Saturday, August 24, 2013

Game 111: Dragon Fire (1981)

One more 1980s game. I was planning to issue a posting about this one in early August, but I never got it fully written.

Dragon Fire--not to be confused with the 1984 action game Dragonfire--is a slight, largely forgotten offering for the Apple II, but I thought it managed to have a lot of fun with its limited gameplay. In its basic concept, it seems influenced by Robert Clardy's Dungeon Campaign (or perhaps the older Dragon Maze), though with more options and features. [Later edit: Two years after originally posting this entry, I discovered that Dragon Fire is an update of an earlier game called Super Dungeon (1979), by the same author, Rodney Nelsen. See my post on the earlier game for more about the similarities and differences.]

A single character uses the IJKM key cluster to navigate a randomly-generated, 10-level dungeon to reach the lair of a dragon, defeat him, and make off with the dragon's haul (and whatever else he's picked up along the way). The game uses a combination of low-res graphics and text to drive its story.
The PC (represented by the white rectangle) on level 8. He has 1,387 constitution, 41 strength, 8 armor class, and 51 "life." He's amassed 321 experience points on this level.

Dragon Fire's innovations (for its time) start in the character creation process. You name the character and it automatically rolls your constitution (basically hit points) and strength. You then choose from one of five classes: warrior, huntress, wizard, elf, and dwarf. Each is described in well-written detail, and if you got unlucky with your stat rolls, you get compensated with the ability to choose a class that earns experience faster. The elf, for instance, earns experience most quickly when he has less than 15 strength.

If only I hadn't given my character a male name first.

After this, you go through the process of purchasing weapons, armor, a horse, and food.

The character class descriptions, weapons, armor, and other trappings are all just thinly-disguised illusions, of course. Once the game starts, your "character" is indistinguishable from any other, and you don't actually have an accessible inventory. Instead, these choices simply make small adjustments to your starting strength, constitution, speed, and life scores--but it's fun that the developers tried to make it seem like you're creating and equipping a character as in a classic RPG.

The same fantasy continues in the gameplay itself. As you explore the maze, you enter little blue "rooms" which contain varying amounts of treasure and (usually) an enemy with varying strength, armor, and speed. Combat with the enemies is a simple matter of assessing whose scores are higher (although there's also a luck factor based on the difficulty level you choose at the outset) and either fleeing or letting the computer duke it out for you; there are no tactics or spells or anything to adjust this cold math. Again, this is much like Dungeon Campaign.

But the game makes the most out of this limited mechanic by randomly generating evocative, tabletop-RPG-style room descriptions as you enter each room.

The descriptions all start with "You are in a room...." The dozens of endings include:

  • "With a large wood chest, the iron lock has rusted completely through and the sides have rotted from the dampness."
  • "Carved out of solid rock. A skull lies beside a quiver of arrows."
  • "With a large cedar cabinet filled with motheaten robes of black and gray."
  • "This is very large. A huge metal kettle is sitting on a large pile of ashes where once a giant fire burned."
  • "Built for a king of old. A tremendous throne is attached to one wall and a big round table surrounded by large chairs stands in the center."

I won't pretend that I faithfully read every one of them; by the end, I was just blowing through the rooms for the experience. That doesn't negate the welcome effort expended by the developers to turn something bland into something interesting.

The monsters themselves don't really matter except as statistics, but that doesn't stop the game from getting creative with them. You get standard D&D fare (lycanthropes, gorgons, copper dragons, cyclopes, gremlins, chimeras), original creations (gray silences, bloody bones, ice beasts), and demons and spirits drawn from Celtic and Gaelic folklore (Bheulach, Beithir, Peallaidh, Phouka, Guytrash). Again, the game manages to make something fun out of a very simple mechanic.

I don't even want to know what kind of monster this is.

Similarly, you don't just find "10,000 gold pieces" in dungeon rooms. You find silver statuettes, copper plates, gold bars, and antique jewelry. That the game just monotonously converts these to "kraums" doesn't mean that the variety isn't welcome.

Combat has basically two modes: round-by-round and "fight to the death" where the computer keeps generating rounds until either you or the opponent is dead. Round-by-round combat is helpful when you think you might be able to defeat an enemy but want to keep the option to flee. Towards the end of the game, when enemies have hundreds of hit points, the "fight to the death" rounds can take several minutes even on my speeded-up emulator. I imagine that on the original Apple II, you must have had to sit down with a sandwich to watch some of them.

Trading blows with a "Guytrash," northern English dialect for a kind of demon spirit.

Although there are no individual combat tactics, there's a kind of macro-strategy associated with the game. You have to fight to gain experience, and every time you change levels, you can spend your accumulated experience on either constitution or life points. The game's use of the terms is a little odd. Practically, "constitution" serves as what most games call "hit points," and "life points" are a kind of timer. They deplete each step, every couple of seconds if you're standing still, and when certain in-game actions occur (you lose 5 when you attempt to force a door, for instance). If you run out, you die. Constitution seems to have no maximum value, but your maximum life value is set by your class and how much food you bought at the beginning of the game, and it's only enough to last 5-10 minutes even if you stand still.

Thus, the player has to engage in combat to build up experience to spend on life points (as well as on constitution to replace damage done during combats). Your goal on each level is to reach the end of the level with more experience than you've lost in both constitution and life, and you can't do that if you only fight low-level enemies. So you have to explore the rooms and analyze a) whether you're likely to beat this foe; b) if you do, whether the experience rewards will outweigh the lost constitution. And you have to time these room visits and combats to still leave you with enough experience to make it to the level exit.

"Leveling up," in both senses.

The game ups the ante during this process by throwing random events at you. Cave-ins screw up the map and can even trap you, effectively ending the character. You can encounter (usually low-level) creatures in the hallways and be forced to fight to the death; these combats sap constitution but don't provide experience. Vampire bats can appear and chase you, forcing you to either outrun them until they give up, or suck up a loss of about 50 life points. "Blue smoke" might lift you up to a previous level, making you navigate back down. "Ponds" appear, and falling into them drains all your stats.

One thing that I particularly like is that while increasing levels tend to increase the difficulty of the most difficult monsters you find there, even on the highest levels there are still plenty of low-level monsters. That way, if the player makes a mistake and ends up on a high level with fading health, he isn't necessarily doomed. He can still scrounge some low-level monsters for a boost and work his way back up.

You also find good things (randomly) during the course of the exploration, such as special weapons or magic items that add strength, speed, and armor class. Like the initial purchases, they don't actually go into any kind of equippable inventory; they just add numbers to your attributes immediately. It's still more interesting to read "you find boots that increase your speed by 3!" than "you gain 3 speed points" for no reason.

Some of the items you find are "keys" that are "rumored to overpower the dragon." I don't know exactly what they do, but they must be helpful, because when I encountered the final dragon, I had 2,578 constitution against his 3,222 strength, but I still won.

The setup for the final encounter is well-told.

The ultimate goal is to reach Level 10 with enough constitution to survive against the dragon Salmadon, find him in a random encounter, and kill him to escape the dungeon and win the game.
I don't know. I can count pretty high.
Whether you win or die, your character appears on a scoreboard, with the score based on the amassed treasure during the expedition (defeating the dragon provides a lot of additional treasure). If you win, you also get a "certificate" of your victory.
This is going on my resume.
You'll note from my certificate that I won on the easiest level, "novice." I tried a few games on higher levels but naturally found them much more difficult. Still, with a lot more time and a lot fewer games, it would be fun to see if I was up to the challenge to beating the game on its highest difficulty setting.

If a modern game tried to mask simplistic mechanics with a bunch of florid prose, I'd probably tear it in half in my review. But I feel the opposite about a 1981 developer who, constricted by low-res graphics and limited space for complex gameplay elements, still tried to stretch beyond the game's limitations and offer the the player a creative experience that mimics (as well as possible) the experience of exploring a dungeon in a tabletop RPG. We'd have to wait until Pool of Radiance before we again saw such expressive descriptions.

Here's another one, just for fun.

I'm giving Dragon Fire 18 points on my GIMLET scale, with the highest values in the "game world" category, for the care put into the descriptions, and the "gameplay" category, for its brisk and challenging pace and its constant replayability. It's not a great game by modern standards, but among the myriad of early-1980s Apple II offerings, it stands out of the pack.

Dragon Fire had an in-name sequel the same year: Kaves of Karkhan, a first-person adventure game with not enough RPG elements to make my list. It's really only a "sequel" in the sense that the framing story, well-written by sci-fi author Steve Rasnic Tem, uses the same characters. Rodney Nelsen has a few other games to his credit in the 1980s and 1990s, but no other RPGs.

Understanding that I'll still dip into non-DOS 1980s games occasionally, let's transition to 1990.


  1. Strange how no other roguelikes have such descriptions. The idea seems kinda obvious in retrospect and it would make them immensely more fun to play.

    1. In 1979, Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai included detailed room descriptions. However, they couldn't fit them into the game memory, so they were in the game manual. Each room you entered gave you a key to look up in the manual. This was one of the games that made we want to become a computer game developer - I actually contacted Automated Simulations and asked if they were looking for programmers, but got a short rejection letter. I think they were (like mostly early-80's game companies) a tiny developer at the time.

      Nine years later, Andrew Greenberg (co-creator and "Werdna" from the Wizardry series) used a similar book-based approach to Star Saga. I'm not sure if it was partially intended as copy protection - According to Andrew (if I remember correctly), it was mostly because there were so many areas and so much text in the game, he needed to conserve disk space.

    2. My dear Corey Cole, I wanted to thank you again for hanging around this forum and filling us in on gaming history like this. The history of our gaming hobby is relatively short and yet so much has been packed into it that so much history is in total danger of being lost forever. And I hate losing things- my past, shared or personal, the most. It's cool that you and others who were/are involved in game making history make posts and I just wanted to say thank you.

      Thank you.

    3. Star Saga goes so far in the use of offline materials that I can't even see it as primarily a computer game.

    4. And "Wasteland" had a book of paragraphs, of which many were never called from the game. They mislead a nosy player by telling a completely different story.
      And of course this was also a copy protection - if you entered a wrong password things might get ugly...

    5. Incursion has room descriptions. (It is also terrific and my second favorite roguelike after ADOM, but it came out in 2007 so it will take the Addict a while to reach.)

    6. This tactic is used in a number of modern um, adult, games and MUSHes to keep the descriptions fresh. They are often done by combining elements based on your character: Male, female, what bits of each you have. There are also often random factors, since in most badly made eroRPGs there is a LOT of grinding, so you are going to see these 'sexy' messages over, and over, and over.

      Not that I've played a *lot* of them, just a couple to see what they are like, so I could have a bad sample.

    7. Your user name belies your protestations.

    8. Well, lets see:
      Slavemaker 3: Really repetitive, and rather creepy. Also super easy after the first character or two since you have basically unlimited money, so don't have to worry about balancing work and training. Uses some of the random/rotating text, but lots of it is buggy and placeholder filled, even with the default characters. Basic concept: Lbh genva fynirf naq fryy gurz ng nhpgvba. Zbfg ner sebz navzr hfvat rebgvp sna neg. Lbh unir gb ohvyq hc gurve fgngf, vapyhqvat borqvrapr, naq grnpu gurz frkhny fxvyyf. Ubjrire, bhg naq bhg culfvpny encr vfa'g nyybjrq (Qrfcvgr gur snpg gurl ner n fynir, fb ernyyl rirelguvat lbh qb vf encr), fb lbh unir gb ohvyq hc gurve borqvrapr naq n srj bgure fgngf. Lbh pna nyfb xrrc lbhe fynirf vafgrnq bs fryyvat gurz, gb hfr gurz gb uryc genva bgure fynirf. Ubjrire, ernyyl, lbh bayl arrq gb xrrc lbhe svefg fynir (Tvirf n terng obahf nf ybat nf lbh qba'g snyy va ybir jvgu lbhe fynir) naq bar bs gur bgure onfvp barf (Nyybjf lbh gb genva nyy gur fgngf gb 200%), gur erfg ner xvaqn cbvagyrff nsgre gur 200% bar.

      Lbh pna nyfb ohl fynirf gb uryc genva lbhe pheerag fynirf, naq hfr gurz va frk npgf (Sbe rknzcyr, vs lbh ner n thl naq jnag gb genva n yrfovna fynir.)

      Flexible Survival: MUSH. Gameplay wise: Makes 80s RPGs look non-grindy. Also if you use the auto option when not in a group or way higher level than the area, you will die. Lots of the rotating text, plus plenty more based on your character traits. Warning: Makes Rand look like a positive role model. Also more creepy kinks then you can shake a stick at, hell, parts of it creep me out, part of the reason I only played it for a bit then went 'nope nope nope' Remeber, you can't unknow: Genafsbezngvba, encr, ornfgvnyvgl, puvyqovegu, oerrqvat

      Monster Girl Quest 2 (1 wouldn't run): All the Monster Girl's attacks are done using sexual, pre-written dialog. Your attacks are standard weapon based attacks, but using a special sword that can't kill people (This is a plot point). Chet would *hate* this game from the bottom of his very soul, and I can't say he would be wrong to, because (THE GOGGLES DO NOTHING): Vs lbh ybfr n onggyr, gur jbzra jvyy encr lbh, nf qbrf lbhe pbzcnavba Nyvpr ng inevbhf cbvagf va gur tnzr. Ubjrire, lbh nyjnlf rawbl vg va gur raq, nf qb gur bgure thlf lbh frr snyyvat gb gur Zbafgre Tveyf. Vg vf xvaqn ubg ng svefg, hagvy lbh ernyvmr ubj perrcl guvf jbhyq or vs lbh syvccrq rirelguvat onpxjneqf.

      That is almost it I think, oh wait:
      Fleshcult: Browser game, but a surprisingly good one. Not done yet, but each time I go back it gets less repetitive and has more options. It also uses the rotation/random text thing, but I'll confess I almost never read it, playing via numbers instead. This is the ONE game on this list I can think of not based around encr. Vafgrnq lbh ner n fhpphohf/vaphohf gung tbrf nebhaq frqhpvat crbcyr vagb orpbzvat sbbq sbe lbh, naq gnxr gurz onpx gb lbhe ynve gb yvir va cyrnfher nf lbh rng gurve betnfzvp raretl sberire. Fb lbh unir gb frqhpr crbcyr vagb fvtavat vasreany pbagenpgf naq orpbzvat lbhe freinagf. Fb lbh ner RIVY ohg lbh xabj, rirelguvat lbh qb vf pbafrafhny, naq gurz trggvat sernxrq bhg naq xvpxvat lbh bhg bs orq vf n tnzr zrpunavp; lbh unir gb hfr zntvp gb ybjre gurve ubeebe zrgre naq xrrc gurz sebz ernyvmvat lbh ner n qrzba. Anyway, yeah, check this one out; the kinks are less freaky then the other ones on the list, everything is consensual, and the game mechanics are surprisingly deep, all about risk/reward for risking if you want to persuade them yet, cast a spell to keep them from noticing you are a succubus, or keep the combo going for one more turn to build up the lust meter (Though of course, build it too high and it resets to 0...)

      See? Not that many games. I've downloaded one or two more and played them for 5 min, but most of them are really terrible, buggy, messes.

    9. Well. Those would certainly take Chet's blog in a very, VERY different direction if he were to play them. I'd have to stop reading it at work for a little while if he included screenshots, that is for sure!

    10. @KinkyPi- I've not touched a single game in your stated list. Strangely, I remember playing a game called "Fuck Quest". I recall looking at the name on the manual for the first time with my eyes and mouth wide open in disbelief.

    11. @Kinkypi I think our dear addict was saying that with a name that is a mashup of kinky and pie, your assertions that you only tried those games in order to check them out are hard to believe

      I took it in a sarcastic " would you look at that" humor kind of tone.

  2. The dragon name "Salmadon" is probably based on the D&D concept of a "fire salamander", but it makes me think of a fish dragon instead. >_>

    Congratz on your continuing winstreak, and welcome to the 90's!

    Incidentally, this may be one of the earliest CRPGs that expressly lets you play a female hero as the main character, or at all, instead of a male hero or a hero of undefined gender.

  3. Thanks for the writeup, I wish I'd had that for my apple ][+ back in the day, sounds fun.

  4. I like the early eighties games. They seem to have more character than today's games. Maybe I'm just old.

    1. I'm going with you just being old, or playing the wrong games. I mean, Skyrim is all about beautiful vistas and sweet combat, and looking EVERYTHING you can imagine, and feels very diffrent then Mass Effect 3, which is about a character driven story and third-person shooter/action RPG combat. FTL on the other hand is about tactical, real-time gameplay, and Final Fantasy is about beautiful stories involving androgonus characters wearing too many belts grinding, while The Last Story is basically 'find new armour items so you can play dress up with your characters'

      Or, um, at least that is how I played it. Man, I should see if my brother will let me take the Wii out to BC with me at Christmas, as we each own half of it.

  5. If you miss the 80s, there's always Moria. ;)

    I have a copy of Krynn and am all set to play it with you, but as the father of a newborn I can't quite seem to figure out how to hold him and have both hands free to type. Let's see what I can work out...

  6. If you win, you also get a "certificate" of your victory.

    This may have been a period trend (and of course reminiscent of the contemporary but now disappeared "print shop" utilities for printing banners etc) -- Braminar (oh no, not Braminar again!) had some wacky functionality where if you somehow managed to win the game, it would allegedly print a certificate. Alas, the one night I had sufficient time to kill in a small-town hotel room to achieve this feat, there was no printer hooked up... so its appearance is left to the imagination.

    1. You didn't get a screen shot of it or anything? It just sends a certificate to any default printer?

    2. If the game developer had a printer, then everyone had a printer. It just didn't occur to them that all people might not have the same peripherals.

    3. Oh gee whiz, I'm catching up on my unresolved threads way too late, I just elaborated on Braminar's certificate in an entirely different post.

      Yeah, the only developer who was really gung-ho about supporting all known hardware that did or might someday exist was Moraff. (Mention of Moraff moves me to inquire whether you have uncovered DrDungeon's shareware games, the Ultizurk series, Wraith and Madman -- Ultima clones which were so obscure even Mobygames never got around to documenting them.)

  7. I share your appreciation for well written descriptions that give the feel of the old modules of the early RPG age. Thank you again for visiting these hoary old games. They have a charm and a delight that I appreciate but cannot understand. I think you will like Wizardry 7 for its well mananered descriptions. As usual Chester, you outdo yourself.

  8. Can't wait for the 90's, hopefully I will know a lot more games from this decade! :D

    Good luck for future articles!

  9. "Alkemstone" sounds like a weird typo of "Arkenstone."

  10. I believe you mentioned the sequel Kaves of Karkhan in another post. You are correct that it is not an RPG. I just played it, and if you're interested, here's quick summary. A demon named Maldamere escaped from a gem you supposedly found in the dragon's lair in Dragon Fire. The wizard PC (from Dragon Fire) allowed himself to be possessed by the demon to contain it. The other four PCs (Warrior, Huntress, Elf, Dwarf) each take a piece of the gem to the Kaves of Karkhan, where they must place it on an altar which will contain the demon permamently. If any one of you succeeds, the demon will be effectively banished. You pick one of the 4 PCs, although there is actually no difference, since the characters have no statistics (not even constitution, strength, or life points like the first game). In addition, you build a party of NPC followers. You choose 10 of the 15 NPCs to travel with you. Each has one weapon and one random item. I found no use for the weapons, since you don't actually fight anything. The random items are used to get by traps and encounters, many of which are obviously inspired by Robert Clardy. The most useful item turned out to be the plank (which I took because I used it in Clardy's games a lot), since there were many variations on the pit trap. Run into a crevasse? Use Plank. Run into a fire pit? Use plank. etc. Some of the trap descriptions give clues. If you run into hot coals that are burning your boots, then Use Boots (which are carried by NPC Red-Hood). When you run into a staircase with broken steps, it tells you that you need something to hold the steps together, so Use Net. More often, the game gives no clues, and I just ran down the list and tried to Use each item in turn until I found one that worked. Why does Use Falcon work versus carnivorous plants? No idea, but the game says it distracts them long enough for me to get away. Some traps are solved without using items. When bats swoop to attack, Yell to confuse them so you can get away. Other traps were too complicated for me to figure out, so either I did not have the right NPC and thus the right item, or I was missing something. There are only 20 verbs the game recognizes, and the only nouns are the items, weapons, and NPC names so it should not have been that hard.

    The traps are randomly placed throughout the dungeon, and by randomly, I mean randomly. Say you are facing north, and Save the game. Then you move forward, and run into a trap you cannot figure out. Reload, move forward to the same space you were in before, and you might find a different trap or no trap at all. The biggest pain for me was the maze. I easily get lost in 3D mazes. The manual says you have a time limit until Maldamere busts loose, but gives you no hint how long, so getting lost can splle doom. The game has a Control-P cheat which tells you where you are in relation to the altar at the cost of points. You could always Save, Control-P, and reload, but I would certainly never do that (cough, cough).

    When yoiu find the altar, which looks more like a champagne glass fountain with orange flames, you are told "Congratulations!! You found it!!" while being treated to simple victory music. You then get your score (mine was 123403). That's it.

    1. Thanks for the little mini-review! I actually had a review of Kaves of Karkhan mostly written about a year ago, but I abandoned the post when I decided the game wasn't an RPG. On the back story--the part I liked best--I wrote:

      "Unlike Dragon Fire, which was a top-down maze game, Kaves is a first-person dungeon crawler, combining RPG elements with adventure game-style puzzle-solving. Also unlike its predecessor, it comes with a detailed back story, written by Steve Rasnic Tem, who later became an award-winning science fiction author. The story retcons Dragon Fire a bit, suggesting that all five of the available character classes--warrior, huntress, wizard, elf, and dwarf--entered the dungeon together and were jointly successful. But it turns out that one of the gems looted from the cave by the dwarf contained the imprisoned soul of a demon named Maldamere, and as the adventurers celebrate their victory and newfound wealth in a tavern, the gem cracks and the demon escapes, covering the area in a creeping darkness."

      On the characters: "The game makes it clear that these four choices aren't 'classes' so much as individual characters, each with his or her own back story. The warrior is a barbaric type, seeking revenge on someone who gave him a quarter-moon scar on his cheek; the dwarf is a former blacksmith's assistant whose bluster hides a deep-seated fear. Similarly, the 15 party members available for hire are also given detailed descriptions: Ballean is a 'skinny young girl you met on the street outside Filver & Sons. She has a keen look about her, and she made the rope [that she's carrying] herself.' Ignatius is a 'traveling entertainer, skilled at singing, juggling, and all manner of acrobatics.' In other words, Kaves continues Dragon Fire's tradition of putting far more effort into text than the gameplay possibly supports."

      The manual had some great illustrations, too. It was a lot better than the game itself.

  11. This was a great read. I really appreciate some of these early games that compensated with heart for what they lacked in complexity.


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