Sunday, September 29, 2013

Recent Interviews in European Publications

My desktop when playing a game: game, draft blog post, map workbook, and spell list. I mocked this up for the interview (I played Might & Magic more than three years ago), but it's a faithful re-creation.

Today, my blog was featured on Spiegel Online, one of Germany's premier online news sources. When the author first contacted me for an interview, I was aware that it was a pretty big deal but I didn't realize how big. In the 24 hours following its publication, my blog got more than 10,000 hits, dwarfing the previous record of 2,293, set in September 2012, when the blog was featured in Austria's Der Standard. Between these two sources and the recent interview that appeared in the Finnish magazine Pelit, it's possible I now have more European readers than North American ones. I don't mind this at all, of course, but why hasn't USA Today come calling yet?

Unfortunately, the publishers over at Spiegel put the wrong links to my "Master Game List" and "Game Rankings" lists in their sidebar. I don't know exactly how links to Google Drive documents work, but the links were apparently such that the readers didn't go directly to the viewable documents but rather to a page that forced them to "request permission" of me before they could view them. I received more than 400 requests in less than six hours, so I had to remove the documents so they'd stop coming into my in-box. I've asked Spiegel Online to remove the links. Either way, I'll put the documents back online again in a few days, when the article is no longer fresh.

The article worked in a number of the things I said during the interview, but I thought I'd offer the entire text of my interview below for English readers. The interviewer asked me a bunch of discrete questions, but I synthesized my responses into long paragraphs instead of doing a standard Q&A format. He began by asking a little personal information and later clarified that "Chester Bolingbroke" was, in fact, a nom-de-plume.


Text of the Spiegel Online Interview

I'm 41 years old. As for my job, I deliberately keep it secret (I don't want people in my profession to find out about my gaming blog!), but in broad strokes, I'm a professional, and I work as a contractor in the public sector. The nature of my work keeps me traveling most of the time (about 3 of every 4 weeks). I do all of my game playing on my laptop, sometimes on the road, but usually on weekends at home in between trips. I prefer to play at home, when I can arrange the game window, the manual, my notes, my maps, and my draft blog post across multiple monitors.

I remember being first exposed to games on friends' Atari 2600s. I don't know the first, exactly, but I can recall spending inordinate time on Space Invaders, Combat, Asteroids, and all the other Atari classic games. They were fun, but none of them really gripped me. That didn't happen until I was visiting a friend who had a Commodore 64, and we played Questron. It was the first time I realized that computer games didn't have to be arcade-style games, and it was thus the first game I became addicted to. I can't say I really "fell in love" with a game until Ultima IV, which occupied a huge part of my life from ages 12-15. For years thereafter, I compared every game to Ultima IV and found it wanting.

I played a few sessions of tabletop RPGs, but I never really enjoyed it. They were too difficult to organize, they took too long, and if the dungeon master turned out to be a jerk, you were at his mercy. I respect the more open-ended nature of tabletop RPGs--something that computer RPGs will probably never be able to replicate--but I didn't like the other people.

I play an average of 10-12 hours a week, including blogging, but this is extremely variable. Last week, I didn't play anything at all, and this week I've probably put 20 hours into gaming already. It depends on my schedule and the other items on my task list.

My wife likes to play games with me, but not any of the games that I play for my blog, so every once in a while we head down to the store and pick up a few games to play together on the Xbox. (I prefer PC games, but it's easier to play console games with another person, on the couch, in front of a big-screen TV.) We just played Red Dead Redemption and we're working on Dragon's Dogma. Yes, I did get the Skyrim bug in 2011. I sank maybe 250 hours into that game between November 2011 and January 2013, when I finally sold my copy back to GameStop just to remove the temptation. For the most part, though, I don't feel like I'm missing anything by not playing many modern games. I often find them too frenetic and confusing, and I think role-playing games peaked in quality around 1995-2003. I'm looking forward to getting into that era again.

For the last few years, I've been losing time. It took me 18 months to cover 1988 and 14 months to cover 1989. So I'm not sure I'll ever arrive at the "present." Nonetheless, I imagine I'll keep playing and blogging as long as I'm alive, blogs exist, and the games are available.

Earlier RPGs were much more cerebral and challenging games than we have now. The player had to invest some time, effort, and intellect. He had to make maps, take notes, solve puzzles, and carefully plan his explorations. In the modern era--at least in the major commercial markets--all of this has been replaced with automatic dialogue options, automaps, quest logs, quest markers, and so forth. As much as I liked Skyrim, I didn't like the way it babysits the player throughout. Whatever we've gained in graphics and sound, we've lost in the thrill that a player gets when he solves a difficult puzzle or pages furiously through a notebook to find the answer to an obscure question.


The interview for Pelit isn't available online. It's a much larger one, but if you're interested in reading the entire Q&A, I've pasted it below.

Text of the Pelit Interview

1. The "Why We're Here" post details why you started The CRPG Addict. Was it a spontaneous thing that came out of your 72 hour Oblivion session or did you plan the project out carefully and well in advance before doing any writing? Did you have any idea in the beginning that you would actually keep going even after three years and 500 posts?

It was spontaneous, but not because of my “lost weekend” playing Oblivion. I was so disgusted with myself for that that I threw away all my games and decided to quit cold turkey, only to (of course) relapse several weeks later. Rather, it came out of winning Rogue. I spent 80 hours winning that game, and when I was done, I sat there staring at the winning screen thinking “I need to share this with someone.” So I posted it on Reddit, and that’s where someone suggested that I start a blog.

The funny thing is, for years I’d been mentally composing “articles” about things like game economies, combat tactics, and encounters, with this vague idea that if someday I wrote them up, I might be able to get a freelance job with a game magazine or web site. Somehow the idea of blogging never occurred to me. So when the anonymous Redditor suggested I start one, it meshed well with a desire to write about games that I’d been entertaining for a while.

2. The same post gives the impression that for you playing CRPGs is not only about entertainment or pleasure, but that it's also a some sort of compulsion. There's no way NOT to play them! Writing the blog has in a sense validated this obsession, but do you ever feel that it would be better to quit playing completely and do something else? Is it a waste to spend so much time on CRPGs?

Like everything else in life, the key is moderation. Every harmful compulsion or addiction has a point at which it’s joyful, even enriching. But just like an alcoholic who can’t stop at one drink or a compulsive gambler who can’t stop when he’s lost only $200, I often can’t stop playing a game after a reasonable amount of time has passed. I spend all day on it, when I should be working on other things, or I stay up until 3:30 in the morning and ruin the following day.

Almost all the time, I feel like it would be better to quit playing and do something else. I want to finish my PhD. I want to learn to play an instrument. I have a couple books in the works. And I’m self-employed, so every hour I spend on a game is an hour I’m not spending billing a client.

But as I’ve discovered, there’s no guarantee I’ll do all those other things just because I quit playing games. When I tried last year, I just ended up wasting time in other ways. Perhaps the game-playing is less a cause of my low productivity and more a symptom of some compulsion to burn a certain percentage of valuable time. I’m not even sure how to tell.

In some ways, my blog is an indulgence in my compulsion. It virtually guarantees that I’m going to spend too much time playing games. There’s no way I can crank out a blog posting every couple of days without spending four or five hours playing during that same period. And I have to spend time writing and responding to comments, too! But in other ways, it turns my existing compulsion into something valuable—maybe not as valuable as getting my doctorate or learning how to play the piano, but still valuable.

3. In 2012, you came close to putting an end to The CRPG Addict, but continued after a brief break. Have there been moments since then when you've felt that you can't keep going on or have you committed yourself to the task for good? How far do you think you are going to make it? Will we ever see a "Game 1189: Will Fight For Food"? :)

I think I’m committed at this point. Quitting and returning in 2012 was a bit of a catharsis. It was something I had to try, and I failed, and that’s the end of it. There will be other hiatuses in the future, when work gets too busy, or when I’m on vacation, or when I just lose interest (that never lasts more than a couple of weeks), but I can’t see any situation in which I’ll try to stop completely again.

As for how far I’ll make it, I find it best not to think about such things. I’m losing ground right now: it took me longer than a year to complete 1988, and it’s taken me longer than a year to complete 1989. Perhaps at some point, I’ll reconsider how I approach the chronology. But as long as I’m making some progress and I have readers, I’m not going to worry about it.

4. You obviously have dedicated readers who are very enthusiastic about The CRPG Addict. But how about people you know in real life, have you told many about your undertaking and what have their reactions been like? I remember reading that you even told your wife about it only when you were pretty far in your blog posts?

I don’t really tell anyone I know in real life. None of my friends are RPG fans, and my project is not the sort of thing that non-RPG fans really understand. Plus, almost all of my friends are associated with my profession, and the last thing I need is colleagues and clients noticing that I’m four weeks behind on a project but during the same period, I managed to make time for 22 hours of Keef the Thief.

5. Can you tell me anything about how CRPG Addict The Book is coming up? Will there be a lot of revised or new content that hasn't appeared in the blog? Any estimated release date?'

I envision the book as a first of a series, each one covering one of Matt Barton’s “ages” of RPGs—the first will cover both the “Dark Age” and the “Bronze Age.” As I’m planning it now, it will be half essays on RPG development, theory, technology, and game elements, and half condensed versions of my reviews. The first book will also have full reviews of the PLATO games, not all of which have appeared on my site, as well as a few others from 1980-1981.

The book is a struggle for me, because every time I write something in it that I think is good, I want to post it on my blog. My coverage of Dungeon Campaign and Wilderness Campaign were originally meant for the book alone, but I liked them so much, I went ahead and posted them.

Anyway, I’m shooting to have it ready for my fourth anniversary, in February 2014. My wife will turn 40 that year, and I have this dream that I’ll make enough from the book to take her on a nice trip. Or at least a nice dinner.

6. What are your thoughts on why you are drawn to CRPGs in particular, and not some other genre?

I think they manage to achieve just the right balance. They have a lot of logistics, but not to the mind-boggling level of simulation games. They feature tactical combat, but not to the overwhelming level of strategy games. They tell a story, but without the completely deterministic world of adventure games. They’re exciting, but without all the frenetic clicking of action games. I love the sense of progress and development in great RPGs, where every hour brings a new level, a new piece of equipment, more money, an upgraded ability, or a quest reward. There’s always something to give you a shot in the arm and keep you playing.

I also love the true “role-playing” aspects of RPGs, but these don’t really come to maturity until the 1990s, so I can’t say that they’re responsible for all my playing during the last four years. But I love entering a world in which I can define my character and express that character through dialogue options, encounters, and choices during quests. I really look forward to seeing these options grow as the years progress.

I should say that I don’t like CRPGs exclusively. I’ve had a lot of fun with non-RPGs, including Half-Life, L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption, and Assassin’s Creed. But I almost always find myself wishing such games were more like RPGs, offering more character progression, choices, and true dialogue options.

7. What makes a good CRPG? What is your favorite CRPG of all time and why?

My top elements of a great CRPG are a large, open game world, memorable NPCs, flexible dialogue options, and plenty of side-quests that offer role-playing opportunities. I can never fully enjoy RPGs that are completely linear, even if they feature good gameplay otherwise.

For my favorite, I can’t decide between Baldur’s Gate or The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Each has different strengths. I’ve never been so immersed in a large, open-ended fascinating game world as in Morrowind, and I despair that I ever will be again. (Oblivion and Skyrim are good games, but they both chipped away at what made Morrowind so great, and they significantly dumbed down the quest system.) I love the factions of the Elder Scrolls games, and the creators have done such a fantastic job developing the history and lore of the setting.

A lot of people prefer Baldur’s Gate II to Baldur’s Gate, and I can see why they would: the second game has better quests, more role-playing opportunities, and greater NPC interaction. But to me, the first game wins out for the open game world and the huge variety of encounters you find there. Yes, there’s a main quest, and it’s somewhat linear, but before, between, or after the stages of the quest, you have a huge area to just wander around, finding all kinds of fun and bizarre encounters. The dialogue system and NPCs are nearly as good as the sequel. And I just find it more satisfying to go from Level 1 to Level 6 than from Level 6 to Level 20. Finally, the interface is fantastic. I think the Infinity Engine is one of the best RPG engines ever made, and Baldur’s Gate was its best game.

But neither game is perfect; neither would score 100 on my GIMLET scale. There’s still plenty of room for a game that fuses the best of Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, and host of other games in my top 20. Perhaps I’ll encounter it during my quest.

8. Could you share some of the best and the worst moments you've had while playing through over a hundred old CRPGs in the past 3,5 years? What games have really imprinted themselves on your memory, for better or for worse? Any big surprises?

There are good moments in almost every game I play, especially now that I’m blogging about them. Even “worst” moments are somewhat enjoyable because they produce enjoyable blog entries.

There have been a handful of games that everyone already remembers and loves, and all I did was confirm why they’re memorable and lovable. Ultima IV (1985) and Ultima V (1988) hold up well after all these years, and the D&D “Gold Box” games, starting with Pool of Radiance (1988), remain some of the best CRPGs ever made. I had never played the Starflight games (1986 and 1989), but I saw immediately why people remember them fondly. The early Might & Magics (1986 and 1988) are just awesome in their open worlds and variety of side quests, and Wasteland (1988) pioneered a unique setting and skills-based development system that we still see today. Hero’s Quest (1989; later Quest for Glory) might be the most literally “fun” game of the era; I think I grinned the entire time I played.

Of course, it’s always fun when a little-remembered game comes along and surprises you with how enjoyable it is. There’s a shareware roguelike called Omega which is just staggeringly good for its era. I just finished Sword of Aragon (1989), a game I nearly dismissed as a strategy game, and I loved how well it blended strategy and RPG elements. The Dark Heart of Uukrul (1989) is one of the best dungeon-crawlers of the era, and I think maybe a dozen people have played it. I just finished some retrospectives of the early Stuart Smith games, Fracas (1980) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981), as well as the Robert Clardy “Campaign” games (1978-1980), and while none were quite advanced enough to score high on my rating scale, I loved how innovative they were in use of elements we rarely see today.

My best individual “moments” can come from any game, even if it’s not a great game overall, and they generally occur when I’ve invested a lot of time and sweat into something and it pays off. Winning Wizardry was an early one. I played that game completely blind and completely straight; I accepted permadeath and didn’t back up a single character. I reached the endgame almost by accident, killed Werdna on my first try, and I was just thrilled to tell my readers. Ascending in NetHack after 262 hours invested was also a major highlight (if also a point where you start to wonder if you’ve been making the best time management choices). There were moments in Knights of Legend, an otherwise faulty game, that were enormously satisfying, such as when my last standing knight managed to track down and drop the last two enemies moment before he would have otherwise passed out from exhaustion.

In terms of worst times, they almost always come when the game is overly-relentless in its combat and doesn’t really offer much else. I was extremely disappointed in the second and third Bard’s Tale games. Everyone seems to remember the series so fondly, but for me they were just endless barrages of combat that provided little character progression or plot progression. Most other games that I’ve ranked poorly have at least been bad in ways that don’t take up too much time and leave me with something fun to write about. I thought Rance was horribly offensive, but I can’t say I hated writing the blog posting.

9. You play only CRPGS, that is, computer RPGs. I think you cited technical difficulties for not including  console RPGs: screwing around with emulators, cartridges, consoles etc. But how do you feel about console RPGs in general, since they tend to be a kind of genre of their own? Do you, for example, enjoy JRPGs like Final Fantasy or are you strictly about (western) CRPGs?

My experience with console RPGs is too limited to have much of an opinion, but I get why PC gamers don’t like them. I don’t think you could import the Infinity Engine games to a console: there are just too many interface elements that require the flexibility of the keyboard and the ability to see details close-up. I’ve never seen a great tactical combat system on a console, and I suspect this is why. The situation must have been even worse back in the 1980s, when controllers had fewer buttons and options.

That said, there are some games that work just fine on a console. I’ve found playing the Elder Scrolls games much more fun on my Xbox, where my 60-inch plasma TV really takes advantage of the games’ graphics and sound. In reviews of Oblivion and Skyrim, commenters say that these games were “dumbed down for the console crowd,” but I don't know if I agree. I mean, I agree that they’re dumbed down, but I don’t see why consoles have anything to do with it.

The same goes for JRPGs. My experience is quite limited, but in general I prefer nonlinear games with open worlds, and I get the impression that JRPGs tend to feature the absolute opposite. The few I’ve played, like Lost Odyssey and one of the recent Final Fantasys, I didn’t like for those reasons. Again, though, there’s nothing in particular about consoles that makes these games linear and deterministic. I’d rather talk about game elements than platforms, and all platforms have some great games.

10. What are your thoughts on the evolution of the CRPG genre? Have we gone a long way or are we still doing the same old games, only with better graphics? Are new games better, or are they too focused on linear gameplay or multiplayer? Do you have a favorite "era" of CRPGs or do you enjoy all of them equally?

You have to understand that I’ve only played about half a dozen games that were produced in the last decade, so my thoughts are biased towards a handful of them.

I do think we’ve come a long way in terms of the substance of RPGs. Throughout the history, things like story, NPC dialogue, and role-playing choices get continually better. Naturally, improvements in technology mean better graphics and sound as well as larger worlds. These are all things that I welcome.

At the same time, I think it’s too bad that players no longer have to do any real work when completing a game. If I just wanted something mindless, I’d play a first-person shooter. I like having to make maps, take notes, prioritize quests, remember keywords, hold onto key pieces of inventory, and solve puzzles. But as the years pass, games remove these investments on the player’s part and do everything for you, until we reach the modern era, when ever game has an automap, and automatic quest log, quest markers telling you exactly where to go, undroppable inventory items, and puzzles in which you just choose from a list of options instead of actually figuring out the answer.

I also think it’s too bad that so many RPGs have done away with turn-based tactical combat in favor of either action combat or concurrent tactical combat when everyone is acting at once. The former substitutes dexterity for intelligence; the latter means that you generally issue broad orders and watch what happens instead of plotting individual tactics. I don’t want to over-emphasize this feeling of regret, though, because the games I listed as my favorites—Baldur’s Gate and Morrowind—use concurrent tactical combat and action combat, respectively, and they do it very well.

On the whole, I feel that the peak era for RPGs was about 1996 to 2002. It was an era in which graphics and sound were good enough to produce very immersive games, and when plot and dialogue development had reached maturity, but before game developers started to assume that everyone had Internet access all the time, wanted to share their gaming with friends, and cared about “achievements.”

I have no interest in multiplayer games, and I do sometimes worry that most of the market is being driven by MMORPGs, but as long as there’s a reasonable number of fans dedicated to classic, single-player RPGs, I think we’ll still see game developers taking advantage of that market. If nothing else, independent creators can step in. The recent success of numerous classic-RPG-style Kickstarter projects has shown there’s still a market for them.

11. Should younger gamers try getting into classic eighties CRPGs or are they too cumbersome for someone who didn't grow up with them? That is, is their value now mostly historical or have they stood the test of time?

To me, that’s like asking whether younger movie-lovers should care to watch Humphrey Bogart films or whether younger jazz lovers should bother listening to Sidney Bechet. Sure, there will always be movie watchers, iPod-owners, and gamers who think anything made more than five years ago is too old to bother with. These aren’t the readers I’m targeting with my blog, nor are they people whose opinions I particularly care about. So I wouldn’t presume to speak to “younger gamers” as a whole.

What I’d say is that gamers of any age with intelligence, taste, and discernment should definitely try the classics from this era. They might require a little more effort in terms of mapping and note-taking (and frankly even this goes away by the late 1990s), but they offer a more varied and challenging experience, and they lead to a different quality of satisfaction. Most important, for gamers who think of themselves as hobbyists and not just casual players, playing these older games can provide a sense of history and context for games released today.

12. Anything else you would like to say to Finnish gamers?

I’ve never had a chance to visit your country, and I hope I do someday. I hear it’s lovely and that Helsinki has a nice jazz scene.

In the coming years, I understand I’m going to encounter a few games—SpurguX, IVAN, and the Hurvana series—released only in Finnish, so I suppose I should get started on my linguistics now. Kiitos k√§sittelyss√§!

Game 118: Dragon Stomper (1982)

The closest we get to a "title screen." My policy is to use the title screen for the official name, which is variously given as Dragonstomper, Dragon Stomper, and DragonStomper.

In the little survey I posted recently, I asked readers to prioritize which games I should play from the 1980s that I missed on my first pass, thanks to my ill-advised "DOS/PC only" rule. The "winner," overwhelmingly, was Final Fantasy.

It was probably a mistake for me to include console games at all. Until the late 1990s, they offer such a fundamentally different approach and style as to be essentially a different genre. But in saying that, I speak partly in ignorance, as my own experience with console games is extremely limited. As a youth, I never played a single RPG on a console, nor did I even own a console between the Atari 2600 and the X-Box. I guess I played a few NES games at friends' houses, but none were RPGs. By the time I played my first RPG on a console (I think it was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), console and computer RPGs had essentially merged, with almost every title available for the former also available for the latter, and with most major titles released for both.

It's going to be a little while before we get to Dragon stomper-specific screen shots, so here's a preview of the one enemy in the game that owes no legacy to D&D.

Partly from ignorance, then, and partially from experience, I have a number of opinions and prejudices about console RPGs. Perhaps the most offensive, from the view of the console player, is that they are less sophisticated and less intellectual than computer RPGs, and primarily intended for younger players. The graphics are usually goofier and more cartoonish, the gameplay more action-oriented and less tactical. Unlike many computer RPGs, console RPG players aren't expected to take notes, make maps, or otherwise engage in activities not directly on the screen.

We'll return to these prejudices in a moment, but before I do, let's talk about the things that are more objectively provable. First, most console players play their games on their televisions, usually from couches or otherwise more comfortable settings than you would typically play a game on a computer. I bought Skyrim for the console particularly for this reason; I wanted to play it in total leisure, taking advantage of my large-screen television and surround sound.

Second, because the player is usually some distance from the television, console games require larger graphics and text. A couple of years ago, I took an old computer and connected it to my television through the HDMI port, downloaded the GOG version of Baldur's Gate, and tried to play it. I found it essentially unplayable. The graphics of the Infinity Engine were customized for up-close viewing, and not even the size of the television compensated for a reasonable distance from it. I had the same experience with Hero's Quest.

Third, consoles support a more limited user interface than computers. On the surface, my X-Box 360 controller seems baffling. There are two joysticks, both of which can be depressed for more actions, a directional pad, two forward buttons, two triggers, the four ABXY buttons, a start button, a back button, and probably others that I'm forgetting about without having it in front of me. But despite all this complexity, it has several magnitudes fewer options than a standard computer keyboard. A computer mouse also allows far more precise targeting and item-selection than a standard console controller.

For a long time, I had no opinion when interviewers asked me whether I thought the need to dual-develop for the computer and console was "dumbing down" RPGs. I had no opinion because the only console RPGs I'd played were the best of the best. But now, after some thought, I have to sympathize with the common view. Some of the best computer RPGs--NetHack, all the Infinity Engine games, the "Gold Box" games, the Ultima series--simply wouldn't work on a console because the complexity of controls is too much for even the most complicated controllers. Before you protest that some Ultima and "Gold Box" games did indeed appear on consoles, keep in mind that these were in extremely dumbed-down format--bastardizations, essentially, of their superior computer predecessors--which only goes to prove my point.

There's plenty of stuff to argue with in this posting, but we're not going to argue about this. In the SNES version of Ultima VII, you couldn't even have multiple party members, for Lord British's sake!

If all of these prejudices and opinions are unfounded, that's fine--I look forward to your comments--but they're certainly not unfounded in 1982, when Dragon Stomper was released for the Atari 2600. The Atari 2600, you may recall, featured a joystick with a single button, making the potential inputs horribly limiting--but not as limiting as the inability to save progress. (Discussion question: I think the NES was the first console to allow saving, through external devices, but what was the first console game to allow saving?) I don't want to give the impression that 1982 was absolutely exploding with sophisticated computer RPG titles either, but we already had two scenarios of Wizardry, on which the next seven years would improve significantly in terms of graphics and sound, but hardly at all in terms of interface and combat tactics. We already had Rogue, and Ultima, and other games that put the capabilities of consoles to shame.

Dragon Stomper is often given as the first console RPG. I don't know if this is true, since Crypts of Chaos for the Atari 2600 and Swords & Serpents for the Intellivision game out the same year. Either way, 1982 was clearly the first year of the console RPG, so Dragon Stomper seems as good as the other two games as a starting point for my investigation into the area.

Dragon Stomper is about as fun as any RPG for the Atari 2600 could be. Because there was no "save" ability and players would have to complete it in a single setting, it compensates for length with difficulty, requiring multiple trials to successfully finish. Until the final battle, combat is almost entirely bereft of any tactics, but it has hit points and dragons, so therefore it must be an RPG.

The framing story is fairly basic. There's a dragon. A long time ago, a druid sought to defeat him, but he accidentally made things worse by dropping a powerful amulet in the dragon's cave, making the dragon more powerful and cunning and allowing him to extend his influence out of his lair. The PC has been commissioned by the king to defeat the dragon and destroy the amulet.

There is no character creation. Every player starts the game as a nameless, faceless, gender-neutral, culturally-ambiguous adventure person with 400 gold pieces, 23 strength (which also serves as hit points), and 23 dexterity. Though the graphics for locations and enemies are discernible, the PC remains a small square throughout.

The game takes place on four successive screens, from which no return to previous screens is possible: a wilderness area, a town, a cave, and the dragon's lair. To successfully navigate the cave and dragon's lair, the player needs to buy the right equipment in the town, which in turn involves collecting enough valuables in the wilderness area.

Chests can hold gold or special items. They can only be opened with keys, another special item to find.

The wilderness area takes more than half the game, and it's here that success or failure is determined. The overland rectangular raster map takes about 36 seconds to traverse north to south and about 48 seconds east to west. The eastern edge culminates in a bridge that takes you to the town, for which you need identification papers (or a very tough fight with the guard) to cross. The rest of the map contains churches, castles, towers, huts, temples, trees, swamps, and other areas where you encounter various creatures and items. The specific goal for this area is to find the papers, but the general goal is to collect enough gold and items to buy the needed equipment in town.

Monsters encountered in the wilderness area include golems, knights, monkeys, slimes, bugs, spiders, ghouls, snakes, beetles, scorpions, and demons. Some of them are located in contextually-sensible areas. For instance, if you wander into a tree, you might encounter a succession of monkeys. Swamps usually contain slimes.

This would be a good name for a rock band.

Any creature can also approach you randomly, and they almost always do when you stand still for more than a few seconds.

Despite their names and relative difficulties in D&D-derived games, all of the monsters encountered here are pitched at about the same difficulty. When you engage with them, the game tells you how much damage you do and how much damage they do, and eventually one of you is dead. I imagine that dexterity and equipment have some influencing factor over the combat roles, but I can't honestly say that I noticed any differences in the damage rolls even as my characters increased in both attributes and gear.

Fighting a giant beetle.. I can't honestly say what goes into the hit rolls.

When you slay an enemy, there's a random chance of finding gold or a special item. Special items include hand axes (I don't know what you're supposed to be fighting with before you find one), shields, gold, potions, crosses, keys, charms, rings, staves, chests, and identification papers. The last object is the only one strictly necessary to progress, but in reality you need all of them. Crosses, charms, rings, and staves alternately increase or decrease strength and dexterity. The specific role assigned to each varies from game to game, but within a specific game, they all do the same thing. There's a maximum to both strength and dexterity of around 50.

No  matter what they do, all special objects "feel weird." In this case, the ring helped me see traps around the castle.

Castles, keeps, huts, and churches either hold special items or encounters with creatures. At churches, you have the ability to pray (I don't know what it does) or donate money for healing.

As you might have seen from the screen shots, the game's interface does the best that it can given that its only inputs are four directions and a button. When you hit the button, you get a "menu" consisting of at least three options activated with the directional stick plus a "more" option that might bring you to three more. So "using" a potion involves hitting the button, pushing the stick to the left, scrolling to the potion, and pushing the stick to the right. This is not, to be fair, terribly dissimilar to what Champions of Krynn did in supporting a joystick control. You push the button to bring up the menu at the bottom, then scroll to your selection, then press the button again. It just takes a lot longer than when everything is activated from a single key.

I survived the wilderness mostly by hanging around a church and fighting random encounters. Whenever my hit points fell to less than 10, I spent $200 to get healed, and usually this was less than what I'd collected in the meantime.

Moving to the next section.

Once you've collected enough stuff--and the identification papers specifically--you can progress across the bridge to the town. The town features three shops, selling equipment, healing potions, and spell scrolls, and you need around $1,500 to buy the minimum necessary to survive in the caves. There are also three patrolling warriors that you can hire for between 200 and 250 gold pieces each to bring with you to the dragon's lair.

The hired warriors appear in your inventory as equipment, so we're still not considering them "NPCs."

Shops in the town will buy whatever you've hauled from the wilderness, including whatever rings, potions, staves, and crosses decrease your abilities (if you were paying attention, you didn't use more than one). The process of selling and buying items, given the limited interface, is both long and annoying. To buy items, you have to walk into them, then go walk into the shopkeeper and choose "Trade," then "Buy," then offer gold for the item.

I never found any use for the gems, or for more than one of any of the other items.

Once you're equipped, you enter the caves at the south end of the town. The caves are a linear level featuring numerous traps that shoot arrows. Fortunately, you can reveal them with the "Vision" spells that you can purchase in the magic shop.
Noting--and avoiding--the locations of traps.
You still have to bypass poison arrows shooting across the screen. They were too fast for me, and I took a bunch of hits, but "medicine" (also purchasable in town) counters their effects.
This section reminds me of Frogger, which Starpath enhanced for the Starpath Supercharger.
At last, you come to a pit, and if you bought a chain or rope in town, you can descend safely. Below, you face the dragon. If you've over-prepared by hiring all three warriors, buying several "Blast" and "Stun" scrolls, and purchasing a bow, he's a little easy. Still, the dragon is the only combat in the game in which tactics really matter. I won by "using" my three hired warriors one by one (though sometimes they refuse to engage him), which sends little icons out to pummel the dragon while you stay behind the front lines. I then used my "Stun" scrolls to put him out of commission for a few turns while I alternately "Blasted" him and shot at him with my bow.

One of my three contracted warriors goes off to attack the dragon while my PC remains in the background at the bottom of the screen.
Once the dragon is dead, you proceed past his carcass, touch the gem, and get the winning screen. I didn't try to hit the gem without killing the dragon first, but apparently it's possible, and an alternate way to "win."
The winning screen flashes different colors a bunch of times. So that' know..."rewarding."
Like a lot of early CRPGs, both console and computer, Dragon Stomper suffers from too little strategy and too much dependence on luck, especially in the "wilderness" section. In a GIMLET, I would give it:
  • 1 point for the game world. You've given a basic framing story, but it serves little role in the game itself.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation, and development is limited to increasing attributes through equipment that you find.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. There are none. [Later edit: Oh, I suppose the guards you can hire are worth at least 1.]
  • 1 points for encounters and foes. There are no "encounters" that require any puzzle-solving or role-playing choices. There are numerous enemies, but barely distinguished form each other except by name and icon.

The warrior almost looks like an NPC icon in a real RPG.

  • 2 points for magic and combat, with all points coming from the final battle--the only place where there are any tactics and the player can use magic.
  • 2 points for equipment. You get scattered items, and it's up to you when to use them. It isn't very sophisticated, but better than most console offerings of the era.
  • 2 points for economy. You do need gold for the town, but the economy in general doesn't play a continual role in the game.
  • 2 points for quests. There's a main quest, with two potential outcomes.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics aren't horrible, with the exception of the little square representing the PC. Sound is acceptable for the era but not exciting. The joystick controls are very limiting and take too long. Yes, this will be a complaint of every console RPG for a while. If you don't want to hear it, don't ask me to play console RPGs.
  • 3 points for gameplay. Though somewhat linear, the game is short, brisk, and challenging without being frustrating.

The final score is 16 [Edit: 17 with my addition of 1 for NPCs]. The lowest rating I gave to a computer RPG in 1982 was 21 for Ultima II, and I really didn't like Ultima II.

Dragon Stomper was the only RPG from the Starpath Corporation (also briefly called the Arcadia Corporation), which specialized in games for the Atari 2600, including Communist Mutants from Space (1982), Survival Island (1983), and Sword of Saros (1983), all notable for their multi-sectioned approach. At least one site claims that the original name was Excalibur, but changed to Dragon Stomper shortly before release. The site suggests it "may have had something to do with copyright issues" (the film Excalibur was released one year prior), but I rather think it may have had something to do with the fact that the game has nothing to do with Excalibur or the Arthurian legends.
The programmer is listed as Stephen Landrum, who went on to work for Epyx and Electronic Arts, but who also never produced another RPG. It's contemporary reviews are quite good, but of course written from the perspective of console game reviewers who must have been enchantec by this exotic idea of "hit points" as opposed to "lives."

Thus, console RPGs aren't off to a terrific start compared to computer RPGs. We'll see how I feel about the first Japanese RPG (published in English) and the first NES RPG before finding out how I feel about Final Fantasy. I hope those of you who voted for FF didn't think I was going to jump right to it. Here on the CRPG Addict, we do things right.

Friday, September 27, 2013

DarkSpyre: White Hot Hatred

Good. This world deserves a terrible fate.

Over 100 games into my project, I've met plenty of games I didn't like, plenty that I thought were stupid, plenty that offended me, plenty that I thought were too hard, plenty that wasted my time--but I prior to DarkSpyre, can't honestly say that I've truly hated a game. Now I know what true, blazing hot hatred really feels like. I would honestly rather play all of my lowest-rated games again five times than play another minute of DarkSpyre

About a week ago, when I last posted, I was committed to putting DarkSpyre aside for a bit and trying to play Dragon Lord. But I've been on the road for the week, and every night upon returning to my hotel, I haven't felt the intellectual energy necessary to learn a new game (and Dragon Lord seems complicated). DarkSpyre, loathsome though I came to find it, was a game that I knew how to play. I figured I'd suck it up, push through it, and get past it by this weekend.

I did make progress, though maddeningly slow--maybe a level and a half each evening. Finally, I achieved the last two runes and was rewarded with a level where I could "spend" the runes on advanced equipment, though some of it was the same stuff I'd been finding all along.

Gideona's gear after the "reward" level.

During this process, I came to love the random maze levels. Though they could be long, they didn't involve any stupid lever, pressure plate, door, key, movable wall, teleportation, or inventory puzzles. They only challenge to them was combat, which is essentially this game's only strong suit. It does a reasonably good job adapting the Dungeon Master mechanic of level progression and special weapon attacks to a top-down interface. I'm not saying it's fantastic, but compared to the game's "puzzles," it's brilliant.

Already at my last post, I was annoyed by the nature of the puzzles. Aside from those, the game continued to get annoying in other ways, including:

1. Numerous enemies capable of poisoning the character, plus poison-causing traps. Poison isn't immediately deadly, but it saps hit points every five seconds or so. Lots of CRPGs feature poison, but there's usually some kind of "cure poison" spell. In this game, curing poison requires an "Algit" potion, which you have to find or make from rubies. There are far more occasions that cause poison than Algit potions or rubies available in the game, meaning I spent a lot of the game walking around with uncured poison, waiting to find another potion.

2. A ton of the higher levels feature barrages of fireballs that shoot from the walls and ricochet down the corridors. They're too fast to outrun or evade, so whether you get slammed with seven of them in a row is far more a matter of luck than skill. I only died a few times from enemies and about 30 times from fireballs.

Lots of reloading on this level.

3. It's feast or famine with weapons. On some levels, I'd find six or seven weapons and have to leave some behind. Then a combat-intensive level would come, and all the weapons I'd hauled from the previous levels would shatter in my hands, one by one, ultimately leaving me with a single dagger or nothing at all. Unarmed fighting does nothing to higher-level enemies. This was annoyingly true of magic weapons, too. I got a very powerful sword called Rancor on the "reward" level, and it lasted maybe three combats before it broke.

Gideona "solves" another sequence of "puzzles."

On the puzzles, I don't have a lot to say, except that I've pulled more levers, weighed down more pressure plates, shoved more giant balls, tossed items into more teleporters, and otherwise trialed-and-errored my way through more game levels than I ever want to do again. There were a few I didn't hate. One made me trace a path through a series of pressure plates such that I didn't cross any of them twice, and it made me fondly recollect a time in my childhood when my mother taught me the "barn door" drawing puzzle and I refused to accept there was no way to do it without putting a roof on the barn. I must have drawn thousands of squares and X's before I finally agreed that it couldn't be done. This one, in contrast, was much more easily solvable--the equivalent of that barn door with two caps instead of one.

Anyway, after I got all the runes and passed through the "reward" level, I entered a level called "War." It wasn't very hard, just lots of combat against foes ("musketeers" among them) that left me with only two viable weapons by the end.

I figured the next level would be "Intellect" and the third would be "Magic," and I was right about the "Intellect" level anyway. The level started with an easy riddle--something like "it separates us from the apes," with the two choices being "intellect" and "stupidity." After that came a more difficult riddle:

A three-volume set of books stand together in order on a shelf. Each book is 3 1/4 inches thick. Each cover is exactly 1/8 of an inch thick. A worm bores a hole straight from the first page of Volume 1 to the last page of Volume 3. How far did the worm travel?

Try it.

If you answered 10.25 inches--three full volumes plus two sets of two covers--you're not thinking about how books are actually arrayed on a shelf. Page 1 of Volume 1 would actually be on the book's right, adjacent to Volume 2, as would the "last page" of Volume 3. Thus, the worm only passes through the full width of Volume 2 plus the two sets of covers on either side. The answer is thus 3.25 plus 4/8 or 3.75.

The game, however, insists that the correct answer is 3.5. I don't know where it gets this idea. It's only calculating two covers, but the worm plainly passes through four: the front cover of Volume 1, the rear cover of Volume 2, the front cover of Volume 2, and the rear cover of Volume 3. Some God of Intellect. [Later edit: Okay, fine. The thickness of the book includes the binding, so I was wrong. I still figured out the order-on-the-shelf part.]

Anyway, even if this one was wrong, I was looking forward to more puzzles like this on the level. I settled in for a sequence of them, entered a teleporter, and found myself confronted with more lever/plate/door/rolling ball puzzles.

Lever/plate/door/rolling ball puzzles from Hell.

I hope whoever designed this level faces a level just like it in Hell.

Each lever and plate seemed to do multiple things, but inconsistently. Enemies wandered all over the level triggering things. No matter what I did, I couldn't get one door open that would allow me to exit the level, and I kept getting stuck behind grates and doors with no way to proceed.

After about four hours trying, I broke down and looked at a walkthrough, but it was no help. It basically said yeah, it sucks, there's no step-by-step instructions you can follow because the rolling balls and enemies create total chaos. I kept reloading and trying, though, and on maybe my 20th try, I managed to make it to the end of the level.

Only to find that I needed a Ambrosia Potion to pass. I'd found a diamond on the level, and used it to make an Ambrosia potion, but I drank it. Goddamn this game.

Nine or ten reloads later, I managed to follow the same sequence--but this time with the potion. I joyfully made it to the end, used the "Raido" rune to save the game, and went through the portal. I found myself on the last level, "MAGIC." Some skulls taunted me with the fact that both Borel and Chesschantra had made it this far but had failed the level.

The level's puzzles seemed to be about the right spells, and fortunately it had replenished all my spell points at the beginning. I moved in, solved one puzzle involving the creation of poison, walked down a corridor, stepped on a pressure plate, and was killed by fireballs.

I went to reload my saved game and got only a black screen.

This is apparently a known corruption. You can't save on the last level or at any point on the previous level once you enter the lever/door puzzle area. My only working save is from five levels ago, before I found the last rune, and no way am I going through that horrible "Intellect" level again every time I die on the "Magic" level. Thus, one level from the end of the game, I must declare defeat--my first unfinished game in over a year.

Screw this game and anyone who likes it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

DarkSpyre: Mazes and Dead-Ends

A level whose title encapsulates the game.

I've been thinking about it a lot--you get a lot of time to think when you play DarkSpyre--and it occurs to me that games with navigation puzzles are little more than conceptual mazes. Let's say you start in a room with a pressure plate, a lever, and a teleporter to exit. If you do things in the right combination, the teleporter will take you to the next level. If you do things in the wrong combination, you get kicked back to the beginning, and everything resets.

Your options are thus:

  • Start > Teleporter
  • Start > Pressure Plate > Teleporter
  • Start > Pressure Plate > Lever > Teleporter
  • Start > Lever > Pressure Plate > Teleporter
  • Start > Lever > Teleporter
You are thus in a conceptual maze with five potential paths, four of which will lead to dead ends. There's no particular intelligence involved in figuring out the right order; you just have to try them all until you find the right path.

Sigh. I suppose I'm going to have to test all of these.

Now add a few other variables into the mix...

  • The lever might require multiple pushes, and it might be intertwined with the pressure plate. For all you know, the right combination is Start > Lever > Pressure Plate > Lever > Lever > Pressure Plate > Lever > Teleporter.
  • Crossing the pressure plate may not be enough. You may have to put something on it and keep it down.
  • Entering the teleporter doesn't "reset" anything; things remain where they are, so the only way to start over is to reload.
  • Even if you're right, entering the teleporter might not take you to an exit. It might take you to a room that looks exactly the same as the first room, with a different combination of "right" moves, only since you think you're back in the first room, you don't bother to try the ones you've already tried.
  • Instead of one lever and one pressure plate, there are eight levers and nine pressure plates, each located a five-minute walk from the others, so trying even a handful of combinations requires the better part of an afternoon.
  • You may reach the final room only to find a keyhole that requires an item you used to weigh down the pressure plate in the first room.

...and you'll have an idea of what it's like to play DarkSpyre.

Another dead end with no way out.

I get that there's a certain appeal to this sort of game. People who like Sudoku might like it. Sudoku is another type of conceptual maze. You look at a square and figure that either a 1 or a 9 can go there. If a 9 goes there, then either a 4 or a 7 goes in the square next to it. If a 7 goes there, then the 4 must go here, but the 4 can't go there--we've hit a dead end--so we have to return to the previous branch of the maze. Some people can work out the combinations faster than others, but that doesn't change the nature of the puzzle.

Helpful tip...or reverse psychology?
I don't like Sudoku. I like crossword puzzles. I like puzzles that require knowledge, cleverness, and lateral thinking. If DarkSpyre consisted of 127 consecutive sphinx riddles, I'd think it was great. As it is, I find the levels tedious and exhausting. I've only played five of them since the last post, and they collectively took me more than six hours.

The half-hour video below shows some of the puzzles that I had to solve through rote repetition. It's not even one of the harder levels. You also get to see inventory, attributes, skills, combat, and other elements of the game. Even though I've already played once at this point, and have taken careful notes, I still get screwed up in a few places.

The enemies have gotten a little harder, but I've only died once. Dying, incidentally, treats you to a graphic of the three gods' heads floating around the screen while they note that the "last champion" has failed and the world will be destroyed.

"We will create a race of beings more talented at repeatedly banging their heads against walls."

The only time I've really been in a tough situation is when all my weapons shattered except for a large "troll club" that left me exhausted from swinging it, and most of my spell points were used up. It's near-impossible to flee from an enemy, especially when your endurance is low (it makes you walk slower), so I ended up feebly punching him until he killed me. On a reload, I just spaced more time between enemies, allowing my spell points and hit points to regenerate, and I did fine. The experience really drove home the importance of having backup weapons--not just one, but three or four. A long sword called "Whirlwind" was great for a while, but it ultimately shattered just like all the others.

About to die.

At one point, I found an invisibility spell and cast it to see how it worked. It predictably turned my character invisible, which made it nearly impossible to fight, because I couldn't see where I was or which way I was facing. Despite the handicap, I painfully navigated an entire level waiting for it to wear off before I realized the way to deactivate it was to cast it again.

An ironic message to get when I can't even see myself.

Overall, despite deliberately creating a spellcasting character (with high "power" and "talent"), I haven't been using many spells beyond healing and the "Knock" and "Zap-Away" spells you need to solve certain puzzles. They take too much power and the points regenerate too slowly.

I just thought this was a cool shot. Fortunately, there's an option to avoid all these enemies.

At this point, I've found three of the five runes I need before the end game, so I guess I'm about halfway done. But it's going to be slow-going from here. The levels are taking longer and longer, and I don't have the stamina to complete more than one at a time without a long break. I can envision DarkSpyre extending for several more weeks. Let's see if Dragon Lord offers any kind of interesting contrast.