Friday, September 20, 2013

Game 117: SwordThrust (1981)


SwordThrust was developer Donald Brown's attempt to commercialize Eamon, which I reviewed in March. That such a thing could even be contemplated is a testament to the sad state of affairs in the pre-Internet era. Eamon was already floating around for free, with plenty of developers writing original modules, and Brown (or his publisher) decided to retail each module for $29.95, apparently trusting that a lot of Apple II owners had a) never heard of Eamon, or b) didn't have any friends who would copy it for them. I don't have any idea how well SwordThrust sold, but the available evidence--there's an Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online but no SwordThrust adventurer's guild; Donald Brown never made another game and refuses to talk about Eamon to this day; CE Software never published another RPG--allows us to make some reasonable inferences.

It would be a mistake to say that SwordThrust is just Eamon for suckers, though. Although the look and feel are the same, and it's still an all-text game, there are some improvements to both interface and gameplay. The window is divided into a status screen/room description at the top and action screen at the bottom. Dual-wielding of weapons is supported (perhaps a first in CRPG history). Unlike Eamon, you're not stuck with the armor you buy at the outset. There are more spells, a "training" academy to improve weapon skills, and a bar where you can get hints for the next adventure.

Finally, charging money seems to have made Brown a bit more sober about the quality of the levels; they are markedly more interesting and less goofy than some of the early adventures for Eamon. It's this element that (probably obscenely to some) makes me feel a little more positively about SwordThrust than Eamon. I love the idea of an open-source RPG engine to which people can contribute their own modules, but as I reviewed the contributions for Eamon, I found a lot of really dumb ones. I'm not saying that all of SwordThrust's hit a home run, but the ones I've played so far appear to be designed as if the author was cognizant he was expecting people to fork over cash for them.

The descriptions are well-written, and combat is oddly exciting for a text adventure.

What hasn't changed from Eamon are:

1) The statistical complexity of combat. Chances to hit, and damage done, are influenced by your weapon skill, agility, weapon quality, specific skill with the left hand (if you're wielding a weapon there), fatigue level, and other factors that I'm probably forgetting. Every time you strike a blow in combat, there's a chance your weapon skill will increase by a couple of percentage points--a very rare mechanic for this era. During combat, you can fumble and hurt yourself, drop your weapon, break your weapon, and encounter all kinds of other calamities.

Stats for Gideon after two successful adventures. The odds of a successful hit are offered for each weapon, but reduced 15% for my armor and shield.

2) The lethality of gameplay in general. You can save the character in progress, but he's permanently erased if he dies. So many of the scenarios have choices that (somewhat unfairly) lead to instant death, plus really tough monsters, that it's hard to keep the character alive for more than a couple scenarios. Like Empire, you can't even really cheat with save states because the game continually references the character file and will eventually crash if your character in memory is mismatched with the character saved on the disk.

Gameplay feels a bit like Zork if it were a proper RPG and not just an adventure game. You maneuver through dungeons and caverns, finding items and occasional (light) puzzles, but when you encounter a creature, combat is all based on probability and tactics rather than random luck.

A sub-quest from the second module.

Like Eamon, SwordThrust comes with an introductory scenario called The King's Testing Ground, a short dungeon meant to introduce the game to new players. The main disk stores the character data, so when you boot a SwordThrust adventure, you first have to start the main disk, then load the character, then swap in the adventure disk you want to play.

Home sweet home.

The player begins in the Guild of Free Rogues in a world called Diurla, which for some reason makes me think of caffeinated tea. As you start a new character, you specify a name and sex, and the game automatically rolls "hardiness" (hit points), agility, and charisma values. If you get scores below a certain threshold, the game allows you to "commit suicide." Otherwise, you have to accept what you get, although you can slightly modify the attributes at the costly price of 2 points deducted from one score for 1 point added to another.

Creating a character.

After character creation, you get to visit any of the locations in the guild, including the armory, the bar, the training academy, and the magic shop. You only start with 200 gold pieces, which depending on charisma might be enough to buy a single weapon, a suit of armor, and a shield. Spells cost thousands of gold pieces and are well out of the reach of anyone who hasn't completed an adventure or two.

Oh, the times in my life I could have used that spell.

After that, it's off to the adventures, and I'm not sure it's possible to explore them out of order and have any hope of surviving. Even in order, it's pretty tough. But then again, if the adventures were easy, you could probably clear through them in an afternoon, making you wonder why you spent $209.95 on seven modules.
To give you a sense of gameplay, here's a short transcript from the opening adventure, The King's Testing Ground.


****

GIDEON IS IN GOOD SHAPE
YOU ARE RESTED AND LIGHTLY ENCUMBERED
YOU ARE IN A SMALL CHAMBER. YOU APPEAR TO BE IN SOME CAVES, ALTHOUGH THE WALLS GLOW SO THAT NO LANTERN IS NEEDED. THE ONLY EXIT IS A ROUGH TUNNEL THAT GOES SOUTH.

>SOUTH

YOU ARE IN A SMALL TUNNEL THAT GOES FROM NORTH TO SOUTH. THE WALLS STILL GIVE OFF ENOUGH LIGHT TO SEE BY.

>SOUTH

YOU ARE IN A CORRIDOR GOING FROM NORTH TO SOUTH.
YOU SEE A LARGE BLACK SPIDER HERE.

>SMILE

SPIDER GROWLS AT YOU.
SPIDER IS HERE.

>ATTACK SPIDER

GIDEON ATTACKS SPIDER
  A HIT!
SPIDER IS IN GOOD SHAPE
SPIDER ATTACKS GIDEON
  A MISS!

>ATTACK SPIDER

GIDEON ATTACKS SPIDER
 A MISS!
SPIDER ATTACKS GIDEON
 A HIT!
  ARMOR STOPS THE BLOW

A few more rounds and I've hit the spider a few times but grow "weary' from fatigue. The spider flees to the south and I follow, continuing my attack. He finally drops to the ground.
>LOOK SPIDER
SPIDER IS DEAD.
THERE WAS NOTHING USEFUL ON THE BODY.
>SOUTH

YOU RE AT A FOUR-WAY INTERSECTION, EXITS GOING OFF IN ALL DIRECTIONS.

>EAST

YOU ARE IN A SMALL CHAMBER. THE ONLY EXIT THAT YOU CAN SEE IS A TUNNEL GOING TO THE WEST.
YOU SEE A MAN HERE WITH WILD HAIR AND RAGGED CLOTHES OVER CHEAP ARMOUR. YOU ARE STARTLED TO RECOGNIZE HIM AS RICHARD, A GREAT KNIGHT OF THE REALM WHO VANISHED YEARS AGO.
YOU SEE A BOTTLE WITH A SWIRLING REDDISH POTION INSIDE.
YOU SEE A SMALL PACKAGE OF FOOD HERE.

>SMILE
RICHARD SMILES BACK.
When NPCs respond positively to smiles, it means they're allies. I think your charisma affects the likelihood of this. From this point, Richard follows me.
>GET ALL

POTION GOTTEN.
FOOD GOTTEN.
>LOOK POTION
YOU SEE A BOTTLE WITH A SWIRLING REDDISH POTION INSIDE.
THE LABEL ON THE BOTTLE SAYS, 'HEALING POTION.'
I return to the four-way intersection and go west down a long corridor.
YOU ARE IN A VERY SMALL CHAMBER HERE. THE ONLY VISIBLE EXIT LIES TO THE EAST. 
YOU SEE A LARGE CHEST HERE. IT LOOKS AS IF IT IS MADE OF WOOD.
RICHARD IS HERE.

>OPEN CHEST
UH-OH. YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE DONE THAT!
MIMIC ATTACKS GIDEON
  A MISS!
RICHARD ATTACKS MIMIC
  A MISS!
YOU SEE THE CHEST SHIFTING FORM, BECOMING A MONSTER THAT ATTACKS YOU. IT IS THE LEGENDARY MIMIC, AND IT HAS A FIRM GRIP UPON YOU.
>ATTACK MIMIC
Several rounds go by. On the fifth:
GIDEON ATTACKS MIMIC
  A FUMBLE!
    AXE BROKEN!
MIMIC ATTACKS RICHARD
  A MISS!
RICHARD ATTACKS MIMIC
  A FUMBLE!
    AXE# BROKEN!
Yikes. Neither of us has a viable weapon now. But on my next attack:
GIDEON ATTACKS MIMIC
  A HIT!
MIMIC DROPS TO THE GROUND.
>LOOK MIMIC
MIMIC IS DEAD
THERE WAS NOTHING USEFUL ON THE BODY.
 
****
 
You get the idea. There are several other enemies to encounter on this level, including a wolf (he's passable by giving him the food I found earlier) and a monstrous plant. There's a tough knight whom I've never been able to defeat, but there's a secret passage I found that goes around him. In a secret area, I found a pill that when swallowed allows water-breathing, facilitating navigation down to the bottom of a lake and through some adjacent passages, though at least one of the passages leads to certain death over a waterfall. There are at least two ways out of the cave. On this particular playthrough, since I'm now weaponless, I just grab some treasure I know is nearby (a crown) and head out before something can kill me.


As with Eamon, when you finish each scenario, the game totals up your accumulated treasure and gives you a lump sum of gold, which of course you can re-invest into better weapons, armor, spells, and training. There's also a neat system by which you can have a drink at the bar and get a hint for your next adventure. Since the game doesn't know what adventure you'll choose next, you don't get the hint right away; instead, it appears within the introductory text when you next embark.


Each adventure past the first one seems to have both an explicit goal and a "fail" condition, meaning you can't grind or "farm" the adventures by starting them, killing a few enemies, collecting a few treasures, and returning to the hall before doing it again. When I returned from the second adventure prematurely, for instance, I died immediately because I was still a vampire.

I'm tempted to give SwordThrust a GIMLET rating and leave it behind, at the same time finishing up all RPGs (not just DOS/PC) through 1981, but I've been looking for a good game for which to create a walkthrough, and I think SwordThrust fits the bill. There are no existing walkthroughs (nothing even close) online, and I suspect it's going to be hard to find such games on my "main" list in the 1990s. As for why I want to create a walkthrough...well, that's a subject for a later post. Suffice to say that we'll see SwordThrust again in the coming months, but for now we'll return to DarkSpyre.


23 comments:

  1. I sincerely hope we will see this one again. It seems like a very good cross between Zork and Wizardry. I also appreciate your judicious use of screens and text to give us a good idea of how the game plays.

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  2. In case anyone is curious why all these Apple II games use all-caps, it's because the first generations of Apple II computers didn't have support for lowercase letters as standard. While there were modified ROMs that allowed for lowercase letters, it was only until 1984 and the Apple IIc that these computers received lowercase letter support as standard.

    The main screen seen at the top contains lowercase letters, but only because it is rendered as an image.

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  3. Let's hope that the walkthrough is for the book which will be published before Christmas 2013 :)

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  4. @Giuseppe: The Apple //e had lower-case letters, and it was released in 1983, still too late for a lot of early games to take advantage of lower-case letters and 80 columns.

    I remember playing Swordthrust after having played Eamon for a few years. I remember liking the more polished adventures, but hating the fatigue system. I remember dying of exhaustion during a fight or being eaten by wandering monsters while sleeping much more of a hazard than actually running out of life. I only got to play the Vampire (Vampyre?) module as my copy of the third adventure was corrupted and I was never able to return it as I got the first three adventures for $10 from the AS-IS discount bin.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose you're right. I was under the impression that only the enhanced IIe, which came out in 1985, had lowercase letter support.

      Delete
  5. The weapon percentage system, fatigue points, parry percentage, and left hand weapon use all look like they were cribbed from RuneQuest.

    Attacker rolls d%, checks for hit. If hit, roll damage. Defender rolls d%, checks for parry. If success, parrying device absorbs a set amount of damage, with excess going to defender's armor. If no parry, then all damage is applied to defender's armor and/or body. Skills increase slightly when used successfully. Everyone spends a fatigue point every round to stay up. Zero fatigue points = exhaustion. I still to this day think it's a good combat system, much better than all the D&D influenced systems out there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting. I never played RuneQuest and wasn't familiar with the rules. That does indeed sound like where it came from.

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    2. Same system I use today, the Basic Roleplay System. Though, I use a much newer version of it.

      Delete
  6. $30 for each module? That seems very expensive. Not even The Sims has that expensive add-ons.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It gets even worse when you consider that $30 in 1981 is the equivalent of about $75 today.

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    2. The Sims makes up in quantity. I think purchasing all the add-on packs and official expansions for The Sims 3 runs somewhere around $600, if you paid retail.

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    3. Wizardry got away with the $30+ for expansion modules for Knight of Diamonds and Legacy of L-however-you-spell-it. Come to think of it, the Wizardry series probably killed the market for games like SwordThrust, so it may not have mattered how it was priced at all.

      Delete
    4. And I was wrong. Several DLC for The Sims 3 sell to 40€.

      Delete
  7. SwordThrust and each of its modules were later republished by the value publishers SoftSmith and Main Street Publishing. Surprisingly, they continued to sell them as individual adventures rather than collecting them into one package. The SoftSmith credits have a copyright of 1981 by Donald Brown, "Courtesy of" C.E. Software.

    SwordThrust and all its modules are extremely rare today - even the later value versions must have received very limited distribution.

    The SoftSmith versions have a plain text title screen rather than the castle graphic. SwordThrust Adventure 1 is both the Master Disk and The King's Testing Ground module. Trying to run any of the module disks by itself just shows the title screen and a message saying you have to start by booting the SwordThrust Master Diskette.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "The player begins in the Guild of Free Rogues in a world called Diurla, which for some reason makes me think of caffeinated tea."

    Probably because of tea's alleged diuretic effects, I'd think?

    (I say "alleged" because I think it's been determined to be a simple matter of fluid volume intake and not actually any chemicals in the tea, since there's neither enough caffeine nor theophylline to cause a substantive diuretic effect, especially in habitual tea-drinkers.)

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  9. This game really reminds me of the many MUDs I used to play in my high school / college days. (By far most of my RPG gaming has been via telnet.) The price seems steep, but I'm all for people commercializing their talent. Can't work for free forever. :-)

    Rather than just read about games you're playing, I actually started playing one this weekend! Dragon Warrior on NES. I know it's very grindy, but it:
    1. Has game mechanics that I like.
    2. Was one I started long ago and never finished.
    3. Requires very little thinking. A perfect way to wind down at the end of the day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I remember those MUDding days during college.

      There were so little grieving and tea-bagging back then.

      Now, I can't even play a multiplayer game for more than hour without getting killed for stepping out of town and watching in horror as the killer strides over my still-warm corpse and gyrates his crotch all over my screen.

      Delete
  10. What was the other game you wanted to do a walkthrough on? I think you started it and then ran into some problem that made you give up in frustration. Lets hope you don't develop a walkthrough curse.

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    Replies
    1. It was Wizard Wars. I didn't finish it simply because I didn't finish the game. I'm doing okay on this one. I've written out 3.5 of the 7 scenarios already.

      Delete
  11. Video games were a hot commodity back then. There was a bit of an economic bubble in this market that imploded in 1983:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_video_game_crash_of_1983

    People were willing to pay good money for bad games.... up to a certain point. The terrible E.T. game is blamed for causing the crash,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E.T._the_Extra-Terrestrial_(video_game)

    Apparently, it was so bad that it forced the industry to correct their forecasts, and crashed demand (for far too many half-assed, ugly, expensive games).
    I was going through your list of rankings and indeed, you have played almost no games produced in 1983/84 so far. (Though in the master list, many more games appear - I wonder why the crash mainly affected the output of DOS RPGs) The game world of Dragon Stomper (1982), Game 118 here, even looks like that E.T. game.
    It was logical at the time to milk the cash cow and to monetize your old game concepts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not to mention that they printed twice as many ET games as there were Atari 2600s in existence, showing that management had no idea what they were actually making.

      Delete

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