Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Game 106: Crown of Arthain (1981)


Crown of Arthain is a slight little game from 1981, winnable in less than an hour, barely worthy of the title "RPG," but you're going to hear about it because a) I played it and won; b) it's an easy victory to add to my list; and c) I can't seem to get anywhere with Space Rogue, so if not for this game, I'd have nothing to post about this week.

The typewritten manual tells a reasonably original story: the kingdom, only 50 years old, was established by a prince named Arthain after he conquered the wild mountainous area from the monsters that had previously lived there. Arthain and his queen, Melora, had two sons, Bertain and Merthain. As boys, they bickered mercilessly, until the exasperated king finally exiled them both and put his hopes in more agreeable children. Unfortunately, the rest of his sons and daughters died one by one, so he was forced, on his deathbed, to write letters to Bertain and Merthain, telling them that whichever of them found his crown first would be the next king. The crown was hidden deep in one of the mountains, and the victor would need to first find the door and password.

Two players can take on the game with different handicaps.

Bertain and Merthain compete against each other in their quest for the crown and kingship, which means the game supports two players who take turns. If there's only one player, he competes against the computer, whose AI is inept enough that it's not really a competition at all. Each human player can set a difficulty level affecting the accuracy and damage of monsters in combat.

The "campaign map," divided by mountains, with each player operating on one side.

The first phase of the game takes place on a divided map. Each player explores his half, throughout which treasures, gold, two key NPCs, and about 30 ogres, goblins, trolls, wraiths, and wights have been randomly scattered. The primary goals in this section are to collect 5000 gold pieces, to use them to pay a dwarf for the map showing which of the "mountains" in the middle of the map (arranged in a north/south line) contains the crown, and to find an elf who provides a magic password to the door. Both the door's location and the password are randomized from game to game.

Buying the map from the dwarf.

A secondary goal is to find and collect the game's magic items--magic sword, magic light, elven cloak, magic amulet, magic shield, magic armor, and copper bracelet--each of which raises the character's attack or defense ratings or confers some other benefit (e.g., the copper bracelet increases the regeneration rate). 

Finding the copper bracelet.

Notable is that the exterior map is composed of hexagons. This is the only time I've seen this staple of wargames carried into a computer RPG, though Wikipedia indicates there are some others. Every hex has at least one treasure--if only a single gold piece--though it might take a few tries to search each one. Some of the hexes feature multiple combats; I came across one with eight or nine in a row. Once cleared of monsters and treasure, hexes remain cleared.

The "goblin" is one of the game's many poorly-drawn enemies.

Combat couldn't be more simplistic, and yet it's not quite like anything else we've seen in the era. You stand face to face with an animated enemy and trade blows. There are three commands: (T)hrust, (H)ack, and (S)hield. I tried experimenting with blocks and such, but in general, the best tactic seems to be to just hold down your favored attack button. Within a few rounds, you get into a rhythm by which all your attacks strike first, and eventually the enemy dies.

The player fights a troll.

Hit points during combat are represented by "bars" of periods at the bottom of the screen. After combat, health regenerates fairly quickly.

The second part of the game takes place in a "dungeon." If my fellow player on the right makes it into the dungeon while I'm still there, we'll see a dungeon map on both sides of the screen.

After you find the password and door location, you enter the mountain and the game takes you to a brief dungeon exploration view, extremely reminiscent of Dunjonquest. Even the movement keys are the same: turn and face the desired direction and then type the indicated number of steps. You face a few more monsters of the same variety you faced outside before ultimately coming face-to-face with a dragon. Defeat him, and you win the crown.

The final boss fight.

Crown of Arthain was created by a Dan and Marilyn Meller of Illinois and originally published by MicroLab/MicroFun, a Highland Park company that published a smattering of mostly-forgotten games in the early 1980s, including Palace in Thunderland (1981), Death in the Caribbean (1982), Ming's Challenge (1983), and Bounty Bob (1984). They also seem to have published some educational software.

I can't find the Mellers credited on any other games.The manual indicates that their primary motivation was to offer a two-player experience. "Two people," they say, "can only play a one-player game for so long before they realize that one of them is merely watching or kibitzing." That's what I'm going to say to Irene from now on when she shots advice as I play Dragon's Dogma: "you're just kibbitzing!"

And the winning message.

The version I played was bundled with Softporn Adventure (which I didn't play), so it must have been re-published by Sierra On-Line at some point. The April 1981 issue of Creative Computing magazine indicates that it retailed for $35, which is the equivalent of $90 today and is just astonishing, though it doesn't seem unusual for the time. There are no entries on MobyGames or Wikipedia for Arthain, and frankly I'm not sure how I found out about it.

For such a slight game, it had some very professional box art.

Arthain distills RPGs to their most basic elements: fight, collect treasure, improve your stats, become king. An amusing distraction, but now back to a tougher game.

39 comments:

  1. I have finally caught up! Also: It feels odd commenting on a July 10th post, when it is only the 9th where I am.

    Anyway, I think there need to be more two player Rpgs. I like being with other people, and I like rpgs, why can't they mix? Tactical rpgs seem a good choice for this....

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    1. If you're using the Addict's definition of an RPG, there are a number of action-RPGs that qualify, from certain Dynasty Warrior games to the forthcoming re-release of Legends of Mystara on the PS Network/computer/360.

      If you limit it to tactical or turn-based RPGs... hm. I'm not sure how to make such a game cooperative without boring the players.

      One outlier game I could recommend for anyone in search of a co-op RPG is Eternal Sonata on the PS3 (also the Xbox 360, but the PS3 version has more content and higher difficulty). It's not a hack-and-slash action-RPG; its combat is a hybrid of turn-based and real-time, with timed button presses to block attacks, and in co-op play your friend(s) get to position/attack/block with some of the party members.

      Delete
    2. The "Tales of..." series also has co-op play where friends control party members during combat. It's always been a staple of the series since it's inception on the SNES. I actually don't know of any 2-player tactical RPGs on console.

      Delete
    3. Victar: You could use pusillanimous move planning, then resolve the moves at the same time. Then players have to communicate and cooperate to avoid walking into each others fireballs.

      Or each player has seperate objectives they have to fulfill, while still trying to help the other player.

      People play Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Battle for Wesnoth competitively, with good AI I don't see why you couldn't work out a cooperative play mode.

      Delete
    4. *That word at the top should be simultaneous. Opps. Not sure how that happened.

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    5. I can only think of one example that attempted simultaneous movement on console: Vandal Hearts 2. Most reviews found the AI wasn't advanced, the tactics took some getting used to, but once the new style was understood it was easily exploited.

      I think the problem with having simultaneous execution of moves is you'll often get into unrealistic situations where characters are swishing air after the enemy has already fled.

      Delete
    6. I think some Squaresoft mecha-srpg tried that as well, although it's not really the same thing Canageek is suggesting. - His\her post sounds more like Laser squad nemesis \ Robosport.

      The elephant in the room regarding simultaneous play is the old 'waiting on you' issue.

      Delete
    7. Zenic: It has been done with some tabletop RPGs. It is harder, and one generally uses more abstract movement then grid based, but it can work.

      Vic: That happens in every tabletop game, every turn based game, etc. Yet Civilization is a hugely popular online game.

      Delete
  2. Somehow I cannot shake the feeling that there were so many more interesting games in the 80's.

    When did the two-player split-screen games actually die?

    The only modern one I can think of at the moment is Borderlands 2, apart from the Sports games, that is.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Split-screen games died when consoles came standard with a network interface. I think Sega's Dreamcast was the last console to support network connectivity via a modem and the early Playstation 2 models were the last to require an external accessory.

      Plus, as graphics improved, the systems may have become unable to handle the additional processing power require for two individual viewports, but that's just a guess on my part.

      Delete
    2. You're correct about the processing power issue, that's still a problem, but they have some work-arounds. MW3 for example, cuts a slice off the side of each players screen and adds a simple minimap against a black background, It actually works quite well, you don't really notice it.

      Delete
    3. Processing power was always an issue because you're effectively performing all the calculations multiple times.

      The killer issue was logistics - Online play was easier*. Getting friends\computers together at a fixed time was a pain in the ass, especially as players became older (wife\kids\job hassles).

      Delete
    4. Yeah, I miss sitting around with a few friends laughing and eating junk food as we all accidentally kill ourselves in Halo or whatever. Now they mostly demand to be played online, so you have to pay for XBox Live Gold. Even Left 4 Dead needed Gold to play local multiplayer!

      Delete
    5. @Raifield:
      Nice wording on the PS2 needing an external accessory as the Gamecube was launched a year later and needed a "quasi-internal" accessory (there are provisions in the bottom part of the console that can be opened and a modem or LAN module could be inserted).

      The Gamecube is AFAIK the last major stationary console that had no LAN or WLAN connection out of the box (the Wii has WLAN but needs a USB-adaptor if one wants to use a LAN cable).

      The first Xbox, launched a few days earlier, features a built-in ethernet port as did (most of?) the PS2 "slim" revisions.

      Delete
    6. Ha, I didn't even think of the Gamecube due to its tiny network presence. Turns out any game other than Phantasy Star Online only supported local LAN play anyway. A Japan-only game titled "Homeland" sounds interesting, with one Gamemaster creating a world for up to thirty-five other Internet players.

      Funny how quickly everything changes...

      Delete
    7. > Funny how quickly everything changes...

      Now that's definitely true!
      ;-)

      Delete
    8. The Halo games for Xbox360 have multiple/split screens for multiplayer at the same screen.

      Delete
  3. Split-screens are alive and well, but you'll find them most often on console games. They are a heck of a lot of fun on "halo night", drinking beers and playing "Modern Warfare" or "Army of Two" split-screen with your friends. I think they started disappearing from computers when the computers went online and consoles became more capable.

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  4. The combat reminds me most of Hero's Quest / Quest For Glory, so the Sierra link is interesting - possible influence?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Corey would have to comment, but I doubt it. I see what you mean in a way, but the similarities are in elements that I'd consider fairly basic and obvious. Moebius, which I just finished reviewing, also had action combat with blocking and different types of attacks, and of course there were a host of action games with such a dynamic. Hero's Quest could have been influenced by any number of them.

      Delete
  5. I see the GIMLET is 15. Pretty low even among early Apple II RPGSs

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  6. Wait, you're playing Dragon's Dogma?

    I wanna hear about THAT.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not much to report yet. Irene looked up a review and said we should buy it, so we've played through the prologue. It seems okay.

      Delete
  7. This is amazing! I remember playing this game on my fiends Apple IIe in the early 80's. I also remember being blown away by the graphics. I think I should probably just keep the memories on this one and not try to play it again.

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  8. Hey, I *DO* remember "Death In The Caribbean" and "Miner2049er" / "Bounty Bob Strikes Back".

    While DITC wasn't revolutionry, it was a solid adventure at that time.

    Miner was rather successful at that time, while BBSB didn't quite catch up.

    There were much worse companies, this brings back fond memories...

    McTrinsic

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    Replies
    1. WOW I remember seeing an ad for Death in the Carribean back in 1982 it must have been. The screen shots blew me away with the high quality graphics LOL. Hard to believe how primitave things were back then.

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    2. Very well. I changed it to "mostly-forgotten."

      Delete
  9. "Arthain distills RPGs to their most basic elements: fight, collect treasure, improve your stats, become king."

    Would that be more like Progress Quest?

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  10. I like how the worldmap on each side is a vertical *and* horizontal mirror of the other side. Does it always generate like that?

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    Replies
    1. Yes. The world map is fixed from game to game, though the specific items and encounters found within the hexes are randomized.

      Delete
  11. Thanks for covering this game. Never heard about it, I love the split-screen competitive RPG idea..

    --Eino

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  12. Since this is post-1980, does it qualify for the "Lowest Rated" list?

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    Replies
    1. I actually decided to delete the list entirely. People--sometimes individual developers--worked hard on those games, and it seems a little mean to highlight their inadequacies beyond what I already do in the reviews and GIMLETs.

      Delete
    2. Fair enough. That also avoids giving Rance any extra visibility.

      Delete
    3. Yeah, I've encountered that. I wanted to do a really negative review of something, and couldn't bring myself to do it, and that was a good thing as the writer later came and thanked me for my review. v.v

      Delete
    4. Hopefully you didn't give a fake positive review. I figure that, if done well without being insulting, you can point out the things that do not work in something you are reviewing and it will help your readers as well as the author of the content.

      Delete
    5. No, of course not. I'll always be honest and blunt--even insulting, occasionally--in my reviews. I just figured if I did that, games didn't need the ADDITIONAL insult of showing up on a "worst games" list.

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    6. No, I may have given a better impression then what I thought, but nothing I said was untrue. I just couldn't rip into a work in the way I wanted. I still think the book (Xcrawl) spent way too much time on the reasonably uninformative and totally unresearched alt-history world the author created, rather then the authors actually cool and original idea (Reality TV D&D dungeon crawling). Instead of a bunch of stuff on the history of the world, (Some of which isn't even known anymore, making it useless), I'd have liked to see sample dungeons, tournament structures, sample NPCs, traps that make use of modern technology, etc.

      Delete
    7. Whoops. I thought UbAh was responding to me.

      Delete

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