Sunday, December 29, 2013

Game 127: Hellfire Warrior (1980)


Hellfire Warrior
Automated Simulations (soon to change to Epyx) (developer and publisher)
Jeff Johnson and Jon Freeman (game designers)
Released 1980 for Apple II, 1982 for Atari 8-bit, unknown year for TRS-80
Date Started: 26 December 2013
Date Ended: 28 December 2013
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 20
Ranking at Time of Posting: 26/123 (21%)

Let's start by recapping how cool the Dunjonquest series was for its time, and how poorly modern remembrance does it justice. In 1979, starting with Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai, Epyx delivered:
  • The first commercial computer RPG that can be indisputably called an RPG. Its only predecessors--Beneath Apple Manor, Dungeon Campaign, and Space--are best described as "proto-RPGs."
  • The first RPG series in which multiple titles used the same engine. The Datestones of Ryn and Morloc's Tower came out the same year.
  • The first RPG series available on multiple platforms. Apshai eventually had releases for the Apple II, the Commodore PET, the Commodore VIC-20, the C64, the TRS80, and DOS.
  • A well-written framing story in the "Adventures of Brian Hammerhand."
  • An excellent game manual full of professional illustrations.
  • An honest attempt to replicate the experience of a tabletop RPG, with complex statistics and detailed room descriptions (kept in a separate manual).

The Hellfire Warrior manual art exceeded what was offered by most other games of the period. There are half a dozen other equally-good illustrations in the manual. Such production values were characteristic of Epyx.

The latter point is crucial to the series. I'm not sure how much experience the creators of other RPGs and proto-RPGs of the time had with tabletop RPGs. The creators of Dunjonquest clearly had a lot of experience. The manual for the first game contains a long treatise on the joys and mechanics of tabletop role-playing and a description of how the computer version is both better (faster calculations, no need to coordinate schedules) and worse (solo player, limited mechanics, closed system). The manual explicitly encourages players to port their favorite pen-and-paper characters into Dunjonquest, adventure for a while, and then extract the character back out into the tabletop world . With 35 years of RPG history behind us after this point, it's fascinating to review the creators' original thoughts at the dawn of the genre.

The series makes up 13 games:

  1. The Temple of Apshai (1979). I covered it about a year ago. This was the original game and engine with most of the features we continue to see throughout the series. It's open-ended, with no main quest, featuring four explorable dungeon levels.
  2. Morloc's Tower (1979). Covered in the same post above. Designated by the developer as a "MicroQuest," it featured the same engine as Apshai but with a pre-determined character, a much smaller dungeon, and a specific quest.
  3. The Datestones of Ryn (1979). Another "MicroQuest," time-limited to 20 minutes.
  4. Hellfire Warrior (1980). Revised and updated the Dunjonquest engine with a new series of levels.
  5. StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel (1980). A sci-fi adaptation of the engine. I covered it briefly, but it removed so many of the elements of Apshai that it basically wasn't an RPG any more.
  6. Star Warrior (1980). A sequel to Starquest: Rescue at Rigel.
  7. Sorcerer of Siva (1981). A stand-alone game with a quest to kill a wizard.
  8. Upper Reaches of Apshai (1981). An expansion to Temple of Apshai, using the original engine, adding four more levels.
  9. The Keys of Acheron (1981). An expansion to the Hellfire Warrior version of the engine.
  10. Curse of Ra (1982). Another four-level expansion to Temple of Apshai
  11. Danger in Drindisti (1982). Another expansion to Hellfire Warrior.
  12. Gateway to Apshai (1983). A "prequel" to Temple of Apshai with an updated engine.
  13. The Temple of Apshai Trilogy (1985). A re-release of Temple of Apshai and its expansions with improved graphics, sound, and controls, and all three previous games fully integrated. It was this game that I played in one of my earliest blog entries, thinking I was getting the experience of the original.

It could be argued that some of these technically aren't part of the Dunjonquest series because they don't feature that label, but they all use the same engine or are explicitly in the same family. Sword of Fargoal (1982), which I didn't list above, is also very much in the same spirit.

Though occupying its own sub-series, Hellfire Warrior is given as a sequel to The Temple of Apshai, and its first dungeon level, numbered 5, is named "The Lower Reaches of Apshai." Both this game and its expansions differ from the Apshai trilogy in offering explicit quests. In Hellfire Warrior, this quest is to rescue a warrior maid named Brynhild who's lying in an enchanted sleep on the "Plains of Hell" level of the dungeon. Technically, a player could go right to Level 8 and try to rescue her, but the experiences of the previous levels are needed to build up the requisite experience, attributes, and equipment.

Like its predecessor, the game begins by asking you to either create your own character (type in the attributes, money, and equipment) or have the game roll a character randomly. The creators honestly seemed to intend the first option as a way for a tabletop RPG player to enter the dungeon and not as a blatant mechanism for cheating, but of course it makes cheating--including the creation of a character able to win the game immediately--a possibility. Lacking any previous character, I chose the second option, which can be brutal. The game rolls every attribute from 3 to 18 with no option to re-roll or adjust values. You assign a name and can then spend your randomly-allocated pool of "gold royals" on equipment.

There's no way to visit shops individually. Instead, after creating each character--or after emerging from the dungeon--the game cycles through the available shops and asks one-by-one if you want to visit. The shops and their items are:

Weaponsmith. You select your sword from among five types (including the rarely-encountered "hand-and-a-half" sword). The more damage they do, the more fatigue they require to swing. Armor choices are leather, ring mail, chain mail, partial plate, and full plate. Similarly, the more protection they offer, the more fatigue they consume in movement and combat action. Finally, you can buy a bow (only one type offered) with an associated number of arrows up to 60.

Apothecary. This is a new feature in the game series. In addition to elixirs and salves (restore health) and nectar (restores fatigue), the apothecary offers a selection of exotic-sounding potions, such as "cobra milk," "troll blood," "white lotus," and "mandragora." The manual is mostly silent about what these elixirs do, except to say that when you buy them, you drink them right away, and some increase attributes or protection for the duration of the next dungeon trip.

Let's just mix it all together in a blender.

Malacylpse the Mage. He offers to enchant the player's weapon and armor for an escalating amount of cash per "plus." He also sells magic arrows and magic items, including an "Orichalcum amulet" of uncertain purpose. This is the first time I've seen "Orichalcum" outside of Skyrim, so I looked up the term and discovered that it's "a metal mentioned in several ancient writings, including the story of Atlantis." I thought Skyrim had invented it because it had to do with orcs.

Priest. Here, you can donate remaining cash for an uncertain purpose. I'm thinking it might affect the likelihood that an adventurer will find your body if you die in the dungeon.

After that, it's off to the dungeon level of the player's choice.

Gideon after a few successful adventures. His attributes aren't really that high; he's buffed by some potions right now.

Dungeon exploration is essentially identical to Apshai. The movement mechanic is awkward and sometimes frustrating: you use the (R)ight, (L)eft, and (V)olte-face keys to face a particular direction, then enter a number from 1-9 indicating the number of steps you want to take in that direction. The steps have an associated fatigue cost, though it's negligible when you're unencumbered and healthy.

As with most games of the era, navigating the bland corridors of the dungeon is assisted by a certain amount of imagination, but the Dunjonquest series significantly aids one's imagination with well-written room, monster, and treasure descriptions in the game's manual. Much like the later "adventurers journals" in the Gold Box series, the Dunjonquest manuals are a constant companion to the action on the screen. On Levels 5 and 7 of the Hellfire Warrior dungeon, each room (including corridors) has a number corresponding with an entry in the book. Upon entry in Room #1, we're told:

Long corridors roughly hewn from the native stone, eight feet wide and fifteen feet high. An occasional wooden door appears rusted into near immobility. In some places, the walls have crumbled and been dug away.

Some of the rooms have treasures, noted by little colored vertical bars, and the room description usually has something to say about the nature of the treasure:

This large room is also faced with tile in similar condition. Cots and foot-lockers betoken common sleeping quarters. The room is littered with broken weapons, ragged armor, and other junk. A fallen warrior still clutches a sword.

When you pick up the treasure in the room, the screen says that you've picked up treasure #8, which the manual describes as so:

You pick up a sword for closer inspection. The blade is of finely honed steel, and the weapon feels well-balanced, almost alive in your hand. Hidden in the hilt are two small diamonds.

Monsters appear randomly as you explore, and you have the option to (F)ire an arrow or a (M)agic arrow at them--if you can line yourself up properly, which can be hard. Once they get close, you hit (A)ttack for melee combat and begin trading blows until one of you is dead. It's not terribly difficult to avoid combat or flee from it, as monsters won't chase you out of the room they spawn in. But since they can spawn randomly, there's really no "safe" area of the dungeon.

Firing an arrow down a corridor at a giant bee.

Killing monsters adds to your experience pool (you start with 20,000). More experienced characters do better in combat, but in a nebulous way not really explained by the manual. The manual also suggests that attributes will slowly increase with experience, but I never noticed that happening. The game keeps a counter of monsters killed in that dungeon session.

As you explore, you have to be on the lookout for traps, revealed with the (S)earch command, as well as secret doors, revealed by facing a wall and (E)xamining it. Each command might require four or five attempts to find what you're looking for. Secret doors abound the dungeons and it's easy to miss out on entire dungeon sections if you don't carefully search every wall.

You have to be concerned with both health and fatigue. Health restores only through salves and elixirs and the very rare magic pool or fountain in the dungeon. Fatigue restores by standing still. Both combat actions and movement deplete fatigue, and it's possible to get into a never-ending cycle where you're trying to restore fatigue and a monster shows up, requiring you to expend your remaining fatigue attacking him. As he dies and you stand there trying to replenish, another monster shows up, and so forth.

If you die in the dungeon--quite easy if you overextend yourself--one of four things can happen. The first is that you get eaten by a monster. The second is that Olias the Dwarf will find you and return you to the town, but after taking all of your treasure and magic items. If Lowenthal the Wizard recovers you, he'll leave your cash but take your magic items. Benedic the Cleric will resurrect you and return you to town without taking anything, though he asks for a donation.

I got lucky this time.

The key to success in the game is to engage in a series of small expeditions, gathering treasures and returning to town when your health elixirs get low. The game is very generous with its treasure, and with only a few sorties, you can get several magic items and your sword and weapon up to +4 or +5. In between adventures, you can save both the state of the dungeon level (a feature not present in Apshai) and your character. Leaving the dungeon automatically converts your found treasure to gold. Certain special treasures--wearable magic items--never show up in your inventory but do exert permanent changes on your attributes.

Level 5, "The Lower Reaches of Apshai," is a standard dilapidated dungeon, occupied primarily with monstrous bugs, like giant mosquitoes, ants, and snails. It's a good introductory level.

Level 6, "The Labryinth," is a maze whose door closes behind you when you enter. You have to find the exit while battling creatures like "unitaurs" (minotaurs with one horn) and various types of dinosaurs. The game provides a hint as to the exit's location in case it becomes too difficult. There are no room descriptions on this level, but there are still detailed treasure descriptions.

Firing an arrow at a unitaur in the midst of the labyrinth.

Level 7, "The Vault of the Dead," is a large, spacious crypt with undead-themed creatures like ghosts, ghouls, gargoyles, and spectres. The latter are capable of draining constitution, which causes your fatigue loss to increase exponentially, and you can wind up in a situation where you simply can't move. There's one fantastic treasure on the level: The Seven-League Boots, which increase movement speed.

Fighting a gargoyle in the Vault of the Dead.

Level 8 is the "Plains of Hell," and this is where the main quest is located. It took me a long time on the other levels to build up a character able to survive here for more than a few minutes. The level consists of a very large room--the titular "plain"--with various treasures and wandering fiends, imps, firedrakes, behemoths, and pyrohounds. Off to the west side is a bridge that takes the player to the sleeping warrior maiden, after he passes through corridors of hellfire (an unavoidable trap) and several tough enemies, including a "pyrohydra" (described in the manual as "the most fearsome monster ever created") and a demon.

Fighting the pyrohydra to enter the final area.

The sleeping maiden appears as just another treasure, though well-described:

This, of course, is the warrior maid Brynhild. Although her face is fair, her form comely, and her hair like spun gold, there is nothing elfin about her; her limbs are supple but strong, and her armored body is heavy. Yet, to release her from the enchantment that holds her in the grip of sleep, you must bear her out of these flaming caverns, through the great doors by which you entered, and all the way back to sun and air. The end of your quest lies before you--if you can  make it.

About to pick up Brynhlid in her chamber.
Brynhild weighs 150 pounds (I couldn't have taken off her armor before picking her up?), greatly increasing the player's encumbrance, so getting out with her is a process of mincing your way back to the beginning. On the way, you face Death himself, apparently unkillable, but easily escaped by fleeing out of his room.

Escaping Death.

The harder part is dealing with all of the random combats while struggling with the constant fatigue loss.

Only steps from the exit, nearly out of fatigue, pursued by a spectre.

There's no victory screen when you reach the exit with Brynhild. You just get the normal "treasure" screen, and only the presence of "Treasure #10" (worth nothing) proves that you made it out with the warrior maiden.

Fifth line, second column. That's my "victory screen."

The enterprise took me about eight hours. I'm giving the game a 20 on my GIMLET scale. Its best scores are 3s in "encounters" (the monster and room descriptions add a lot of atmosphere), "equipment," "character development," and "gameplay" (I like the choice of levels and the overall nonlinearity). It does poorly in "NPCs" (there are none) and "quests" (I don't like that the game doesn't really acknowledge the quest in-game) and "graphics, sound, and interface." Combat remains disappointing in the series, which continues to exclude any magic.

The game's two expansions, The Keys of Acheron and Danger in Drindisti are both on my list, but listed as "NP" (not playable), as I can't find working versions anywhere. That I'm able to play Hellfire Warrior is thanks to reader Josh Lawrence, who pointed out that it was cataloged as an "adventure" game on Asimov, but the other two aren't in the same (or any) directory. I'm also having trouble finding Sorcerer of Siva. I can't say that I'm pulling out all the stops trying to track these games down, though, since once you've experienced one Dunjonquest title, you've pretty much experienced them all.

I'm moving on now to Lords of Chaos (1990), a strategy/RPG hybrid. My next "old" game will be Time Traveler (1980), which is given as a text/adventure hybrid. [Later edit: I've rejected Time Traveler as an RPG. It's an amateur effort in which all of the actions are dependent on random probability.]


Further Reading:
  • My original take on the Temple of Apshai Trilogy
  • My later take on The Temple of Apshai and Morloc's Tower
  • A series of four postings on Dunjonquest on Hardcore Gaming 101; Page 2 covers Hellfire Warrior
  • The Digital Antiquarian's coverage of the Dunjonquest series
  • The Hellfire Warrior manual at the Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History


  1. This is the first time I've seen "Orichalcum" outside of Skyrim.

    Ah, then you never had the pleasure of Lucasarts' Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, in which it plays a rather large role!

    1. Exactly my thought!

    2. Also, dozens of console-RPGs (Dragon Quest series, Kingdom Hearts, Star Ocean, Seinaru Kana, Final Fantasy, Harvest Moon, The World Ends With You, Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory & etc.) have this.

  2. So it is Epyx that did these games. I have only associated them with the Summer/Winter/California Games sports titles before.

    Regarding Sword of Fargoal. I don't remember much of that game (I was 4 years old when we got that game for the VIC-20) except that it was written in basic and I remember my brothers playing one character for a whole day and then the game crashed with a "Syntax error". As far as I understood there was no possibility to save. I don't think we played that game ever after that.

  3. I had a lot of fun with lords of chaos 2 player, single player ain't bad either.

  4. Brynhild weighs 150 pounds (I couldn't have taken off her armor before picking her up?)

    Or maybe the girl is a bit on the heavy side ? ;P

    1. Well, I don't quite understand the anglo-america weight system, but if we are to trust google that 150 pounds = 68 kg, she seems pretty skinny for a valkyrie, and borderline anorexic if that's her weight with her armor on.

    2. It's also below the average weight of an American female according to Wikipedia.

    3. The game explicitly says that she's still wearing her armor. I otherwise wouldn't dream of suggesting that 150 is heavy for a woman.

    4. I'm not sure someone in armour weighing 150 pounds is just "borderline anorexic". That sounds pretty unhealthy to me. Unless she's like... a Hobbit or something.

    5. 150 lb? o.0 You American's have an interesting sense of scale: I'm a 5'10" guy and I was pretty pudgy when I was at 150 lb, a more natural weight for me is like, 135 lb.

      Now, I'd say 150 lb is a good weight for a strong person, like a body builder, though my understanding is that warriors often have more lean muscle, to let them move faster. I mean, look at someone like Bruce Lee, they aren't very heavily muscled. Same when I see the military floats at the parades and stuff.

      Still, with full metal armour? That seems kind of light, to be honest.

  5. The animated title screen was a nice thing to see on my Blogger feed.

    1. I didn't feel like either the demon nor the sleeping maiden by herself fully captured what they were going for, so I decided to take the time. Creating GIFs is a bit of a pain in the neck--I have to first record the video, then covert it with the right settings--which is why I don't do it as often as I should.

    2. I love it, the animation is just so goofy.

      "Rargh, I'm a heck, what is that, a spear?" *DEAD*

    3. I've got a program called Gifcam which makes creating gifs pretty easy, you just make a box around what you want turned into a gif then hit stop when you want it to stop recording. Might help out.

  6. I played Gateway to Apshai on my Atari. I believe that on the Atari it was released on a cartridge (Temple of Apshai was a disk program).

    Gateway is quite different from Temple. Gateway has better graphics and more arcade like game play. I finished Temple but I don't recall getting very far in Gateway.

    1. Perhaps it's a misnomer to put it in the Dunjonquest series, then, although it is explicitly a sequel.

  7. Isn't a hand and a half sword the same thing as a bastard sword?

    1. Pretty much. I never found a good reason to use a bastard sword over a long sword in Baldur's Gate, but the game is full of the things.

    2. Yes. But you hardly ever see it by that name.

    3. That's a very naughty word! Unless you're gonna use it to mean half-breeds... y'know, like a certain monster in a certain German game... not gonna name names.

    4. Looking into it further long sword, bastard sword, and hand and a half sword can all mean the same thing at least according to wikipedia. I always thought that bastard swords were cool in my table top ad&d days because you could use them two handed to get a higher damage roll.

    5. Actually, I didn't realize this as a kid, but in D&D a bastard sword is a fair bit better, due to the higher average damage. You'll get 8 points less often, but you'll get much higher average damage (5 vs 4.5) and get a bell curve around that higher average.

  8. I found a working copy Sorcerer of Siva on this site:

    I just played and beat the game. Like the earlier Dunjonquest games, there seems to be little point in fighting enemies, unless you want to maximize your score. The enemies spawn fast, and if you keep fighting them, you both tire and run down your Aura (magic points) very quickly.

    The only real difference between this game and others in the series is that you play a Wizard, and can cast magic. The game manual (on can give you the details of the game mechanics, but this is how it worked for me:

    I started off fighting a few battles, just to get a feel for the game. Less than five minutes after I started the eponymous Sorcerer of Siva was dumb enough to teleport behind an enemy as I was blasting the enemy with a Bolt of Lightning. Both the enemy and the Sorcerer died with one shot. That was mission goal one, accomplished almost right away. The only other goal is to escape from the dungeon on Level 5.

    There is an X spell, which tells you how far away the staircase to the next level is, for example 500 feet, but does not tell you which direction. So, cast the spell, and pick a direction. Travel at least two screens (which seems to be the minimum number needed to change the distance, as one screen won't cut it), and cast X again. If you are getting closer to the staircase, keep going in the same direction. If there is a wall in the way, look for a secret door with the (E)xamine command. If you cannot find a door, just face the direction you wish to travel and use the(T)eleport spell to get there. Your Aura needs to be purple (the highest magic level) to cast this spell, and the Sorcerer makes you forget it if he hits you with his spell of forgetfulness. If you are not lucky like me, and the Sorcerer does not jump in the way of your (B)olt of Lightning, you might have to hunt him down before trying to exit the dunjon.

    If your aura is getting low, stay near the edge of the screen in case an enemy spawns (which one will), and make a quick exit. Move 0 in order to rest, and move between rooms as needed to avoid enemies. The X spell helps you progress from level 1 to 5 quickly, as the fairly obvious strategy I mentioned above helps you find the staircase with ease.

    I should mention here the Trapdoor trap, which is very frustrating. If you step on a trapdoor, you fall down into the Underworld, which is below level 1 (making it level 0, if you will). Even if you are level 5, you fall all the way to the Underworld. You then have to find your way back to level 1 (via a staircase), meaning if you fall in a trapdoor, you are further from the game's finish line than when you started. No thanks, game, I'll just Save State my way out of that one. I can't imagine playing this on an original machine.

    The strategy on level 5 is a bit different, because there are no staircases to locate with the X spell. What you need to do is this: pick any direction, and keep going in the same direction as long as you can: via passageway, secret door, or Teleport. Eventually, you will reach the edge of the dunjon, and trying to use the Teleport spell with result in the message "You can't." This means you have reached the edge of the dunjon. I went left, as far as I could, and then went up as far as I could, and then down as far as I could, meaning I moved up and down the left side of the dungeon. From the bottom left corner of the dungeon, I moved right one room, and then up until I reached the end of the dunjon again. Keep moving in a methodical pattern like this, and you don't have to worry about getting lost in the dujnon, missing a secret door, etc.

    I can't say the game was fun, but at I had the satisfaction of beating it. Then I got the world's best ending ever.

    1. Spolier Alert!
      The aforementioned world's best ending is transcribed below:
      "You have found the exit.
      You slew the Sorcerer.
      You slew 38 monsters.
      Time: 3 hours 38 minutes
      Score: 4546"

      Followed by a command prompt. Awesome, right?
      btw, the time is game time, which seems to be about 1 minute of real time equals 3-4 minutes of game time. You have 4 hours of game time until the exit closes forever. I played on Skill level 1, Speed level 1, and I barely beat the clock.

    2. Thanks for the rundown! Your description is so vivid, I'm not sure I even need to play it. But, I suppose for completeness' sake...


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