Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bard's Tale: Pleasingly Difficult

The night before last, shortly after encountering the above-pictured beast, I found out what happens when your entire party dies in The Bard's Tale. It isn't so bad and yet at the same time it sucks incredibly. Instead of losing your entire party to the dungeon depths, as in Wizardry, your entire party returns to the Guild of Adventurers, dead but with all of the items, gold, and experience they've accumulated. Doesn't sound too shabby.

The problem is, it costs a lot to resurrect a dead character, especially a high-level dead character. Resurrecting six dead characters cost way more than I had at this point. I had to create a dummy character just to exit the Guild. I was able to resurrect one character immediately, but to get the other five, I had to build up my savings. It took a good three hours before they were all happy and healthy again.

It sounds horrible, especially to modern gamers, but I actually really, really like this aspect of The Bard's Tale. Death isn't a game-killer the way it is in Wizardry, but boy does it have consequences. Since you can only save in the Guild of Adventurers, every dungeon foray is a risk, creating a palpable tension as you wander your way through the passages. And every once in a while, you stumble into an encounter like this one (there were actually two more on this same level, with a dragon and a high-powered wizard) that makes your stomach drop and an expletive escape your lips.

Modern games make it far too easy. In something like Baldur's Gate, you would save every five or ten minutes. If you stumble on to a soul sucker, you might treat the first battle against him like a test run. If your characters die--or, heck, even just lose more hit points than you want to spare--no problem. Just reload and run the encounter again with the experience at your back. Even that was too tough for the creators of Neverwinter Nights, though. In that game, you could just use your Stone of Recall to take a time-out, get healed up, and return to battle fresh. What a bunch of wusses we've become.

Because of the frequent save points, modern games depend on the difficulty of individual battles to make the games challenging. In The Bard's Tale, Wizardry, and other games of the era I'm playing, there are plenty of difficult individual battles, but it's the totality of the expedition that brings the difficulty. You must constantly strategize. How much gold do I need to get from this encounter to make the "trap zap" spell worthwhile? What should I set as my bottom hit point threshold before I return to the surface? Do I want to expend 15 spell points on this group of wights, or take the risk that they'll turn me into a crippling old man with one touch? I've only got 15 squares left to map on this level, but my characters only have 1/2 their hit points. Should I press on or go back?

Exhilarating. Fortunately, I have a lot of games like this left to play.

I finished mapping and exploring the Mad God's catacombs last night, finding in the process his eye (which is equippable, but I don't know what it does). An inscription on a wall told me to "seek the Mad One's stoney self in Harkyn's domain," while another one more cryptically told me, "to the flower fly the mad one die once lost an eye!" In any event, this suggests that the third dungeon is one of the towers in the corners of the Skara Brae map. Since there are three of them, I'm guessing I'm about 2/5 done with the game.

Made a really dumb mistake last night. Because I don't have a rogue, I have to cast "trap zap" on every chest after battle, which depletes the spell points of my conjurer fairly quickly. Last night, my conjurer and magician reached their seventh spell level, so I decided to dual them to other classes to start gaining additional spells. The intelligent thing to do would have been to dual my magician to a conjurer so he could have "trap zap" too, and my conjurer to a sorcerer. Instead, I dualed my magician to a sorcerer and my conjurer to a magician. I know this sounds complicated, but trust me, I'm an idiot.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bard's Tale: Intense Dungeon Crawling

I had hoped that I would be able to announced that I had won The Bard's Tale this weekend, but I'm not even close. I finally just finished mapping the first dungeon of four levels; at least, I hope it's only four. I nearly didn't find the fourth level because getting down to it involved (d)escending through a pit in the floor with a levitation spell in effect. The pit was barely visible, though.

As you can imagine, the monsters get tougher the lower the level. I'm finding that spellcasters are my worst enemy. I routinely run into parties in which there are 12 or more spellcasters in three or more groups, making it nearly impossible to clear them out before they get a couple of fireballs in. Most monsters are standard D&D fare; I haven't encountered any truly unique ones yet.

Fortunately, I've yet to have my entire party wiped out. I don't even know what happens if that occurs. I've lost individual characters several times, though, and it's getting expensive to raise them.

Some miscellaneous things about the game:

  • There are several party-effect spells that I've found useful to have running when I start my dungeon crawling. These include MALE (levitate), YMCA (mystical armor), MACO (compass), and GRRE (a light spell that also reveals secret doors). The screen shot below shows my party in a dungeon with several buffing spells active (lined up in the center of the screen).
  • These spells take up a lot of spell points, and spell points do not regenerate in the dungeons. I've gotten in the habit of standing outside Roscoe's Energy Emporium, casting these buffing spells, then going inside and paying to get my spell points recharged before heading into the dungeons.
  • There are four spellcaster classes in the game--conjurer, magician, sorcerer, and wizard. You cannot select the latter two when you start, but you can change a conjurer or magician to those classes (or each other) once they reach Level 3. There are seven spell levels per class. I'm on the cusp of getting Level 7 spells for my conjurer and magician, at which point I'll switch them over to the other classes. Theoretically, I guess, one character can cycle through all spellcasting classes and get all the spells, but this must take an incredibly long time.
  • Only after about 10 hours of playing did I figure out that the "T" key pauses the game. If you don't pause during mapping and such, the clock keeps running and your spells run out faster. It would have been handy to know that earlier.
  • The "P" key starts combat with your own party, giving you a chance to have your characters assail each other. I can't imagine why I would want to do this.
  • When you first encounter creatures, you can try to run from combat. If you succeed--which you seem to do about 75% of the time--you stay in the same square, and as far as I can tell there's no penalty. I have frankly been running from a lot of combats if they look difficult.
  • Instead of armor and weapons +1, +2, and so on, better armor and weapons seems to be distinguished by the metal used to craft them. During this dungeon crawl, I found some mithrail swords and armor that seem to be one step up from the regular weapons and armor I had. I also found a "bardsword" that only my bard can equip; I'm not sure what it does.

The main purpose of dungeon crawling so far, it seems, is to pick up hints and clues written on the walls. I don't understand most of them yet. These are some of the ones picked up in the first dungeon:

  • "Pass the light at night!"
  • "Golems are made of stone."
  • "Heed not what is beyond understanding."
  • "Thor is the greatest son of Odin."
  • "The hand of time writes but cannot erase."
  • "Seek the snare from behind the scenes."
One inscription was helpful, though. A magic mouth appeared and told me that "a man called Tarjan, thought to many to be insane, had through wizardly powers proclaimed himself a god in Skara Brae a hundred years ago. His image is locked in stone until made whole again..." I'm guessing Tarjan is the name of the "mad god" whose priests keep asking me for his name. I suspect this leads to the second dungeon.

I'll leave you tonight with my map of Level 4 of the wine cellars/sewers. With luck, I'll win the game this week.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Bard's Tale: Not Quite As Fun as I Thought

Dungeon-crawling in The Bard's Tale

My praise for The Bard's Tale over the last couple of posts may have been a bit too effusive. I was taken in by the graphics and character classes and other trappings of the game, but now that I'm a few hours into it, the gameplay is very repetitive and frankly not distinguishable from Wizardry.

Since I last posted, I finally advanced my conjurer high enough to obtain a healing spell, but it wasn't the breakthrough I had hoped for. Healing takes so many spell points, and spell points regenerate so slowly, that really the only way to survive in the game is to pay for frequent healing at the temples. This isn't that crippling because gold is plentiful and there's very little else to spend it on, but it makes dungeon-delving problematic. You can't risk going too deep lest you find yourself unable to make it out.

Things I've done and discovered since last night:

  • You can't start the dungeons too early. The first dungeon to explore is the wine cellar (I'm blocked from the others for now). When you go from street to dungeon, you go from facing one party of monsters at a time to sometimes four or five parties at a time. It's a huge leap. After dying a couple of times, I decided I'd better stay in Skara Brae a little while longer and build up my characters.
One wonders what brought such a diverse group together
  • There's not much in Skara Brae. Most of it is marked on the map that comes with the game. The bulk of the city is composed of interchangeable houses which, when you kick in the door, sometimes offer up monsters. From a role-playing standpoint, it somehow seems wrong barging into houses and slaughtering the denizens, many of whom are innocuous-sounding creatures like hobbits and dwarves.
One of many interchangeable streets in Skara Brae
  • One thing I did find: a temple of the "Mad God." Instead of healing me, the clerics ask for the name of the Mad God. There must be some adventure here later.
  • Tougher critters come out when night falls.
  • The Bard's Tale tried to catch me pirating. At one point when I leveled up, the Review Board asked me a question that I was only able to answer by looking at the game map.
1980s DRM
  • Since there seems to be an equal chance of encountering monsters every time you enter a house, there's no reason to march all over the city looking for battles. I set myself up near a temple and just went back and forth between two houses across the street from each other, killing monsters for hours. As you can imagine, it was a bit boring, so I watched an episode of Lost while I was doing it. Last night's episode was pretty good, incidentally.

"Death itself." From a zombie. Get it?

Once my characters were up to Level 7, I entered and mapped out the first level of the wine cellar. Not much here: one trap, one spinner (a square that when you land on it points you in a random direction, confusing your mapping), stairs down, and two doors marked "fine wines" and "rare wines" but which, as far as I could tell, had nothing but monsters in them. A lot of the squares aren't used, and I'm wondering if there isn't some other way of finding secret doors other than running headfirst into them the way you do in Wizardry. I didn't find any secret doors on Level 1, in any event.

I do still like mapping.

I'll keep plugging away. In the meantime, I'm mulling over a comment that Gooberslot made on my first posting. He or she called me on only playing PC/DOS CRPGs, noting that not only am I missing games, in some cases I'm "missing out on playing the best version." Downloading Apple II, Atari, and C-64 emulators would mean going back to pick up Space, Space II, the Dunjonquest games, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Return of Heracles, Questron, and SunDog: Frozen Legacy, and Adventure: Only the Fittest Shall Survive.

Should I do it? Or should I stick to my original plan and cover DOS/PC CRPGs only? Any fond memories of any of these games?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Game 11: The Bard's Tale (1985)

"Your most important goal is to complete the quest built into the game. In The Bard's Tale, the city of Skara Brae is threatened by an evil mage called Mangar. You must find Manger and 'persuade' him to release the once-harmonious city from his evil control." -- Bard's Tale manual

As I said in my last posting, I'm beginning to feel that CRPGs are hitting that "good enough" stage where they are authentically enjoyable and not just historical curios. The graphics, sound, and game play are notably improved in over most of the previous games on this list, and especially the game of which it is a direct descendant: Wizardry.

As in Wizardry, you control a party of six characters representing different classes and races (oddly enough, you cannot specify sexes; all characters, at least judging by their portraits, are male). These characters exist on a list in the lower part of your screen while the upper part is devoted to a first-person view of the game world. Your characters can buy and equip a variety of weapons, armor, and miscellaneous items, some of which must be identified if you find them after a battle. In battle, just as in Wizardry, you specify an action for each character, and then your characters and the enemies go at it all at once. You may face multiple groups of enemies of varying numbers. Only your first three characters can attack. You cast spells by typing in their names, although in the case of The Bard's Tale it's a four-letter code instead of the entire spell name.

So far it sounds so close to Wizardry that I'm surprised the developers weren't sued for copyright violation. But in subtle details, The Bard's Tale is better, and (at least so far) more fun. To name a few:

  • The graphics are much better. Character and monster portraits are animated, as are scenes inside various buildings.
  • There is an awesome variety of races and classes. Here for the first time are half-orcs, paladins, hunters, monks, and four different mage classes--two of which you have to transition to after you've gained some experience. Hunters do critical hits at higher levels, and monks (as in D&D) are skilled in unarmed and unarmored combat.
  • Bards appear for the first time in a CRPG (unless you count the "lark" in Ultima III). And the class isn't just a name: bards can sing helpful bard songs in battles and use certain musical magic items. "The Seeker's Ballard," for instance, produces light in dungeons and makes foes easier to hit; "Falkentyne's Fury" increases the damage you do in combat. In between songs--I love this--bards have to have a glass of wine or ale to refresh their windpipes.
  • The town is Skara Brae. At first, I thought the Skara Brae of Ultima IV must be paying homage to The Bard's Tale, but then I discovered that Skara Brae is the name of a neolithic archaeological site in Orkney.
  • A variety of locations to visit. There are several taverns, temples, and shops, and a spell-recharging place. A place called "the review board" advances you in levels, but you have to find it (it's not on the game map).

  • You can summon or join NPCs to your party. More on this in a second.
  • Cute little touches: a street is blocked by a statue of a samurai. Attack it, and it becomes a samurai for real. Kill him, and you can pass. Just beyond him is a tavern where, if you buy a bottle of wine, the bartender lets you into a dungeon.

All of that said, the game is pretty hard, mostly because you start off with no healing spells. I thought maybe I'd get some after my mages advanced to second level, but I didn't. This means that almost all the gold you collect from battle has to go to temples for healing and resurrection.

My party consists of

  • Palamdedes, a human paladin (I almost always lead my parties with a paladin)
  • Blaargh, a half-orc hunter
  • Grimgnaw, a dwarven monk
  • Taliesin, a half-elf bard
  • Grey Star, an elven magician
  • Lailoken, a gnomish conjurer

A rogue seemed unnecessary because conjurers get a spell called "trap zap" at the first level (I wish I'd had that in Wizardry).

I've spent most of the first few hours mapping Skara Brae, fighting various battles, and all-too-often raising and healing my characters at temples. I have most of them up to Level 2. I'm hoping I get the healing spells at Level 3, at which point I'll start exploring the first dungeon.

Despite the Stone Elemental's help, three of my characters died in this combat.

One thing has made combat exceedingly easier in these opening stages. At the top of your party list is a slot for a summoned creature. While exploring the key commands, I discovered that if you hit the "Z" key, a stone elemental automatically appears in that slot. I have no idea why. It seems too easily-discoverable to be a cheat. Either way, I'm getting a lot of use out of him.

The Ultimate Wizardry Archives arrived while I was away and, as promised, I'm going to go back and try Wizardry II and Wizardry III when I'm done with this game, but it's going to be hard to regress to those games after The Bard's Tale.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Good Enough

Early in Casablanca, there's a scene of a turboprop landing on an airstrip. It is the plane bringing Nazi villain Major Strasser into the film. Cinematography and special effects being what they were in 1942, the shot is manifestly of a small model plane suspended with wires. You can't help but notice it. You might even titter involuntarily.

If a director re-made Casabalanca today (I know, heaven forfend, but bear with me), he might shoot it in black and white. He might use some of the same corny dialog. He might keep the same period music. But he would clearly not shoot the plane scene with a cheap balsa wood model. In a remake, the shot of the plane landing, if it was not a real shot of a real airplane landing, would sure look like one. And yet--here's the key--the fact that in the 1942 film the shot looks fake and unsophisticated in no way detracts from your enjoyment of the film. You recognize and accept it as a necessary limitation of the time.

The earliest thing we can call a film is generally thought to be a 24-frame assemblage of pictures of a racehorse named Sallie Gardner, shot by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. The earliest surviving motion picture was shot in 1888 in England and is called Roundhay Garden Scene. It lasts all of two seconds. The first copyrighted film in the United States is the five-second Fred Ott's Sneeze from 1894. These films, and hundreds of others from this era, are interesting curios to students of film history, but none of them will inspire you to curl up in front of the television with your partner and some Chinese food. Neither the technique nor the technology, neither the art nor the science, were sufficiently advanced for these films to be truly "entertaining" in the modern sense.

And yet, at some point, completely without fanfare, suddenly they were. We can argue and debate exactly when that point occurs. I might go with Birth of a Nation (1915), but I could understand if you want to make a case for the sound era--let's say 42nd Street (1933) or It Happened One Night (1934). Certainly, I think we would all agree, that by the Wizard of Oz (1938), film craft had advanced to the level that even today, three-quarters of a century later, you would not hesitate to watch a film from the era, or to recommend it to others. The art and science of film-making didn't stop at that point--it has continued to evolve steadily year after year since then, but at some point it was "good enough" to create art that is timeless.

Love Me Tonight (1932). Not just "good enough"; sublime.

The same is true of music. The earliest recordings are faint, scratchy horrors that utterly mask the talent of the artists. But at some point it became "good enough." Tell me that Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" or Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul" would sound any better in a modern recording studio, and I will call you a fool.

This, then, is my theory: any art or entertainment form will eventually evolve to a point in which it is "good enough." After that point, no matter that it continues to evolve, its creations become timeless--accessible to modern audiences, entertaining, and moving, despite their age and lack of technical sophistication.

When do we hit this point with CRPGs? I haven't decided yet, but I'm beginning to suspect that, for me at least, it's with The Bard's Tale, on which I hope to blog later this week*. But then, I'm something of an archaeologist of CRPGs, maybe a little like the film historian delighted at Fred Ott's Sneeze. Where would you put the "good enough" point for CRPGs? Ultima Underworld? One of the "Gold Box" games? Daggerfall? Surely not as late as Baldur's Gate? Post your answer in the comments--or disagree with my theory if you must.

Good enough for me

*I'm on the road this week and will, alas, have limited time for gaming and blogging. This is too bad because I was really getting in to The Bard's Tale before I left.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Game 10: AutoDuel (1985)

I was really excited when I saw AutoDuel coming up on the list. I remembered playing it on my Commodore 64 over 20 years ago. I was looking forward to the ultra-tactical combat involving dozens of vehicles, in which you would pull your 24-person bus alongside the outlaw gang's tractor trailer unit, unload a volley of rifles, and then board it. Meanwhile, you'd accelerate your reinforced pickup truck to ramming speed and plow down the enemy's motorcycles. Good times.

Except, I realized soon after loading the game, that wasn't AutoDuel. That was Roadwar 2000. And come to think of it, it wasn't a CRPG anyway, so I don't know why I would have thought it was on the CRPG list. AutoDuel, it turns out, I've never seen.

The main splash screen nearly knocked me out of my chair. Lord British and Chuckles?! It turns out that AutoDuel is an Origin systems game, published sometime between Ultima III and Ultima IV. Based on a board game by Steve Jackson called Car Wars, it exists in a post-apocalyptic American northeast in which roving gangs of bandits prowl the highways in souped-up armed and armored vehicles. You start as an amateur car warrior buying and outfitting your first vehicle, and slowly improving your skills, fame, vehicles, and finances through random combat, arena duels, and courier missions.
The main character window

You begin in New York City. Like any good CRPG, there are a number of places to visit: a truck stop to buy armor and get a bus to another city, an assembly yard to buy and outfit your vehicle, a salvage yard to sell salvaged goods, a garage to repair and store your car, a weapons shop to buy weapon upgrades, a chapter of the Amercan Autoduel Assocation where you can get missions, Joe's Bar for drinks and rumors, the Gold Cross for healing and clone-making (more below), the FBI for God know's what, and an arena where you can fight duels.

The Big Apple is a little more compact than I remember

You start with hardly any cash, so generally you go to the arena where, on "amateur night," they will give you a car temporarily. Defeat four enemies and you win about $1500, enough when combined with your starting cash to buy your first vehicle.

Amateur night at the arena

Controls are with the mouse or keyboard. I found the keyboard counter-intuitive and the mouse only slightly less so. The main problem with AutoDuel is that the battles are frelling impossible. It took me four tries to win in the arena. Then I was killed almost immediately upon purchasing my first car.

Combat is based partly on statistics, including your scores for driving and marksmanship, but also partly on arcade-style hand dexterity. Unfortunately, I'm not very quick, apparently. But I don't think it's just me. The game screen isn't very big, and you don't really see enemy vehicles until you're practically on top of them. At that point, it's all too easy to accidentally run into them, destroying your armor and whatever weapon happens to be mounted at the impact point.

What makes the difficultly annoying is that AutoDuel is yet another game with permanent death. You can save your progress, but when it reloads it deletes your saved game. The only way around this is to visit the Gold Cross and purchase a clone who will take over for you if you happen to die. But they're awfully expensive.

When you defeat enemies, you can get out of your car and salvage stuff from theirs.

After dying probably 10 times I decided that the problem was I didn't have enough cash to outfit a good car. Prompted by a hint in the game manual, I took a bus to Atlantic City, where after playing blackjack for a good two hours of real time, I had about $16,000. (I was about to say that this qualifies as the first mini-game in a CRPG, but actually I suppose the Ultima tie-fighter battle takes that prize.) With this, I returned to NYC and outfitted a van with armor and several different weapons.

How much extra for some sudden, uncontrolled acceleration?
I had enough left to buy a clone but forgot to do so. I hit the open road, fought and won a couple of battles and then encountered a hotrod which in about two seconds obliterated my rear armor and killed me.

My six hours is up, and I'm tossing in the towel. I know I'm opening myself up to accusations of half-assing two games in a row, but AutoDuel was about the least fun I've ever had with a CRPG--and to be honest, I'd debate applying that label to this game. In any event, I can't find any evidence that there's a main quest or a way to "win" AutoDuel, so all it's doing is keeping me from The Bard's Tale. [Edit: As commenters have pointed out, there is a way to win. Later, I did.]

If you want another point of view, this YouTube poster has loaded a five minute video along with a couple of paragraphs of gushing commentary. The video shows him winning the first arena duel, buying his first car, and heading out on the open road. I sympathize with one of his commentors, who says, "i like it [but] 2 hours later i cant do anything but die & die again."

At least I got to hone my blackjack skills.


Further reading: Unsatisfied with this brief coverage? I don't blame you. It was early in my blog, and I didn't have much of a work ethic. Six years later, I revisited the game and won. Read my updated coverage.

Game 9: Alternate Reality: the City (1985)

In a post a few days ago, I mentioned that I was unable to get Wizardry II to work, and now I'm having the same problem with Wizardry III. Both the second and third editions of Wizardry are essentially just expansions to the first, and they require that you export your characters from Wizardry I. The problem: I can't get the import/export routine to work. It seems to require a floppy drive. The Internet has been no help. I've ordered The Ultimate Wizardry Archives from Amazon, so hopefully it will contain playable versions. If it does, I'll return to those two games.

On to Alternate Reality: the City, a game I had never heard of until I reached it on Wikipedia's chronology. The premise from the manual is unique: "You're kidnapped by an alien spaceship [shown at the cutscene above] and find yourself in a room with only one exit. Through this doorway you see the City of Xebec's Demise. Overhead is a panel with constantly changing numbers. As you go through the door, the numbers freeze. This sets your level of stamina, charm, strength, intelligence, wisdom, skill, wealth, and hit points."
This is a unique character creation method.
With the alien abduction and all, I expected a science-fiction setting, but the moment you step through the gate, you're in a high-fantasy style city complete with thieves and swordsmen. I know because they keep killing me. Every few seconds, whether you're moving or standing still, there seems to be a chance of a random encounter, which gives you several options, shown below.
No matter what you do, there's a chance it will fail and the creature will attack you. Innocuous-sounding individuals, like merchants, couriers, and guards, are shockingly violent and attack you without provocation--rendered all the worse because it seems you start the game with no weapons or armor.

There are shops, inns, and taverns scattered about in "Xebec's Demise," which seems to be quite large. The natural thing would be to enter a shop and spend some of my copper pieces on some equipment. The problem is, the game starts you off at 6:00 in the morning (you determine this by visiting an inn and checking the time) and the shops don't open until 8:00. I can't keep my characters alive for this two-hour interval! In fact, no matter how long I wander around, desperately trying to stay alive, the time never seems to advance!

If I can get past this hurdle, there seem to be a number of things about Alternate Reality: the City to like. First is the underlying mystery: how did an alien abduction land me in this fantasy world? Second, the technology of the game is a huge leap forward from other games of this era. You can't tell it from the screen shots, but the first-person perspective is continuously-scrolling. As you move forward, the world smoothly moves around you. I was not expecting this in a 1985 game (I'm playing a 1988 DOS port, but I would guess the basic interface is the same). The sound is also compelling, with each creature having its own little leitmotif. Finally, the graphics, in color and detail, are far beyond the wire-frame views of Wizardry. Check out this lovely screen shot of an inn:
So what, in God's name, is going on in this game? What does this medieval setting have to do with aliens? Why is everyone trying to kill me? What is the goal of the game? My rules forbid me to read walkthroughs and spoilers, and the manual offers no help. But I did leave myself the option of soliciting input from readers. Have any of you played Alternate Reality: the City? What advice do you have for me? 

Later Edit:
I decided on a new rule: after I decide to stop playing a game, or win it, I will allow myself to look up FAQs to see what I missed and to answer my questions. Wikipedia has a good article on the Alternate Reality series, and there's also an extensive FAQ here. It turns out that the City was the first in a planned six-game series, but only the City and the Dungeon ever got made. There is no way to "win" Alternate Reality: the City, and the only reason to play really is to build up your character for the Dungeon, which never received a DOS port and thus isn't on my list. Life's too short to play just to mess around. Next game.


Update from 28 February 2016: Over six years after this post, I spent another dozen hours on the game. I didn't end up liking it any better, but at least I understood it better when I was done. Read the updated posting.

Ultima III: Won!

Exodus has fallen. I won Ultima III in about 10 hours of total gameplay.

I should have been saying this all along in previous entries, but ***spoilers follow!*** If you're planning on playing Ultima III you might read my first entry on the game but leave this one until you finish.

Ultima III is not a terribly difficult game if you don't push your luck with the dungeons until you're ready. As I think I said in my first post, I don't believe and saving and reloading games just because you don't like a certain outcome, like a character dying during a battle. Instead, I force myself to haul my character to the healer and get him or her raised or resurrected. It makes the game more challenging. The only time I reload is when my entire party is wiped out. Even with this restriction, though, my characters only died a few times.

A commenter pointed out to me that another blogger has already done a fantastic job with the Ultima series: Zac Bond's "Blogging Ultima." Over a one-year period from 2007-2008, he played every Ultima game, including the little-known Escape from Mt. Drash and the Nintendo Gameboy Runes of Virtue. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but I read his commentaries for I, II, and III. We had a lot of the same impressions--I even took the same "Copy Protect!" screen shot as him, and he also commented on the rampant evil of your character in Ultima II. Anyway, if you like my blog, his is definitely worth reading through (he still posts now and then with new material).

As far as I know, no one has blogged Wizardry, so I still have a corner on part of this market.

Although the gameplay was occasionally a little repetitious, I found Ultima III to be authentically fun. There are hints of the greatness that would soon follow in Ultima IV. The storyline is much more sensible than in previous Ultimas, the magic system much more developed, and the combat more tactical. If you're really interested in getting in to the Ultima series but don't want to slog through some of the nonsense in Ultima I and Ultima II, I recommend starting here.

The towns of Fawn and Monitor/Montor, first introduced in Ultima I, are here--I think for the last time until Ultima VII. You also run in to both Dupre and Shamino, soon to be your close companions in Ultima IV, in a couple of bars. As I said last time, Iolo and Gwenno are both in Lord British's castle. You practically have the whole gang here.

Finishing the game involves visiting every town and talking to each person to obtain a series of clues. By piecing these clues together, you discover that the main steps are:

  • Visit the dungeons and find each of four "marks"--hot iron brands on the walls that I guess permanently imprint on your characters. The Mark of Kings allows you to advance to higher levels; the Mark of Fire allows you to cross lava without damage; the Mark of Force allows you to walk through force fields; and the Mark of Snakes allows you to bypass the silver snake guarding Exodus's castle.
The things I do for Sosaria...

  • Take a ship through the whirlpool and into the land called Ambrosius. Within this land there are four shrines, and at each shrine you find a "card." The are called love, sol, moons, and death. You need these to defeat Exodus.
  • Find exotic arms and armor, which are the only weapons and armor that work in Exodus's castle.
  • Build up your characters until they're strong enough to make it through Exodus's castle.

Exodus's castle, beyond the silver snake. Anything to do with the later Serpent Isle?

Of these steps, the last is the most time-consuming. I discovered fairly early in the game that your spell points do not increase as you level up. They are dependent upon your ability scores and stay fixed based on those scores, so I realized if I was ever going to get my cleric to cast "greater heal" or "raise dead," I'd have to increase her wisdom. Fortunately, the shrines in Ambrosia that hold the cards also allow you to raise your stats--for a price of 100 gold per single stat increase.

For hours, therefore, I spelunked the dungeons, collecting both gold and experience, and made repeat trips to Ambrosia to increase my numbers, focusing on wisdom for my cleric and intelligence for my wizard. Some of the dungeons have fountains that heal you to your max hit points, and I found that a good strategy was to stand near one and wait until attacked, then heal after battle. I also found a town that contained a large cache of treasure chests I could plunder. They refreshed each time I left and re-entered, so it was an easy if time-consuming way to build up my gold.

This town made life a little easier.

The dungeons, I should mention, are a lot more interesting than in Ultima I or Ultima II. First, you have to use them--they're the only way to get marks. Second, they have a lot more perils, including traps, gremlins that steal your food (God, I hate those little buggers), strange winds that blow out your torches, fountains both foul and refreshing, and occasionally treasure rooms. You really do have to map them so you can avoid running in to the same traps over and over. Fortunately, you can buy gems that, when peered at, give you a map. I took screen shots of these maps and then annotated them in Word. Also, unlike previous Ultimas, in the Ultima III dungeons you can't see the monsters coming. One second you're walking down the hall and the next you're in battle.

This is for Gandalf!

Now, I did break my rule about saving and reloading once. Look, I'm not an evil man, but at least once every Ultima game, you simply have to try to kill Lord British. Well, it was surprisingly easy in this one. Lord British's castle holds a frigate which you can steal and use to blast guards, jesters, and other castle denizens--including our revered sovereign:

If you leave the castle and return, he's back on his throne, acting like nothing has happened. Still, I figured I'd better not press my luck and I reloaded.

When my characters all had 2150 hit points and reasonably high attributes, I decided to try my luck with Exodus. It was a little easier than I expected and I won on the first try. The monsters were fairly difficult, and just before the end you face a battle with--this is definitely an Ultima III original--the floor itself. Wave after wave of floor tiles, which you cannot see, attack you.

Ah, that dastardly floor! Quick, Ur-Emp, cast PINE-SOL!

After that, it's a simple matter of inserting the four cards in to Exodus, who seems to be a computer.

The heroes destroy Skynet...uh, Exodus

I recorded the ending as usual, including some audio this time. I'm going to see if I can find someone to whom to "report my feat." After that, it's on to Wizardry III if I can get it to work or Alternate Reality: the City if I can't.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What is a CRPG?

As I mentioned before, I've been working off of Wikipedia's chronology of computer role-playing games, going in order of publication date (regardless of the specific version I play). There are plenty of games on this list to keep me occupied for years even if I never get bogged down in an impossible game like Rogue again.

The list is notable for what it excludes, though. First, of course, it excludes console RPGs instead of PC RPGs. I hate to ignore them, as some of them are quite good, but there's a limit to how much I'm willing to invest in the project, and I can't see hunting down old consoles and cartridges. Second, it excludes online multi-player CRPGs, which I assure you I will never never touch. Look at the name of my blog. Assuming that I mean it literally--and I assure you I do--what do you suppose will happen to my life if I pick up World of Warcraft? End of discussion. (In any event, most of the older ones are offline and hence unplayable.)

But aside from platforms, what else is missing from Wikipedia's list? Essentially, anything that isn't a CRPG. But what, exactly, distinguishes a CRPG from other types of games? For instance, consider the following games (some of which you may not be familiar with). Are they CRPGs or not?

  • Zork
  • Heroes of Might and Magic
  • Diablo
  • King's Quest
  • Myst

According to Wikipedia's list, only one of these classics is a CRPG. Zork is an "interactive fiction" game, which we used to call "text adventure." The Heroes of Might and Magic games are turn-based strategy games. The King's Quest series are "adventure games," as is Myst. The only CRPG on the list is Diablo, which Wikipedia classifies as an "action RPG" but still includes on the master list.

This is a little too bad, because there were a number of games that I was looking forward to playing that I won't play if I stick to my original plan. Text adventures like Zork are among them, as is the Heroes series--I've never played them before and I was hoping they'd flesh out the Might and Magic world a little more. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and that means either using Wikipedia's definitions or creating my own convoluted list with various justifications for leaving things on or off.

Alas, you will not see this screen shot again on this blog.

The distinction between different video game genres is important to me because I am, notably, a "CRPG addict," not a first-person shooter addict or a simulation game addict. Frankly, games in other genres bore me. When my wife was addicted to Myst and The Seventh Guest, I yawned. I clapped when some magazine (can't find it now) referred to Myst as a "pseudo-interactive screen saver." Often when I find myself bored by a CRPG it's because it strays too close to another genre's territory. To what specific elements, then, am I addicted?

In another article, Wikipedia tries to define CRPGs and comes up with the following core elements:

  • Character development, whether based on experience points or use of skills
  • Freedom of movement throughout the game world, allowing you to go navigate around at your pleasure, going backwards and revisiting locations if desired
  • Quests, including one "main quest," the completion of which wins the game
  • A usually high-fantasy theme
  • At least a partial focus on combat

Using this list--which on the surface seems sensible--we can see why some games are excluded. Interactive fiction or text adventure games like Zork have quests and freedom of movement, but no real combat. (There was a troll and a thief in Zork, but battles like those are few and far between and owe themselves entirely to luck.) Strategy games like the Heroes series have only very limited character development, quests and freedom of movement. Adventure games tend to lack character development.

The theme or setting of the game does not seem to me to in any way characterize a CRPG. Yes, most are set in Tokienesque fantasy worlds, but plenty are set in post-apocalyptic landscape or science-fiction settings, and I don't see any reason why you couldn't develop a good CRPG in a realistic modern setting. The theme is important, of course, and I'm not a huge fan of genre blending (witness my summary of Ultima II), but I don't see this as an inextricable element of a CRPG.

If I were coming up with my own list of elements that make up a CRPG--the things I'm truly addicted to--the only ones I'd retain wholesale are "character development" and "freedom of movement." The rest I would rework and add to as follows:

  • Character identification. You don't just develop a character in a CRPG, you build the character from the ground up, including its race, sex, and--most importantly--name. Granted some CRPGs give you limited or no option in these areas, but almost all give some of them, and I can't think of one (I'm sure I'll encounter one eventually) that doesn't let you name the character. In a CRPG, you're not playing as Gordon Freeman or Solid Snake, you're playing as you--your alter-ego, your avatar, within a fantastic setting.
  • Weapons, armor, and items to buy, find, and equip. This method of "character development" is as meaningful as experience points and leveling. 
Find a cooler weapon. I dare you.
  • Combat at least partly based on probabilities rather than action. Whether your sword connects with the orc's head, and how much damage it does, isn't dependent on your aim or how fast you press the button--it's dependent upon your underlying attributes (strength, dexterity), the attributes of the weapon you're wielding, modifiers for any spells in effect, and so on. There are of course different types of combat in CRPGs, some turn-based and some real-time. In the real-time games, like Diablo or Oblivion, you have to have at least some dexterity with the mouse to make attacks and to evade or block your opponents' attacks, but the underlying statistics exert influence over the result.
  • Game progression through combat and dialog, as opposed to solving puzzles (some CRPGs have puzzles, but they're usually light).
  • Interaction with NPCs. This is admittedly light or non-existent in some early CRPGs, but the promise is there, and the evolution of meaningful dialog is fairly swift. By Ultima IV--coming up--you had conversations by actually typing the keywords you wanted to say.

A CRPG would let me talk to her!
  • Random encounters. In action games and shooters, you almost always encounter the exact same foes in the exact same locations. In CRPGs there are some set encounters, but almost all of them randomize at least some of the enemies you face. You never know when you'll round a corner and meet a party of orcs.
  • Choice of actions, and changes in the game world based on your actions. This is perhaps the most important element of a CRPG to me. I want the game world to feel my presence. Early games didn't do a great job in this area, but there was always something. In Ultima II you could steal food and kill guards or not. What you did changed how you were treated in that town for that session, at least. As games progress through the years, your choices and their consequent reverberations on the game world get more complex, to include "good" and "evil" choices and game outcomes dependent on them. An addict like me loves walking through the streets of the Imperial City and being hailed as the champion of the arena, or getting chased by guards for miles for stealing a sword at the local weapon shop.

Different games, of course, offer different experiences in each of these areas, and in later posts I'm going to talk extensively about what makes a "good" leveling policy, a good equipment system, good dialog, and so forth. But these, at least, are the basic elements that have made me an addict.

Note: after writing the above, I found this excellent post on the same subject. The author, Matt Barton, agrees with me on many of the above points and also includes a few more, including a magic system (I agree that almost all CPRGs have them, but there are a few sci-fi and historical ones that don't) and a "medical system" (essentially, hit points and ways to regain hit points). Read his "key contentions" section: this is what i want to discuss coming up.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Game 8: Ultima III (1983)

My first impressions of Ultima III: Exodus are that it redeems Ultima II. It feels like a real game instead of Richard Garriott screwing around. It (at least so far) keeps the game grounded in more standard fantasy conventions without involving light swords and rocketships. Combat is more tactical and interesting (if longer), equipment and items are more varied, the magic system is more sophisticated, dungeons have a reason to exist, and the overall gameplay, to me, is a lot more satisfying. This is the first game from Origin Systems, Richard Garriott's company; his first two games were published by established game producers.

Ultima III was released in 1983 for the Apple II, the Atari, and the Commodore 64. I'm playing a DOS port from two years later. In fairness, I should mention that I also downloaded and installed a graphics and sound upgrade package designed by some cool programmers over a decade ago. Compare the screen shot above to the original below, and you'll see why.

Ultima III begins an era of games in which it really pays to read the manually carefully first. The manual and its accoutrements are one of the things that Garriott and Origin really excelled at. Each game in the original series came with a hand-drawn cloth map (I read somewhere that it took Garriott a long time to find a publisher for Ultima II because he insisted that they produce the cloth map with every game) and an ornately-decorated, magniloquently-written game manual. Consider the opening paragraphs of the manual:

Welcome back, oh illustrious adventurers! Long has been thy sojourn in this strange realm, though 'tis a fitting respite for great heroes. Glorious are the names of those adventurers who slew the mighty Wizard Mondain and his evil consort Minax. Lord British's minstrels still sing thy praises for the epic battles waged in the overthrowing of those two crimson necromancers. The chronicles of Ultima I and Ultima II bear witness to thine effects on behalf of the good subjects of the realm of Sosaria.

"The time of thy rest is now o'er. Thou wouldst not be here if thou hadst not heard the distant braying of the war horns, or felt in thy blood the cry of kinsmen in dire peril. Thou art Called, and from such a Calling none of the People may turn aside. It is thy duty and thy destiny.

Aside from the fact that Ultima II has nothing to do with Sosaria, it's beautiful prose. Sometimes, they go a bit campy with their metaphors. Nothing beats: "With the fall of Mondain and Minax, peace had flowed like molten honey around all of Sosaria." Yes, there's nothing like the molten honey of peace.

The basic setup is that a new evil, called Exodus, the "child" (either metaphorically or actually) of Mondain and Minax has appeared on an island of lava in the middle of the ocean. None know whether Exodus is "man, monster, or daemon." The only way we know its name is that the word "EXODUS" was found written in blood on the deck of a ship from which all crew had vanished, "as if plucked by some evil force." Also, a "shattered man found wandering the groves" outside Lord British's castle had this to say: "from the depths of Hell, he comes for vengeance." I tell you, I just eat this stuff up. In a modern game, this would all be handled with a cut scene, but I almost find the manual more fun.

Nothing compares to the spell manuals, though. Ultima III follows Wizardry's (and, for that matter, Dungeons & Dragons's) example of dividing spells into priest spells and wizard spells (or holy magic and arcane magic, if you prefer). In-game, you cast a spell by specifying the character and the spell letter. There are 16 spells on each side, each with a letter from A to P. Cleric A is turn undead while wizard C is light. But, God, how the spell book describes them!

I didn't put this much effort into my wedding vows.

To cast a light spell--or "Lorum," as the book has it--you don't just type (c)ast and "c": you chant "sum obla uricum obrey" while casting into the air a small portion of lorum dust, collected from "a spider's bath, which has been warmed by strong sun for many hours." This is art, people. I almost feel bad that I created a little text file as a reference. There are a couple wizard spells so thickly described that I still have no idea what they actually do.

Ultima III is the first game in the series to allow multiple party members, and the classes and races have been expanded to include some that will not only never occur in any other Ultima game but as far as I can tell never occur in any game. For instance, one race is a "fuzzy"--literally little furry creatures--that I suppose could become the emps of Ultima VII but are never a player race again. In addition to fighters, thieves, wizards, and clerics, classes include paladins, barbarians, larks (basically a synonym for bard), illusionists, druids, alchemists, and rangers. Each has a different combination of combat and magic skills, so you have to choose carefully.

Gameplay is in some ways very similar to the previous Ultimas, with a top-down perspective and with actions tied to single keyboard letters. There is more depth to the game world, though, including an early type of "fog of war": you can't see around corners or through dense wooded areas or across mountains. There's also a mysterious (o)ther action command that allows you to do special things you have to discover along the way.

Combat is what makes this Ultima stand out from the others. During the main part of the game, your party of four is represented by a single icon, but when you enter combat, you become four distinct party members, each of which performs an action in turn, including fighting or casting. There are both ranged and melee weapons, plus a wide variety of offensive and defensive spells (although limited spell points), so battle is far more tactical than in many other games of the era. One annoying thing is that monsters can attack diagonally but you cannot. Different icons represent different character types so it's easy to figure out who's turn it is. I'm pretty sure this style of combat remains all the way through Ultima V.

As with previous Ultimas, dungeons are first-person, although a little more interesting in color and items. But the series continues its obsession with food, and keeping from starving is just as difficult as it was in Ultima II--more so, in some cases, because in the dungeons you keep running in to gremlins which steal it.

Hit points are dependent upon leveling, not upon bribing the nearest sovereign. You increase in levels by visiting Lord British, who as usual provides no helpful information. I note that Iolo, Gwino, and--making an appearance for the first time--Chuckles are all found in Lord British's castle, and it doesn't look like I'm going to have to kill them this time.

You're not going to demand a tribute from me?

In the early stages of the game, I've been exploring and mapping Sosaria--which isn't all that large--visiting towns, and getting clues from the locals. As with Ultima II, each person gives you exactly one line of dialog and most of them offer stock responds (although not as dumb or annoying as in Ultima II). From those that have something original to say, I've learned that Exodus lies beyond the silver snake, and I'll need to find exotic arms to defeat him, as only they will protect me from great evil. Other clues--and I'm not sure how they relate yet--tell me to seek a place called Ambrosia, seek the Shrines of Truth, journey through a whirlpool (I have a feeling these are all related), seek the jester in the Castle of Fire, and to find "marks" and "cards." There are apparently four of the latter, and I need to use the command to stick them into panels somewhere.

I haven't gotten a ship yet, and I can see towns and dungeons off shore, so I need to find a frigate next.

One word on the mapping: the game isn't conducive to graph paper, so I imported the cloth map as a raster image into a geographic information system (GIS) program called MapInfo Professional. I then created a vector layer to draw on top of the map, so I can note the locations of towns and their names. Overkill? Perhaps. But fun.