Monday, January 3, 2011

Mission: Mainframe: Won!*

This screen--and this screen only--is what awaits you at the end of hundreds of hours of gameplay

So, Mission: Mainframe wasn't all that hard, it turns out. Anyone who struggles with it is, quite frankly, a roguelike noob. It just requires a little bit of persistence, a lot of skill, and maybe some...yeah, okay, I cheated. Cheated big-time.

I had pretty much decided after the last M:M posting that I wasn't going to play any more, but it bugged me a bit, and I figured I'd at least like to see what the game offered at higher levels. So I committed what I thought was a mild sort of cheat: I backed up my save game file so that permanent death wouldn't be permanent. With this done, I was free to take greater risks, starting with descending directly to Level 10 and picking up the security key that would allow me to access Levels 11-20. Then, after a couple hours of that, I went right down to Level 20 and got the security clearance that would get me to Levels 21-30. Thinking that I could just end things once and for all, I sneaked around Level 30 until I found the "Executive Meeting" consisting of a bunch of high-level office workers (executives, directors, attorneys, and the like), culminating in The Operator--the big boss. I could trick and evade the others, but there was no getting around The Operator, and he thoroughly thrashed me.

Still--not a big deal. I knew where the big boss was; I just needed to build up my character enough to defeat him. I ran around collecting gold and valuable office supplies (scissors were the best I found, offering 100 each to offense and defense), finding potions that raised my stats, spending money on "strategies" (which turned out to be mostly useless) and health club sessions to boost my stats further, getting experience and rising levels, and so on.

And this, my friends, is when I started to remember why we don't allow save game backups in roguelikes. Sure, you start out by saying, "I'll just use it when my character dies." But these being roguelikes, your character dies a lot, and suddenly that backup file seems a little too handy. Accidentally swap out a good weapon with a so-so weapon? Restore the backup! Attorney destroys one of your supplies (which they do, the bastards)? Restore the backup! Manger or supervisor knocks down some of your stats? Restore the backup! Don't like the attribute score increase that you got on your last visit to the gym? Restore the backup! Etc. etc. etc. And of course, the backups change the entire dynamic. Suddenly, shooting directly to Floor 30 isn't a risk--hell, that's where the best stuff is! There's no point in avoiding risk when you have a fail-safe! Backing up your save game file doesn't just save you from permanent death--it breaks the entire purpose of roguelike games.

And yet, not even this amount of cheating was enough. I did it for about maybe six hours of gameplay time (although, to be fair, I was multitasking), and I still couldn't improve my character enough to defeat The Operator. So I resulted to way worse cheating:

If you don't know what this is, I'm proud of you.

That's right: I downloaded a hex editor and modified my save game file. But I even screwed that up, since I don't really understand hexidecimal code. I meant to change all my attributes to 999, but somehow I ended up changing three to 14,649 and three to 57. Since the 14,649s included my strength and dexterity, though, it didn't matter: The Operator couldn't hit me as I devastated him with scissors, coffee, and a rubber band.

I defeated the controller of an evil computer with a hex editor. That's called "fire with fire," my friends.

Let's be clear: there is no way I would have ever won this game playing it "straight." Not in four months, like I did with Rogue; not in four years. Even cheating, I died constantly--from alcohol, darkness, traps, and enemies. I probably would have won, eventually, without the hex editor, but never without making backups. I would love to hear from a single person who has ever won this game without making backups of the save games. Tell me how you did it (you have to be convincing), and I'll send you $100 [Note: someone got it much quicker than I would have imagined; see comments].

But it doesn't really count as a "win"; hence, the asterisk in the title. And I won't list it as such in my ranking spreadsheet.

Speaking of rankings, here we go. Does it make sense to rank roguelikes on the GIMLET scale? Probably not. But I'll bet it reflects my actual enjoyment of the game.

1. Game World. Roguelikes are not known for their attention to the back story and game world. This one is no exception. It offers a paper-thin plot as an excuse to transform Wizard's Castle to an office building, but all of the adaptations--a gym instead of a training hall, a supply cabinet instead of a weapons shop, "strategies" instead of spells--seem goofy and forced. Score: 2.

2. Character Creation and Development. The character creation system has you pick from four classes--commando, detective, secret agent, and private eye--but these don't even do what they say they'll do (adjust your ability scores), let alone anything else. Development in terms of increasing attributes is quasi-satisfying since it happens so rarely. I have no idea what leveling does for you--it doesn't increase your hit points or anything. Score: 2.

3. NPC Interaction: There are no NPCs. Score: 0.

4. Encounters and Foes. Some of these are cute, I'll give it that. Instead of the standard menagerie of orcs, hobgoblins, trolls, and such, you fight secretaries, consultants, analysts, and vice presidents. Most of them do something unique--steal your money, destroy your food, destroy your equipment, damage your ability scores, teleport you, and so on--and you need to learn these things to determine which to fight and which to trick or flee. There's no way to "role play" any of this of course, but all levels respawn when you leave them, so there's no shortage of experience. Score: 4.

If my secretary could teleport people out of the office, I'd be a happy man.

5. Magic and Combat. "Magic" consists of "strategies" that you have to buy--analyze, bluff, confuse, decoy, flatter, and hypnotize. They increase in price in that order, and "hypnotize" is so expensive I never got it. The strategies seem to work about as often as "trick," which you pay nothing for. Combat is very basic--just hit the "B" key--and since you can't flee or avoid encounters, there's really no strategy to it. Score: 2.

6. Equipment. Like the game world, the use of rulers, erasers, bookends, and such as offensive and defensive items is mildly amusing at first, but ultimately seems stupid and forced. Plus, the thought of killing secretaries with paperclips doesn't encourage you to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in the game world. There is a shop, and it's easy to tell which pieces of equipment are best. Score: 3.

Did I mention that you kill people with stamps, file folders, and credit cards?

7. Economy. You collect money throughout the game, and since you can use it to increase your attributes, there's never any reason to stop. That's about the best I can say for it. I wish the office supply cabinet got better things as I rose in levels; instead, it only ever offered the selection of starting equipment. Score: 4.

8. Quests. Only one main quest, and pretty lame at that, and no side quests. I know that almost all roguelikes just feature one thin main quest, but I like quests in CRPGs. If that means I rank all roguelikes slightly low, so be it. Score: 1.

9. Graphics, Sound, Inputs. The graphics aren't going to fool you into thinking that you're really in an office building, but they're good enough for a roguelike, which after all doesn't depend on graphics. There is some decent sound, sparingly used, and the controls are fairly easy to master. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. I suppose this is the most subjective category. I like games that are challenging but not impossible; Mission: Mainframe strikes me as impossible. Unlike some roguelikes, it's really not replayable--the "classes" offer the same experience--there's no real opportunity for role playing (especially since the game world is so goofy). At least things move along pretty fast. Score: 2.

Final Score: 25. That puts it lower than everything except Ultima II and the original Rogue, and frankly I think I gave Rogue a raw deal (the GIMLET scale was new back then). It ranks higher than Rogue only because it has an economy and the encounters are a little more interesting. If you like traditional roguelikes, you'll likely disagree with this assessment, but I wouldn't be upset if this was the last one I played.

With those words, I ought to return to Le Maitre des Ames, but NetHack is next, and I'd like to be able to compare the latter to Mission: Mainframe while it's still fresh in my mind. I've just downloaded version 2.3e, and I think I'll check it out for a few minutes before I go to bed.

21 comments:

  1. Eh. I'm sure there are stalwarts who will maintain that really early roguelikes like this or, well, Rogue still have things to offer in this day and age, and perhaps they even do. But more modern roguelikes tend to offer increasingly diverse, intricate, and multilayered experiences to the point where you would be hard pressed to come close to the same level of depth in a more traditional graphical game. (For perhaps the ultimate example, see Dwarf Fortress.) The tradeoff is, no graphics and usually little or no story, characters, dialogue, etc.

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  2. Early roguelikes are... well, they had that something that kept people going and making them and playing them but shucks- sometimes progress is a good thing.

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  3. There is something inscrutably addicting about them. After all, even though I didn't really like it, I cared enough to win to cheat even--something that Faery Tale Adventure, Wizardry IV, and many other games didn't move me to do.

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  4. I once did play Nethack backing up the save file, and noticed that as soon as you start "saving death" this way, you are constantly dying and restoring the save file. The reason must be that permanent death weeds out the mediocre non-winning characters.

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  5. I only have your description to go on, but I would argue that the option to "trick" encountered persons, to evade them, (and did I see bribe as an option?), makes all monsters into at least rudimentary NPCs. They're not deep options, they do offer a chance to interact and roleplay with the characters in different ways.

    JS

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  6. The manual seems to think (knowing these old games, it may or may not be true) that the strategies are enemy-specific; that is, one particular one works on secretaries, another particular one works on attorneys, etc.

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  8. I appreciate everyone who pointed out the distinction between early roguelikes and modern roguelikes. Even the difference between this and NetHack is quite stark.

    d64, permanent death is a sort-of natural selection, but I think an equally important factor is that once you know you can restore your save, you stop being particlarly careful--even in ways that you might only notice unconsicously.

    JS, to me an NPC has to have at least some dialog.

    Jason, you are correct in what the manual says, but I think what you'll find as you play it is that it simply isn't the case. Lower-level strategies (B,C) work on lower levels and higher-level strategies work on higher levels. Unless I missed something, none seemed to be tailored ot a specific enemy. Your progress is impressive. I should mention that when I was cheating by backing up the save file, I got up to 60 on each stat, 420 on both offense and defense (finding scissors at the lower levels helped), and was Level 7. This still got me slaughtered by the Operator. I suspect you need to be at least 150 on your stats (particularly strength and dexterity) and have your offense and defense around 500 to stand a chance. Don't take him on too soon.

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  9. I would love to hear from a single person who has ever won this game without making backups of the save games. Tell me how you did it (you have to be convincing), and I'll send you $100.

    A winner is me!

    Winning (without cheating) required several key revelations.

    First, you don't need to fight anything to gain experience. You get experience just for bringing loot down to the lobby. So the way to play is to avoid fighting altogether and only go for the loot squares. (This is the winning strategy for Wizard's Castle as well, in that game you have to only fight one enemy the entire game.) If an unfavorable floor spawns, hop in and go to another floor. The safes give the best loot, and no alarm in a safe can damage for more than 99, so if you always keep your health up you will be fine. I avoided the drinks altogether until I had sufficient food that I could (R)enew myself out of a stupor. Also I avoided the "missing" squares -- they can be coffee and donuts, but they can also randomly be chutes or vents so there's no reason to take the risk.

    Second, knowing this strategy worked let me shoot straight to the highest possible level. A routine game for me was to jump to level 10, scrounge some loot, and go back to the lobby and instantly jump from level 1 to level 4. This lets me level up enough to very quickly get the first two passkeys with a minimum of fuss.

    So, I was essentially safe, but there's a lot of key pressing and you still have to keep track of where the entrance is because of the blackouts. Inevitably I would push left when I meant right and die. One other very useful thing is that resurrections seemed to be depending on stats (I think intelligence?) so a higher level character has a better chance of resurrection, I think my winning character had something like 6? (All deaths by clumsy keystrokes or stupidity.)

    Taking on the Operator is a lot more work, but not as much as you outlined, because an experimental test run I realized he was a LOT harder than any of the other enemies who I was plowing through. I thought back to Final Fantasy, particularly the "trick" enemies, and then I had my biggest insight: the Strategies do NOT seem to be dependent on stats. See, the reason it seemed like Trick was no different is your intelligence was fairly close to the enemies (this might be different on higher difficulty levels, dunno) but the bit on Strategies doesn't seem to reference stats at all. So a huge disparity seems to be makeupable through use of a strategy.

    I guessed it had to be the most expensive strategy (Hypnotize) to bring down the Operator, and I was right: it was a one-shot kill. (Also a bit of luck on the final fight -- no tough enemies like Vice Presidents.)

    If I mull a little I can probably throw out a few more strategies. For one thing Secretaries didn't give me much issue re: teleporting because they were easily evadable.

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  10. I would love to hear from a single person who has ever won this game without making backups of the save games. Tell me how you did it (you have to be convincing), and I'll send you $100.

    A winner is me!

    (My first attempt at posting was too long so I'm splitting this.)

    Winning required two key insights. First, you don't have to fight enemies to gain experience, you get experience for bringing loot down to the lobby. So the basic way to play is to only go for the loot squares (avoiding also the "empty" squares which could be donuts but could also be vents or chutes) and play it very safe. (This is the same strategy as is used to beat Wizard's Castle -- you only need to fight one enemy to win.) I avoided drinks until I could hold enough junk food to sober myself up from a double alcohol. This sounds boring but it is actually somewhat tense because you have to keep track of your paths to the entrance from the blackouts. Often I would pop in a level and jump right back in the elevator because the floor configuration was wrong.

    That was fine and good for getting the first two security breakers but the Operator was a different thing altogether. I did end up throwing myself at him and got creamed so I was stumped for a while.

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  11. My second key insight was regarding the Strategies. I realized that the strategies did NOT seem to be stat-dependent. While Trick generally had the same effect there wasn't a large stat disparity with most of the enemies; with the case of the Operator, the certainly was one.

    So I took a guess that the most expensive strategy, Hypnotize, was intended for the Operator. And it worked: I managed a one-hit kill.

    One other thing to note is my winning character went through like 6 resurrections (my finger slipped a lot). I think the random chance of resurrection is stat-dependent on intelligence? By sheer luck of the rolls this particular character got a lot of intelligence-boosting (dexterity boosting was by intentional training).

    There were other random strategies I found, like the safes only hurt a max of 99 damage so as long as you are fully healed you are perfectly safe. Also the secretaries (annoying in the stack of enemies leading to a pass key) are fairly easily evaded. Also it's possible for darkness to hit right when you enter the big boss stack at the end! (That was one of my characters that expired entirely, Bigby is like attempt #11 or so.)

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  12. I would love to hear from a single person who has ever won this game without making backups of the save games. Tell me how you did it (you have to be convincing), and I'll send you $100.

    A winner is me!

    (My first attempt at posting was too long so I'm splitting this.)

    Winning required several key insights. First, you don't have to fight enemies to gain experience, you get experience for bringing loot down to the lobby. So the basic way to plot is to only go for the loot squares (avoiding also the "empty" squares which could be donuts but could also be vents or chutes) and play it very safe. (This is the same strategy as is used to beat Wizard's Castle -- you only need to fight one enemy to win.)

    My second key insight was regarding the Strategies. I realized that the strategies did NOT seem to be stat-dependent. While Trick generally had the same effect there wasn't a large stat disparity with most of the enemies; with the case of the Operator, the certainly was one.

    So I took a guess that the most expensive strategy, Hypnotize, was intended for the Operator. And it worked: I managed a one-hit kill.

    One other thing to note is my winning character went through like 6 resurrections (my finger slipped a lot). I think the random chance of resurrection is stat-dependent on intelligence? By sheer luck of the rolls this particular character got a lot of intelligence-boosting (dexterity boosting was by intentional training).

    There were other random strategies I found, like the safes only hurt a max of 99 damage so as long as you are fully healed you are perfectly safe. Also the secretaries (annoying in the stack of enemies leading to a pass key) are fairly easily evaded. Also it's possible for darkness to hit right when you enter the big boss stack at the end! (That was one of my characters that expired entirely, Bigby is like attempt #11 or so.)

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  13. Well...damn. Now I'm pretty embarrassed. Good job, Jason. I'm a man of my word; send me your address by e-mail (crpgaddict@blogspot.com) or the name of your favorite charity, and you've got it.

    Your insight about the experience was the one major thing I missed. I never even noticed. You would probably never survive if you had to fight a lot of enemies, but being able to build experience through gold means that you only ever have to fight three battles (and you can probably trick/strategy your way through two). I'm mortified for missing this.

    I did briefly think that hypnotize would work on The Operator, but the damned thing was so expensive that I never accumulated enough money to get it.

    Lessons learned. Thanks for having persistence!

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  14. Sent.

    One other bit of luck in my game was I previously was using personality as a dump stat, but this time my character had decent personality (which determines the prices in the store).

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  15. I'm getting email bouncing, let's try having you send to me instead, I made a temporary email at jdyer41@hotmail.com

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  16. I created registered a blogger account just to post, so I hope your happy addict.

    Reading about this game and the operator boss, I am reminded of the BOFH articles: "http://bofh.ntk.net/BOFH/bastard-prehistory.php" which I think would make for a great parody RPG or rogue-like.

    For a month now I have been reading of your adventures from the beginning, and I do this in the office while I should be doing work so if there is a large internet outage from a Chicago ISP everyone can blame you.

    I would like to say I enjoy your writing style and how you express what you get out of these games even when I know I have very different tastes.

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  17. I'm happy, UbAh. Thanks for writing, and I'm glad you enjoy the blog.

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  18. Well might as well make a comment here about cheating death. I have been archive diving and this seems to be the first real point where some I wanted to comment on has not been commented about to my satisfaction. In a game with the generic Roguelike Permadeath, death is the end all be all. It is the only real danger as everything else is just a helping hand towards it. Without the permanence the game loses all threat or meaning because everything is only temporary. What threat is being paralyzed if all it means is not moving for a little? How scary is a demon prince if all he takes from you is your time? In the end this is a problem I have with a lot of newer games because really, how is a game, a game if you can't lose? Can it really be called a win if you beat a game where the only way to lose is by deciding not to play it anymore?

    So yeah, slight rant there, but I have really liked what I have read so far. I just wish I could have found your blog after... I guess what is now today seeing as its ~5am as I could have probably spent this time more profitably sleeping for college today. Anyway nice read and sorry for the rant.

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  19. We're cool, Akhier, but I don't quite understand what you were arguing against in my posting.

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  20. Thanks, Its not so much I was arguing against as stating my views. Probably because of the time I posted it (~5am) the thought was a little incoherent and I tend to put apologies when it gets late and the filter between my thoughts and the keyboard goes away.

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