Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is a joyfully chaotic game in which you, as Ali Baba (and/or a host of other characters) navigate the landscape of Arabian mythology while being attacked with startling frequency and randomness by the titular 40 thieves. It continues the originality that developer Stuart smith first demonstrated in Fracas, offering elements seen in few (if any) other RPGs of the era, including cooperative multi-player, classical themes, and a world in which there are no generic "orcs" or "rats" or "zombies," but in which every enemy and ally is a uniquely-designed and named NPC.
I owe Stuart Smith a debt of gratitude for forcing me to finally learn the story of Ali Baba. I've been exposed to his name, and the name of his One Thousand and One Nights story, for 40 years, but I've never actually learned it. I would have assumed that Ali Baba was the leader of the 40 thieves, but in fact the story is about Ali Baba and his friends systematically outwitting the 40 thieves and stealing their gold.
The game incorporates elements from the traditional legend, such as Ali Baba's venal elder brother, Cassim, having died in the thieves' treasure cave when he forgot the password to open the cave ("Open Sesame!": the origin of the phrase).
|The thieves' treasure cave of legend. The rune at the bottom triggers the passcode to get in and out.|
But for the most part it's a potpourri of characters and themes from Arabian, Greek, and Roman mythology. The main quest--to rescue the sultan's daughter, Princess Buddir--comes from Aladdin's fable, and indeed Aladdin himself comes wandering through the screens. Names of the thieves (e.g., Absal, Mahmud, Omar, Kwadrach, Abul-Fath) are drawn from Persian writers and their works, Islamic saints and historical figures, and similar sources. We encounter creatures based on the signs of the zodiac, a minotaur's lair, and the Sword of Damocles. PCs in addition to Ali Baba have a high-fantasy tinge, as they're classified into human, dwarf, elf, and halfling races, and they include Abou Hassan and Scheherazade from other One Thousand and One Nights tales; Celegorm, Luthien, and Curufin from Lord of the Rings; and Thora and Ulva from "Hansel and Gretel." "Doctor Who" (an owl) shows up as a wandering, friendly NPC. There were probably a bunch of other references that I missed.
The 40 thieves wander throughout the screens of the game, and there are indeed 40 of them, all named, with different attributes and equipment. Other enemies stay on fixed screens and include bears, slimes, rats, dragons, werewolves, and tigers. Combat can escalate extremely quickly. You'll start by fighting one thief and suddenly three more will appear. If you're lucky, Aladdin or some other NPC might come along while you're fighting them and help you out.
|Three of the 40 thieves gang up on Ali Baba. Fortunately, he's just rescued his friend Abdallah in the lower right. (You can't see Ali Baba in this screen shot because he had "blinked out" when I took it.)|
Combat remains relatively primitive, though the game is unique in explicitly providing the formulas for hits and damages in the manual. There only two attributes--strength and dexterity--and four types of weapons and four types of armor. These come together to determine whether your blow lands and how much damage it does, but luck plays a huge role as well. Rather than give you a specific description of the damage done, you get a strong sense of how hard a character hits by the description. I believe they are, in order, "jabs," "pokes," "hits," "clouts," "pounds," "whops," "smacks," "bashes," "whacks," "smites," "smashes," and "wallops."
The resulting physical damage is also expressed in terms of the reactions of the characters (both PCs and foes). At the lowest level, the armor simply absorbs the blow and the character "chortles." It proceeds from there to "Hah! Just a scratch!" to "Ouch!" then "Aaargh!" and finally "Aiyeeeee!" There is one final level that I have trouble believing Stuart Smith programmed into the original game; I suspect it is the work of the person who cracked my copy:
There aren't many tactics to help you in combat. You can have allies assist you, trade weapons for brawling by leaping on your enemy's square (something that the enemies themselves do with alarming frequency), and try to lure enemies to other NPCs of opposing factions. Of these tactics, the latter is the most satisfying. There were plenty of times in which I happily ignored the thieves and simply let dragons, bears, or wandering enchanted swords (one of them called "Bane of Thieves") take care of them. (In fact, the game challenges you to try to win without killing a single foe yourself, something that I didn't even attempt.) If you can survive combat, it's a simple matter to (R)est until you're hale again. There were many times that I didn't survive combat; though the game "resurrects" you in such cases, I confess I typically re-loaded from my last save.
|Ali Baba stands aside while enemies duke it out with each other.|
Navigation is as confusing and chaotic as combat. As you wander through the areas, trying to find the path to Princess Buddir, picking up gold, reading runes, and buying weapons and armor at scattered merchants' shops, you have to contend with one-way doors, random squares that teleport you to other areas, squares that knock you back or sideways, walls that can be smashed down (and plenty that you injure yourself against while trying to smash down), doors that don't return you to the same place that you came from, walls that collapse behind you, and other assorted navigation nightmares.
Runes scattered about the floors--many left by a "friendly mage"--give you bits of knowledge about the game and its lore and hints to getting to Princess Buddir. I didn't understand a lot of them--there was something to do with the colors of the rainbow and the acronym "Roy G. Biv" that I never figured out. But occasionally there were helpful. For instance, one scroll advised me: "On the gilded pathway, walk straight and narrow." When I reached a room called "the gilded pathway," I knew to walk straight ahead, through an apparent object, rather than use the sides, which would have subjected me to random teleporters.
|Walking carefully along the gilded pathway.|
I played with a single character (Ali Baba), though I was joined for a brief time by NPCs whom I "rescued," including Abdalla (he died almost immediately) and Morgiana--both characters from the Ali Baba legend--and (in the end) Princess Buddir.
|Ali Baba enters a new room and rescues Morgiana.|
Morgiana was useful for a time against enemies, but I found controlling two characters a bit annoying and I ultimately had her "retire." It took a long time navigating through the areas before I finally found the way to Princess Buddir.
|The skeleton finally finds the disembodied head!|
It was easy enough to lead her back to the sultan, since I'd killed all of the enemies in between. The end game text read:
The sultan rushes over to your side. His face is a complex mixture of joy, relief, and anger."Allah be praised! My daughter is rescued! Quickly take her to the home of Ali Baba. She is not safe here."
|Oh, yes. She'll be "safe" at my place.|
Praise be to Allah! You have rescued the beautiful princess Buddir Al-Buddoor. The sultan is very grateful! The sultan goes to his private palace with his guards, leaving the rule of the realm with you. He also awards you with great $$$ wealth. $$$$$.A messenger arrives with a sealed packet. You open the message and read, "look under my throne!"--The Sultan.'Tis up to you whether you will retire now or grab more wealth or rid the world of all evil!
Under his throne was a secret entrance to his treasure chambers, which was fairly useless to me now. Since I think I had already rid the world of evil, I decided to retire. Winning the game took me about five hours.
|Oh, but really, what are the odds of that?|
I took a five-minute video to illustrate combat and other gameplay elements. You really need to watch it to understand how frenetic the combat experience is in this game. (I recommend turning the sound off, though.) In it, you see me trying to take on a couple of thieves and a dragon at the same time, sometimes attacking them directly, sometimes letting them fight each other. At one point, I buy new weapons in the middle of combat. You have to laugh when, just as I'm on the threshold of victory, a previously-unseen black bear suddenly appears out of the wall. I let the bear finish off the thief and then I escape the room before the bear can follow. I rest up and regain my health in the next room, but the bear still kills me at the end of the video.
In a quick GIMLET, I would give the game:
- 3 points for game world. I'd like to give it more, given the uniqueness of the middle-eastern theme, but the game operates primarily in allusions rather than a fully-developed story. Still, there aren't really any other Middle-Eastern-themed games in this era (they're rare in any era), and the game gets credit for its approach to mythology.
- 2 points for character creation and development. There isn't much of either--"development" is primarily a matter of better equipment--but there is some strategy associated with picking the right PC. I only found one place in the game where I could raise a character's strength and dexterity, though I may have missed some. There are no experience rewards or leveling from combat.
|Ali Baba's statistics at game's end.|
- 3 points for combat. As I related, the system is relatively primitive, but it does have some interesting tactics, primarily in getting enemies to fight each other (you could theoretically win without killing anything). I don't think I ever mastered the whole "tackling" mechanism. There's no magic in the game.
|Ali Baba fights a tiger who has jumped into his square. To the west, you can see two shops, and to the east there's a rune that gives the "Open Sesame" message needed to enter the thieves' treasure cave.|
- 2 points for NPC interaction. There's very little interaction, and of course no dialogue, but I give a point for the few NPCs that you do encounter, either in person or via their messages, and a point for having some joinable NPCs that make a "party."
- 3 points for encounters and foes. This game's approach to enemies is unique (I know I keep using that word), with each one an NPC with his own attributes and a defined "faction" that determines who he will and won't attack. The manual outlines every one of them down to the last statistic. Unfortunately, in practice they don't behave very differently (at least, not the ones that attack you), and they don't have very different combat approaches.
- 2 points for equipment. There are only a few types, but it's easy to figure out the best weapons and armor in terms of protection. These also have associated weights, and you have to watch your encumbrance lest you end up able to move only at a snail's pace.
|Purchasing armor in a shop.|
- 1 point for economy. Gold is simply far too plentiful for the economy to have a significant role in the game. Most times, I was overloaded and just left it where it lay. I suppose it might be different if I was playing multiple characters, each of whom had to buy his own weapons and armor.
- 3 points for the quest. There's only one main quest, with no side quests and no real "role-playing," but you do have the option to play under a "conduct" (no killing, just like the Ali Baba of fable) which is worth a point.
|The main quest is given at the outset.|
- 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics are tolerable, but still in the primitive era. I found the oddly-skeletal appearance of Ali Baba and other characters a bit off-putting. The sound is piercing and best left off. There are only a few input keys, but I found them a little confusing, and I kept accidentally doffing and dropping my armor instead of moving west; only one screen separates these options that respond to the same command. Even with the emulator turned up quite high, I felt the delay in combat messages was a little frustrating.
- 4 points for gameplay. It's fun and brisk, challenging without being overly-frustrating. The era-imposed limitations on game elements are balanced by a quick ride, and I like the explicit challenge to win several times under different rules (aided vs. unaided, killing vs. no-killing).
Many of the players who fondly remember this game also fondly remember the cooperative multi-player aspect which I, as a solo player, didn't get to experience. Message boards recall kids sitting on couches, passing controllers or keyboards between them, as they explored the halls separately, in competitive races to collect treasure, or as they teamed up to defeat a particularly difficult foe. This kind of option is rare in an RPG and worth an extra point. I'm also going to give a second bonus point for the navigation puzzles, which are a big feature of the game and don't really fall into any other category.
That leaves us with a final score of 27, very good for its era.
Ali Baba clearly shows its Fracas lineage (I covered that game in April), to which it gives a sly acknowledgement when it says that characters "break out of the fracas" when they successfully escape from melee combat. The approach to exploration, combat, factions, and NPCs is essentially the same, though the graphics are better and there's an actual quest in Ali Baba. I understand that Smith's next game, The Return of Heracles (1983) has very similar gameplay but with much greater complexity, transitioning well into the Adventure Construction Set of 1985.
I'm having a fun time playing this lineage, and I'm sorry I didn't do it before Adventure Construction Set which was, after all, the last one. I think it would have made me understand ACS better. Smith's games really do exist in their own unique capsule, not dependent on high fantasy and D&D tropes, not owing their themes or interfaces to the Ultima or Wizardry series (the first of both games was released the same year as Ali Baba). I'm glad I've had a chance to experience them.
I played this game this week because I was stuck on Mines of Titan and I was waiting for hints to come in. Let's see if I was able to win.