Monday, February 25, 2013

Game 90: The Wizard's Castle (1980)


Wizard's Castle is similar to Dunjonquest in that when I originally blogged about it in 2010, I didn't quite give it the attention that it deserved. I wrote about it as part of my "backtracking" series--a group of games that I covered very quickly in the spring of 2010, after I realized that Wikipedia's list wasn't comprehensive and I'd missed a bunch of games. Because of that, I didn't give the game an official number, didn't try to win it, and didn't bother to rank it in my GIMLET sheet. I'm returning to it now to make these corrections.

Wizard's Castle is a landmark game in its own way. It's often called a "roguelike," but it's not, really. (And it doesn't appear on Wikipedia's list of them.) Instead, it's the progenitor of a small line of games that include Amulet of Yendor (1985), Leygref's Castle (1986), Mission: Mainframe (1987), and Bones: The Game of the Haunted Mansion (1991). The games are "roguelike" in their permadeath and bare-bones graphics, but little else. The key feature of the Wizard's Castle variants is the organization of the multi-leveled dungeon into discrete rooms, in which the player finds treasure, items, special encounters, or enemies. (And only one of these possibilities in each room.) There are a fixed and equal number of rooms per square level, with no corridors between them, and enemies do not pursue you from room to room.

The original game doesn't even keep a map on the screen. You have to keep checking where you are with the (M)ap command. At initial levels, the command helpfully lists the encounters you'll find in each of the level's 64 rooms, so it's relatively easy to avoid encounters with monsters. On higher levels, you see question marks in place of those annotations, and you need a flare or lamp to see the contents of the rooms adjacent to you.

A Wizard's Castle level, arranged into 64 rooms. The letters represent various encounters. "G" is gold; "P" is a magic pool; "C" is a chest; and "M" is a monster.

An analogous screenshot from Leygref's Castle (1986)

And from Mission Mainframe (1987)

The quest of Wizard's Castle has to do with the retrieval of the Orb of Zot (also called the Orb of Power) from the depths of a dungeon in the Kindgdom of N'Dic. The player can choose between an elf, dwarf, man, or hobbit PC, each of which has certain default starting attributes, supplemented at the player's discretion from a pool of 8 points. You then allocate 60 gold pieces to a choice of armor, weapons, and flares before heading into the dungeon.


The dungeon has 8 levels with 64 rooms per level, most with some encounter or object. The levels wrap, so if you go east from the eighth column, you end up in the first column, and if you drop into a sinkhole on the eighth level, you end up on the first level. The game supports a fairly limited selection of commands: Movement, drinking from pools, viewing the map, lightning a flare or lamp, opening chests or books, gazing into orbs, and teleporting with a runestaff.

I don't suppose it was possible to find a game developer in the 1970s who just hated Lord of the Rings.

Combat is a very rote affair which only gives you options to attack, retreat, bribe, or (for characters with intelligence above 15) cast one of three spells: web, fireball, and death. Spells deplete your attributes, though, and the "death" spell runs a high risk of killing the player. There are no "hit points" in the game; instead, monsters directly damage your attributes (most often strength), and you die if any of them fall to 0.

A quick combat with a kobold.

Killing monsters does not result in any experience or level increases, but you still have to do it because one of the creatures in the dungeon carries the "runestaff," an artifact that allows you to teleport. You need the runestaff to teleport into the room containing the Orb of Zot, which is disguised on the map as a "warp" room. Since warp rooms normally teleport you randomly throughout the dungeon, it's a bit annoying to have to test each one if it contains the Orb. If you find a crystal ball, gazing into it has a chance of showing you the correct location of the Orb, but it can also deplete your strength.

Gold plays a strong role throughout the game because you occasionally encounter vendors who will sell you weapon and armor upgrades, flares, and potions that increase your attributes (18 is the maximum for any of them). You also find artifacts that prevent various bad conditions, like blindness or a book stuck to your hands by super glue, from ruining your adventure.


Although death is relatively frequent and random...


...the game is winnable with just a little patience. Because of the randomization of the dungeon, it's entirely possible to find the runestaff and the square containing the Orb of Zot among the first levels, with only a handful of combats in between the outset and victory. But even without such luck, if you maneuver carefully on the first levels, making intelligent use of magic pools, finding treasures and chests, and using your gold to increase your attributes, you can have a strong character in just a few minutes, then begin systematically taking on monsters and testing warp locations for the Orb. A character with 18 strength and dexterity is very hard to beat, even by the game's tougher monsters.

The first step on the road to winning.

Once you have the runestaff, you can start avoiding monsters and just systematically test "W" locations until one of them sends you only one square away instead of entire levels away. That's the location of the Orb of Zot. There are a lot of levels and squares to test, so you can try to take a chance on gazing into crystal orbs to find the location. There's only a chance that they're correct, and the orbs can sap your strength, but perhaps it's better than taking the time to work through every level.

This time, fortunately, it was accurate.
 
Once you have a bead on the Orb, you can use the runestaff to teleport there and acquire it.
 
Why am I even including screen shots? I should just print the text.
 
After I found the Orb and got back to the entrance, it took me a while to figure out that the way to exit is to go (N)orth from this square rather than (U)p. Since going north from the top row usually wraps you to the bottom row, it was a little counter-intuitive, and I nearly used (Q)uit instead, which would have been a monitor-smasher.


Winning took me about 7 tries and about 2 hours. The game manual stresses its replayability, since the dungeon is randomized every time. I can't say it wasn't a fun diversion. The "flares" addition gives it a nice edge, and there's real tension--especially after you find the runestaff or the Orb--as you slowly creep along, trying to find your way to the next goal without encountering too many nasty foes. The game throws little atmospheric notes at you--"You hear a faint rustling noise!"; "You smell a minotaur frying!"; "You hear a scream!"--as you move along.

In a GIMLET, I'd give it:

  • 1 for the game world. There isn't much there.
  • 3 for character creation and development. It's surprisingly rewarding to use a variety of tactics to get your attributes to the maximum.
  • 0 for NPC interaction. There aren't any.
  • 2 for encounters and foes. The enemies aren't anything special; they're just distinguished by name. But the various books, orbs, chests, treasures, and such do provide "encounters," and while you can't role-play them, they are tactical in nature.
  • 2 for magic and combat. There aren't many options in combat, and to me the disadvantages of spells outweigh the advantages. But there is a sort of meta-tactical dynamic to the game as you plot your route through the various combats and encounters. Rather than take on two monsters at once, for instance, you might want to hit a monster, then a chest, then use the accumulated gold to buy a strength upgrade, then take the second monster.
  • 2 for equipment. There are various pieces and special items, and keeping enough gold to buy a backup weapon or armor if a dragon destroys one is part of the tactics of the game.
  • 3 for economy. You need gold to replace destroyed weapons, buy flares, and buy attribute upgrades. There aren't many huge hauls in the game, so like everything else, plotting a method to accumulate gold with minimum risk is part of the strategy.
  • 1 for the quest. There's not much to it.
  • 1 for graphics, sound, and interface. There aren't any graphics and sound, and while the keyboard commands are intuitive enough, having to constantly call up the map was a little annoying.
  • 4 for the gameplay. It's brief, brisk, challenging but not too challenging, and replayable.

The final score of 19 is perfectly respectable for the 1970s. The lineage of Wizard's Castle came to an end 20 years ago, and it's hard to detect its influence on other CRPGs, so it was worth investigating this small, stunted branch on the CRPG family tree.

The original Recreational Computing instructions.

The story of Wizard Castle's development is interesting, and is covered by Matt Barton in a 2007 article at Armchair Arcade. Briefly, the author, Joseph Power, had been inspired by a 1970s mainframe game called HOBBIT and wanted to program his own. [Later edit: As this comment notes, and the Armchair Arcade also covers, the ur-example of this type of "grid" game seems to be an all-text, mainframe-based Star Trek that dates back to at least 1971.] Lacking a computer on which to do it, he got permission from the owner of an East Lansing, Michigan store, New Dimensions in Computing, to write the program on their Exidy Sorcerer (a short-lived PC from 1978) when there wasn't a customer using it. Consideration for the store's kindness led to the designation of the kingdom as N'DIC.

Some of the game's code. It took 340 lines (numbered up to 3,390) and fit in 16KB of memory.

The program proved so popular with teenaged customers that the store sold several of the machines based on it. After an aborted attempt to have the game published commercially through the software division of Kilobaud magazine, Powers eventually published the source code in the July/August 1980 issue of Recreational Computing. From there, it was ported to a host of other platforms, including the DOS version I played. Barton's article also includes an interview the a programmer going by the handle "Derelict" who created a Windows version with better graphics but the same basic gameplay.


Unfortunately, Joseph Power joins a selection of other programmers from the same era who didn't stay in the CRPG game beyond their original creations. I suspect they didn't find it financially viable. They were unfortunate enough to have gotten into the game while personal computing was a rare hobby, and they missed--by inches--the era in which ownership of microcomputers would explode and game developing could be a lucrative enterprise.

Because my ill-formed "DOS Only" rule when I began my blog, my first posting was on Akalabeth. With this posting on Wizard's Castle, I have caught up on all the commercially-released RPGs, for any platform, that preceded it. (At least, all the ones that I can identify.) It's been an interesting tour, and perhaps it's better that I made it with a few years of blogging and game-playing experience, rather than right at the outset of my blog, when I didn't have the same sense of history. I'll still try to pick up some additional games from the early 1980s that I missed on my first pass, but for now we'll return to the "present" with Keef the Thief.

56 comments:

  1. But now I'm SO curious about the mainframe games from the 1970s!

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    1. I think Chet reviewed it 2 years ago;)

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    2. I played a few through Cyber1, but HOBBIT isn't on there. I don't think it exists anymore. See these postings for similar ones:

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2011/12/earliest-cprgs.html

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2011/12/game-68-dungeonpedit5-1975.html

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2012/02/game-69-game-of-dungeonsdnd-1975.html

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  2. One additional note to your history, the "Orb of Zot" is also the object to be found in the very widely played Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup (DCSS)

    So the legacy lives on.

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    1. That and the damned Amulet of Yendor sure have some serious longevity! Thanks for pointing that out.

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    2. You really should try your hand at Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. Of course, then we would not hear from you for years.

      P.S - The Religion system of the game is the best yet.

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  3. Interesting read. Seems almost like some kind of board game to me. Except it's a single player game and uses ASCII for graphics.

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  4. In a way I regret my inability to be a participant in the computing world in the late seventies and early eighties. There was so much more variety available.

    By the time I started with computers at the age of six in 1989, the gaming software library was mostly IBM-compatible, with a little Amiga thrown in.

    Macintosh people still were holding their noses in the air about using computers for, pfft, games. Pish tosh. Or so I imagine.

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    1. And yet I'll be the great migration away from the 'Toshes in the 1990s were by game-players. If it wasn't for games and Microsoft Access, I might still be using a Mac today.

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    2. I'd wager VGA graphics cards struck the final blow: 1990 sees a big step up for the PC in that regard. Apple had better, but it was insanely expensive. When it came to home computers Apple dithered too long releasing new Apple II variants every year and ended up getting the shaft when the developers moved on to the 16-bit era.

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    3. It is important to remember the culture shift around computers during this time frame. For most people Computers were funny machines that weird people liked, while Computer People saw themselves as the elite few.

      This is largely where Tech-speak came from, as in the early days most people had NO idea what you were talkng about if you started talking about processor speeds and how much RAM your system has.

      It made computer people an isolated but proud group, and the divisions between the camps who supported one type of technology or another were deep. It may seem weird for PC people to hate Mac people now, but back in the day we were competing for development talent. The audience with the largest, most vocal following got software.

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  5. There's a pretty Windows version and you play the antediluvian version?

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    1. Sure, you say that now, but I bet if I played NetHack with a tile set, there would be people at my door with pitchforks.

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    2. The remake isn't oldschool. Who knows what they screwed up? Besides the screenshot just screams "crap Windows game".

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    3. Eh, I think that even the hardcore, given your colourblindness, we could cut you some slack if you found a set that didn't just use recolours to represent different monsters of the same class. It is playing on hard mode though, as when you find scrolls of genocide you don't know that letters have been killing you, so it is harder to target them, and you'd have to target a monster by name instead of a whole class.

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    4. So I played some of the Windows remake you linked and kept coming across some weird bug where I couldn't participate in combat - I'd engage a monster and it'd switch to the combat screen, but attacking wouldn't work and I could just keep moving around the grid, although I couldn't see the rooms until I moved around and the lamp re-revealed them. Looking with the lamp didn't work either. Once that happened, the game was unwinnable and I had to restart. There's also a special encounter you didn't mention, I think triggered by opening a chest, where a special screen would appear asking me which castle I was in, and killing me if I answered wrong. I'm curious if the original had that.

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    5. Interesting. I didn't try it. I just looked at hte page. Sounds like it has some bugs.

      None of the things you mention happened in the DOS version I played.

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  6. So you prefer the male sex. But which sex are you playing?

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    1. Ah! Trick question! That's not cool, Power.

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    2. I also read the lines where he says "OK, Dwarf, blah blah" in a condescending and fantasy racist way.

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    3. Ub! I haven't seen you comment in a while! Have I been merely stupidly blind (I often fit the 'stupid' category, just asking if I fit into 'blind' this time as well), or have you been vacant?

      Inquiring Gadflys need to know!

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    4. I have been around I just tend to be late to the posting party.

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  7. That was an interesting diversion :) Thanks Chet!

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  8. We played a very similar game in computer class when I was in middle school and high school. The class was mandatory and we learned about programming in BASIC on Apple ][ computers. After lessons were over we had about 10 minutes to screw around and as long as we were working on something class related, games were OK. This was a perfect game for budding BASIC programmers and comic/cartoon/video game geeks to hack. Each of us had our own take on a theme. Mine was based on the movie Aliens, I changed all the text, weapons and monsters to reflect the atmosphere of the movie, I even added an animated title screen in the best ALIENS font with the flaring "I". My buddies had Robotech, WH40k, VietNam, and RIFTS to name a few.

    I really wish I could find that game again, but it was one of those games you copy from a friend of a friend of a friend...

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  9. Sometimes, I wonder what went wrong, as games from the 70's were that evolved already.

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  10. The lineage of Wizard's Castle came to an end 20 years ago

    I take it you've never played Dungelot? It's basically the same gameplay - a rectangular dungeon of rooms, each contains a treasure or a monster but not both. And it's pretty new, and pretty popular. Here: http://dungelot.com/

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    1. No, I'd never heard of it, and MobyGames doesn't list it. Good to see that WC is still relevant in some ways.

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  11. The key to beating this game more or less every time is the lamp. It's possible to avoid everything except the treasures to start out, and once the proper protection treasures are obtained visiting the books/pools (for example, the BLUE FLAME dissolves books stuck to hands making them safe to read). Once everything is cleared out you can sell the treasures and should have enough to max out all stats, making you essentially a tank so none of the monsters can touch you. Then it's monster-clearing time.

    The strategy kind of resembles the one I used for Mission Mainframe where I avoided all encounters and went for only the "safe" loot.

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    1. A fundamental difference between Wizard's Castle and Mission: Mainframe is that the levels in MM reset every time you leave, whereas in WC they're permanent. This makes it easier to use flares and lamps to slowly map each level because even if you go up or down and come back, things will be in the same places.

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    2. Here is a podcast with Dungelot Creator (in Russian Language):
      http://flazm.podster.fm/11
      Seems that it's creator isn't familiar with early CRPGs...

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  12. Oh, wow. This was one of the first games I ever played, and I don't think Young Me ever actually finished it legitimately, in spite of briskly working through many of the Sierra adventures once we bumped from a TRS-80 to a Tandy 1000.

    I think I eventually ended up glaring at the code and rewriting it so the Orb of Zot was always in one particular place, maybe right at the starting square...? I envy Younger Me the patience to do that. Nowadays I would simple play something else.

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  13. I'm glad you revisited this game. It deserved a new, better post.

    Last time around, I noted the Orb of Zot/DCSS connection. But I didn't realize another thing I guess - I've been toying with the idea of creating such a game, a room-based "roguelikelike". And this looks pretty much what I had in mind. I'll check out the new Windows version (which actually uses some of the same tiles as DCSS), and also Dungelot. So thanks for those links!

    --Eino

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  14. By the way, does anyone know of good gameplay with commentary videos? Either serious or humorous commentary. I've long finished Chrontendo (Serious, intelligent commentary), and it updates so rarely that it isn't hard to keep up with, and I caught up with all of Game Informer's Replay and Test Chamber vids (dumb, dumb but often amusing commentary, and mostly intelligent commentary respectively). I've also tried Mattchat with Matt Barton, but only really like the developer interview ones. I tried IGNs ones, but they feel very mixed; I liked the early Day Z ones, but not the later ones looking at the other maps.

    So, does anyone have suggetsions of good gameplay videos? Either historical or Let's Play style?

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    1. I'm a Let's Player, so forgive me for recommending myself. ;) But if my games and/or style aren't to your liking, there's a list of channels on my sidebar that I heartily recommend:

      http://www.youtube.com/user/AmethystLunitari

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    2. Sweet! I listened to one of yours, and it felt really scripted, but I'll give them another shot, I could have hit on one that wasn't to my taste!

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    3. One of mine? Scripted? Which one was it? I don't write a single thing on paper, and most of my games are played blind. I'm doing Legend of Grimrock blind right now. Loving the heck out of that game, by the way.

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    4. I thought it was yours: Hacker. I watched that one as I found it amongst my Dad's stuff and always wondered what it was about.

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    5. Ah yes, that was a game I started and completed in about a half hour. It wasn't scripted, just memorized. I did write down the translations of what those people said in French, Spanish, etc., but that's about it. Not a typical LP for me.

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    6. Ah, cool. I'll keep watching then. Thank you!

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    7. Oh no, thank you for watching. :)

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    8. @Canageek:
      I like LPs too, but I much prefer the written/screenshot kind, rather than the video kind.

      I would reccomend you do a search for BOATMURDERED. It is a screenshot LP of a Dwarf Fortress (retro version) bloodline game, and it is HILARIOUS.

      @CRPG Addict:
      It will be a long time before you reach the era where you might consider Dwarf Fortress, even if you end up considering it a CRPG. But I am SO looking forward to seeing your take on it, one way or the other.

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    9. I ask you, Mr. Concussion, which version of DF are you most interested in him checking out in 3056 when he gets there?

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    10. Boatmurdered is epic.

      Speaking of Dwarf Fortress, I find jefmajor's lps quite entertaining.

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    11. I read Boatmurdered a long time ago, it was quite good up until the end.

      He would have to do it FOSS game style: Once for each major version, of which I think there have been 3 so far.

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  15. I can't see it in your screenshots, but after you slay each monster, don't you eat it? I'm thinking it was this game where you'd get goofy messages like, "YOU SPEND AN HOUR EATING A KOBOLD SANDWICH", "YOU SPEND AN HOUR EATING AN ORC STEW", "YOU SPEND AN HOUR EATING A LICH SALAD", etc. But possibly I'm confusing this with another ASCII dungeon game.

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    1. It happens for some monsters. There aren't any liches and kobolds in this one, but you do it "dragon steaks" and maybe one or two others. I forgot to comment on that.

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    2. "There aren't any liches and kobolds in this one"

      "A quick combat with a kobold."

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    3. Yeah, I definitely wasn't paying attention there.

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  16. "Some of the game's code. It took 3,390 lines and fit in 16KB of memory."

    Small correction: if you check out the PDF of the Recreational Computing issue, it's only 340 lines, with "line numbers" running from 10 to 3400 in steps of 10. (3390 lines of code in 16 KB of memory wouldn't really be possible, since one line of BASIC code of this form needs more than 4-5 bytes of memory.)

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    1. Numbering code in increments of 10 was common in basic, so that if you realized you had to add a line near the start, you didn't have to renumber the whole thing (I assume this is before things like sed were common)

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    2. That was a very amateur mistake on my part--just looking at the number of the last line of code and assuming it had that many lines. It's not a small correction at all. Thanks for pointing it out; I made an edit above.

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  17. I went looking if the old HOBBIT rpg might exist anywhere. I don't find it, but I do find an unpublished 1982 CRPG called "Ring Quest" that was closely inspired by it. See https://sksteve.wordpress.com/2007/11/03/pieter-bote-reminder-past/. The author resurrected it from tapes (via audio recording!) and ported it to run on Windows over 20 years later. So its playable without even needing an emulator now.

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    1. Hmmm. Interesting find and great story--the Adventure Gamer--ought to have a crack at it. But this game is so far removed from TWC that it's hard to see them as having been inspired by the same source game. The time frame is also pretty tight for Steve Richardson's HOBBIT to be the same as the one that inspired Power. But it's not impossible.

      I gave the game a try. Here's the transcript of my first adventure:

      *****

      You're in Hobbiton
      >EAST
      You're following the Great Eastern Road. Suddenly you hear a horse coming up the road.
      >EAST
      Your opponent does not let you pass. A blackmantled rider overtakes you! The ringwraith pierces you with his freezing blade. So you're dead.

      Would you like to play again?

      ****

      Good times.

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    2. Yeah, playing a little more this Ring Quest is clearly an adventure, not a CRPG, and no close relative of Wizard's Castle.

      Regarding the related HOBBIT game, there was a version published in CLOAD magazine for the TRS-80 in 1979 which is a clear simpler relative of Wizard's Castle. You can download the HOBBIT.BAS program here: https://archive.org/download/srccode-000000a0/hobbit.bas.txt and an emulator here: http://members.shaw.ca/gp2000/trs80gp.zip?151 and have the one load the other to take a look.

      The TRS-80 program (credited to a K. Williams) must either be a port of or inspired by the same mainframe version that Powers saw. The family resemblance is clear.

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  18. This game reminds me a bit of the (extremely widespread) 1970s Star Trek games. Those games were based on a similar sort of grid system: the galaxy consisted of 8 by 8 "quadrants", each quadrant was in turn an 8 by 8 grid of sectors. Each sector could contain one "thing": a star, a Klingon warship, a Federation starbase, etc. Seems like somebody decided to do a remake with an RPG setting.

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    1. Wow. It seems like a minor comment, but in fact you've cast a whole new light on this lineage. I just read about the game, which does seem to come from as early as 1971, thus well-preceding The Wizard's Castle but offering the exact sort of gameplay.

      Moreover, the Matt Barton article that I linked to does credit Star Trek, but I missed it. I'm going to add some text to the post.

      Delete

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