Monday, January 31, 2011

Zeliard: Not Enough Dexterity

A giant chicken ("Pollo") is the third boss fight.

The CRPG Addict does not have very good hand-eye coordination. It is for this reason that I play CRPGs and not platformers. So when Zeliard started offering up series of complex jumping puzzles, I knew I was in trouble. And when I failed at the same jumping puzzle literally 47 times in a row, I knew that this was not the game for me.

I'm no good at these things.

It's too bad because Zeliard is a cute little game. Every level is comfortably similar. Levels feature pairs of interlocking maps. The first level had two caves: Malicia and Peligro; the third had two forests: Madera ("wood") and Riza ("crimp?"); the fourth two ice caverns: Glacial ("icy") and Escarcha ("frost"). The two maps are accessed through a series of doors. I had a hell of a time mapping these before I realized that the doors are color-coded to help you create your map. I am color blind. I can't stand games that rely on color for key elements, especially subtle variations like red and green and blue and purple, which this game uses (my wife helped me out). Seriously, would yellow, blue, white, and black have been difficult?

The ice caverns on Level 4.

Anyway, each level also has doors leading to a town, with names suitable to the levels' features. The ice caverns led to a town called Helado ("ice"), for instance. In each town, NPCs give you clues as to how to beat the levels.

To win this level, I somehow needed to find my way up to these shoes.

To get through the levels, you have to follow a deceptively linear path by going through the right doors, picking up keys, negotiating platform puzzles, and finding special items like the Hero's Crest on Level 3 and the Ruzeria Shoes on Level 4. At the end of each level is a boss beast. I fought a crab, a squid, and a chicken, and I understand the rest include a fish head and a dragon.

A shield I never got to buy.

Each town has a slightly more powerful weapon, armor, and potion selection, and each visit to a new town rewards you with a new spell; my last was the Fuego ("fire") spell. I never got very good at casting those. I kept accidentally pounding CTRL when I went to hit ALT (the spell key), which meant that the Google Desktop search box would pop up and as I frantically tried to close it and return to the DOSBox window, the monsters would kill me. Remember: bad hand-eye coordination.

I'll try to remember that.

Dying causes you to resurrect with no gold (unless you deposited some in the bank) back at the first level. Fighting my way back through the first three levels was too much even for my draconian rules, and I generally reloaded when I died.

If you want a good laugh, you can watch me try and fail to get across these platforms a bunch of times before ultimately dying. Notable is how at 00:58, I manage to miss the blob with two Fuego spells and how at 1:22 and 01:40, when I'm trying to frantically jump out of the spikes, I keep swinging my sword--the "jump" and "attack" keys are nowhere near each other. But the crowning moment comes at 02:55, when having finally managed to make it across the platforms, I then still manage to just fall off. I really am this bad.



The game, coupled with a comment that PetrusOctavianus made in my review of The Bard's Tale has prompted me to think a lot about the relationship between dexterity, strategy, and probability (or luck) in computer games. RPGs almost always have a random element--that's what the polyhedron dice are for--but mostly they depend on the strategies you pursue (character development and battle tactics) to affect the probabilities in your favor. A good CRPG need not require any manual dexterity, but if it does, I guess that's what we call an "action RPG." Games that feature only manual dexterity are platformers.

I can get through most action RPGs because the dexterity part generally just involves pointing and swinging and maybe executing some kind of combo. But even if you're inept at that part, you can balance it through weapon and character improvements. If I can't seem to coordinate my attacks in Diablo II, I just need to level grind for a while and then my clumsiness is offset by greater power. But there's just no way to compensate for lack of dexterity in a jumping puzzle.

Anyway, I tried a lot more times than you saw in the video, and there were similar puzzles that kept me occupied for an hour or so prior to this. I can't imagine that they get easier as the game goes on, so I'm going to move on to the familiar comforts of The Bard's Tale III, which requires no manual dexterity at all. If you're really interested in seeing the end, a YouTube user named saberkitty119 has uploaded a full playthrough; the final two sections are here (this one includes the last combats with the dragon and Jashiin) and here (the end game text). Duke Garland saves the princess, of course, and for some reason he just saunters off into the sunset even though she clearly wants to express her gratitude in a Cinemax After Dark sort of way. And yet another game bails on the chance to feature the first CRPG romance.

Game world: Not outrageously original, but it's got a decent story (5). All character development follows the same path; you don't get to create or customize the character, there are no choices to make, and leveling basically just increases hit points and spell points (2). There are lots of NPCs who teach you about the world and your quest, but no interaction (4). Encounters and foes are of the Mario variety with no role-playing, but they do respawn so you can level-grind if you want (3). Magic and combat are action-oriented with few tactics involved even against the bosses (3). You can buy weapons, armor, and magic, and upgrading any of them is satisfying; you can find some equipment in dungeons. The descriptions that shopkeepers give of the items is a nice touch (5). The economy, based on "almas," helps you buy needed stuff, and I never hit a point where I didn't need money (5).

It'll be a while before I can afford that honor shield.

There is one main quest and no side quests nor any way to roleplay it (2). Graphics and sound are quite good, and the controls are fine, although I wish they'd made ESC something other than "pause"; I kept hitting it when I was trying to get out of a dialog window (5). Gameplay is very linear and non-replayable. Ultimately, I found it too difficult because of the manual dexterity issue. Younger players with better wrists might find it too easy (2).

The final score of 36 isn't too bad for a game that really isn't a CRPG. But seriously: this is the seventh game in a row whose CRPG creds are a little fishy. Time to cross into 1988 and try one that no one doubts.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Game 46: Zeliard (1987)

A very pretty opening screen using EGA graphics.

As you might have seen in the comments on Sorcerian, Zeliard nearly didn't make it. Commenter Sean questioned whether it was really a CRPG, and I took a look at both MobyGames's and Wikipedia's lists (I thought), concluded that no one said it was, and chucked it. But then Arcanum pointed out that it was, in fact, on the Wikipedia list, so I re-added it, gnashing my teeth a bit because I wanted to get to The Bard's Tale III.

Well, I'm not sorry I re-added it. It's fun. It won't become a part of my soul or anything, but it's a good play. And since you gain experience and levels and such, I'm happy to grant it at least quasi-CRPG status.

The story of the game is told in an interminable but well-animated sequence at the beginning: in days of yore, the kings of Zeliard imprisoned a demon named Jashiin deep within the earth. Thousands of years later, he has awakened.

Bad kitty!

Calling himself "The Emperor of Chaos," he lays waste to Zeliard with a storm of sand, and he turns the beautiful princess Felicia into stone ("a lovely and terrifying symbol of my awakening").

Really not all that terrifying.

The Guardian Spirit of Zeliard visits the king and tells him that a brave warrior must venture into the labyrinths beneath the kingdom and recover the nine Tears of the Esmesanti, holy crystals that can reverse the damage, and slay Jashiin.


 
The king despairs about where such a hero will come from, but it turns out that I, Duke Garland, have been following the holy spirit's summons, and I show up in Zeliard at just the right time.


 
As I visit the king, Jashiin appears and taunts us both, but I give some back good. The king gives me 1,000 gold pieces, I purchase some weapons, armor, and potions, and soon I'm hacking through vermin (yes, the first creature I slew was a rat) in the underground.

Or you could just give me the absolute best equipment in your kingdom, instead of making me buy it.

Gameplay is of the side-scrolling platform variety, and in between slashing at creatures, I have to navigate mazes and jumping puzzles. Combat is fairly basic action-oriented hacking, lent some extra tactical dimensions by the multi-layered nature of the dungeon. Sometimes you have to jump to reach your foes, and you always have to watch to make sure they're not about to fall on you and knock you off a ledge or a rope. In this, the game is a hybrid between an action CRPG and a platformer.

From the starting town, I fought my way through the caverns of Malicia and found myself in an underground town called Satono, where I was welcomed as the first visitor in a long time (no word on how they manage to survive without plants and sunlight). From there, I cut through the caves of Peligro to the forest town of Bosque.


 
All towns have the same shops: weapons, magic, an inn, a bank, and a sage. There are also selections of NPCs who give you hints as to what you're facing in the next dungeon.

NPCs give hints as to the upcoming dungeons.

As you kill creatures, you collect little balls of their essence called "alma," which banks happily buy from you for 4-8 gold pieces. NPCs suggest that the towns use this energy to create magic items and improve their defenses. Sages serve the triple purpose of giving you spells (you get a new one at each sage), leveling you up, and saving the game.

Leveling up at the sage.

Equipment is confined to swords and shields, and every town had one slightly better model. Shields get progressively damaged as you fight, and eventually they break. You can repair them at weapon shops or with a special potion.

You pick up keys, potions, and treasures throughout the dungeons.

As I said, the dungeons so far have been full primarily of vermin: slugs, bats, rats, and toads. It appears that at the end of each dungeon is a different boss creature guarding one of the Tears. So far I've defeated two: a giant crab and a giant land squid.

This is going to make a lot of bisque. Yes, I am aware that not all of my captions are home runs.
Duke Garland has no attributes except health and a fixed number of castings for each spell. This is partly what puts the game in "quasi-CRPG" territory, but he does collect experience (hidden) for each kill, and gain levels that affect his maximum hit points.

Here's a brief video showing the game play from the town of Santoro to the caverns of Peligro.



Miscellaneous things:

  • In the opening cut scenes, Duke Garland just looks like a regular guy, but during gameplay it looks a lot like he has furry, pointy ears (look as he climbs the ropes in the video).
  • Though the game is of Japanese origin, most of the object and place names in the English version are Spanish. "Alma," the valuable energy you collect from slain foes, means "soul." The caverns are called "Malicia" (malice), "Peligro" (danger), and "Madera" (wood). One of the towns is "Bosque" (forest), and a spell is "Espada" (sword).
  • Shopkeepers, if you ask them, will give a description of the items they sell. This isn't quite the detail of the write-ups we get in Might & Magic VI-VIII or the Baldur's Gate/Icewind Dale series, but it's a nice start--a first, I believe.


Zeliard
was developed by Game Arts for Japanese PCs and adapted to DOS by Sierra in 1990. (Sierra also adapted Sorcerian; I guess porting JRPGs was a bit of forte of theirs.) Because this version is a few years later than the original, the graphics and sound take full advantage of the hardware of the time. The images are rather lovely, and the sound and music edge just north of "tolerable" (which is actually quote good for this era). Like Falcom, Game Arts specialized primarily in console games; I believe the only other offering of theirs on my list is Grandia II in 2000.

I'm not sure whether I'll play this to the end, but I'll probably at least give it a second posting. Although my addiction is primarily to CRPGs, the occasional jumping-on-moving-platforms-over-a-pit-of-spikes puzzle is fun.

Briefly fun.

Wow, this is an image-heavy posting, isn't it? I don't know why some days I'm so enamored of screen shots.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Ancient Land of Ys: Won! (and Final Rating)

There's no "congratulations" screen, so this will have to do.

Wow, right? I didn't expect it to be over that fast, either. But it actually took longer than you might think, as I essentially played it for 16 hours straight yesterday.

As you can see from the screenshot, my name isn't "Adol" after all, it's "Arick." I didn't find this out until late in the game, when someone addressed me. But it seems like all of the proper names changed between the original versions and the DOS version. The villain in at least one console version, for instance, is Dekt, not Malificus. I suppose that's to be expected when (as we covered yesterday) the very title of the game changed for the DOS port.

Anyway, what I took to be the "opening area" of the game--the city, a nearby village, a cave, and a palace--was in fact the "only area" of the game, and the side quests I got at the beginning, which I took to be representative of a slew of side quests that would be forthcoming, were the only side quests. The game was still bigger than it seemed--much more vertical than horizontal. The cave, the palace, and the ending tower all had multiple levels and multiple bosses.

I suspect this would actually suck in battle.

I didn't take great notes or capture copious screenshots, I'm afraid. I was just trying to plow through it. Getting to the end was a process of finding a slew of items in various treasure chests, including a sword, armor, and shield of silver; keys; special items like a rod and a hammer; necklaces and rings that would allow passage into otherwise-forbidden areas; and so on. There was a lot of backtracking involved including a particularly annoying bit where I got all the way to the top of the tower and the endgame, only to find that I needed to turn around and go back down most of the tower to get an amulet from a guy in a dungeon. That backtracking took almost 90 minutes by itself.

I thought this might be heading for the first example of a CRPG romance (the one on the left, wankers), but this game wasn't quite that sophisticated.

At one point, I rescued a damsel from the palace named Fiina. She had lost her memory but turned out to be one of the ancient goddesses of Ys. The game could have done something with this, but it doesn't--Malificus just drops this information on you at the end. I should point out, because I don't think I did before, that there are lots of NPCs in the game, but there are no dialog options; you just read what they say.

Combat never got easy, but increasingly powerful weapons and armor helped, as did a magic ring that gradually restored my health even indoors. Aside from the backtracking, five things annoyed me about the game:

  • Most of the "side quests" turned out to be interlocking bits of the main quest. For instance, the recovery of the Rodane seed was necessary to talk to a Rodane tree and recover a silver shield needed for the final battle. So that still leaves Might & Magic with the only true "side quests" so far.
  • Upon entry to the final tower, there was one of those tiresome "taken prisoner" scenes in which I lost all my silver items. I had to slowly recover them from chests in the tower later.

Here's an original plot device. I wonder if there's a way out of this cell?

  • The game allows you to collect healing potions, but it doesn't allow you to use them (or access your inventory at all) when in combat with bosses, when you most need them.
  • I maxed out my experience points way before the end of the game. That is very annoying--there should always be reasons to kill more enemies. I maxed out the gold, too, and instead of freezing it at the max, the game flipped it over to 0! Fortunately, by that time there was nothing to buy (another thing I don't like).

Oddly enough, the max number of experience points is the same as the max number of rows in Excel 2003, and the max hit points is the same as the max number of columns!*

  • In a lot of the dungeons, you have to take doorways in the southern end of rooms, but very often you can't see, or can only barely see, the doorway at the edge of the screen. This was responsible for a lot of my backtracking, as I thought I'd thoroughly explored certain levels when in fact I had missed huge sections.

Can you see that doorway just south of me?

Balancing all of this: the game was fairly short. And the boss combats (one to retrieve each book) were quite challenging, each requiring some new tactic to avoid attacks and land my own attacks.

This double-headed thing could only be damaged when its two heads came together. In the meantime, I had to avoid its spinning fireballs.

I had to replay the endgame seven or eight times before I finally defeated Malificus, who had transported me to a platform flying through the firmament and was flying around, shooting fireballs at me. Every time I hit him, another piece disappeared from the platform, so I had to avoid both his fireballs and falling down the holes. I kept trying to record it, but since I kept dying, I eventually gave up. Here's a recording of that scene that ends with me falling off the platform:



And here's a recording that picks up after I finally kill Malificus and see the end game:



By the way, I figured out later that a lot of the boss combats would have been simpler if I'd cranked the CPU speed in DOSBox down to an era-accurate level.

As is my wont, since the gameplay for Ys only took two sessions, I'll do a quick GIMLET right here in this posting.

The game's backstory is somewhat nonsensical (really, what does this metal have to do with anything?) and its trappings are undistinguished fantasy fare. The explorable world is very limited--more a "small hamlet of Ys" than an ancient land. On the plus side, your actions do affect permanent changes in the game world, and the NPCs acknowledge it (4).

There is no character creation: everyone starts playing Arick with the same statistics and equipment. Leveling is swift and satisfying in the first half of the game and then suddenly (and maddeningly) freezes to a halt at about the halfway mark. This is one of the few games of the era to give you experience point rewards for quests (3). NPC Interaction is important--you learn valuable things from them, and some of them are interesting--but it is all one-way (5).

NPC "interaction."

Regular foes vary only by icon and toughness, and I didn't know what most of their names were, but the boss foes are quite original, and figuring out the best tactics to defeat them was slightly fun. This is another game where the enemies constantly respawn, but to no real benefit since the experience and gold stops doing you any good (4). There is no magic in the game (aside from a couple items), and combat involves charging into creatures, with the added tactical complexity of trying to achieve the right angle--interesting, but not enough to redeem the combat system (2).

Boss fights were challenging and interesting; the rest of the combat was not.

You have a basic variety of equipment, but it is all found at fixed locations, and none of it is dropped by foes (3). The economy is maddening: although you need money at the beginning of the game, after you've purchased a few fundamental items, there is no reason to keep collecting all of the gold that the enemies offer you (3). The game has a main quest and fooled me into thinking it also had side quests. There is only one ending to the main quest and no way to role-play it (2).

Graphics are decent enough, if a bit small. Sound is the bloopish variety of the time. The controls are extremely basic, as you would expect from a console port, but intuitive enough (4). Gameplay is mostly linear, given the limited game world, and there would be no reason to replay it. The boss fights do add a satisfying level of challenge, and the game doesn't overstay its welcome (5).

The final score of 35 seems about right. I wouldn't have wanted to play it for much longer, and the score would have been much lower without the challenge and tactics of the seven or eight boss fights, but it was an acceptable way to pass a couple of CRPG sessions.

Next stop: The Bard's Ta...no, wait. Arcanum had to go and do some research. We have to do Zeliard first.


*That was a joke. I know why this is.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Game 45: The Ancient Land of Ys (1987)

The title screen calls it "The Ancient Land of Ys," but everywhere else seems to call it "Ys: The Vanished Omens," though occasionally "Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished." (I think it's a platform thing.) I have to go with the title screen.

By the Power of Grayskull, another Nihon Falcom game. They are apparently going to be a big part of my life from now on. I was having fun the last few days, blazing through some minor titles on my way to 1988, but there's no half-assing this one. Unlike Sorcerian, Ys has a full main quest. One last dragon I have to slay before I can enjoy the rewards of the 1988 golden age.

The Ys opening town.

Like Sorcerian, Ys is fundamentally a console game, requiring a minimum number of controls--basically the directional pad and two keys for inventory and status. I would say something like "the influence of The Legend of Zelda, which came out the previous year, is obvious," except that I know next to nothing about the Japanese CRPG market and never played Zelda except for maybe two hours as a 13-year-old, so I'm worried I don't know what I'm talking about. [Later edit: I was right about not knowing what I was talking about. See LordKarnov42's contributions in the comments.] I should point out that unlike Zelda (as I understand it), the character in Ys does gain experience points and levels. There really can't be any question as to whether this game is a proper CRPG. I'm not saying it's a great one, but it's in the right category.

The back story of Ys is dripping with metaphor: the land was once peaceful and happy, but when a farmer discovered a precious magic metal called "kureria" (the uses are left vague), the land was stricken with sudden wealth, income inequality, and natural disasters. Sick of the destruction, the people of Ys gathered up all the kureria, stuffed it into a vault in the Holy Shrine of Sarumon (yes, really), and erected magic statues to guard it. Things returned to normal. But man years later, an evil wizard named Malificus has seized the six Books of Ys, which hold the secret to kureria and has taken the metal. "Only by recovering the six Books of Ys can the people hope to regain their land and end the evil reign of Malificus." But five of the books are being guarded by "huge monsters" and Malificus himself holds the sixth.

Ys is one of the few CRPGs of this era to feature side quests.

Neither the manual nor the game tells you who you are, but I gather from the MobyGames summary that the character is Adol Christian, and the starting town is called Minea. You don't get the main quest right away. Instead, you get a few side quests from exploring Minea and a village nearby. Already I've been tasked with:

  • Dealing with some robbers who have been harassing the bartender.
  • Find a seed called the Rodane seed.
  • Find a stolen harmonica for a distressed songwriter.
  • Recover a lost ring for a one-eyed man in the bar.
  • Recover the Silver Bells, treasured symbols of the village, from a band of thieves.

Little NPCs wandering around the town help you with these quests by giving you hints. You have to talk to them through the cumbersome method of standing in their paths until they run into you. For instance, after I got the quest from the one-eyed man, an NPC told me:


 
This was the first quest I solved, though it took me a while to kill enough monsters to get the gold needed to buy the ring from the pawnshop owner. With the reward from the one-eyed man, I bought a proper suit of armor and shield, at which point I was apparently equipped enough to get the main quest (or at least the recovery of the first book) from Sara the Fortune Teller. More on that below.

Um...what are those "many things?"

When I played Sorcerian, I lamented about how basic the combat was, involving simply mashing the spacebar until the enemy dies. Well, Falcom apparently decided that even that was too much for Ys. In this game, there isn't even an attack button; you attack enemies by charging directly into them, much like in NetHack. There are, however, some tactics to this combat: you do more damage, and avoid damage yourself, if you charge into them from the back or side instead of the front. This is, in fact, the only way to survive at the opening level, when you have only 20 hit points. You thus have to dexterously dance around your enemies, watching their movements and looking for openings. Much more interesting than Sorcerian. Once you have a shield, head-on charges become a little less damaging. In the comments to Wizard Warz, LordKarnov42 clued me in that enemies can't hit you if you're slightly offset from their path of movement, but still in contact with them, although getting this just right (especially in dungeon corridors) is difficult.

Outdoors with tiny little enemies.

If you can survive combat with a single creature, you just need to run off to a safe corner and stand still for a bit, and your hit points recharge fairly quickly (at least, outdoors). Despite this, I have died many, many times since starting the game; some of the enemies are brutal. Unfortunately, their little icons (everything in the game is tiny) don't correspond to the pictures in the game manual, so I can only guess at what I'm fighting outside the walls of Minea. Black knights and mutant dwarves, I think. After I gained a few levels, with consequent increases in strength and hit points, the battles went a lot faster. Enemies that used to take a few hits now simply disappear with a satisfying bloop as I charge over them.

The inventory screen.

There are a number of things I like about the game, starting with the number of quests, and the fact that you get experience point rewards and gold for completing them. These seem like such staples of CRPGs these days that it's easy to forget their comparative rarity in this era. How many games so far in my blog have featured side quests? Exactly two: Might & Magic and Sorcerian, and it's hard to count the latter's as "side quests" because there was no main quest. Leveling is a process of grinding your way through dozens and dozens of respawning enemies, and yet it's still fairly quick, and the results are satisfying. Finally, the game has a reasonably complex inventory of swords, armor, shields, magic items, and special items.

The beginning of the main quest.

My gameplay so far has centered on Minea and its environs. As I said, I solved the ring quest right away, but most of the other side quests involve defeating a band of thieves who have holed up in the mountains. Meanwhile, Sara wants me to recover a Book of Ys from a shrine in the mountains, but my first few trips there show that I'm not quite strong enough to defeat the big bad.

The video below shows a little bit of the gameplay, including combat. As you'll hear, the sound effects are still a bit primitive. There's music in the game (as Taylor pointed out yesterday, much inferior in the DOS version), but oddly, you can only have music or sound effects, not both. As you'll see, I accidentally managed to record myself getting killed.



Before I sign off, I should note the correct pronunciation is "ees," and Ys is an ancient mythical city, said to have existed on the shores of Brittany. Without giving too much away, I have a lot of experience with the mythology of this region, and I was only vaguely aware of it (there are a lot of local legends like this), so it's amusing that a Japanese company made it the centerpiece for their game series. I suppose all it takes is one employee who once read a book. Or is it just a coincidence? (Obviously, the original name would have been in Japanese.)

The Ys series includes nine games going right up to 2006. Most were developed for consoles and Japanese PCs; only a handful were ported to DOS or PCs, so we won't be visiting the land of Ys again until Ys V: The Ark of Napishtim in 2003 and Ys Origin in 2006. I hope there's not a lot of plot in between.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Game 44: Wizard Warz (1987)

Oh, good. Four-color graphics.

Here's one I can bang out quickly. Wizard Warz is not remotely a CRPG. I'll grant you that the interface looks vaguely CRPG-ish, but it doesn't have enough of the elements that make up a CRPG: no character creation, no development except the acquisition of an occasional new spell, no inventory (okay, no player-controlled inventory), action-based combat rather than tactical combat, no NPCs, and so on. Really, MobyGames needs to get its classification act together. Their own definition of "role-playing game" is: "any game for which character development is the main driving gameplay mechanic."

And yet, I'm going to count it as a CRPG and give it my six hours because I want to get to 50 games before my first anniversary (February 15), and with The Bard's Tale III coming up, I need all of the one-shots I can get.

The story is that you are a wizard's apprentice. As you approach your graduation, your master sets out the history of the land: it was once peaceful, prosperous, and generous, but an invading horde took advantage of that generosity and massacred the land's leaders at a banquet. The land's allies tried to sail to its rescue, but the invaders summoned seven powerful wizards to hold off the rescuers with evil summoned creatures. Now, decades later, the land is ruled by fear.

My quest will proceed in three stages: first, to slay all of the beasts of the island where I currently reside, using their trophies to convince the capital city to aid me; second, survive a series of challenges to ensure I am strong enough to face the seven wizards; third, travel to each of the seven wizards' castles and defeat them and their guardians.

"Character creation."

Character creation consists of assigning a sex and choosing four out of 10 spells to put in my spellbook: fireball, wall of ice, icy blast, spit, wall of fire, rock shower, magic missile, wall of stone, and slow. The "wall" spells are defensive spells. Once you select the four spells, you are set loose on the island to kill the six evil beasts. The game window is rather tiny.

Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors! Two days in a row!

When you near the beasts, their portraits appear in the right side of the screen, growing more solid the closer they are. Once you run into them, the game switches to an arena where you engage in battle with the enemy. Curiously, although the beasts all look properly beastly in their portraits, they appear as the same little wizard in a cloak once you actually get into combat.

Portrait looks like a werewolf, icon looks like a little girl.

Combat consists of pointing towards them and firing your chosen spell. Certain spells work better against certain enemies, so it's best to have a good mix at the outset. The pointing and firing is a bit of a problem, though. The game was really meant for a joystick, and it's hard to be dexterous enough with the number pad (at least, for me) to hit your target, especially since the diagonal keys don't work. You can move diagonally by pressing two keys at once--for instance, 8 and 6 (up and right) moves you northeast--but needless to say this is a bit cumbersome.

How did the crown fit over his horns?

You have three meters to watch: physical, spiritual, and mental energy. All of them are depleted by casting spells in their associated categories or by taking damage from spells in those categories. If any of them reach 0, you die. Physical energy is recharged by food, and you can transfer from either of the other categories to physical energy, but not the other way around. I had a lot of false starts and many deaths before I realized that the towns would give me food that I could use to survive in combat.

If you succeed in combat, you get some artifact from the creature. Turning in the artifact at the nearest town (there's nothing else you can do at the towns) rewards you with food, which, by increasing your physical energy, helps you win future battles. Once I realized that you could eat food in battle, I was able to defeat the six beasts: a spider, a monkey, a scorpion, a werewolf, a venus fly trap (or something like it), and some kind of water demon.

This was my last.

Phase 1 ended with an awesome cut scene:

No, just kidding.

In Phase 2, you choose what monsters you want to fight, and after you fight them, you choose whether you want a spell or attribute bonus. There are like 30 monsters and you have to beat them one at a time. I took a video of some of it.



I was doing fairly well until I fought a genie who had some spell that made me forget my spells. One-by-one they all disappeared from my spellbook, leaving me offenseless and, thus, useless. I had to essentially kill myself.


There's no way to save a game of Wizard Warz in progress, so I assume the whole campaign, should you succeed, won't take more than a couple hours. The control problem will likely preclude me from winning the game, but I'll keep trying for another 2.5 hours. If you're reading this, you can assume that I didn't win, because if I do, I'll return and edit this before it posts.

MobyGames's entry on Wizard Warz is interesting. For something that looks like a barely-noted shareware game, it sure was ported to a lot of platforms: Amiga, Amstrad, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, and ZX Spectrum. Was there really that much demand for a light CGA action game by 1987? (Pirates! was available!) The developer is listed as Canvas, which also developed Airborne Ranger (1988), a game I remember playing with great joy on my C64, and incidentally probably much more a CRPG than Wizard Warz.

One way or another, some game called The Ancient Land of Ys is next.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Game 43: Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary (1987)

Take a look: It's Andrew ("Werdna") Greenberg.

I debated for a while about whether to do a standard entry for this game because I don't really know if I'm going to get to "play" it. Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary (yes, that is the appropriate punctuation) is the damnedest game I've encountered so far in this blog. For the last couple of weeks--in relation to Pirates!, mostly--we've been talking about what constitutes a CRPG. Well, here's another one that challenges the definition--but not because of the "role-playing" part. Rather, Star Saga: One might not be a CRPG because it doesn't really satisfy the "computer" part.

Let's deal with the backstory first: the game is set in the year 2815, almost 600 years after the invention of a "dual-axis hyperdrive" made it possible to travel between stars. As a result, humanity colonized eight other planets in an area known as the "Galactic Fringe." In 2490, however, more than half the population of the colonies was killed by an alien virus called the Space Plague. As a result, the governments of Earth and the colonies defined a border around the colonies called the Boundary. Anyone traveling beyond the Boundary would never be able to return. The Space Patrol was established to enforce this law.

Each of the nine colonies is named and has a unique characteristic. Atlantis is a "lush green world protected by strict environmental laws"; Endaur is the seat of the government; Frontier is rugged and sparsely populated, but popular with tourists; Harvard is the colonies' center of learning; Heaven is the most densely populated planet; Leucothea is the religious headquarters (the major religion is The Final Church of Man, which sounds vaguely sinister); Monument is primarily a memorial to the Space Plague; and Norstar is a "grimy, industrial world." While peace and unity reign, and the Space Patrol keeps bad things out of the colonies, humanity "has become a bit stagnant--no new discoveries, no new challenges, and countless opportunities lost."

The game is a weird, possibly unique, hybrid of computer and board game. It originally came in a three-pound box with several floppy disks and a dense package of character booklets, instructions, tokens, a game map, and 888 passages of text. Players--of whom there can be up to six--choose one of six characters to play, each of which has a full biography and set of goals, which you're supposed to keep secret from the other players. (They say a full game takes up to 60 hours, so I guess you're not expected to start a new game every family get-together.) All six characters have recently crossed the boundary, in their own ships, for their own purposes (for instance, Professor Lee Dambroke wants to learn about alien civilizations and Jean G. Clerc is looking for alien technology to build the ultimate spaceship). The characters do not play as a party but instead take turns and, I guess, occasionally encounter each other.

For my introductory game, I chose Professor Dambroke, the xenobiologist from Harvard, and was pleased to see that the picture of my laboratory contains the alien from Aliens plus Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors.

"The Boundary" suddenly makes a lot of sense.

Gameplay progresses something like this. You take off in your ship from your home world, study the game map, and decide where you want to go. You get 7 "phases" per turn, and moving between map sectors takes up one of them. The map sectors are all triangular, and you can travel to adjacent sectors across lines, but not across points.


 
Thus, in the map above, I could travel from sector 116 (the center yellow one) to either 117 or 115, but not to 93 or 94; I'd have to go through 117 or 115 first.

You enter your travel commands into the computer application, and it tells you the results:


 
The game directs me to read two book entries: 348 and 382. Here's a snippet of 348:

Approaching the planet in this system, you instruct your computer to run a geophysical survey as well as scan to see if it has any information in its computer banks on the world known as Moiran.

"I've got some data for you, boss," it says. "The physical characteristics are as follows: climate, warmer than Earth; polar regions, habitable due to minimal axial tilt."

While the computer is busy scanning its memory for any historical data it might have, you take the opportunity to view the planet first hand. From space, Moiran seems somewhat smaller than Earth and not nearly as pretty. The clouds look grey and the oceans have a brownish tint to them. All in all, a dirty-looking planet.

The book goes on to tell me that there are cities, including a busy spaceport, on the planet. It turns out it was an Earth colony, cut off because of the Boundary. I head out of the spaceship and am assailed by the noxious odor of sulphur, meet with the spaceport officials "(who speak a slightly accented Earth Standard)," and head out to explore. At this point, the game gives me five possibilities for further action:

  • Visit a dirty and disgusting part of the city
  • Go to the north pole and investigate the planet's primary industry, Phase Steel
  • Check out the Moiran Interstellar Shipyard for weapons systems
  • Check out rumors about "Tony the Shark," who runs an illegal arms and armor business
  • Visit "Dee's Pleasure Palace," of which the game says, "the less said about the place, the better."

In the next turn, I can choose the action. I go to the commodities market, and the game enters into an exchange screen, in which I can exchange crystals for goods.


 
I should mention at this point that the game is essentially walking me through the first seven turns--it forces you to go a predetermined route, with the book explaining how you play along the way. After this, it has me take off and go to another planet, Wellmeet, where I visit a tavern and talk with the locals.

Just out of curiosity, I started a game with two players and then had them meet on the same planet. I wanted to see if the gamebook had any specific text about the encounter. But all it really does is allows them to trade items to each other.


 
The role of the computer in the game is somewhat minimal. It keeps track of your inventory and status, and lets you know the outcomes of your actions (including those based on probability like, I assume, combat). But the real "gameplay" is in the form of the book and map. The book is highly reminiscent of the Choose Your Own Adventure series in which you read a passage, make a choice, and jump to another passage. The game is thus much more reading than "playing."

Although you can play with up to five other people, it strikes me as a somewhat lonely game for a group. Everyone has his own character, the interactions between them are minimal, and you're not supposed to let them see your character book or storyline. How does it end? One of the players suddenly announces, "Well, I'm done"? (Since I don't have any friends who know about my hobby, I guess the issue is moot.) I'd love to hear from someone who played this in person when it was new.

I should mention that my own playing session so far would not have been possible without the work of one "JJ Sonick," who not only scanned all of the game entries and put them into a searchable browser-based index but also created a brilliant little application that uses the game map and allows you to maneuver your little tokens around the screen. That's some real love there. [Edit: see this comment for more information about the creation of this set.]

I did have some interest in exploring the mysteries of the galaxy and solving Professor Dambroke's quest of returning to Harvard with three alien abilities so cool the rest of humanity will regard them as "magical," so I restarted with him and kept playing for a while. My travels took me to:

  • Wellmet, a frontier planet that used to be the center of exploration for the human colonies before the Boundary. Now a "Ghost World"--one of those abandoned by the nine colonies when they established the Boundary, it comes across as a cross between Australia and Sicily; its rough-but-friendly frontier spirit is an artifact of the convicts that were shipped there by the colonies, but its politics and trade are dominated by the quasi-Mafia Families. It becomes clear here that smuggling across the Boundary is very active (despite the official word from Space Patrol) and is, in fact, a major part of the Wellmet economy. A mysterious man in Wellmet gives me data crystals that greatly expand my star map (the game comes with two maps, one that you open up after getting this information) and warns me about aliens, pirates, and "space walls" where hyperspace doesn't work.

A portion of the larger game map.

  • Crater, a strange planet completely enclosed by space walls. When I get there, I am captured by a tractor beam and interrogated by the locals--more colony expatriates--who are paranoid about alien invasion and have erected essentially a fortress in space. They decide I'm okay and allow me to attend a lecture on combat, after which I am forced to take a test that I fail because the instructions are in old English instead of Earth Standard.
  • Medsun, an agrarian, low-technology planet populated by both humans and strange yellow aliens with three necks (understand this is all described in the book; there are no graphics of this). The low-key attitude of the population seems mysterious until I find that the Medsunians have a natural capability, called Phrmm, to pacify aggression, but it also works to subdue any sense of ambition or adventure. When I am taught the techniques of Phrmm, the Medsunians assume I'm going to stay and start looting my ship, but I stop them and blast off, not sure whether to regard the human populace as unwilling slaves or just stoned and happy. In any event, Phrmm turns out to be one of the "alien abilities" I'm looking for, so my quest is 1/3 done.

I'm just showing this for the heck of it. There aren't a lot of interesting screen shots here.

All of the planets featured robust bartering systems by which I could trade various units of food, medicine, "liquids," munitions, armaments, cultural items, and so forth back and forth. But my inventory was so low to begin with that I hesitated to trade anything. I did hand over one of my medicine units for some munitions, then the munitions for a hand blaster.

Throughout this, the computer on my ship keeps conversing with me directly (in the text, not in the computer part of the game), and I am surprised at its advanced technology, which apparently incorporates a "three-sigma intelligence package" and allows it to understand and answer questions in normal language, and also to volunteer information. Yes, I would like to be shocked at this level of artificial intelligence, but come on, this game is set 800 years in the future.

About this point, I ran out of steam. This is fundamentally not a computer game. I mean, I could take the inventory sheet from the Lone Wolf gamebook series and put it into Microsoft Excel, but that doesn't mean I'll have created a CRPG. The long text entries are very well-written and interesting, but I don't have any sense that I'm really playing anything.

I tried to jump through the entries and see if I could suss out what the ending looked like, but there are just too many of them. Here are some choice quotes that I'd love to know the scenario behind. All of them sound like candidates for the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

  • "You are embarrassed to admit that a four foot tall squirrel is your equal in battle."
  • "You figure the alien ships couldn't be having an easy time tracking your ship, not with the Gironde scattering starlight and glowing infrared behind you."
  • "From up close you can see even better how the serpent's tail segments move together despite the five-meter gaps between them."
  • "Your band of adventurers regroups in the outer orbit of Outpost and confers about the best method for storming the planet."
  • "You plunge right in, narrowly avoiding a marshmallow, and soon find yourself floating serenely in the depths of a liquid that is both warm and supportive."
  • "A familiar sight appears as you shut down the hyperdrive. Yes, sirree, the same asteroid-satellite that blocked your path and shot you up before. It's still right where you left it, broadcasting its cacophonous message."
  • "Focused ever so intently, you prepare for the attack run. Your computer has already laid a course which will take you right over the power generator." (Uh...)
  • "You experience a rather painful eternity of the most extreme torment, as the monster slowly dismembers you and eats the pieces. Fortunately enough, this being a dream, you do eventually wake up. Unfortunately, you are still on Tretiak."

Again, great stuff, but it's a book. I play CRPGs.