. I dont really like country but that was just a great place.

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    5. I've had the same experience. I don't like the predominant music, but there are some great clubs downtown and the whole atmosphere is fun.

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  18. Actually, this was one of the first games with any kind of "graphics" to speak of that I ever owned, and although hideous and full of referential missteps, I honestly kinda miss this game.

    I loved how you could hack your way through a bamboo forest and then stop to listen... for a panda chewing away at bamboo. (You could then, of course, hack your way through said panda and thereby decimate your karma, but, what the Hey. There were plenty of bad guys to make up the difference.)

    Anyway, wish I could get my hands on this game again, even if only for nostalgia's sake.

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    1. It wasn't hard for me, so I think you could probably figure it out.

      Every time someone comments on this old posting, I'm reminded about how inadequately I played this game. I've got its sequel coming up, and I should probably return to it and at least play it long enough for a GIMLET.

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  19. Hey, I just noticed this guy worked on a seminal FPS, Duke Nukem 3D. Cool.

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  20. I'm surprised that you're familiar with so many obscure titles but you'd never heard of Karateka.

    There were a few games out there, maybe about 10 or 15, that pretty much every C64 owner somehow seemed to possess. Telengard was one of those games. Archon. Karateka was another one. There wasn't much to it really, but it was very nice to look at and listen to... it was extremely popular.

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    1. After I wrote this, I looked up Karateka and did remember owning and playing it. I just didn't remember the title.

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