Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Game 96: Fracas (1980)


Developer Stuart Smith was unique in his era for his focus on classical mythology. While everyone else was creating clones of Middle Earth and Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings, Smith was developing games based on Arabian mythology in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981), Greek mythology in The Return of Heracles (1983), and Mesopotamian mythology in the Rivers of Light module to his Adventure Construction Set (1985).

His first game, Fracas, written for the Apple II, alas features no such setting, but it does offer an original gameplay mechanism that returns, I understand, in Ali Baba: a turn-based, multi-player mechanic that allows both competitive and cooperative modes. Up to eight characters in up to six "alliances," or factions, can explore the city of Faroph and its environs at the same time. There is no quest or ultimate goal, but the manual (available at the Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History) encourages you to set goals when you start the game: collect a certain amount of treasure, defeat a certain monster, get an attribute to a certain level, or just find each other and assemble at the town square (you have the option to start the game in a random place).

Faroph and some of its areas, including a mountainous area to the southwest, a forest to the southeast, and a crypt to the northeast. You have to use your imagination.

The game is low-res, with color-coded squares used to represent each PC or NPC's alliance (no NPC or monster ever has the same alliance as a PC) and piles of gold. Gameplay consists of moving about the map, finding treasure, navigating traps and teleporters, and fighting monsters--either individually or collectively with friends.
 
The game uses six attributes: strength, life force (or hit points), skill (basically dexterity), weapon skill, armor level, and movement speed. Each statistic except armor is on a scale of 1 to 100. Armor runs on a scale of 1 to 20 indicating how many hit points of damage it "absorbs," but it subtracts an equal number of points from both skill and movement speed, so you can't overload. The player has the option to let the computer roll the character or type in his own values. In the latter case, nothing stops you from creating a character with max everything, but since the game is essentially a multi-player game, it's expected that the various players will enforce rules about what they can and can't do in character creation.


As you enter each "room," the game tells you the name of the room, the number of "ducats" (gold pieces) in the room, and the visible monsters. Movement takes place in "turns" in which you have a varied number of actions based on your movement score. You can run, attack, retreat, or rest to regain hit points.

Entering a new area.

When combat arrives, your skill determines your chances to hit and dodge, your strength and weapon skill determine your damage, and your armor determines how much of your enemy's attack is absorbed.

Combat is fast and frantic in Fracas.

Both combat victory and finding treasure increases experience, and every once in a while you gain enough experience to improve your skill or strength by 1 point.


The neat thing is that all the options and features available to the PC is available to NPC monsters, too. They're not so much "monsters" as computer-controlled PCs. No two of them have the same name: when you encounter three rats in a granary, they're labeled "biggest rat," "fat rat," and "Speedy Gonzalez." They have the same attributes as the PCs. They'll attack other creatures of different factions. They can run away, rest, and regain health. They can pick up treasure. If they hit you enough times, or kill other creatures, or get enough treasure, they can gain experience and improve their statistics. I've encountered plenty of games in which monsters scale to the player's level, but I've never encountered any in which monsters are capable of gaining levels by defeating the player. This would be an awesome addition to modern games.

A wolf picks up some treasure, a vampire chooses to take a time out and gain his health back, and a guard improves his skill at my expense.

The game is deceptively large. When I first played, I thought it would be a quick matter to explore the map of Faroph (which is fixed, not randomly generated). But the crypt area ended up taking me to a large and confusing area of teleporters, hidden doors, and seemingly random rooms from which I had a tough time finding my way back to the city.

Chester gets swarmed with creatures in a confusing area.

There are also some fun variations in terrain. This area, predictably, is called "The Skull."

On the negative side, you don't actually have any equipment in the game. Your weapon is "assumed" from your weapon skill; so a character with a 13 skill is using a broadsword, and a character with a 19 is using a battleaxe. Movement uses a nonsensical arrangement of the number keys not found on any keyboard, though the game helpfully provides a little diagram while you're moving.

A regular number pad was not a staple of the Apple II.

There's no magic; the shrill, bloopish sounds are painful to the ears; and there's really no variation in gameplay once you have the hang of the limited interface. The only tactics I see are the order in which you tackle the areas, taking care to increase your skills against less difficult monsters before heading off to fight more deadly ones. That is, at least, in single-player mode; multiplayer mode, both cooperative and competitive, offers a neat addition to combat tactics. By playing each of multiple characters yourself and assigning them to the same alliance, you could create a "party" and plot battles that way.

A party of three joins Chester towards the end of his game.

In about six hours of gameplay, I managed to meet a goal of collecting 20,000 gold pieces and make it back to the Faroph town square, so I'm going to call that a "win." I don't think there's enough variety in gameplay for Fracas to be authentically "fun" today, but it would have been a joy when I was 9, playing with friends, letting our imaginations embellish what the screen was telling us. The manual even opens with a transcript of such a gaming session, involving two characters named Eldric and Mordella, "born of the computer's innards on a wintry Friday morning." The little story follows their adventures in their low-res world and speaks to the power of imagination--a power that was essential for true role-playing immersion in this early era.



No one seems to know what happened to Stuart Smith. His brief Wikipedia profile says that he took a job outside the gaming industry in the late 1980s "to provide more stability for his family." His name is so common that it's impossible to find him online. His company was originally Computersmiths in Meadow Vista, California, near Sacramento, but it changed to Quality Software for the publication of Ali Baba and was listed in Reseda, near Los Angeles. By the time Heracles came out, the company address was in Chatsworth. There, the trail ends. The guy couldn't be any more elusive if he was in the Witness Protection Program. [Later edit: He came out of hiding in this comment! It turns out I was wrong about Quality Software being Stuart's company.]

My understanding is that Ali Baba from 1982 expands upon the basic system of Fracas with better graphics, an economy and equipment, an actual quest, and other additions. I have it on my short list to check out. It's refreshing to see, in this early era of CRPGs, games that weren't just adaptations of Dungeons and Dragons.

30 comments:

  1. The Guilty PartyApril 9, 2013 at 2:29 AM

    I remember Ali Baba and the 40 thieves! If it's the one I'm thinking of... it took a few liberties. Like having Merry & Pippin and Celegorm and pretty much half of the cast of Lord of the Rings as characters.

    It was interesting how you could just summon one after another, then explore the world as 20 different people simultaneously. I loved it as a kid, although I was wretched at it. These days, I'd probably move my characters together and try to gang up on those damn barn owls...

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  2. "Select opponent :
    1- Seven foot fly" ?!!

    The idea of a seven foot fly is so bizarre someone had to make a movie about it later on.

    Nethack (may be latter version than the one you'r playing) did implement monster leveling when they kill something (usually you). Unfortunately there is no faction for monster to level up regularly. It would be nice but you'll probably end up fighting only one nasty type of foes.

    This feature impact the game when you meet (Rot 13 just in case) n tubfg bs lbhe sbezre rkcybere, naq gur yriryhcrq zbo jub xvyyrq vg.


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  3. I'm interested in finding out what happened to Stuart Smith myself. Your description reminds me of Adventure Construction Set, which I played around with quite a lot on the C64, and which was way, way ahead of its time. I hope the guy is okay.

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    1. I tried calling a few numbers in California, but they were disconnected or other Stuart Smiths. I would have loved to talk with him about the games.

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    2. Quote:

      Smith was developing games based on Arabian mythology in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981), Greek mythology in The Return of Heracles (1983), and Mesopotamian mythology in the Rivers of Light module to his Adventure Construction Set (1985).

      He was the one writing it :D

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    3. Yeah, as a big Adventure Construction Set fan growing up (basically my favorite Apple II program), as well as enjoying Ali Baba and Heracles, I've been very curious what happened to Smith and disappointed at how little info there is about him.

      One of the things I loved about ACS as well as Ali Baba and Heracles was how NPCs/monsters would do their own thing: attacking each other, picking up items - just as you describe them doing in Fracas, too. Was definitely different from the PC-focused monsters/NPCs of most other RPGs of the era.

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  4. I loved both "Return of Heracles" and "Ali Baba" as a kid. When you get to them, they will both look a lot like "Adventure Construction Set" as I think "Adventure Construction Set" was based on the same engine.

    I'm surprised that it took so long for game designers to figure out that even without a number pad, you can still use the WASD or IJKL pyramids. AZ and side arrows were common for arcade maze games on the Apple 2, but RPGs didn't seem to pick up on any of those combos until Wizardry.

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  5. Huh, interesting. Thanks for doing all these retrospectives.

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  6. I've never heard of Fracas. I guess by the time I got my Apple II clone around 1983 it was no longer available. I played and finished both Ali Baba and Heracles on the Atari 8 bit. I played them with a friend, we each controlled a single player. About ten years ago my friend and I replayed Heracles, it has stood the test of time very well.

    I remember when I first started Ali Baba I was very disappointed with the low rez graphics. But the gameplay was great, sound was also very well done.

    I've also searched the web to see if I could locate Stuart Smith but I didn't have any luck either.

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  7. Both Heracles and Ali Baba featured using multiple characters. Heracles had all the standard Greek heroes and then some. Ali Baba, as pointed out below, had numerous characters from many sources including Tolkein. Both games were turn based and had better graphics, especially Heracles, where you could manuever all around Greece and nearby lands.

    Thanks for a good review.

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  8. Where do you dig up these ancient artifacts of computer game history? I can't even find a lot of stuff from the 90s. Is there some secret brotherhood or illuminati dedicated to stockpiling them in a big warehouse somewhere?

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    1. You just have to Google the right terms. The filetype: operator in Google really helps.

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  9. Got a bead on the real Stuart Smith.

    https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en&fromgroups=#!topic/comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.marketplace/ow6kXWItSA4

    I remember seeing another post from in newsgroups in the 90s, poke around. Dunno if that helps finding him now, but at least it's something.

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    1. Alas, this e-mail address from 1994 no longer exists. But thanks for trying. I hope someone sent him his game.

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    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    3. Thanks. It didn't occur to me to search the e-mail address in other postings. I've got an e-mail out to his son.

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    4. For posterity's sake, the anonymous commenter above helped me in my search for Stuart Smith by tracking down his son and providing a link to a page with his phone number and e-mail address. While this information was extremely helpful and did lead me to get in touch with Stuart Smith, I didn't feel comfortable leaving his son's personal information in a link on my blog, so I deleted the specific comment.

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    5. I hope that means an update or visit from Stuart to tell us what became of his game development prospects.

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    6. Try en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuart_Smith_(game_designer)

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  10. I actually played this game back in the early '80s on my friend's Apple III machine, using a 5 1/4" Apple IIe emulator disk. I remember fondly the names of the monsters and the descriptions of attacking, such as "JIMBO WALLOPS FAT RAT!! / FAT RAT STAGGERS BACK!!". Also, the death indicators were clever, such as "FAT RAT SAILS THE RIVER STYX" or "FAT RAT BUYS THE FARM" or something to that effect. All these descriptions were coupled with sounds in ascending scales (I think) to heighten the tension, which was relieved with a few low notes for a death. I don't know if the sounds were better (than the CRPG Addict's experience) on an actual Apple computer or if nostalgia coupled with a 5-9 year old brain have rendered such auditory beep-boop-beeps more palatable.

    I'm sure Fracas would not quite hold up today, but it's at least something to the game's credit that back in the day I gave it some time, when I still hadn't completed Wizardry I or The Bard's Tale on the same old Apple III.

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  11. Hello, everybody. Thanks for the kind comments, and realistic descriptions of the game's limitations.

    I am the elusively named Stuart Smith.

    I did have a company named "Computersmiths" and published Fracas under my own name. The pictured front page of the instructions with the silver and black coloring was drawn by an artistic friend, Stewart Feldman. I was also doing programming contract jobs for a company in Sacramento, California at the time. Quality Software was a separate game marketing company, now defunct, that helped me market Fracas more widely and also marketed some of my other games until Electronic Arts sponsored my development of Adventure Construction Set.

    When I first wrote Fracas, some designers had started using the more complex graphic modes to produce something that required less imagination that my colored dots did. I did have fun looking up different words for hits - each word (like WALLOPS or SCRATCHES) corresponded to a specific delivered hit power. If I recall correctly, LAMBASTES was the biggest hit.

    The sounds were indeed pretty primitive.

    My brother teased me about my brag that "Any number can play up to 8". I agree that "Up to 8 people can play at once" would have been better grammar.

    I do have a Wiki page, though with Stuart Smith it requires some disambiguation to find. Try "Stuart Smith, game designer" or the following link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuart_Smith_(game_designer)

    I'm off to some volunteer work for now, but I'll leave a comment on the Adventure Construction Set comment list later.

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    1. Cool. I'm loving it when people who wrote the games show up and comment. Thank you.

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    2. Stuart, I'm sorry I couldn't get back here sooner. Thanks for your correspondence and for taking the time to comment on the game. I had this idea that Quality Software was your own company, so thanks for clearing that up.

      I always hope it's clear from my postings that I'm playing and reviewing the games as a modern gamer. Though I try to comment on how innovative and fun the game would have been "for the times," my ultimate goal in the blog is to highlight how older games can still be fun today. Obviously, this is a tough argument for games in the 1978-1982 era, when the entire genre was just getting its footing. But even if I don't find the entire game fun to play today, I still value games that show me something different, and I love how Fracas presents each foe as a unique NPC instead of just a generic orc or something.

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    3. Stuart,

      I loved Age of Adventure and Adventure Construction Set as a kid. Before Pool of Radiance, they were my favorite RPGs. I recently downloaded a C64 emulator and replayed Ali Baba with the whole family, and they really enjoyed it. I'm not sure why there aren't any modern games that use the same one computer / multiple turn based people mechanic that those games had. I also thought the writing in the games was very good. If you kickstarted a new game in this genre, even with very primitive graphics, I would contribute!

      Addict - keep up the great work. I very rarely post and only read your entries for games I have finished or (rarely) never intend to play, as I am trying to follow in your footsteps and play every RPG that is remotely interesting to me. I haven't gotten up the gumption to start Ultima 3 or Wizardry 4 yet (lots of other games keep getting in the way), but thanks for your blog!

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    4. Glad to have you as a reader; thanks for commenting.

      Your post makes me realize how rarely (ever?) we see turn-based multi-player games any more, of any variety. Real-time concurrent action is fun, but there's something about forcing players to watch each other's turns, alternately rooting for or against each other, that adds a different dynamic to playing. You only really get that with board games these days, it seems.

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    5. I just want to chime in Mr Smith and say Age of Adventure & the Adventure Construction Set were so much fun when I got them for my C64 as a 14 year old back in 1988. I played them until I got rid of the machine in 92 and now regret it. (Plus getting Age of Adventure for the Atari 130xe I currently have for retrocomputing is proving to be a challenge!) But I had a TON of fun playing them both and I still consider ACS the best RPG construction set ever made. Thanks for all the fun you provided me as a lonely teenager sir!

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  12. I've closed comments on this post because it kept getting hit by spambots. (I have no idea why they were targeting this post specifically.) Google's algorithms block the spam comments from appearing, but I and users subscribed to comments still get them in their e-mails. If you have something you really want to add to this one, feel free to e-mail me and I'll make sure your comments get posted.

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