The Caverns of Freitag
Released 1982 for the Apple II
Date Started: 4 January 2014
Date Ended: 4 January 2014
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at Time of Posting: 12/131 (9%)
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at Time of Posting: 12/131 (9%)
Every once in a while, in a game like Skyrim, I'll be trying to get away from some vampires or bandits, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I come to a switchback in the dungeon. I figure if I can take the corners fast enough, my enemies will lose their direct route to me and they'll give up. More often than I care to admit, I'm surprised when they come charging around the corner anyway while I'm in the middle of trying to cast a healing spell. I often forget how much sophistication the modern era has brought to pathfinding.
In the 1980s, things were different. Exploiting primitive pathfinding was often the only tactic you had at your disposal. It allowed you to take on hordes of monsters one at a time in games like Ultima and NetHack, or to draw them to you in smaller groups as in the Gold Box games. Enemies' failure to navigate around walls is all that kept me alive in The Land. Gamers of this era developed an almost instinctive feel for enemy behavior around obstacles--to know just how many steps they could walk in some direction before the enemy would "click" and decide to round the corner.
This dynamic is exemplified in The Caverns of Freitag, a 1982 offering from MUSE Software, best known for Castle Wolfenstein from a year earlier. It's also the first game written by the colorful David Shapiro, AKA "Dr. Cat," who would go on to work at Origin and contribute to Ultima V and Ultima VI. He appears as an NPC in both games (an innkeeper in Paws) and the dragon Freitag's skull is one of the exhibits in the museum in Ultima VI. My understanding is that almost all the NPC characterizations in that game come from his imagination. I look forward to playing it soon.
The Caverns of Freitag is basically an arcade game with some RPG elements. The setup is that you're a "Thechu Warrior" from the "Enchanted Islands," a land that an evil dragon named Freitag has held in his grip for 300 years. Freitag keeps his lair deep in a series of caverns on one of the islands, surrounded by evil monsters, and your mission is to travel through the caves and slay him. I'm obliged to note that "Freitag" is the German word for "Friday," making him one of the more lamely-named RPG enemies.
The game takes place on a map of around 75 x 75 squares (the passages are all twisty and it takes too long to count precisely). The player starts at an inn in the far west and the dragon's lair is the far southeast corner. The only character creation options are the name, the difficulty level (from 1-9), and the "game speed," which is basically how long the player has to act each round before the game records a "pass."
After this, the game begins, and there is no way to pause or save. If you want to use the bathroom or grab a drink or something, you need to find a safe corner and hope no enemies generate where they can find you. You move through the dungeon with a keycluster centered on "H" ("Y" is north; "J" east; "B" southwest) and attack enemies with the CTRL key plus the appropriate direction. You switch between bow attacks and sword attacks with the SPACE bar.
|Shooting at an electric moth. Those enemies in the lower left will remain around the corner until I reach the opening.|
Each kill provides experience, and leveling up is pretty rapid. You can reach up to Level 10 before killing Freitag. Every level confers another 100 base hit points (you start with 125) plus serves as a damage multiplier for attacks. (The best I can figure, the damage done by each attack is 1d10*the level. I didn't notice any difference when I got a magic sword +2.)
|My character is Level 5 in this shot, so he must have rolled a 6.|
There are treasure chests in the dungeon. A few of them hold +1 or +2 sword or shield upgrades; the rest have gold, which you can use back at the inn to purchase either arrows or additional base hit points. Thus, gold never stops being valuable in the game. Returning to the inn automatically restores all hit points and levels you up if you've amassed enough experience. Unfortunately, the inn is in an inconvenient location, so you have to plan your expeditions carefully.
There's only one magic spell: by hitting the ESC key, you can turn into a bird for a few turns and flutter away at twice your normal movement speed. It's useful for escaping in a jam.
The enemies are original to the game. There are about a dozen of them, and some have special attacks, defenses, and AI. For instance, "electric moths" are the only enemies capable of attacking you on the diagonal; "coldcrystals" do very little damage but have a very high number of hit points; "invisoids" are invisible, and you can only return their attacks by testing random squares. There are mimics who look like treasure chests. Perhaps the most annoying enemies of all are the evil wizards, who zap you with lightning bolts from afar and backpedal away when you approach them.
|I've got him cornered now!|
Both monsters and chests respawn, but the game seems to prohibit this until you're a few screens away. I never had anything respawn on the active screen.
Plotting a successful mission is very much about luring enemies into favorable terrain, using walls and treasure chests as blockades, and trying wherever possible to get them into a situation where you can hit them on the diagonal but they can't hit you. (This is, in fact, a nice inversion of what we see in the early Ultima games, where the monsters can attack you diagonally but not the other way around.)
|As long as I don't pick up that chest, they can't hit me. I just need to lure them to that little corner one-by-one.|
Perhaps the most admirable innovation in Freitag is the three approaches to the map interface. Switching among them is as simple as hitting the numbers 1, 2, and 3 on the keyboard. The first interface simply shows you yourself, treasure chests, and enemies as icons. It's the one you've seen multiple times above.
The second interface shows your character sheet, with a small area map in the upper right corner. Monsters are cued as letters, much as in a roguelike game.
The third interface is the large-scale map. Here, you can only see yourself and healers, but it gives you a much stronger sense of the terrain of the surrounding dungeon. You can move in all three interfaces and attack in the first two.
|Note the lower-right.|
Once you hit Level 5 or so, it becomes pretty easy to stay alive as long as you don't mind retreating to the inn when your hit points drop; this can be a long and boring process since the mazes are so twisty. Freitag himself isn't so hard; the difficulty, rather, is getting all the way to his lair without other enemies depleting your hit points. Random "healers" appear occasionally, but you have to chase them down and corner them to move into their squares and have some of your hit points restored.
|Timing my movement to avoid his breath.|
Freitag is a large, unmoving creature--called, for some reason, a "dwagon"--who breathes flames every three turns, so you have to carefully plot your movement during your approach. Once you're next to him, he hits pretty hard, but I managed to kill him with only half my hit points lost. He flashes a couple of times when he dies and then just disappears. You get elevated to a new rank of "Dragon Slayer."
The last step is to return across the map to the inn, chased by his angry minions.
|These guys aren't happy with me.|
You get a little victory screen with fireworks, after which you can try again on a higher difficulty level. I think the difficulty only affects the type and number of monsters that appear. At lower levels, you get more serpents and moths; at higher levels, more phoenixes and wizards.
As this description indicates, Freitag barely qualifies as an RPG under my rules, with some extremely limited character development, combat based on one attribute plus random rolls, and no inventory. Nonetheless, I wanted to play it for its history. It only took about two hours to figure it out and win one game (admittedly on a low difficulty level).
Shapiro did an AMA on Reddit last year and talked a little about the origins of this game:
Back in 1982, a typical way into the field was to make an entire game all by yourself--programming, art, animation, writing, sound, music, game design, everything. Then put it on a 5 1/4" floppy disk and mail it to one or more publishers and get a publishing deal. That's what I did, with Muse software, publishers of Castle Wolfenstein.
It was a strange choice for MUSE, since they never published any other RPGs. (The company went out of business in 1986.) This is Shapiro's last credited game before the Origin titles in the late 1980s. His stint at Origin wasn't very long--five or six years--and according to his AMA, for the last 20 years he's been working on MMORPGs, particularly one called Furcadia, which has been online since 1996.
Freitag is a minor title, even for 1982, and it only earns a 15 on my GIMLET scale. Its economy, creatures, interface, and quick gameplay are worth a few points. I think it's impressive what Shapiro was able to accomplish as a young developer working alone, but I'm glad we're in an era in which the success of Wizardry started producing CRPGs of greater depth and complexity.
In list news, we've had a bit of a massacre this week. After some investigation, I've rejected the following titles as RPGs:
- Crypt of the Undead (1982). I read the manual and watched a gameplay video on youtube. It appears to be a timed action game. Hit points alone don't make an RPG.
- Xenomorph (1990): I couldn't find any evidence of character development, and combat seems to be based solely on weapons. It feels like more of a proto-first-person-shooter.
- Battle Master (1990): This one was always iffy from the start. Only GameFAQs classified it as an RPG, and when GameFAQs conflicts with MobyGames, it's usually the latter that turns out to be correct. I played it a little; it's a squad-based strategy game.
- Dungeon! (1982): I can't find any evidence that this game actually exists. It was supposedly published by TSR in 1982, perhaps based on their long-running board game, but I can't find any links to it, and it doesn't show up on lists of TSR games.
- Cadaver (1990): Appears to be an action-adventure game with a thief protagonist in which the main gameplay element is box-stacking puzzles. Might be fun, but not an RPG. MobyGames used to list it as such but has since rescinded.
I've listed them all as "rejected" on my master, but I'll reconsider them if anyone wants to make a strong case for their RPG-ness. Just keep in mind my three criteria: character leveling/development, combat based at least partly on character attributes, and an inventory that's not simply about puzzle-solving.