Sword of Fargoal
Epyx (developer and publisher)Jeff McCord (creator)
Date Started: 23 January 2014
Date Ended: 23 January 2014
Date Ended: 23 January 2014
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at Time of Posting: 25/134 (19%)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at Time of Posting: 25/134 (19%)
Sword of Fargoal is an audio treasure chest in which every effect is a gem. Each clang, crunch, shriek of a sword blade, victory tune, jingle of coins, chugging of a healing potion, explosion, collapsing of a ceiling, and crescendo upon finding an up staircase is perfectly timed and pitched, making it one of the only games of the era that I wouldn't dream of playing with the sound off. But unlike Dungeons of Daggorath, in which the audio was vital to gameplay, Fargoal doesn't absolutely require the use of sound. It just has a lot of fun with it. (I didn't make a recording, but watch this video if you want to hear everything.)
Fargoal has been called a roguelike, but I think that gives the game a little too much credit. Although I enjoyed it, it's more of an arcade game than an RPG, and it doesn't have any of Rogue's complexity when it comes to inventory, enemies, and combat. Its only roguelike features are permadeath and a randomly-generated map that slowly fills in as you explore. In difficulty, I found it to be the inverse of Rogue: easy on the way down, almost impossible on the way up.
When I saw the name coming up on my list, it rang a bell, but I didn't think I had ever played it before. But after I fired it up, saw the font, and started hearing the sounds, it triggered a four-hour episode of déjà vu. I'm pretty sure I played it with a friend and we giggled like idiots every time we found a "magic sack." I also broke into a cold sweat when I encountered a "war lord," so this must have been my bête noire at an earlier age.
The framing story tells the tale of the Protectorate Sword, a blade that, when wielded by someone good, could vanquish any evil. It was kept in a temple in the land of Ferrin for good-hearted warriors to pick up in a time of need. One day, a young fighter named Gedwyn was asked to fetch the sword and use it against a dragon terrorizing a forest. With thoughts of glory in his mind, he retrieved the weapon and rode to the forest, only to find it was all a lie. An evil wizard named Umla had tricked him into bringing him the sword so he could throw it deep in a dungeon, where no one could use it to stop his plans of conquest. The player is an unnamed hero who vows to find the blade for Gedwyn.
The sword lies somewhere between Level 15 and Level 20. For all of the levels above, you're fighting monsters, gaining experience, finding magic items and spells, and collecting treasures. Once you have the sword, the game starts a timer of 2000 seconds (about 33 minutes), and you have to exit the dungeon, with the sword, during that time, or you lose.
The game was originally written for the Commodore VIC-20 in 1982, then improved for the Commodore 64 a year later. It's the C64 version that most people remember, and the one I'm playing. This is my first game with a C64 emulator; I'm using VICE, and it's been a breeze--a far more satisfying experience than the nightmare I've had emulating Amiga games.
It's meant to to be played with a joystick and keyboard in combination, but the interesting thing is that the keyboard is mostly optional. The joystick moves you around the dungeon. If you move on top of a monster, you automatically attack. If you move on top of a treasure, you automatically pick it up. The button activates "panic mode," which spends the appropriate spell to get you out of a tough situation. If your hit points fall below 0, you automatically drink a healing potion if you have one. The button also takes you up and down stairs if you're standing on them. Technically, that's all you need. With the keyboard, you can fine-tune your gameplay by casting certain spells when you want to cast them, but you could get by without it if your preference is to play while sitting on the couch with a drool bucket.
There's no character creation; everyone starts with 11 hit points, a battle skill of 9, one healing potion, and one teleport spell. As the game begins, you can only see a few squares around you. As you explore, the automap slowly fills in. Unlike Rogue and most other roguelikes, you can see monsters in any area that you've already explored. Other than monsters, there are several things to watch for as you explore levels:
1. Trap/treasure squares. These squares may have a trap or may have a treasure. You don't find out until you step on it. If it's a trap, and you act quickly by pressing the button, you might be able to avoid its effects if you have the proper spell. For instance, the "teleport" spell will whisk you away from a ceiling trap. The "shield" spell blocks an explosion trap.
|This one was a trap.|
Treasures include a variety of spells--invisibility, regeneration, teleport, shield, drift, light--magic sacks (allow you to carry more gold), magic maps of other levels, teleportation beacons, enchantments for your weapon, and healing potions. There is otherwise no weapon or armor inventory in the game.
2. Gold. There's nothing to buy in the game, but you can amass gold pieces and turn them in at temples for extra experience points. You can carry 100 gold pieces plus 100 more for every "magic sack" that you have. Excess gold can be buried and retrieved later.
3. Temples. There's one temple per level. Not only does it convert gold to experience, it serves as a permanent "Elbereth" square; no monster will attack while you're standing on one. This makes it an ideal place to regenerate hit points.
|I'm standing on a temple. None of those monsters will attack me until I feel like leaving and bringing the fight to them.|
Combat is absolutely bereft of tactics but fun nonetheless. You enter combat when you occupy the same square as an enemy. The game immediately goes into Batman mode, annotating rounds of combat with exclamations like "Growl!," "Shriek!," "Thud," "Clink, "Clang," "Shred," and "Ouch!" Each is accompanied by an appropriate sound effect (as well as a little two-note victory tune at the end). You can't see the damage you're doing to your foe during these rounds, but you watch your own hit point total slowly deplete, and there are some wonderfully tense moments as you sit there thinking, "He'll die this round, right? No? Next time?" All the while, your hit points are going from 70 to 55 to 43 to 39 to 21. "Oh, come on!" you cry, your hand over the joystick button, ready to run or teleport away when you cross some threshold.
|Part of a combat round.|
Your combat skill and hit point totals are determined by your level. The number of experience points required for each level-up doubles every time, so you plateau by dungeon level 10 or so.
Monsters do get more difficult as you head downward, but that isn't the real dynamic of the game. The more important element is the variance between the time given to the player and enemies in each turn--a system I've seen nowhere else. Unlike most games, where you trade turn-for-turn with enemies, in Fargoal, you start at a huge advantage, able to move 10 or 12 times for every one of the monsters' movements. (Monsters' turns are highlighted with a sort-of droning sound, the one sound effect in the game that I didn't like.) You could literally run circles around them. Unless you're unlucky enough to blunder into them in the hallways, you never have to fight a single monster. The ratio gets smaller as you descend the levels, and by the time you're on the level with the Sword of Fargoal, it's close to 1:1.
|There are a lot of enemies in this room, but it's an early level, so I can easily keep away from them.|
(Elaborating on the above: technically, the game isn't turn-based, and monsters will move if you just stand there. The variance between your time and theirs is not in movements but in time. However, it's more complicated than that, because if you just stand still, your turn ends sooner than if you move constantly during the turn. If you change movement direction during the turn, you'll get fewer moves than if you go a consistent direction. The game thus uses an odd hybrid between turn-based and time-based movement.)
The major combat tactic in the game is to always be sure that you're the one who attacks. If a monster attacks you, it's a fight to the death unless you have a "teleport" spell. But if you attack the enemy, you can flee at any time--and because of the turn variance, you can usually get a few squares away. In tandem, these two elements have a number of implications, such as exploring corridors slowly and trying not to end up right next to a monster when your turn's time runs out.
The fact that you almost always have a movement advantage makes the early game fairly easy (which is nice, since death is permanent). You just have to keep on your toes and flee when your hit points get too low. Health slowly regenerates when you stand around, and if you can find a temple--where monsters won't attack you--you've got it made. Stand on the temple until you get back to your maximum, then go attack whatever monsters you want. If they "clang" and "crunch" you too low, run away and go back to the temple.
I wish I could remember playing this when I was a kid, because I suspect 11-year-old Chet was too impatient to just stand there on a temple, waiting for his hit points to recharge. I'll bet he wandered around at half-health for most of the game. Using an emulator, it's easy to cheat this process by standing on a temple and cranking up the CPU speed, passing in three seconds what might have taken five minutes in normal gameplay. The only way to honestly speed up the regeneration process in-game is the "regeneration" spell.
Most monsters just do melee damage, but a few have special attacks. Mages can utterly wipe away your accumulated magic spells. Thieves and monks can steal your treasure, though it's easy to chase them down and get it back. Assassins are invisible unless they're in the square right next to you; they like to linger by stairs. Demons drain experience levels.
The levels are randomly generated, and they change each time you leave and return, so there's no point taking screen shots for the way back up. Sometimes, the random generation produces odd results, such as half-levels where you can't get from one side to the other. (There are no secret doors.) Although I didn't experience it, I've read that some players get to the Sword of Fargoal level and, after thorough exploration, find that the random designer made it impossible to get through the maze to the sword. They have to go up and come back.
|A half-level. There are monsters and treasures out there, but I won't be able to get to them.|
In such an environment, the magic map treasure is probably the most valuable item in the game. It immediately reveals an entire level--treasures, monsters, temple, stairs, everything. You can "lose" your memory of the map when you step in a trap. There's nothing more annoying than having a magic map of a level only to lose it the first time you step into a trap/treasure square.
|I arrive on a level for which I have a map. The screen slowly boxes in from the outside.|
In between levels, you get an update of your character status and inventory; you can't otherwise call these up. After you get the sword, these transition screens also display the remaining time.
|The two transition screens between levels. I'm doing all right.|
I'm not going to pretend that I won the game without cheating. My goal in these "backtracking" posts is more to fully document the games than to play by my normal rules, and I wasn't eager for dozens of gameplay hours, no matter how much I liked it. I used save states a few times on the way down, and constantly on the way back up.
As I noted, the way down isn't too hard with a little planning and patience. You can avoid most fights, flee from the ones you initiate, and heal up in between them. If you save teleport spells for when you need to escape from the rare fight that the enemy initiates, you're fine.
The level with the titular sword looks different from all the others--a maze rather than a series of rooms. I was lucky enough to have found a map of the level, so it was easy to get to the sword once I arrived. There's no special protection around the sword.
|Finding the sword on the maze level.|
Once you pick up the sword, however, the game fundamentally changes. From that moment, you have 33 minutes to get back to the surface, so to the best extent possible, you want to go stairway to stairway. No fighting, no gold, no treasures, no temples. The problem is that you have to re-explore all the levels on the way up. Sometimes you get really lucky, like this . . .
. . . and other times, you have to reveal the entire level to find the stairs.
|This one would have taken a long time to find if I hadn't cheated.|
Making it even worse, any enemy who attacks you (as opposed to you attacking them) steals the sword and immediately disappears. The sword returns to the level on which you found it, and the clock doesn't stop running. Thus, unless this happens only a level or so away from where you found it in the first place, you almost certainly don't have time to go back down, grab it again, and return to the surface. You want to avoid enemies like the plague. This is a time to burn all your accumulated "invisibility" spells.
Magic maps on the way up are a mixed blessing. It's great that you can see the way to the stairway, but the map takes about half a minute to draw, and this time is deducted from your clock.
I cheated horribly during this section by saving a save state at the beginning of each dungeon level, finding the stairs, then re-loading and heading immediately for them. Even doing that, I reached the top with only eight minutes to spare, so I can imagine how tense it must have been on the original system. Legions of players must have found the sword and made their way towards the surface, only to run out of time on the fifth level or have the sword stolen on the third. I shout enough when I fail timed missions in Assassin's Creed; I can't imagine the howling I'd produce after spending four hours on this game only to run out the clock with a couple levels to go.
|Making it back to the first-level stairway, with the sword in hand.|
It really does take that long. You had to be prepared to invest some serious time in Sword of Fargoal. My winning game took 4.5 hours of gameplay time. It wasn't that long for me, because some of that time was spend standing on temples and letting the CPU run at "warp" speed, but it would have been that long on original equipment. There's no saving it for later, and no bathroom breaks until you find a temple. That must have been brutal.
|The "winning" screen.|
If you make it, you get a message that says "Your quest is complete!" and then a screen of your overall statistics. If the clock runs out, next time you change levels, you get a message that says "out of time!" but then it takes you to the same statistics screen. Except for that brief flash of "Out of time!" or "Your quest is complete!" you wouldn't really be able to tell if someone won the game or not.
|My only proof.|
In any event, this is not a game intended to be covered in one sitting, "won," and put away. It's meant to take a lot of tries, perhaps never fully won, with players comparing times and experience levels. Part of me wants to see how many tries it would take to win it honestly, or if it would be possible to win the game without fighting a single combat. I actually tried the latter, but I only made it to Level 5 before I got killed by a ceiling trap.
As I said, although it's fun, innovative, and charming, Sword of Fargoal isn't much of a role-playing game under classic definitions, and it doesn't do terribly well in the GIMLET, earning only a score of 19. Its highest categories are "graphics, sound, and interface" and "gameplay" (both 4s), but it loses out on no NPCs, almost no economy, limited combat tactics, and not much of an inventory. Don't pay attention to the score. Enjoy it on its own terms.
Sword of Fargoal was developed by Jeff McCord and published by Epyx; it is notably one of only three RPGs from Epyx outside the Dunjonquest series. The manual boasts production qualities characteristic of Epyx: strong writing, stylish formatting (most manuals of the era were written on a typewriter), and evocative images.
|A couple of manual pages.|
Like some of the other developers we've seen recently, McCord was something of a one-hit wonder. Fargoal was his only game. The Wikipedia article on the game has an inadequately-cited account that states he started working on the game in 1979, calling it Gammaquest II (we are left to wonder what it has to do with gamma, or what the first Gammaquest was). When Epyx picked it up for publication, McCord wanted to call it Fargaol ("far jail"), but Epyx insisted on reversing the two vowels. McCord's MobyGames bio says that after Fargoal, he worked on a science fiction game for Electrionc Arts but never finished it. He got out of the game business for a while and instead simultaneously ran a graphic design company and a couple of home restoration businesses.
In 2003, Paul Pridham and Elias Pschernig made a PC remake of Fargoal. In a 2011 Macmodo interview, McCord recounts that when they showed it to him, he was impressed but reminded them that it was copyrighted. Rather than ask them to desist, he suggested they start a company and market it. This endeavor became Fargoal, LLC, and they produced versions of the game for iOS in 2009 and for the Mac in 2010. In 2012, they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to create Sword of Fargoal 2. (Incredibly, they did not use the opportunity to set a regular goal and a "far goal." Seriously, guys. That one wrote itself.) I'm not sure what the sequel's current status is.
|The iOS version of the game.|
So there you have it: a game that fails most RPG criteria, but I liked it anyway, and moreover, I can see why people remember it fondly and want to buy updated versions today. It didn't do everything I want out of an RPG, but amongst the things that it did, it didn't do anything wrong.
Next up: Spirit of Excalibur (1990), followed by Empire II: Interstellar Sharks, now that I have a copy.