Thursday, July 29, 2010

What Were They Thinking?

While I explore the game Moebius and gather material for my next posting about it, I want to stop and consider a question that's impossible not to consider while playing Moebius: can a bad gameplay element spoil an entire game?

I'm thinking yes.

In the case of Moebius, I refer specifically to the character icon that you have to stare at for most of the game: an enormous, cloaked head and top of a torso that stares creepily out at you. Your foes look the same. I almost can't bear the thought of looking at this for a couple dozen hours of gameplay. Didn't this bother anyone else during development?

This got me thinking about other games that have been ruined--or at least marred--by a particular element of the game. I'm not talking about substantive things, like Wizardry's permanent death or The Bard's Tale II's boring, interminable dungeons. I'm talking, rather, about peripheral or stylistic elements that should have been easy to change in the development stage. Obviously, a lot of them are going to come down to pet peeves, but this is the list I came up with:

  • Baldur's Gate: "You must gather your party before venturing forth." Seriously, once should have been enough.
  • Ultima II: Space travel, fine, I can deal with it. Being able to land and walk around on Jupiter, no.
  • Ultima VII: I always choose the black character portrait because the one white guy looks like a baked out surfer. Seriously, like 90% of their players must be white males, and that was the best they could come up with?

"Hey, dudes..."

  • Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. Cespenar. Yeah, he's cute at first, but having to cycle through all of his inane chattering every time I want him to examine my backpack makes me want to punch my cat.
  • Neverwinter Nights: The Stone of Recall. It utterly breaks the game.
  • Might & Magic VII: No respect from your own townspeople. You spend all this time upgrading your castle and building a peaceful Harmondale, and the guards still tell you to "move along."
  • Oblivion: When the main quest is about stopping an invasion from hell, it seems irresponsible to do any of the side quests. Morrowind got around this by having Caius Cosades tell you to go out, explore, build up some experience, but there's no good role-playing reason to do that in Oblivion. Also, the character creation process allows you to choose from a detailed and nuanced selection of facial features, body styles, and hairstyles (including size, shape, and color for all of them)--except that there's no "bald" option. Which I happen to be.

I'm sure I'll run across many more. What are some astonishingly absurd or obnoxious gameplay elements that you've found?

Finally, here's one about the industry: why do game companies make it so hard to buy their older games? Instead of bitching about abandonware sites, why don't copyright holders offer their own versions of old games for download at a minimal cost? I'd gladly pay $5 for Ultima IV or The Bard's Tale or Pool of Radiance from a legitimate seller, but the owners offer no such recourse. I realize that many of these companies are out of business, but surely someone still owns the copyrights and can create a basic web site. I'm frankly worried about what's going to happen when I enter the "games that require a CD in the drive" era and find that there are no more copies of Baldur's Gate or Might & Magic VII to be had.

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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Backtracking: CaveQuest (1985)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.

What do you suppose will happen if I send $35 to that P.O. box in Florida?

CaveQuest is a shareware CRPG developed by a company called Lightwave Consultants in 1985. As far as I can tell, it's no longer around, and this was its only game. That's too bad because there's some promising stuff here. I'm not saying it will compete with DragonAge: Origins for your attention, but it's definitely a break from the norm.

The text files that come with the game set up the outline of a plot: once the people of the land lived in peace and harmony until they plumbed too deep in a set of caverns and broke through to a "Land of Evil" from which monsters spilled forth. In response, the gods flooded the land to destroy the scourge, but now, generations later, a town has been built above the cave, excavations have re-started, and the foolish townsfolk have broken through again. To stop the plague of monsters, Zeus has sent your character from the Land of Gods to fight them. The introductory screens show you launched through a field of stars before you find yourself in an equipment shop on the edge of a cave of five levels.


The game starts you with a certain number of points which you first use to "buy" your attributes: intelligence, strength, dexterity, stamina, charisma, and magic ability. You have to be careful not to spend it all because the game converts any remainder to silver, which you then use to outfit your character, choosing from several armor types, weapons, shields, and missile weapons. After you make your initial purchases, you visit the magic shop where you can enhance your armor or blade with magic and buy several other magic items.


In the cave, you wander through the hallways, collecting treasure and slaying enemies with your sword, lances, or arrows. There are secret doors to find and open. As you move and swing, you deplete your "restedness" statistic , and of course enemies' attacks deplete your "health" statistic. Waiting restores them. The speed of the restoration depends entirely on the processor speed, it seems, so if I crank DOSBox up to a few thousand CPU cycles, I'm practically invulnerable. The downside is that monsters become so fast they're near invisible.


The depletion of your "restedness" score is dependent on the weight you're carrying plus your strength. This little shareware CRPG is thus the first that I know to have a "fatigue" rating based on weight and movement. While I admire this innovation, it's relatively annoying, as you have to keep stopping and waiting for a recharge in the middle of exploration.

As you kill monsters and collect treasures, you accumulate "life points" which can be spent on upgrades to both your character's statistics and equipment. Both this game and Wizard's Crown came out the same year, and I'm not sure which allowed the direct expenditure of experience points this way first, but either way it's impressive.


And yet, while this is another game whose innovations I admire, it still isn't "fun"--not like Ultima IV or Might & Magic. The graphics are very bad and the combat is extremely simplistic. I'm glad I was exposed to it, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of a main quest--you just kill, find treasure, and improve--so I'm not sorry to be moving on.

This is my last "backtracking" post. Although the next game, Moebius, was released earlier than Might & Magic, it's a full CRPG and I want to play it with my usual dedication and rules. Thanks for bearing with me while I covered a few of the more notable missed games. From now on, I'm going to be supplementing Wikipedia's list with MobyGames and other sources.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Backtracking: Amulet of Yendor (1985) and Leygref's Castle (1986)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.

Amulet of Yendor and Leygref's Castle are both remakes of Wizard's Castle (1981) which I reviewed a couple of postings ago. They are both roguelikes from the mid-1980s, and neither of them have aged very well, especially compared to the 1985 remake of Rogue that I played many months ago.


Amulet of Yendor (this is the MobyGames name; in the game itself it seems to be called Yendor's Castle) involves a quest to retrieve the Orb of Power forged by the elven wizard Yendor. It takes place on an 8-level dungeon with 64 rooms (8x8) each. As in Wizard's Castle, the rooms contain various monsters, pools, chests, books, treasure, vendors, and other assorted items. You have to fight monsters to find an artifact called the Runestaff which teleports you to Yendor's Orb. Winning the game involves leaving the dungeon with Yendor's Orb in your possession, at which point you are given a score based on the treasure you've collected and the monsters you've slain.

After an equipment buy, you're off to the dungeon. Mapping and exploration are complicated by random teleporters ("warps") and sinkholes which toss you about the dungeon randomly. In my first time out, I got warped to Level 4 before I knew what was happening, and I was killed in short order by a dragon. My second time out, I literally made one move from the entrance and got tossed down to Level 8 by a warp/sinkhole combination.


The "map" only displays for a couple of seconds, even when I slow DOSBox down to a crawl; I don't know if this is a deliberate game design or a technical issue.


Every time the game starts up, it takes you through six screens of instructions which are apparently inescapable, meaning dying sucks more than it did in Wizard's Castle.


I played six times but never lasted more than about 25 turns thanks to the balrogs and dragons the game cheerfully throws at you even on Level 1.



Leygref's Castle is essentially the same game but with much more tolerable graphics and gameplay. You are once again after an Orb of Power, this time forged by the elf wizard Leygref instead of Yendor. Other than the name change, the instructions are word-for-word identical to those in Amulet of Yendor (although this game helpfully gives you the opportunity to bypass them). Improvements include a map that remains in front of you throughout the game and more information about your status and inventory on the screen. There are few other tricks introduced by the game, including a mysterious jerk called "The Phantom" who shows up and steals your stuff and the chance of going blind (I was never able to cure this). The author of this one, a Frank Dutton of either Texas or Louisiana, deserves a lot of credit for this version, and if you're really eager to play one of the Wizard's Castle derivatives, this is the one I'd recommend.


Both games randomly regenerate the map when you start a new game, allowing (in theory) an infinite number of variations in the game. But both keep Wizard's Castle's baffling conflation of strength and hit points. As shareware games, they're an amusing diversion.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Backtracking: Zyll (1984)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.



Of Zyll, Matt Barton (2008) writes: "Unfortunately, this highly innovative game is virtually unknown today" (p. 91). We need to change that, because--to a CRPG archaeologist, at least--Zyll is simple, pure pleasure. I started this blog to discover games like this.

In Zyll, you play a young warrior, wizard, or thief on a quest to recover the great treasures of your kingdom (the Land of Magic and Enchantment) from the evil wizard Zyll, who has stolen them. You also must steal Zyll's black orb--the artifact that gives him his power and has allowed him to turn your kingdom to a wasteland. There are other minor treasures to take, too, and the game isn't just about "winning" but rather achieving the highest possible score when you do.

The game is entirely text-based, with detailed written descriptions of all the areas. When you start out, for instance, you are told:

You are at a small shelf on the top of a cliff. There is a mist in the air, and you can see a magnificent waterfall cascading down the mountain. You also see:
  • The ledge continue to the south
  • A sharp downward slope to the west

This type of description sounds very familiar to anyone who has played Zork or the other Infocom text adventures of the era. But unlike these games, Zyll is a real CRPG, with different classes, an inventory of armor and weapons you can find and wear, random encounters with monsters, and combats based on statistics. Oh, you could quibble that the game lacks certain CRPG elements: you can't name your character, for one, and there's no character development. But it's at least a quasi-CRPG, and I like it.

CRPGs have made it impossible for me to explore abandoned wells in real life. I'm always disappointed when all I find is spiders and trash.

The game consists of exploring a castle and its surrounding area, finding treasures (which are randomly placed), solving light puzzles, picking locks, mapping, collecting inventory items you need to progress (like keys), and slaying wandering trolls and skeletons.

Combat in Zyll is text-based, but your chances of winning depend on your equipment, your strength, and random die rolls, just like a CRPG.

But I haven't covered the coolest part yet: the game supports a second player! Moreover, this other player can play in "competitive" mode, trying to find the treasures of Zyll before you do, or in "cooperative" mode, working with you to save your kingdom. Both players play in the same game window using the same keyboard--"in effect," Barton says, "a MUD playable on a single nonnetworked computer, a novel concept then and now."

The interface is a little cumbersome on a modern keyboard. Instead of typing in commands (as in Zork), you choose from a selection of commands using the function keys (F1-F10). Because F10 is "Other" and gives you another screen of options, there are as many as 19 different actions (not including sub-actions) available at any given time. The commands were mapped to the corresponding function keys on the IBM PC/XT keyboard, which were arranged in a group on the left hand side. With modern top-level function keys, you have to pause and count the order of the commands before you know what key to press. It's annoying but not fatal.

The IBM PC/XT keyboard.

The second player uses the number pad on the right. His commands and text description are also on the right-hand side of the screen. Thus, although both players had to use one keyboard, the game took advantage of the layout of the keys and kept them from interfering with each other. Ingenious, really.

Zyll in two-player mode. Note that player 1 (a thief) sees a wizard and player 2 (the wizard) sees a thief.


Mapping in text-based games can often be a challenge, and Zyll is no exception. With four cardinal directions plus up and down movements, passages that twist and bend, one-way tunnels, and other assorted challenges, you can start with maps like the one below, but you usually end up drawing them by hand.



The game occurs in real time, and damned if I could find any way to pause it, so you have to be careful about bathroom breaks, stopping to write a paragraph for your blog, or other time outs because you're liable to get eaten by a wandering lion. I really want to win this one, if for no other reason than it doesn't seem like it should take that long, but the interface keeps doing me in. I keep getting attacked and getting flustered figuring out what function key to use to fight back or run. More than once, I've gone to attack and ended up dropping my sword instead.

If I end up winning, I'll post the screen shot and a few other paragraphs, but I suspect I will give up before that. Nonetheless, I recommend Zyll for people who don't have a list of near 1,000 games in front of them.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Backtracking: DND (1984), Caverns of Zoarre (1984), and Heathkit DND (1985)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.


Before I even begin my review of DND, I want to recognize an excellent web site.

http://www.digital-eel.com/files/dndpage_files/DND.htm

The owners of this site have meticulously cataloged each version and outgrowth of DND, including the developer's earliest BASIC code as written on mainframes in the 1970s (unfortunately, by the page's own admission, it's questionable whether you could actually get these to run anywhere). The site has all the playable DOS variations released in the 1980s as well as some modern tributes and remakes, including one--Realms of Quest--made by one of my frequent commenters. More pages like this would make my work a lot easier.

The author of the original DND (which is not the same as the PLATO dnd, perhaps the earliest CRPG) is Daniel Lawrence. There's an interview with him here. I haven't been able to find much about him, but regrettably it appears that he died in Lafayette, Indiana, just last month, at the age of 52.

In Dungeons & Desktops (2008), Matt Barton covers some of the history of the game and its variations. As I said, Lawrence developed the original version in the 1970s and for almost a decade ported it from one computer system to another, leaving various versions in his trail, some of which were picked up and tweaked by other developers. By the time Lawrence decided to commercialize the game, there were any number existing on servers all over the place. In 1982, Avalon Hill published Telengard (the name of one of the dungeons in DND), which I already reviewed. Around the same time, another developer (all of my references call him "Bill" but don't provide a last name; a little sleuthing determines it is William M. Knight, Jr., whose company is still around) modified the source code and created a shareware version called DND through R.O. Software and ended up in a legal conflict with Lawrence and Avalon Hill. Caverns of Zoarre (1984) and Heathkit DND (1985) are also variations of the original DND created by different developers.

DND (1984)

The upside to all of this is that I'm not playing the original DND, but the version created by "Bill," complete with an exhortation to send $25 to R.O. Software in Plano, TX. The version comes with five dungeons, but only two are listed as "ready for exploration."


In the game, you play a single character. You begin by rolling the standard six D&D attributes and choosing from fighter, magician, or cleric classes. You name your character--for some reason, the game also asks you to give a "secret name"--and boom, you're in the text-based dungeon, where you wander around, fight monsters (only two options: attack and evade), collect treasures, find random encounters like teleporters and thrones, gain experience, and--quite often--die. Almost everything I wrote previously about Telengard is true of this game, only with more primitive graphics. It's still slightly addictive, but not enough for me to linger. I got my character up to level 3 and was reasonably rich when I died for the last time.



Caverns of Zoarre (1984)



Caverns of Zoarre was developed by a Thomas Hanlin III of Springfield, Virginia. (This is getting eerie; I have friends in both Plano and Springfield.) He wants $25 for the instructions to the game, but I largely figured them out for myself. After rolling random stats (no wisdom), you choose from a fighter or sorcerer, decide whether you want a "freen" (yeah, no idea) and head into the eponymous caverns. As in DND, as you wander you enjoy random encounters (although less often) with monsters and treasures. The graphics are a little more advanced, at least in terms of your own character and the walls, but there are no graphics for monsters and other encounters. As with DND and Telengard, it's pretty tough to survive for very long.


Except for the freen--clue me in, someone, please--and the presence of "uruk-hai" and "ugluk-hai" monsters, there's nothing terribly original here.


Heathkit DND (1985)


That's what MobyGames calls the game, anyway. As far as I can tell from the splash screen, it's just "DND," although set in the "Heathkit Dungeon." I have no idea who developed it; there are no clues in the accompanying readme file or online.

The game adds color graphics and, like Telengard, forces you to play in real time, so if you're trying to write a blog entry at the same time, you keep getting attacked and dying.

The game also adds a quest. The objective, the manual says, "is to find the Lord Master of the Heathkit Dungeon" who is located in some kind of vault. You discover the combination to the vault piece by piece as you progress through the game. You can save your character in this one--death is not completely permanent.


Beyond that, the gameplay is again remarkably similar to Telengard in the nature of foes you encounter, objects you find, and commands to navigate around. It even has altars that call you "pagan trash" if you gyp them with too little gold! As the first game with an actual "main quest" since I started backtracking, I'm tempted to try to finish it...but I'm more anxious to get caught up to where I was before I discovered the existence of these extra games.

So that's my whirlwind review of the DND "franchise." In many ways, this has validated my original (albeit unknowing) exclusion of these games. I had already played their best exemplar in Telengard. They're not bad, exactly, but Caverns of Zoarre came out a year after Ultima III, and Heathkit DND is the same year as The Bard's Tale. The age of viable shareware and freeware CRPGs was coming to a swift (but temporary) end.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Backtracking: StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel (1983)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.



As we've seen, the earliest CRPGs were text-based. Later, there were CRPGs that had graphics that, while they were nowhere near the capabilities of modern graphics engines, were "good enough" to not distract you from the game.

In between these two stages was a transitory stage, mercifully brief, in which the graphics, sound, and inputs are so bad that you wish the designers had just gone with text. The games from this era are virtually unplayable today, except has historical curios, because you can't stop retching at them. Ultima II falls into this category. So, regrettably, does StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel.

StarQuest is an early "roguelike" game. I am indebted entirely to Mobygames's description of the plot, as I can't seem to find a manual anywhere.

In Rescue at Rigel, you take the part of Sudden Smith, a human adventurer teleported down by transporter beam inside a six-floor, sixty-room complex inhabited by an alien race, the Tollah. Scattered throughout the base, which has been hollowed out of an asteroid orbiting Rigel, ten humans are held captive, one in each of ten different rooms. While you can adjust the difficulty of the task, the object in all cases is the same: to search the complex, find and release as many of the prisoners as possible (by activating the transporter beam, which will teleport them back up to the ship), and get out alive-in an hour or less.

Shooting a "common tollah" with a ray gun. How dare Ebert suggest this isn't art.


In this blog so far, I have played a number of games that I thought were pointless or goofy (my worst venom remains for Ultima II; I can't believe that was part of such an otherwise excellent series), but I've never played any as painful as StarQuest. I'm not knocking it--I'm sure it was a joy at the time. But unlike just about any CRPG I've reviewed in this blog, there is no way on heaven or earth that this game could be remotely "fun" to modern players. Movement is extraordinarily cumbersome (you hit "L" or "R" until you're facing the right direction and then type the number of steps you want to move) and the controls are often nonresponsive. The quest is extremely basic--you wander around until you find 10 humans and hit "T" to transport them home.


Saving a hostage from a...you know what? Screw this.

You encounter a series of creatures--aliens, monsters, robots--that you simply blast by hitting "F" or "B" on the keyboard--no skill about it. As far as I can tell, there's hardly any reason to fight them because you can just wander out of the room. There's nothing to find but hostages and monsters, your character never gets any better and...you know what? This isn't even a CRPG, really. Forget what I said about it being a "roguelike"--it just looks like a roguelike. It has none of the elements that make up a true CRPG. I'm going to have to look at Mobygames's classifications with a jaundiced eye from now on.

Any key? How about ALT-F4?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Backtracking: Oubliette (1983)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.

I'm going to go with "rite of passage."

I've coded Oubliette as a 1983 game simply because that's when it was remade for DOS, but the original version was written in a PLATO mainframe in 1977. It and a handful of others were children of a popular game called dnd (based on Dungeons & Dragons, of course) that was written around 1975. Understand that in this era, games were noncommercial, and freely traded and added to by programmers. We might think of dnd as one game or 50 depending on how many variations we want to include. The same problem exists with early Roguelikes. I'm finding a lot of confusion among a number of 1980s Roguelikes: Hack, DND, Telengard, Amulet of Yendor, Heathkit DND, Larn, and so on. Some I may not to be able to play at all. (You Google "DND" or "Hack" and see if you can find a link to an obscure 1980s DOS game amidst everything else.)

Anyway, back to Oubliette (the term is French for "dungeon," but literally meaning "place of forgetting"). The basic game setup is that the game world, called Tokal, is a harsh and cruel place full of monsters and competing tribes of humanoids. A great wizard named Ligne established the world's one outpost of civilization: a town/castle with a deep dungeon in which various monsters were thrown. "As the dungeon and city above matured, it became popular among the young citizens of the city to venture into the dungeon, seeking gold and glory, almost as a rite of passage." You control a party of such adventurers.

My short-lived motley crew. "Crush" is an ogre.

I don't know how much of this game is based on the original code and how much was added for the 1983 DOS release, but either way it's pretty [expletive] cool. I found a text-based manual on a C64 site [unfortunately, not formatted well] and I can't believe the amount of innovation they packed into a game this early--including elements we see in no other CRPG. For instance:

  • You choose from eight races when creating your characters: dwarf, elf, gnoll, hobbit, human, kobold, ogre, and orc. The "monster" races advance more quickly in levels but are also short-lived (apparently, characters die of old age frequently in this game, and unlike in Might & Magic, there's no way to reverse it). Elves and dwarves live a long time but also advance very slowly. I know of only one other game--Phantasie--in which it's possible to play so many varieties of "monster" characters.
  • There are an incredible 10 classes: hirebrand (fighter), mage, sage, priest, peasant, ninja, thief, paladin, samurai, ranger. The nature of the classes anticipates later, more advanced games, in their skills. Hirebrands are raw fighters, paladins combinations of hirebrands and priests, sages combinations of priests and wizards, and so on.
  • The game offer D&D's set of six attributes, and like in Wizardry (in fact, I can see this game's influence on Wizardry) the attributes determine what class you can choose. Your race and sex also modify these attributes. Again, this is very advanced for a 1983 game, let alone the original 1977 version.
  • Once you create your character, you have to choose a guild to join for your "apprenticeship." There are 19 guilds, but restricted based on class and attributes, I guess. Once you join, three things can happen: 1) you graduate, and your age and attributes advance accordingly; 2) you fail to graduate and become a peasant (albeit playable); 3) you die during training. The latter is apparently common with some of the shorter-lived races. If you fail to graduate, you can re-enter, but at a cost of time. I created a human samurai who flunked out the first time at the age of 23. I re-enrolled him, and he graduated the second time--but when he was 51. Ouch. Anyway, this guild thing is very creative and unique to this CRPG.

New Player, I hardly knew ye.

  • There are six spell levels for both clerics and priests, with three or four spells per level. This is where the game's influence on Wizardry is more obvious (or did Oubliette add them for the 1983 re-release based on Wizardry?), as each spell is given a cryptic name--TOKSHEF, NARFIET, FEHALITO--many of which sound like their Wizardry counterparts.

After you create your characters, you outfit them, of course, but you start with a random amount of gold and who knows what you can afford. Fortunately, Grundig (owner of the general store) sells "pointed sticks" for 2 GP--better than fists, I suppose.

Once you enter the dungeon, you're faced with a familiar screen, if a bit primitive: your party listed up top, a wireframe graphic representation on the right, and window telling you what's happening on the left. Again, the comparison to Wizardry is remarkable.


 
In combat, you face a group of enemies and have several options, from a standard attack to a more risky one that does more damage. You can also evade, cast a spell, or use an item. Thieves--or specifically female thieves--have the unique option to try to "seduce" the monster. If it works, the monster joins your team and fights at your side for the duration of the combat. If you fail, you die immediately, so it's a risky move. Only your first two characters can attack, unfortunately, and there are no missile weapons, so everyone else pretty much just stands there until they've earned some spell levels (you start off with none). If one of your characters dies, you have the option to (B)ury them in the dungeon! I don't know if this serves a practical purpose or if it's just great role-playing.

Unfortunately, according to at least one strategy guide I found online (remember, the normal rules don't apply to my temporary backtracking), there is no main quest or way to "win" the game. That might be a good thing, because I might be tempted to finish this one if there was a way to finish it. If I was reviewing this in the proper order, earlier in the project, I might play it for a few entries and give it a proper chance, but as it is...well, I've got places to be. Still, if you're in to old games and want an original experience, give Oubliette a try.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Backtracking: Wizard's Castle (1980)



I had to look up what "esurient" meant. It means" hungry."

[Edit from 25 February 2013: Almost three years after I posted this, I gave this game a longer review, won it, and scored it on the GIMLET scale. I recommend that you just jump to that one.]

We needn't spend a lot of time on Wizard's Castle (1980), even though it shows enough promise to be slightly addictive if I gave it a chance. It is an entirely text-based game, similar to the earliest versions of Rogue. As Matt Barton says in Dungeons & Desktops (2008), it is notable less for what it is and more for how it was released: it was printed as 5000 lines of BASIC code in the magazine Recreational Computing. I'm not really sure who I have to thank for the DOS executable version I'm playing.

I don't know if you can read the screenshot above, but the setup is that:

Many cycles ago, in the kingdom of N'Dic [yes, really], the gnomic wizard Zot forged his great ORB OF POWER. He soon vanished, leaving behind his vast subterranean castle filled with esurient monsters, fabulous treasures, and the increadible ORB OF ZOT. From that time hence, many a bold youth has ventured into the wizard's castle, as of now NONE has ever emerged victoriously! Beware!!

In the following character creation screens, you can choose from an elf, a dwarf, a man, or a hobbit and then choose your sex. You start off with points allocated to strength, intelligence, and dexterity (based on sex and class) and a pot of 8 additional points you can distribute as you wish. You then buy some starting equipment with a limited pool of gold pieces.



You control your character through a series of text commands, primarily moving one of the four cardinal directions through the game map. The (M)ap command brings up a "map" of the level, which is an 8x8 grid. Each of the "squares" in the grid contains either nothing (represented by a period) or an encounter (represented by a letter). The encounters are varied, including (M)onsters, (V)endors, (T)reasure, (B)ooks, and stairs (U)p or (D)own.




In combat, you have three options: (A)ttack, (R)etreat, or (B)ribe. I'm not sure what the mathematics are behind the attack. I dispatched a bear and a troll handily enough but then was slain by a balrog--quite a challenge for the first level! Oddly, you don't seem to have any hit points; getting hit depletes your strength.


 
An interesting game, and one that again shows some influence on Rogue (the character creation process is frankly more advanced in Wizard's Castle), but not one I'll be playing until the wee hours of the morning.

Nope, not nearly foolish enough.




Barton praises the game for its coding efficiency but concedes that it is "a fairly simple game, with no graphics and only a meager story." Keep in mind that Richard Garriott was selling Akalabeth the same year, which featured actual graphics in two different perspectives. In that context, we might view Wizard's Castle as the last gasp of the pre-commercial CRPG.



Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Next Steps

I'm sure he didn't mean to do this, but commenter Arcanum, responding to my first posting in this blog, has thrown my world into disarray. He listed half a dozen DOS CRPGs missing from Wikipedia's list and suggested that I check out the game browser at MobyGames instead. I did, and...bollocks.

There are no less than 14 DOS-based CRPGs that are not on Wikipedia's list and that occur before Might & Magic. There are dozens not on Wikipedia's list that occur in the future. Granted, some of these don't meet the Wikipedia list's stricter definition of CRPGs--notably, it excludes roguelikes and hybrids of RPGs and strategy games--but still...

These are the games I overlooked:

  • Wizard's Castle
  • Oubliette
  • StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel
  • 50 Mission Crush
  • Caverns of Zoarre
  • DND
  • Hack
  • Amulet of Yendor
  • Cavequest
  • Dungeon Quest
  • Heathkit DND
  • Larn
  • Leygref's Castle
  • Make Your Own Murder Party

I know nothing about any of these games, including whether the Wikipedia contributors legitimately excluded them (that last one sure sounds iffy), but it was enough to shake my faith in the Wikipedia list. So I'm going to spend a couple days exploring a few of these games and seeing whether they qualify or not and, if so, whether I need to take another look at how I've composed my list. I'll spend no more than a couple hours, and write no more than one posting, on each one (not unless they turn out to be really interesting). The whole point of this exercise was to trace the development of CRPGs and find hidden gems, and I'm not serving that purpose if I rely on a flawed list.

No matter what, in conjunction with the recommendations some of you have posted recently, I will not be returning to The Bard's Tale II despite my earlier statements that I would. Life's too short, right?

Might & Magic: Final Ranking

Although I won the game, there were a few encounters I was never able to beat. This is one.

Matt Barton, who wrote, Dungeons & Desktops (2008; I talked about the book in this posting) has some good things to say about Might and Magic. He describes the series as a lesser-known younger sibling of many of the more prominent series of the decade (e.g., Ultima, Wizardry). King and Borland don't mention it once in Dungeons & Dreamers (2003). But, as we've seen, the game did "refine several gameplay elements that would show up in later games, such as having the characters' race and gender exert a strong effect on gameplay" (p. 128). Barton calls the game "a labor of love by developer Jon Van Canegham and his wife Michaela" and he praises the size of the game world, the number of encounters, and the mystery of the main quest. It made, he says, "a great impression on critics and gamers" (p. 129)--an impression that still holds favorable 24 years later.

As usual, my ranking is based on the 100-point GIMLET scale that I described here.

1. Game world. This is a tough one. Might & Magic launches you in to the world of Varn (or VARN, as it turns out) with very little background and with no lore or history. You are left to explore the world and piece together its nature through quests--this is part of the game's fun. The world itself is large--around 50 15 x 15 maps--and varied in its terrain and encounters. Although graphics limitations make the dungeons and castles look mostly the same, each has a certain distinct character and purpose. The revelation at the end--that the game world is simply a biosphere/spaceship--makes Might & Magic unique among games, I'll give it that. But it also raises a lot of questions that the game doesn't begin to answer. How do fantasy conventions like magic and undeath fit within the sci-fi framework? Who thought it was a good idea to combine people and dragons in a spaceship? (Here's hoping Michael Bay never stumbles upon this site.) For that matter, don't the dragons bonk their heads against the "sky"? Except in a few cases, Might & Magic also has the drawback of most early CRPGs in which the game world doesn't react to your actions--nowhere is this more notable than the ending, in which you can "reveal" the false King Alamar over and over. Final score: 6.

2. Character creation and development. Character creation is fairly basic in Might & Magic: you choose from a list of six classes and roll a standard selection of attributes. You can choose name, sex, and alignment. Character development, while still fairly basic, is surprisingly satisfying. In a standard game, you might achieve around 20 levels, and each level-up makes you palpably more powerful and able to handle the game's difficult battles. This is true of spell progression, of course, but also in the way that your fighters get extra attacks and do extra damage, and your robber has a better chance of disarming traps. Because of this, the experience rewards you get from quests and combat are quite satisfying. The game does introduce some "role playing" based on alignments, although it is very light (whether to release, torment, or ignore prisoners) and doesn't have lasting consequences. There is one area in which sex matters. Most encounters play identically no matter what the class, sex, or alignment. Final score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. The game is devoid of visible NPCs, but you come across them in certain squares, and your encounters with them are essential to advancing the game and learning about the game world. The game is one of the first to introduce choices in your NPC interactions--not dialog choices, unfortunately, but very basic ones such as whether to kiss, release, or ignore a maiden you find chained to a wall. A little better than The Bard's Tale (or, at least, more than The Bard's Tale) but not nearly as complex or satisfying as Ultima IV. Final score: 4

Oddly, option (A) is the only way to advance the game. More oddly, all of my characters were female at this point. Jayne will be in his bunk.

4. Encounters and foes. There are dozens of monsters in Might & Magic, almost all with a unique attack or two (sprites curse, centaurs put you to sleep, demon lords can eradicate your characters with a spell), almost all with special resistances, which makes encounters challenging as you try to figure out the best order in which to engage your enemies and the best weapons and spells to use. These foes are not well described, unfortunately, and most are standard fantasy game fare with the exception of some aliens. The game continues The Bard's Tale's tradition of throwing you up against wildly improbable groups of monsters in even more improbable settings: six green dragons and a herd of pegasuses in a cramped dungeon corridor, for instance. There are a few scripted encounters in which you have the option to do something other than fight, but it's almost always the poorer of the options and much of the game is hack & slash. I liked the way the game balanced fixed encounters with random ones. I also like how the game doesn't pull any punches. If you wander into the wrong map early in the game, your level 2 party gets fried by red dragons with no apologies. Areas re-spawn the moment you leave, allowing endless opportunities for experience-boosting. Final score: 6.

Honestly, how did this party of foes ever come together?

5. Magic and combat. Combat is fairly tactical, with a few nail-biting moments, especially at the beginning when opening every door is potentially deadly. The game is one of the first to include missile weapons, and the variety of items you can equip (see below) adds yet another layer to your options. The ability to immediately rest after most combat means that combats are individually tactical rather than tactical by accumulation as in Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. The first-person perspective doesn't offer a lot of opportunities for role-playing in combat. The magic system is well-balanced except at the end, when some of your spells become too powerful and you start to use them as crutches (by then, combat has become a bit boring anyway). Every level increase gives you something new to look forward to in combat, which is nice. Final score: 5.

6. Equipment. In this area, Might & Magic is one of the best of the early CRPGs. You can wield up to six items and carry up to six more, and there are a wide variety of weapons, armor, accessories, rings, boots, and other items to don and use. These have increasing levels of magic power, including some that boost your statistics or cast spells. This may be the first game to require magical weapons to strike certain monsters, but I'm not sure. Some equipment I didn't understand: I held on to a set of rope & hooks and a 10-foot pole all the way to the end of the game, thinking they'd eventually be required, but they never were. I felt that even after around 100 hours of game play, I only had encountered a fraction of the possible equipment. Treasure is generally randomized within the game world, but there are a few special items that you receive after fixed battles or encounters. Although the items have no descriptions, and it's tough to tell the relative worth of weapons and armor except by selling cost, this is one of the best CRPGs of this era when it comes to variety and utility of gear. Final score: 7.

Some of the varied types of equipment available in the game.

7. Economy. Not complicated, but not bad for a 1980s CRPG. You start out with no gold, so you have to start making some fairly quickly. As you do, you're able to equip yourself slowly. As you progress through the towns, you find that more advanced equipment is available, so making money to buy things (and to train your characters) remains viable well in to the 12th hour of the game. After that, well, there are still things to do with your money. Donating at temples will temporarily bestow upon you every protective spell in the game, at much higher levels than your characters can cast, so it's worth it to pay before a big battle. Second, the magic fountain at Dragadune converts all your gold to experience--meaning that if you make use of it, you need to immediately start building your finances again if you ever want to level up. Third, there's a place in the game where you can exchange gold for gems, through the intermediary of trivia questions. Thus, cash rewards never stop being relevant. Final score: 7.

8. Quests. This is where Might & Magic really excels, particularly among its brethren of the Silver Age. As I remarked several times, the "main quest" reveals itself only in stages, which actually works well in a game that allows you open-ended exploration. The main quest is also unusual in its sci-fi theme and lack of a "big boss." More important, however, there are dozens of side quests--the first real side quests in any CRPG, I think. Some of them are unusual and reasonably complex: climbing all the trees in a grove, solving the magic square puzzle, the mystery of Portsmith, and the prisoner-Statue of Judgment quest among them. They even offer a little light role-playing. Some involve finding items, some visiting locations, some killing monsters, some answering riddles. This is all extremely advanced for a CRPG of the era, and they remain fun even today, even if they don't offer the narrative complexity or role-playing choices of, say, Neverwinter Nights or Oblivion. Very well done, JVC. Final score: 8.

Just picturing my characters doing this one is fun.

9. Graphics, sound, inputs. The graphics of the era still have not advanced out of the "functional" stage. The game makes good use of sound, for the time, but to modern ears it's repetitive and ultimately annoying--I played most of the game with the sound off. Keyboard controls are easy enough to get used to. Final score: 4.

10. Gameplay. As I previously covered, game play in Might & Magic is very non-linear, which (as I also previously covered), I like a lot. Except for a handful of locked doors for which you have to find the keys, there's almost nowhere in the game world that you can't trek from the starting town--assuming you can survive the monsters (hint: you can't). I liked that the game essentially required me to explore to even figure out what the main quest was about. The difficultly of the game is well-balanced. Although you die a lot, particularly at the beginning, the pace of the gameplay is fast enough that you don't really mind (assuming you haven't been a complete idiot about saving). Just as it starts to drag a bit, you start to get a selection of spells--time warp, fly, teleport, town portal--that make traveling about the world a bit faster, and low-level monsters much easier to dispatch. It was over just when I was about ready for it to be over, which is always the mark of a good game. My only complaint: no replayability. But that's par for the course in the Silver Age. In the end, this game was exactly what it should be to earn a high score on my blog: addictive. Final score: 8.

The final tally of 60 is the highest of any CRPG so far, even higher than Ultima IV. This gives me a few pangs, but although I like Ultima IV better as a story, I admit that I probably like Might & Magic better as a game.

As you'll see in my next posting, my next steps are not all that clear. More soon.