Saturday, June 30, 2012

Galdregon's Domain: Won! (with Final Rating)

I received this immediately upon returning to the king. The most anticlimactic game ending in history.
  
Galdregon's Domain (AKA Death Bringer) 
Pandora (1988/1989)
Stephen C. Briggs, Robin Chapman, Ray Edwards
Date Started: 28 June 2012
Date Ended: 29 June 2012
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Easy (1.5/5)
Final Rating:18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 5.5/63 (9%)

Galdregon's Domain was too easy not to win. Clearly designed for novices, the game had a simplicity that I found almost almost endearing, although this didn't make up for some awful gameplay and interface elements. The enterprise took almost exactly my six-hour minimum. I appear to be the only person online who has won the game (or at least talked about it). Later, I did manage to find a walkthrough in the form of a screenshots from a contemporary magazine called Advanced Computer Entertainment, but I'm pretty sure it's wrong about a crucial bit.

Winning the game consisted of finding each of five gems. Each gem was held by a boss-level creature in some dungeon or tower: a lich, a medusa, a demon named Set, an assassin lord, and a rock monster.

A medusa is incorrect.
 
Defeating each "boss" required that I first find some item of offense or protection against him. For the lich, this was a cross; a mirror protected me from the medusa; the demon required me to have a sacrificial dagger; a cloak kept me hidden from the assassin lord; and the rock monster only died when I was holding a diamond. In almost all cases, the item needed to defeat the creature was in the same dungeon.

Thanks to the Elven Cloak, the assassin chief can't see me. If he could, he'd kill me instantly.

The exception, and the part of the game that took the longest, was the cloak. I had to get that from an elf lord, and to get him to give it to me, I had to bring him the bones of his father, who had been slain by Azazael. This took a while because I overlooked that the elf's ghost, who told me where to find the bones, was in a tower I thought I'd already explored.

A stage in the only reasonably complex quest in the game.
 
Anyway, the walkthrough suggests you can just kill the elf lord, and I'm pretty sure that's not true. In fact, if you do kill the elf lord, I think the game becomes un-winnable. So, future players of the game, remember that you got that hint here! But I would really encourage you to move on to something else.

As I mentioned in my first posting, there are no levels or experience in the game, and the only form of character development comes from finding better equipment. Slowly, you find a shield, a helmet, and armor for your torso, arms, and legs (each arm and leg has a different piece). I never found any boots, meaning I remained part-barbarian until the end.

My final character was invulnerable to everything but rats and roundworms.
 
There's a secondary form of "development" in the sense that every retrieved gem slightly increases your strength. The game got very easy after I started finding armor, and I made very little use of all the potions and scrolls I was finding. You can't load up on too many of these, however, since you're restricted by both the number of items and total weight. I generally ended up leaving useful items among the corpses.

"Arrghh" was indeed my reaction after too many of these messages.
 
There were about 10 total dungeons (towers, castles, fortresses, and forests) to explore in the game, and none of them were large enough to make me feel like I really needed to map them. I just used the "follow the right wall" trick. Not all of them were necessary to finish the game; a few of them just offered opportunities to find more equipment.

There were several major annoyances relating to gameplay and navigation:

  • To talk to an NPC, you click "Talk" and then the NPC. To attack a monster, you click "Attack" and then the monster. The selection remains fixed on what you last clicked on. I kept accidentally killing NPCs because I forgot I had last selected "attack." This is how I know that killing the elf lord doesn't produce his cloak. I accidentally killed him and had to reload, but I searched his body first and there was no cloak.
  • I carried around a lantern for most of the game and also found a bunch of "light" scrolls. As far as I can tell, none of them did anything.
  • When you face forward, the game does not show doors, and usually does not show passages, to your left and right. You have to actually turn and face them.

You can't tell, but there's a door to my left.

  • Weapons continually break, forcing you to find new ones. They're plentiful enough that this isn't a serious problem; thus, it's an annoyance rather than a challenge.
  • When you reach the boundaries of the limited game world and try to move onward, the game says, "ouch!" as if you've run into a barrier, even though it looks like there's an empty field before you.

  • NPCs talk to you in text that scrolls across the screen from left to right. You can't do anything while this is happening, so if you run into five or six NPCs on one screen, you have to stand there and wait until all the talking stops.
  • There is absolutely no feedback in combat. You just keep clicking, or casting spells, until your opponent abruptly turns into bones.

All in all, barely worth my six hours. I don't expect the GIMLET to be high. Before I get into it, you can see some of the gameplay in the video below. I took it shortly after my first posting, a little less than halfway through the game. This video is notable in that I die at the end of it.



The game world is rather silly, mixing a variety of fantasy archetypes, and the game doesn't really pay attention to its own back story. The quest concerns stopping a necromancer named Azazael from retrieving the five Gems of Zator (by finding them yourself first), but Azazael doesn't even bother to make an appearance in the game. On the plus side, the world does remember your actions, to the extent that even corpses remain where they've fallen throughout the game, and items with them (3).

As I said, character creation is nonexistent (everyone starts the same), and development is meager (1). NPC Interaction consists of one-line responses when you click on them. While it isn't strictly necessary to talk to NPCs, you do get a few hints as to objects that you need to find (2).

I get a clue from some elf folk.
 
Encounters and foes are standard fantasy monsters, and you don't have any role-playing options when dealing with them. The bit about having to find some special object before each boss is an interesting twist, but not that interesting. Areas do not appear to respawn, but I can't imagine why you'd care if they did (1). Combat consists of simply clicking on enemies; the only alternative is using scrolls like "fireball" and "death," which constitute the only magic in the game (1).

Five clicks and it's over.
 
Equipment might be the best part of the game, and that isn't saying much. It was mildly satisfying to find new pieces of armor. There are a variety of weapons you need to test out to find the most damaging (I think it was the halberd), and a variety of potions, food, and scrolls keep your character buffed and ready for combat (2). There is very little economy; monsters occasionally drop one gold piece or some gems (automatically converted to 2-3 gold pieces), which you can use to pay for food, ale, or healing. Potions were common enough that this wasn't really necessary (2).

The barbarian finds another bit of armor. I'm amused at the idea of a foe armed only with one piece of "arm mail."

The quest was just a variety of standard CRPG missions, without even a final battle to make things interesting. There are no side quests (2).

A ghost gives me one of the more interesting pieces of the main quest.
 
As you can see, the graphics are quite nice--really the only plus for this game--but I have to conclude that the DOS version shipped without sound. The interface was simply horrible, with virtually no keyboard support and far too much clicking around. It was too easy to accidentally click on the wrong menu command (2).

The gameplay was reasonably non-linear for such a small world; I think you can defeat the bosses and find the gems in any order. It's too easy and there is no reason in the world to re-play it, although at least the pacing is okay (2).

The final score of 18 is the lowest since Times of Lore almost a year ago, and it earns a place in the "superlatives" in the right status bar. The game just seems half-assed. It's name doesn't even make any sense ("Galdregon" is never referenced in the game or manual), and the dragon promised on the main title screen never appears. It feels like Pandora spent a lot of time on the graphics engine and didn't have time for anything else.

The game's box. Hey, it seems like I've seen that barbarian somewhere before.

Ah, yes.

Contemporary reviews of the game seem a bit more positive, praising its graphics and sound (the Amiga version apparently had some) while noting limited gameplay and extremely basic combat. Advanced Computer Entertainment said that "dungeon masters in need of a fix might be disappointed with this offering." The biggest mystery comes from an Amiga magazine called Format, which offers a review so positive I suspect someone was paid by the developers.

Galdregon's Domain is similar to the now infamous Dungeon Master, but it is set aside from the rest by its great graphics and atmospheric sound. You'll be wandering the territory for ages. And with a Galdregon II promised, you just know what you'll be doing every night for the next decade. It's a great game and well-worth the challenge. You'll be hearing a lot more about Galdregon's Domain from now on.

Every night for the next decade? Wow. CRPG players must have seriously sucked back then. Of course, not only has the game virtually disappeared from anyone's memory (there was no Galdregon II), but any comparison to Dungeon Master should have gotten this reviewer fired.

This was Pandora's third game. It's previous offerings were Into the Eagle's Nest, a 1986 World War II action game, and Amegas, a 1987 arcade game. I'll meet them again in 1990 with Xenomorph, a sci-fi RPG that from the screenshots might use the same graphics engine as Galdregon's Domain. Xenomorph appears to be the company's last offering before it faded into obscurity.



Let's have some more NetHack and then see what I'm going to do about Star Saga: Two.



Thursday, June 28, 2012

Game 72: Galdregon's Domain (1989)

This game was apparently released under this title in the U.K. and as Death Bringer in the U.S. But I can't find a "Death Bringer" version, and both MobyGames and Wikipedia seem to suggest that they're the same game (not even separating the articles), so I'm going with Galdregon's Domain. Hope that clears it up.

Galdregon's Domain is a game largely lost to history, with the exception of a Wikipedia stub and a MobyGames entry. I haven't been able to find any hints or walkthroughs (I thought they might be able to help me with the sound issue, as below). I used to get excited about such games, figuring that I had a chance to be the authoritative source on the Internet. But I've discovered that these games are forgotten for one fairly good reason: they're forgettable.

The game casts you in the role of a barbarian mercenary. You have come to the city of Secnar in the land of Mezron and have been granted an audience with King Rohan ("the Usurper"). You've arrived just in time. A rogue cult has resurrected a necromancer named Azazael, who intends to enslave mankind through the five Gems of Zator, artifacts of great power. One of the gems lies within the catacombs of Secnar, guarded by a lich king, and all champions sent to retrieve it have failed.

The king lounges on his throne, a harlot at his feet.
    
The introduction concludes that the king "hands you a dagger, lantern, healing potion, and a loaf of bread and bids you return with the five gems of Zator." (The other four seem to be in different dungeons.) Left unexplained is why I, a barbarian hero, have shown up in this kingdom with no equipment. Also left unexplained is who, or what, Galdregon is.

I face a contingent of castle guards outside the king's chambers. At least I don't have to kill them.

In its basic interface, the game seems inspired by Dungeon Master. But you control only a single character, and the number of possible actions is far more limited--basically, attack, drink a potion, use a scroll, view your statistics, and a host of "sub-commands" like opening and closing doors. The game also notably departs from Dungeon Master by featuring multiple dungeons and towers connected by an outdoor area, and by populating these areas with NPCs with whom you can chat (getting only one-line responses, however). It unfortunately keeps Dungeon Master's mouse-driven interface, though you can active some of the commands with function keys.

A forest, a hut, and NPCs outside the castle.

The first thing that jumps out at you is the beauty of the VGA graphics. I'm hard-pressed to think of a better looking game to date. The scenes, characters, and monsters are lovingly crafted and detailed. This made me unreasonably excited about the game when I first fired it up.

The arch-mage, an NPC, gives me a spell book.

Unfortunately, the same is not true about the sound. I read a review of the Amiga version that praised the sound, but I can't get a peep out of the DOS version, nor can I find any acknowledgement of sound in the game's files. Is it possible that they released the DOS version with no sound at all?

A map keeps you oriented in the outdoor area.

Even if I can solve this problem, the basic gameplay experience leaves a lot to be desired. Corridors and rooms force you to turn every possible direction to make sure there are no doors; you can't see doors and open passages in your periphery. Combat consists of clicking manically on your enemy until one of you is dead, and during combat there is no indication of how much damage you're giving or taking. There is a limited selection of inventory items.

Transferring equipment from a slain foe.

You don't create a character (everyone starts exactly the same). There don't seem to be any levels or experience points in the game. At least, the manual doesn't mention any, and I haven't been able to discern any kind of character improvement. Development seems to consist primarily of obtaining better weapons, armor, and items.

Today, I explored several of the dungeons, including a tower in which I killed a mad wizard and his demon cohort, looting from their bodies a number of spells and a cross. I explored various huts and houses in the outdoor area and received a magic sword and spellbook from NPCs. My biggest problem right now is that my health is low and I have no gold to pay for healing. None of my slain foes ever seem to have any.

Fighting a wizard and demon.

I died and had to reload a couple of times. The death screen is suitably bleak:


I'll keep playing for at least my six hours, but the interface is annoying and the game so far is unrewarding. If anyone else wants to download it and see if you can do any better with the sound, I'd appreciate the help.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

NetHack: From the Beginning

Fair warning: this character does not ascend.

NetHack involves so many quirks, vagaries, and complex gameplay elements that I've been having trouble organizing my thoughts. I thought it might be easier to describe a typical game and highlight those characteristics that I encounter along the way.

The game starts with a simple question: "Who are you?" This is the prompt to name the character. Next, the game offers to randomly choose your character class from among 12 types: archaeologist, barbarian, cave-man, elf, healer, knight, priest, rogue, samurai, tourist, valkyrie, and wizard. You also have the option to choose your own. For this illustration, I choose a barbarian.

I am sure that I will eventually explore all of their strengths and weaknesses.

The game then automatically rolls attributes for strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. These are mostly new; the last version I played, 2.3e, had only strength. The scores seem to be influenced by class, but with some randomness built in. You also get an alignment (again, I think based on class; I'm not yet sure what purpose it serves in the game) and a number of hit points. Each character class has a series of titles based on level; barbarians start as "plunderer."

Other statistics along the bottom include the dungeon level, gold, magic power, armor class, experience, and time elapsed. I'm not sure what the "S:" value at the end of the first line means.

The game starts in a dungeon room, which may be populated with monsters, items, or both. The rest of the map remains uncovered until I explore it. I start each game accompanied by a pet--a cat or a dog--which I can name. In this case, I have a kitten and have named her "Gatita." Both kinds of pets attack enemies and retrieve items. Supposedly, pets can be trained to do other things, but I haven't figured that out yet.

Each character has a starting inventory depending on class. Barbarians start with a two-handed sword, an axe, a ring mail, one food ration, and sometimes an additional item like a lamp. They have one of the most basic starting inventories; tourists and wizards start with so many items that you're overburdened at the outset.

Some aspects of the equipment--such as whether a weapon is "blessed"--seem to be random.
 
In this game, Adam the Barbarian soon encounters a jackal in the same room, which seems to be a low-level monster without any special attacks. Slaying him leaves a corpse; many monsters leave corpses which I can pick up and eat. I know from the last game that many of these corpses make the character sick, and some confer special benefits or curses. I don't remember what a jackal does, but since I'm not desperately hungry, I decide to forgo eating it.

I begin to explore the first level. The ostensible goal of each level is to find the stairway down to the next level, but of course you don't want to go charging down levels without building your character a bit first. I generally make it a policy to fully explore the level before moving onward. But each level features secret doors and passages that are only revealed with multiple searches and it's not really feasible to search every wall space multiple times, so the only ways you know for sure that there's a secret door is if you use a scroll of mapping or if you've explored the visible level and have not yet found the stairs.

As I explore, the game gives me occasional messages about the environment: "you hear some noises in the distance"; "you hear a door open and close"; "you hear bubbling water." I think these are supposed to clue you as to encounters to be found on the level (i.e., noises probably mean that there are more monsters somewhere). I soon come across a ruby potion on the floor. I have no idea what it does, and the only ways that I know to find out are to drink it and to find a scroll of identification. Since I don't have any conditions that I need a potion to cure, I decide to stuff it in my pack for now.

I come across a closed door. I don't believe the previous version of NetHack had doors at all. In this version, they can be opened or closed, and if closed they can be locked or booby-trapped. Locked doors respond to lock picks or just kicking them open. In this case, it wasn't locked, but it was booby-trapped. It blew up and I lost a couple of hit points and spent a few rounds stunned.

In the room beyond, I find 34 gold pieces and the stairway down. Unlike Rogue, where gold just affected your final score, NetHack has shops where you can spend your gold. I haven't been encountering them until dungeon level 3 or 4, however. The room also holds a food ration, which means I now have two. Given how often characters die of starvation in this game, having a good supply always makes me feel better.

A newt--another low-level creature without special attacks--wanders into the room. Fighting monsters with melee weapons simply involves moving into them. However, combat also offers the options of throwing items, zapping with wands, and casting spells (among others I'm sure I haven't discovered). I quickly dispatch the newt with my sword, and my cat eats its corpse. I'm not sure what the rules are governing pets eating corpses. I haven't seen a pet get sick or develop special abilities yet, but maybe that happens without any messages.

Another locked door responds to me kicking it open, and I find a room with several things on the other side. The first is a kobold zombie, which I kill quickly with my sword. There is also a statue of a goblin. I find statues like this everywhere, and I'm not sure what purpose they serve. Are they actual carved statues or beasts turned to stone by a medusa or something? The game lets me pick it up, but I don't see any purpose to that.


There is also a fountain in the room. I've found at least two things that fountains do: First, they can alleviate a little bit of hunger if you drink from them and nothing goes wrong. Second, dipping a weapon into them occasionally causes something good to happen, like the removal of a curse. In this case, nothing happens. My sword only "gets wet," and I find that "the tepid water is tasteless."

Finally, there is some more gold and a large box with a keyhole. This is the game's equivalent of a treasure chest, only I don't have anything to pick the lock with. I try to force the lock with my sword, but it doesn't work. I take the box hoping to find a way to open it later.

Another room has a pancake; my food stockpile is pretty good at this point, although any of the items could be rotten or poisoned and leave me worse off than if I hadn't eaten. I kill a kobold and take a gem from its body; I'm not sure if these serve any purpose except selling.

Another fountain, when I try to drink from it, produces a water nymph. I've only been playing this game for a few hours, but already I hate them. They hypnotize you and steal your stuff. Fortunately, I shrug off her charms this time and kill her in one blow. This brings Adam to level 2, but he only gains 1 extra hit point.

One of the hallways is blocked with a boulder. These appear all over the game and force you to push them out of the way, but sometimes you're blocked by doors, walls, or monsters. You can sometimes squeeze past them if you're not overloaded with inventory. I'm not sure if they serve any other purpose.


By the time I finish exploring the level to my satisfaction, I'm level 3. I have two food rations, a pancake, and a newt corpse in my packpack for food, and I've found three more potions of different colors, all of them still unidentified. I also have (from the water nymph) a mirror, but I'm not sure what it does. When I show it to my cat, she is "frightened by [her] reflection."

I head down to level 2, followed by Gatita. I fight several combats with giant bats and rats. Another bloody water nymph appears out of a fountain and this time steals my armor, my gem, my box, two potions, and my pancake, but Gatita kills it! I guess kittens do serve a useful purpose! I'm able to pick up all my stuff and put my armor back on. As I finish dressing, I finally get hungry. I know from experience that this hunger will transition to weakness, fainting, and finally death if I don't eat. I swallow the pancake and take the edge off.

The sound of someone counting money suggests that there's a shop on the level, but I've already explored everything and haven't found anything. That suggests a secret door somewhere. I have to weigh the length of time it will take me to search (and the consequent hunger I will have to sate) against the likelihood I'll find anything interesting in the shop.

I ultimately find a secret door at the end of a hallway, and behind it a room with a spellbook. Reading spellbooks is the only way to get spells into your inventory, so I decide to brave it and am rewarded with a cure sickness spell. This will come in handy when I eat some rotten food, although I think barbarians have a natural resistance to getting sick from food. (I can't remember why I have this idea; maybe it was a spoiler someone gave me last time.)


I never do find the likely shop, so after a few more combats, I head down to level 3. Hunger appears again, and after I eat, I'm down to only one food ration; all that searching on level 2 cost me dearly. 

A few fights with geckos and kobolds, and then I get caught in a bear trap. There are several types of traps in the game, and bear traps are the most annoying I've encountered so far. You have to spend round after round futilely trying to wrench your leg from them, while you get hungry and expose yourself to monsters. I finally get out and in the same room find a black ring mail. This poses a bit of a quandry. If it's a better suit of armor than my existing ring mail, I should put it on (along with the black cap I found on level 2), but there's always a chance it could be cursed. I decide to take the risk. It isn't cursed, but it's actually worse than the armor I already had, so I take it off.

Later, I come to a dark room, so I use my lamp to light it up. Dark rooms are the same as regular rooms except that the entire room isn't revealed the moment you step into them. I pick up a tin opener in the same room. I've yet to find a tin to open with it, and it doesn't seem to work on the box I'm still lugging around. I find another locked box in a room and break my sword trying to pry it open. Equipping myself with my axe, I vow to leave locked boxes alone from now on. I drop the one I've been carrying since level 1.


I find a scroll labeled XIXAXA XOXAXA XUXAXA. Like potions, the only ways that I know to identify scrolls are to use them or find a Scroll of Identification. I decide to read it and see what it does. All it does is give me a "strange feeling." The game then gives me the option to name the scroll. I call it "Strange Feeling" so that every time I encounter a similar scroll later, I'll know what it did (not that I really know).

A fight with a jackalwere leaves me feeling "feverish" as I prepare to decend to level 4. Moments later, I turn into a jackalwere myself! This causes all my armor to fall off, and for me to become unable to equip weapons.


I decide to see if I can wait out the transformation. It works, but the moment that I return to human form, a gnome lord attacks me and kills me just as I get my weapon in my hand again.

As with every death, the game offers to identify my possessions, I guess just to screw with me and show me what I didn't get a chance to use. It turns out my potions included hallucination, levitation, confusion, and object detection (both cursed and uncursed versions). 

The game taunts me.

What I experienced in this game only scratches the surface of the gameplay elements in NetHack, but it should give you some idea of the game's complexity and major characteristics. I'll probably do my next posting on Galdregon's Domain, but I'll keep popping into NetHack periodically as the year goes on.




Sunday, June 24, 2012

Game 71: NetHack 3.0 (1989)


To recap what I'm doing with NetHack: the game poses a bit of a chronology problem since it was under continuous development from 1987 to 2003. As reader Ryan ("Pipecleaner Creations") put it in early 2011: "To play NetHack 3.4 is to play a 2003 game, not a 1987 game." Thus, I decided to follow the lead of the NetHack wiki and regard the game as occurring in six "versions": early NetHack (culminating in 2.3e), the 3.0 series, the 3.1 series, the 3.2 series, the 3.3 series and the 3.4 series. These were released between two and six years apart between 1987 and 2002, and I thought approaching it this way would allow me to periodically check in on the development this seminal roguelike.

I had originally determined to play the last version of each "series," but it turns out that it's harder to find the older versions than I would have thought. Instead of 3.0.10, I'm playing 3.0.9, which is last version I could find somewhere whose instructions that I could understand. This particular version was released in June 1990, and it appears that 3.0.10 didn't offer any substantive changes, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything.

I'm starting 1989 with NetHack because I expect I'll be playing it all year. My big goals are to a) get through all of 1989's games by this time in 2013; and b) "ascend" in NetHack by the same date. And I'm determined to do it clean, and without spoilers (unlike my Wizardry V fiasco). To that end, I'm preparing to create exhaustive documentation about every monster, object, effect, and encounter that I find in the game. I'll play it amidst and in between the other games from 1989, posting when I have something new or interesting to report--or when I need a slight hint.

If you're new to the blog or the concept of roguelike games, the genre was spawned by Rogue, a 1980 game that was the first game I blogged about in detail. Most roguelikes feature:
  • Graphic minimalism (as you see in this posting, all of the graphics are simple ASCII characters)
  • Randomly-generated dungeon levels
  • Gameplay that is turn-based but nonetheless quite rapid
  • A quest involving the retrieval of some kind of treasure from the depths of a dungeon
  • Permanent death (you can save, but the game erases your save file when you die)

Because of their unique challenge, I think roguelikes tend to be played by a different sort of gamer than many other types of CRPGs. They also tend to be developed independently, rather than commercially, although some people think of action CRPGs like Diablo as roguelikes with better graphics. I'm not convinced. Permadeath is such a key feature of the roguelike genre that I have to regard any game that avoids it as fundamentally different.

Early in my gaming career, I made the mistake of equating graphical primitiveness with gameplay primitiveness. I regret my ignorance but I find it understandable: the roguelikes I had played before NetHack--Rogue, Larn, Wizard's Castle, Amulet of Yendor, Mission: Mainframe--didn't exactly push the envelope when it came to plot and roleplaying opportunities. In the middle of Mission: Mainframe, I stopped to complain that: "Roguelikes don't reveal new bits of story as you play. They don't offer NPCs. They don't do anything different that [what you experience on the first level] except get harder." Helm chided me in the comments, and within a couple of weeks, I was playing NetHack and realizing that everything I had said about "roguelikes" was wrong. A few months after that, I was absolutely floored by Omega, an independently-developed, shareware roguelike that offered a staggeringly unique character-creation process, the first join-able factions, the first complex use of alignments, and the first multiple endings in CRPG history [Edit: this last part wasn't true. Wizardry IV did it earlier than Omega, and there were probably some others, too]. Threadbare graphics do not mean threadbare gameplay.

Since the beginning, NetHack has been developed by a team and, I believe, has always been offered for free. Beyond that, I'm not going to try to get too much into the development history of the series. (Wikipedia's summary is here.) The game has such a fervent community and so many fan pages online that I doubt I'll be able to contribute significantly on my own blog. I suspect that if you're reading my NetHack entries, you're not so much interested in learning about the game as learning about my particular perspective on the game. It would probably make sense to review my January 2011 postings on version 2.3e first. My understanding is that the 3.0 series introduced over three times as many monsters, new objects and dungeon encounters, new levels, an alignment and religious system, and new classes. I think it would be nice if food poisons you less often, but I don't see anything about that in the release notes.

The complexity of the game is evidence in its vast command list. You can call up the list quickly with the ? key, but I made myself retype it just so I would increase my chances of remembering. Almost all the letters--both upper and lower case--and all the special characters trigger some action: equipping and unequipping weapons, armor, and rings; picking up and dropping things; opening and closing doors; eating; renaming monsters and objects; drinking potions; reading scrolls; casting spells; searching for secret doors and traps; paying your bill in a store; throwing and using objects. You can even write notes to yourself on the floor. The game is complex enough that if you don't have any writing implement and just write with your fingers in the dust, the letters actually degrade over time. Wow.

 
Beyond the standard commands, there are a host of special commands, and I'm almost afraid to find out where they come into play. Forcing locks and turning undead make sense, but when am I going to have to "dip an object into something" or wipe off my face?

One of the most significant aspects of NetHack gameplay is figuring out the nature of the various objects that you find. Weapons, armor, potions, scrolls, rings, wands, and other objects are given generic names when you find them; except for the occasional scroll of identification (which you first have to identify!), only wielding, wearing, reading, and drinking them reveal their true natures (and sometimes not even then). Each time you play, you have to decide how cautious to be in your use of unknown and potentially-deadly items.

Each type of character starts with a different set of equipment. The "archaeologist" starts with a fedora and bullwhip.

The overall mysteries of the game come in several forms:

  • The strengths and weaknesses of various monsters
  • What happens when you eat the corpses of various monsters
  • What certain objects do
  • How to use various objects and commands together with the environment

I understand that these aspects of the game have been exhaustively documented on various fan sites, and people are still discovering them today. Many readers have encouraged me to read these "spoilers." I might eventually. For now, though, I intend to try it clean, which means I'd ask you not to give me any spoilers in the comments, save perhaps some light hints, unless I specifically ask for them. In all cases, please comment only on things that I specifically mention in my postings. My biggest mystery right now is what I'm supposed to do with a kitten--but I'm not asking for help yet.

Just to keep things interesting, I decided to let the game choose my class each time I play. My first character of this session, Chet, was a "tourist." He showed up in the dungeon wearing a Hawaiian shirt, wielding darts, and overloaded with a variety of food, scrolls, and potions, along with (of course) a camera and a credit card. Already we have some mystery, as I don't know if those latter two items actually have any use. Chet was accompanied by a little cat, who I named "Bix" after my second-favorite jazz trumpeter.

The opening room contained a sink, but I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. As I explored the surrounding area, I was killed by a newt. I hope Bix got out okay.

I just hope it was a big newt.

Not an auspicious beginning, but I have a whole year.

Friday, June 22, 2012

1988/1989

 
I started playing 1988 games in February 2011, which means that I lost significant ground in the last year and a half. Of course, I covered 1979-1987 in my first year of blogging, so I guess I'm still averaging about 3.6 game years for every real year.

1988 was a year of contrasts. The year produced four of my highest rated games so far--Pool of Radiance, Ultima V, Might & Magic II, and Wasteland--but also a host of games I found tiresome and frustrating, including most of those that I've featured since my return to blogging after my January hiatus: Sentinel Worlds, BattleTech, The Bard's Tale III, Wizardry V. (If I seem to have been in a bad mood for the last four months, remember that I was playing games I had deliberately postponed. No more of that.) Ratings for new games in 1988 range from a low of 18 to a high of 69; the largest variance so far in my blog.

Many of the games produced in 1988 were the last gasps of dated series. Demon's Winter, SSI's sequel to Shard of Spring, was interesting but was soon blown away by Pool of Radiance. (It amuses me that the same company was responsible for Star Command, Demon's Winter, Questron II, and Pool of Radiance, all in the same year.) The gameplay for The Bard's Tale III and Wizardry V hadn't advanced enough since the earlier installments in the series to be fun and memorable. Questron II offered nothing that its predecessor didn't except slightly better graphics. Of the classic series, only Ultima V and Might & Magic II managed to get through the year with honor, primarily because they overhauled their engines to keep up with the times. They will continue to improve and expand as their series progress.

Questron's insistence that every game need include the merciless slaughter of castle guards just seems obscene in the post-Ultima IV era.
 
In a comment, PetrusOctavianus suggested that I designate a "Game of the Year" every time I make a transition. The clear GOTY for 1988 is Pool of Radiance. It wasn't my highest-rated game (that went to Ultima V), but I think it was the most important game of 1988. It was the first Dungeons & Dragons game that really captured anyone's imagination. It led to the plentiful "Gold Box" series and served as a spiritual ancestor to the entire Forgotten Realms line. The tactical combat system is one of the best I've ever seen, surpassing even many modern games, and it offers a depth of experience in encounters and quests that simply blows away everything that came before. It is one of the few games of any era that don't insist on a single interface: dungeon exploration is first-person; combat is isometric; and outdoor exploration is top-down. It isn't perfect--the economy is notably bad--but I had more fun playing it than any other game since I started this blog.

I can't think of a single CRPG combat system that I like better than the Gold Box games. I perhaps like the Infinity engine games as much, but not better.
 
If I had to do honorable mentions, though, they would go to Ultima V and Wasteland. Both offer unique experiences. Ultima V has a compelling, complex quest, an interactive environment (even few modern games allow you to move furniture!), and the first appearance of NPCs that keep a daily schedule. Wasteland offers the first digestible post-apocalyptic setting, gun combat, and an extremely innovative way of employing skills and attributes. They're both great games, but I don't think either had the lasting impact on the genre that Pool of Radiance did.

I don't think I'll ever truly love Wasteland, the way some of you do, but I certainly learned to appreciate it.
 
Should I do a worst game of the year? It would be a tough decision. Times of Lore was my lowest rated, and I think it sets up a theme that's going to become common in my blog: I don't really take to action RPGs. But no one had any real expectations for Times of Lore, so it seems disingenuous to rank it "worst." The Bard's Tale III offered one of the worst gameplay experiences of the year, improving nothing on the first or second games but making its world 10 times larger. Ultimately, though, I have to go with BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception. What seemed like an original setting and promising gameplay elements collapsed into a ridiculous story, no character development, and the most bafflingly stupid ending I've ever witnessed in a game.

I spent all that time building my mech fleet so I could do this for 90 minutes.
 
Petrus had also suggested that I offer my opinions on Games of the Year for earlier years. Briefly:

1981: Wizardry, of course. There were so many "firsts" here that I've lost count. We owe Might & Magic, The Bard's Tale, and Ultima III to this game. If only it had inspired its own developers as much as its competitors.

1982: Telengard. Understand, there isn't much to choose from this year. I pick Telengard because it represents the most commercial version of a long line of games that started with dnd. Unfortunately, it was also the end of the line.

It would be years before we saw random miscellaneous encounters like this in CRPGs again.
 
1983: Exodus: Ultima III. The first good Ultima game and the first iconographic game to offer multiple party members. The combat and magic system were very advanced for the time.

1984: There were only a few games this year and none of them really stand out.

1985: So many franchises started this year, but I have to go with Ultima IV. It still offers a quest and a gameplay experience unmatched in the genre.

1986: It's a tough choice between Might & Magic I and Starflight. The former took the best of Wizardry and improved on it, creating a series that would churn out fantastic games for 20 years. The latter is an ahead-of-its-time science fiction game with an incredible plot and extremely memorable NPCs and encounters. In terms of sheer influence, I think I'd have to go with Starflight.

1987: I know a lot of people would root for Dungeon Master, but I have to choose NetHack. It wasn't the first roguelike, of course, but it's probably the most successful. It showed that a roguelike could be as large, complex, and full of true role-playing opportunities as other CRPGs.

I'm looking forward to the next edition.

For 1989, I've structured my game list so that a game I know (or at least strongly suspect) that I'll like comes up every four or five games. These cornerstones include NetHack (version 3), Magic Candle, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Starflight 2, Dragon Wars, and Hero's Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero (the game that was later re-named Quest for Glory). There are 36 games on my list for the year, although I expect some of them (Girlfriend Construction Set, Star Saga: Two) won't hold up to CRPG scrutiny, and others (Dragons of Flame) might prove impossible to play. Despite that 1989 has about 50% more games than 1988, I want to set a goal of completing 1989 in less than a year.

If I had to pick a game I'm looking most forward to in 1989, it would be a toss-up between Curse of the Azure Bonds and Magic Candle--the former because I know I'll love it based on my Pool of Radiance experience, and the latter because so many of you keep telling me how good it is.

I'm starting with NetHack because I don't expect to "win" it right away. Instead, I expect that I'll keep it active throughout most of the year, dipping into it here and there, and hopefully ascending before the year is completed. Let's get going.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wizardry V: Final Rating

From a more exhaustive reading of the walkthrough post-game, I found that if you take the time to find some secret doors, you can encounter the god Lala Moo-Moo. I can't imagine what level you'd have to be to actually defeat him.

Wizardry V: Heart of the Malestrom
Sir-Tech Software (1988)
Andrew Greenberg, David W. Bradley
Date Started: 24 November 2011
Date Ended: 18 June 2012
Total Hours: 80
Difficulty: Difficult (4.5/5)
Final Rating: 37
Ranking at Time of Posting: 40/63 (63%)

There's nothing I can say in summary of this game that you haven't heard before.

Wizardry I was a seminal entry in the history of CRPGs. It was the first multi-character game; the first game with a complex spell system; the first game to offer such a wide variety of foes; the first game to offer so many character classes and specializations. I think it was the first game to offer a choice of alignments. It inspired Richard Garriott to offer multiple party members in Ultima III, and in its interface and approach to combat, it directly inspired both the Might & Magic and The Bard's Tale series.

Why were the developers unable to carry that innovation forward? While Wizardry's descendants made enormous strides in the depth and quality of the story, the nature of encounters, the use of NPCs, the variety of equipment, and the complexity of combat, Wizardry offered essentially the same graphics and gameplay experience for four more entries and seven more years.

"Essentially the same" and "exactly the same" don't mean the same thing, though, and it would be dishonest not to recognize a few of the additions to this game, starting with the complexity of the puzzles. I didn't like them, but some players might. The game blended CRPG gameplay with adventure-game-style inventory puzzles, and the game was largely an experience of finding Item A to open a passage to Item B to give to Character C to obtain Item D, and so on. The problem is that, unlike adventure games, most of the items were nonsensical. If they had just been keys and such, I might have found that annoying and inoffensive, but instead we had a rubber duck, and playing cards, and a caged bird, and a bag of tokens, and the whole thing was just goofy.

The second innovation was, to me, a little more welcome: advanced NPC interaction. The ability to talk, steal from, and barter with NPCs throughout the dungeon added a level of complexity to encounters that is present in only a few other games of the era. These encounters, and the hints that you learn from the dialogue, are absolutely necessary to finishing the game. I wish the NPCs hadn't included such a cavalcade of nonsense, but the interface itself was a good idea.

Overall, though, I'm glad that the series took a different approach to its next outing, which I'll play when I get to 1990.

On to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. As basic as they get. The somewhat incomprehensible backstory--involving someone called "The SORN" imprisoning "The Gatekeeper" and upsetting the "Triaxial Balance" is just an excuse for a long slog through a featureless 8-level dungeon. Programming had progressed to the point that the developers ought to have been able to give each dungeon level some kind of character or theme, like in Ultima Underworld, in text if not in graphics. But instead they populated the dungeon levels with silly characters and encounters. The rest of the "world" doesn't fare any better: the castle is a copy of the first game, with very little memorable about it. On the plus side, the game does remember aspects of your progress throughout the dungeon. "Found" secret doors remain uncovered, and slain NPCs remain dead. Score: 3.

2. Character Creation and Development. Although these factors haven't advanced much since the first game, they were reasonably good even then. Few other games of the era restrict character classes based on attributes and alignments, and I can't think of any others that offer "prestige" classes (lord, samurai, and ninja) that become available when your attributes are high enough. Leveling, with the consequent increases in attributes, spells, and hit points, is usually satisfying and rewarding. But as far as I can tell, character classes and alignments don't affect anything about the game, and this is one of the few games that still doesn't allow sexes. Score: 4.

Unfortunately, leveling up wasn't always rewarding.


3. NPC Interaction. As noted above, we finally get some in this game. If only the NPCs themselves were more sensible and interesting rather than mostly comedy walk-ons. There are no "dialogue options," but there are Ultima IV-style keyword options. (Everyone responds to "HAIL," much like "JOB" in Ultima IV.) Talking and bartering with NPCs is necessary for quest completion and game progression. They could have done better with this, but it was definitely an improvement over the previous entries. Score: 5.

NPC interactions were technically good but narratively stupid.

4. Encounters and Foes. Aside from the NPCs, "encounters" were mostly of the inventory-puzzle variety and left little role for role-playing or even logic. Encounters with monsters almost inevitably led directly to battle. Most levels featured a host of roving monsters and two or three boss-level fights. This is definitely a game in which it's worth noting each monster and its special attacks, because you have to plan defense and offense carefully. Adding a twist to this process is the fact that you don't always know what foes you're facing. The game just gives you general descriptions ("5 weird monsters") and you have to guess.

I think the "fiery entity" is a fire elemental, but I'm not sure what the "demonic figure" is.

Again, a lot of the monsters were just dumb (Quasimodo, Beauty and the Beast, King Kong), but they were certainly memorable. Respawning is no problem; you can grind on any level as long as you'd like, but the "(R)un" option usually works if you're just trying to get somewhere. Score: 5.

5. Magic and Combat. I highlighted the combat system of the first game as a major strong point, and I still have to give it credit even though I was sick of it by the end. Wizardry is one of the few game series in which you feel an authentic sense of fear as you explore the dungeons. Even allowing for reloading, the permanent-death nature of the game has significant consequences (at best, you have to take the time to quit, restore the backups, reload, and re-add your party members), meaning that you can't half-ass the combats. From the moment you leave the castle, you're balancing the length of your exploration with your available spells and diminishing hit points. One bad combat that kicks your characters into the single digits can leave you with a palpable sense of doom as you creep towards the stairs and back to safety.

In many postings, I've emphasized the differences between Wizardry's approach and other games' approaches, but they're worth repeating. In Might & Magic, which otherwise seems a lot like Wizardry, you can rest and restore your spell points and hit points at almost any time. This means that for Might & Magic, the difficulty is in individual combats rather than accumulated combats. Pool of Radiance was similar to Might & Magic except there was more of a risk associated with resting. Wizardry V remains hard-core, though: you don't replenish a single spell until you return to the castle (barring one pool on Level 7), so you have to ration your spells carefully. You have to watch your hit points, and the success or failure of your attacks on enemies, and know when it's time to just let your melee characters finish the combat, or when it's time for one more LAHALITO.

Now would be a good time to start heading for the exit.
 
I don't necessarily love the spells themselves. Too many of them seemed useless. The priest's MONTINO ("silence") spell should have worked more often. There should have been a party-wide heal spell. Some of the high-level spells are one-use only; they disappear from your book the moment you cast them. There is no spell that adequately protects against the game's multitude of spellcasters. Basically, as with many other games, you find yourself over-relying on the same selection of mass-damage spells rather than carefully plotting your spell attacks. That's my experience, at least; I'm curious if other people see it differently. Score: 5.

6. Equipment. The game certainly doesn't spoil you. At the end, my best armor was a plate mail +2 and my best weapon was something like a battle axe +2. But since there's such a variety--melee weapons, ranged weapons, armor, helmets, gloves, potions, scrolls, rings, and other special items--and since the game seems bent on robbing you of your gear through thieves and magnetic traps, almost every expedition results in one or two useful upgrades.

Identification of equipment is needlessly annoying. It's too expensive to do at the store (the price for identifying is the same as the sale price of the item), so you have to rely on a bishop. If you choose not to adventure with the bishop, you have to keep one hanging around Gilgamesh's Tavern, but since he doesn't level with you, he has trouble with some of the more advanced items. Every attempt at identification has a chance of causing fear, which leaves the bishop unable to identify anything else until you cure it. For me, identifying my equipment was tedious process of repeatedly curing the bishop until he finally got it right. Towards the end, I just started paying for it, even though I could ill afford it along with all the resurrections.

Crooked Bee with his equipment, and a few unidentified items.

I never did quite understand what was happening when I "evoked the power" of some of my items. It would usually cause some change in my attributes or health, but these changes never seemed permanent, and I couldn't get a handle on what caused them to wear off. Sometimes "evoking" caused the item to disappear, but sometimes it didn't. This aspect of gameplay was not well explained in the manual. Score: 4.

7. Economy. You get money for killing monsters, and you spend it on healing, item identification, and occasional quest-related purchases. I never had too much money, which (as you know) I prefer, but the system isn't complex enough to give it a very high score. Score: 4.

8. Quests. The main quest consists of a series of stages leading to just one outcome. It never really made all that much sense, partly because "The S*O*R*N" has no compelling back story. There are no side quests in the game. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The wireframe graphics are pretty awful at this point, although I thought some of the monster portraits were well-done. The game is best played with the sound off. I do give it points for the interface, though, which I found very intuitive. It was all keyboard-driven, but the keys made sense and I was able to enter even complex strings of commands very quickly. I like how holding down the ENTER key allows you to blow through combat with easy foes. Score: 3.

10. Gameplay. Here's where, in my opinion, the game fails. The nature of the inventory puzzles makes the game extremely linear. It has virtually no replayability. If you don't spend hours and hours grinding, it's too hard (especially at the latter stages), and if you do spend hours and hours grinding, it's too long. I thought the dungeon levels were far too large and empty to hold my attention. What makes all of this particularly notable is that the creators didn't intend for the player to restore backups. A "straight" player would have all of these problems plus the annoyance of constantly replacing dead characters. A challenge is good, but this game ends up being repetitive torture. Score: 2.

This gives us a final rating of 37, equivalent to the first Wizardry. While this game improves upon NPCs, equipment, and a couple other areas, it lacks the first game's brisk gameplay, and many of V's "innovations" annoy rather than impress. I didn't deliberately engineer the rating to come out equal to I, but I think it says something accurate that in seven years, Sir-Tech was unable to fundamentally improve on the experience that they first offered in the CRPG Bronze Age.

"Heart of the Maelstrom is a complete revision of the Wizardry gaming system..." Wow, Sir-Tech had some balls.

Dennis Owens gave Heart of the Maelstrom a positive review in the February 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World. I don't understand why the game's throwback graphics and sound didn't spark any disdain. One thing he did complain about was long loading times and frequent disk access--something I fortunately don't have to deal with 24 years later. He concludes that "the game is a must for any adventure gamer's computer-game library," a statement with which I will unfortunately have to disagree.

It looks like this was Andrew Greenberg's last contribution to the series that he co-created--and frankly, I'm not sure if he had much of a role in the game; MobyGames's "trivia" section claims that David Bradley designed this one on his own. Greenberg's next credit is on Dracula Unleashed, a 1993 adventure game, and I don't think I'll play another of his games until Dungeon Lords in 2005. Bradley continues to be credited on the next two Wizardry games, and I look forward to seeing how they develop.

And with that, my friends, we are finally out of 1988 and ready to move on to 1989. I'm going to have a transition posting coming before I jump into NetHack, version 3. Thanks for sticking with me through this difficult year.

Alas, the intrepid party did not survive the battle with La-La-Moo-Moo. Their names, I'm sure, shall live on in infamy.