Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Game 137: Spirit of Excalibur (1990)

Excalibur is named as Arthur's sword going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1130s) and Welsh legend, but it's not until the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin (c. 1230-1240) that he's specifically said to have gotten it from the Lady of the Lake. This scene, including the sunset and the Lady's glove, is directly inspired by the concluding scene of John Boorman's Excalibur (1981). Oh, yes. You're getting schooled on this one.

In about 1988 or 1989--I would have been a sophomore in high school--I caught a bit of Excalibur on some UHF station. I don't think I watched much of it, but it got me thinking that while I'd heard about "King Arthur" and the "Knights of the Round Table" in various places, I didn't really know anything about them. The next day, I asked my high school librarian for her suggestions on a book to read, and she recommended T. H. White's The Once and Future King.

The comparable shot at the conclusion of the Boorman film. It makes sense to begin the game with this shot, since the game takes place after the death of King Arthur.

That book swiftly became my favorite book of all time--it still is--and my librarian's recommendation was a major turning point in my life. It led, directly and indirectly, to numerous life choices, mostly too personal to talk about, but which still have ramifications 25 years later. The most relevant outcome for this blog post is that I studied Arthurian literature throughout college. I read works spanning a thousand-year history, from Nennius to Tennyson. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Mabinogion, Wace, Layamon, Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, Thomas Malory, Edmund Spenser--I consumed them all, and plenty more. I read works translated from French, German, Welsh, Italian, Icelandic, even Hebrew, and in a few cases, when no translation was available, I painstakingly read them with a dictionary at my side. To this day, I can remember the text in which Lancelot gets a full story (Chrétien's Le Chevalier de la Charrete, c. 1180s), the first text to mention the Round Table (Wace's Roman de Brut, c. 1155), and the first appearance of the Sword in the Stone (a prose redaction of Robert de Boron's Merlin, c. 1199).

Here are some things you may or may not know about King Arthur:

  • "Arthurian literature" consists of more than a thousand books, chronicles, short stories, ballads, poems, inscriptions, sculptures, and plays written over a period of about 1,200 years. Even in the Middle Ages, Arthur was pan-national, with stories appearing all across Europe and beyond.
  • We're not really sure Arthur was a real person. The first known text to mention him was written more than three hundred years after he lived. The best evidence that we have for his existence is that a bunch of other historical figures were suddenly named "Arthur" in the sixth and seventh centuries, as if they were being named after someone famous.
  • If he did exist, he was probably a British general who fought the Saxons in the late 400s or early 500s. He almost certainly wasn't a king. (Unless you believe in the "Riothamus" connection, which I'll leave you to read on your own.)
  • Everything else we associate with him--the Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Lancelot, Guinevere, the love triangle, Avalon--are creations of writers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some is grafted from ancient Celtic mythology, some simply invented by French court poets.
  • The Holy Grail exists entirely within Arthurian literature. It first appears in Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval (c. 1180), but it's a dish and has no connection with Jesus Christ or the Last Supper. It doesn't become the "Holy" Grail until Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie of around 1200. It's not mentioned in any non-Arthurian texts until the 20th century. Indiana Jones and his dad were searching for something that 12th-century French poets invented as a plot device for Percival.
  • The earliest other figure tied to Arthur is Mordred. A passage in the Annales Cambriae (c. 970) mentions the cryptic "Battle of Camlann" in 537, "in which Arthur and Medraut fell and there was death in Britain and Ireland." The text mentions no relation between them and does not even say they were on opposing sides.
  • "Excalibur" is mentioned as "Caliburn" in the earliest Arthurian stories and is called "Caledfwlch" in Welsh legend. It probably comes from the Latin chalybs--"steel." Although it is often associated with the Sword in the Stone (an element that appeared in later French versions of the legend), in about half the sources that mention the Sword in the Stone, it is a different weapon. Arthur pulls it from the stone but later discards it when he receives Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.

With my extensive history studying the legends of King Arthur, you'd think I'd naturally be drawn to a game like Spirit of Excalibur, but that isn't necessarily the case. You see, I get very agitated at unnecessary variations on the legend (which is stupid considering how much the legends themselves vary from each other). I watch a film like King Arthur (2004, with Clive Owen), and I sit there shrieking, "Arthur wasn't a Roman officer! The Romans had been gone from Britain for 80 years! And what the @#$* is a 'Woad'?!" I bristle whenever anyone mentions Arthur as the king of "England," which didn't exist as a term until the ninth century.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the creators of Spirit of Excalibur did their homework. The manual comes with a three-page "historical overview" of Arthur's time and his place in history, followed by a seven-page "survey of the myths of Arthur." The scholarship in this section is quite good, although it gets a few facts wrong, particularly its statement that "the first documented record of Arthur comes to use from Geoffrey of Monmouth's [Historia Regum Britanniae]." This isn't quite true. Geoffrey's book dates from the 1130s, but there are earlier references to Arthur in the Historia Brittonum (c. 830) attributed to Nennius and the Annales Cambriae (c. 970). Certain Welsh legends, though based on texts that post-date Geoffrey, probably pre-date him in origin. There are several others. It is correct, though, that Geoffrey's text has the first full account of Arthur's life.

I also have to admire the game for being a bit ballsy on the theme. You'd think in a game called Spirit of Excalibur, they'd bet the bank on Arthur himself and feature him front-and-center. That's not the case. The game takes place amidst the chaos after Arthur's death, and again the back story is notable in the attention that it pays to its various sources, starting with the opening sentences: "It is the year 539 in Arthurian England. Arthur has been killed at the battle of Camlann, and his realm is in ferment." The "England" part aside (and to be fair, Malory has no problem calling Arthur the King of England), the date can only be based on the Annales Cambriae, which places Arthur's death at 537. If the creators had just relied on Malory as the source, his date of death would have been closer to 500 (Malory says that the Grail Quest started in 479).

Looks like the developers went with 14 seats for their version of the Round Table. The number given by various texts ranges from 13 (Didot-Perceval) to 1600 (Layamon). No source that I can find gives exactly 14.

"You are the Crown Regent, Lord Constantine, King Arthur's successor as leader of the Knights of the Round table." Constantine was first given as Arthur's successor in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and he seems to have been based on a real king of Devon and Cornwall. He doesn't appear in many versions of the Arthurian cycle, but he does appear in the big ones (Geoffrey, Wace, Layamon, Malory). He is notably the son of Cador of Cornwall, who was the son of Gorlois of Cornwall, the king that Uther Pendragon cuckolded to father Arthur in the first place. The legends don't really mention how Constantine became Arthur's designated heir, but I like to think Arthur was trying to make up for the circumstances of his birth.

I'm going to be going on like this for a while, so here's another opening screen shot to keep you interested.

"Much of Arthur's power, however, is not yours to command. Sir Lancelot du Lac, Arthur's great companion, incomparable champion . . . has gone into retreat. He has taken the greater part of Arthur's veterans with him." Now we switch to Malory, who wrote his great work in the 1450s and 1460s. Lancelot doesn't appear in Geoffrey of Monmouth or any of the putative "historical" versions of the Arthurian myth. In Geoffrey, the battle between Arthur and Mordred takes place after Arthur returns from a war against Rome. By the time of Malory's text, the Roman War was pushed to the beginning of Arthur's reign, and the final battle takes place when Arthur returns from France from a brief war with Lancelot (although there's a confusing second Roman War in there as well). In Malory, it is true that most of Arthur's best knights have sided with Lancelot, not because they think he's in the right, but because Lancelot has been their captain for decades, and Arthur's reaction to the discovery of the affair (condemn Lancelot, burn Guinevere) seems a bit extreme.

"To make matters worse, the legacy of Arthur's bastard son Mordred has come back to haunt you. Though Arthur slew Mordred in his final battle, his sons Melehan and Morgolon have grown to maturity and are carrying on Mordred's quest to usurp the throne!" Geoffrey gives Mordred as Arthur's nephew, the son of his sister Anna. Mordred doesn't become Arthur's illegitimate, incestuous son until the Vulgate Cycle of the 13th century. Anyway, I'm most impressed by "Melehan." I had to go online to look this up, but I think the only sources in which he appears by this name are the Vulgate Mort Artu and the Post-Vulgate Mort Artu, which would have been somewhat obscure sources at the time this game was made. Oddly, although many sources say Mordred had two sons, only one of them is ever named. I'm pretty sure the creators made up "Morgolon."

In this general theme, the creators are going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who does say that Constantine finished the war against Mordred's sons (who are unnamed). I hope the game doesn't end the way Geoffrey's account does, in which Constantine personally chases Mordred's sons into the church in Winchester and slays them on the altar--a sacrilege that brings down the Wrath of God and leads to Constantine's murder at the hands of his own nephew and heir, Conan. Though I guess it would make a memorable final scene.

From this game's "map" view, you're occasionally notified of individual episodes that take you to the "scene" view.
 
Spirit of Excalibur was created by Robert Clardy's Synergistic Software, and like just about any game with which Clardy was involved, it resists classification. Like War in Middle Earth (1988), from which its interface evolved, it exists somewhere between an RPG, an adventure game, and a strategy game. The interface is a combination of the campaign level and the local level, and the action chugs along whether you're ready for it or not, switching schizophrenically between episodes and themes. Within the first five or ten minutes, you're navigating the highways of Britain on a map, talking with individual villagers, fighting a one-on-one combat against an evil knight, and fielding an army in defense of a castle--all with very little control over when these interludes begin and end.

The game is an RPG in the sense that each character has defined attributes and personal inventories.
 
The game takes place in five "episodes." The first, "The Kingmaking," is a sort-of tutorial in which you face some pretty basic decisions. It begins with Constantine in York, having a chat with King Clariance of Northumberland. I don't know what Constantine is doing in York, so far from the action, but perhaps he was visiting a statue of his namesake, Constantine the Great, who was became Emperor of Rome while visiting York in 306 (both he and his father, Emperor Constantius I, were in the city when Constantius died). Anyway, Constantine immediately hits the road to head towards Camelot to be crowned king.

Some useless advice from a maiden along the way.

On the way, he meets a variety of citizens--a townsman, a monk, a traveler, a friar, a damsel--and gets various bits of information from each. (Each city, no matter how large, has exactly one NPC, it seems.) Your only role-playing options here are to stop and talk or continue on. If you talk, you don't get any dialogue options. The citizens speak their piece and the game continues.

In Lincoln, I find that an evil knight named Lupinus has challenged the noble Sir Villars to single combat, but Villars has been injured fighting some bandits. (I think both names are inventions of this game.) A monk asks me to serve as Villars's champion. I agree and encounter Lupinus in the village.

Ouch, man. That really stings.

One-on-one combat takes place on a Karateka-like screen where you trade actions--attack, defense, use an item, magic, or let the computer fight for you on "automatic." This first fight wasn't tough; I just hit "attack" repeatedly until Lupinus crumbled. The grateful Villars swore fealty to me and agreed to support my claim.

You know who's good and who's bad by our armor color.

The next major episode took place in Leicester, where Sir Gahalantine was besieged by some "Saxon villains." (Gahalantine is a minor knight mentioned only by Malory. By Malory's account, he ought to be with Lancelot in France right now.) I'm given the option to head to the castle and rout the attackers. This is the game's introduction to battlefield combat. Mostly it fights itself, though you can click on individual units and tell them what to do. The units are really tiny, though, and it's hard to tell who's who.


Anyway, I won the battle with no difficulty, and I also got Sir Gahalantine's support. Thus, I continued on to Camelot. The game follows Malory's example by locating Camelot at present-day Winchester. Other sources place it all over the map. There is some archaeological evidence for an Arthurian-era war leader's headquarters at Cadbury in Somerset, about 100 miles to the west of Winchester.


Sir Bedivere met me when I entered the castle and gave me his support, along with several other former Knights of the Round Table. That means a lot, since Bedivere was one of Arthur's most loyal retainers, attached to the legend all the way back to the Welsh Triads, and in Malory the last person to hold Excalibur before tossing it back to the Lady of the Lake.


The game then shows me a map of the lands that I control:


Anyway, this ended the first episode and began the second, titled "The Return of Lancelot du Lac" (spoilers much?). Almost immediately, I hear word of unrest in Scotland, and I've got to send a party to investigate. I have only seven knights to choose from. The game makes a point that I'm having troubling rallying support without a designated champion.


This is an interesting selection of knights. With the exception of Bedivere, the entire lot of them (in Malory) pledged their support to Lancelot when he rescued Guinevere from the stake and carried her off to France. Ector is Lancelot's half-brother, even. Lancelot made them dukes and whatnots of various French lands, so I don't know what they're all doing here. (Dinas, Bellengerus, and Hebes are also all expatriates from the Tristan legends.)

The manual has a glossary listing some basic strengths and weaknesses of each knight, but you really need to get them into a party before you can see specific values. Some have more speed, some more combat ability, some more "nobility" (I'm not sure what that does). The game is a bit confusing, because although it makes you take an initial selection here, it soon becomes clear that I can send any number of these knights, in any combination, to various parts of the map. I chose Ector as the leader the first time. In the legends, he's a decent knight whose adventures are overshadowed by Lancelot's.

Ector and Lavain get ready to head out.

The game then entered into a scenario in which these two knights could walk together around Camelot, talk to various people, and collect items--I guess in anticipation of their journey. Other NPCs in the castle offer to join the expedition, including a friar and Nineve. Various sources have a tough time reaching consensus whether Nineve (or Nimue, Ninniane, and various other incarnations) is the same person as the Lady of the Lake or someone else, whether she's related to Morgan le Fay, and whether her seduction and imprisonment of Merlin is wicked or kind.

I wasn't sure what the advantages and disadvantages of taking the friar and Nineve were, so I took them. It's in this interface that the game seems most like an adventure game. You can select individual characters and have them pick up items, drop them, use them, search, trade, talk and a handful of other actions.

The adventure-style commands available in the game.

There was one room with a key, which let me unlock a door to the castle treasury, where I found a bunch of gold and what sounds like magic items. I'm not sure if I should be looting the treasury, but I distributed the items among my four "party" members.


After that, it was on the road to Scotland! Except that he game map doesn't go as far north as Scotland, so I just headed north. On the way, I met a traveler who told me that a large force of Saxons was gathering in East Anglia.

When I reached London, I switched to "scene" view and found myself talking with Sir Lionel, another supporter of Lancelot (and his cousin), who's supposed to be dead by now whatever source you're reading. Before I even asked, he told me that he wouldn't be able to help Camelot because of the "grave dangers" he was facing--presumably the Saxons to his northeast.


It's at this point that the game has me largely confused. Am I supposed to stay in London and help Lionel, or continue on to Scotland? Does the game have an answer to every possibility that I might choose? Does every other city have someone like Lionel with a problem to solve? Was there a compelling reason not to bring the entire round table with me on this quest, to decline to take Nineve and the friar, or to avoid picking up every item in Camelot to take with me? Is there a specific way to play out each scenario, or is Britain my playground? The game will let me return to the Round Table room and select new parties. Should I be sending people all over Britain? It's quite confusing.

Perhaps by next time, I'll have it sorted, though I wouldn't mind any general (non-spoiler) advice from anyone who's played the game. In the meantime, if you're interested in exploring more about the Arthurian legends, here are my recommendations:

  • A full-text version (PDF) of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. The "Arthurian" section begins in Book VI, Chapter 5 (Page 94 of the linked text) with a description of Uther Pendragon as a boy. The Merlin story begins on Page 108. Uther begets Arthur starting on Page 141; Arthur first appears on Page 149 and dies on Page 193. Geoffrey's depiction of Constantine lasts but a page after that. It's important to note that despite the title, Geoffrey wasn't really writing a history, and no modern scholar takes it seriously.
  • T. H. White's The Once and Future King. A moving adaptation of the cycle, based almost entirely on Malory. The basis of the animated film The Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot, though I recommend neither. White does a fun thing and moves Arthur's reign 500 years forward, making Uther Pendragon a Norman conqueror, but it's not key to the story.
  • Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga, starting with The Crystal Cave. She manages to tell a great story while being true (in sometimes very clever ways) to the original sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth.
  • John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), the best Arthurian film. It crams as much as it can into a limited time, but the depictions of the key characters are mostly faithful to the legend's origins, if at times conflating things (e.g., Arthur himself is the Fisher King). Particularly notable are the preservation of Percival as the Grail Hero and the inclusion of Lancelot's "insanity" episode. Only the depiction of Gawain really suffers. The movie claims that it's based entirely on Le Morte d'Arthur, but certain episodes are lifted directly from Tennyson's Idylls of the King.



100 comments:

  1. You forgot to mention Monty Python and The Holy Grail.

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    1. Mayhaps 'twas by design.

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    2. From Geoffrey:

      ...about Britannia there was great famine and even Arthur Rex did take to consuming horse flesh. Slaying his trusty friþhengest Oats at the Battle of Sandwich. There after setting about the countryside afoot with trusty retainers mimicking the sound of hooves with coconut shells and the like that the King not be gerif ærneweg horuweg! .

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    3. It would be interesting to know if a deep knowledge of Arthurian literature brings much more than rage to a watching of the Monty Python film. I do know that a knowledge of Lancelot can bring a deeper appreciation to his depiction in the film.

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    4. I have read several of the books Chet mentions and absolutely love the movie. I think anyone who would "rage" at the movie because of its depictions would need to have their humour checked.

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    5. Somehow I remembered that Chet had already made his feelings clear on this point. After your comment was carefully ignored I had to go back and look, so here's a link making passing reference to it: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2011/09/ultima-iv-part-2-what-happend-in.html

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    6. I didn't mean that you have to like the style of humour, but that a parody taking liberties with the source material shouldn't cause you to get angry at the movie. The whole point of a parody is really to diverge from the original, and as Chet himself said the source material itself is highly inconsistent.

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    7. Although of course there is a difference between parodies that clearly love whatever they are parodying and those that are trying to insult it (which I could understand getting angry at), but I think Monty Python squarely falls into the former category.

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    8. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch is real! Stop implying that it's not! Hallelujah!

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    9. *Was* real. Single-use weapon, remember? :P

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  2. Because this is such a detail oriented post, I have to mention that in the screenshot of the round table, there are partially visible chairs on the left and right side, bringing the size to 16.

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    1. Good call. They blended right into the background woodwork for me.

      But I can't find any sources that have 16, either. They jump right from 13 (Didot-Perceval) to 50 (Robert de Boron).

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    2. Just an idea couldn´t the extra chair be for the king or your character

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    3. For Arthur and Guinevere? I seem to recall the Queen was also allowed a seat there in certain versions of the legend.

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    4. 50? That is a hell of a large table. How would the person opposite Arthur hear him?

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    5. And those are the smallest! The largest have them seating 1600!

      At more manageable numbers, it works if you think of it less as a solid, intimate table at which you might have a board meeting, and more of a ring around an empty center, with servants and jugglers and such operating in the center.

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  3. Thank you for the awesome first post on this game.

    I have to agree with PetrusOctavianus... MP and The Holy Grial should be part of the canon. And "Excalibur"... man, what an unforgettable soundtrack.

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    1. Yeah, it took another 15 years for Hollywood to discover Carl Orff and run his Carmina Burana into the ground. That was a good 15 years.

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  4. I write a blog about working my way through Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur -- www.jeffwik.com , which might be interesting to somebody.

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    1. That's brilliant. You've been at it for almost two years. I read your first couple of posts on the book, and I like your reactions so far. I'll try to get caught up when I have time.

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  5. I commend your knowledge of Authurian literature. In York, there is a statue of Constantine I. It is in a church. I am not sure if the location is significant, but maybe it is where Constantine was proclaimed by his soldiers.

    Good call on the Boorman movie. It is the best fantasy film.

    Atari Program Exchange put out a strategic game of Arthur. It was called "Excalibur". It was real time, and used a joy stick make commands. It even used a Wagner soundtrack, but was hard to play. Too many named knights die and command and control of your army becomes progressively worse.

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  6. Nice that you mentioned Boorman's Excalibur, since he's an example of a very underrated director - Zardoz was fantastic as well (though it has nothing to do with arthurian legends).

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    1. You mean the same Zardoz that featured the unforgettable line "gun is good, penis is bad" and Sean Connery dressed as a bouncer from a Hamburg kinky club ?

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    2. Bizarre film, but I agree that it's good.

      I was just looking at Sean Connery's IMDB page, and it struck me that for a well-known actor whom everyone seems to love, he doesn't have very many good films on his c.v. Zardoz, a couple of the James Bonds, The Hunt for Red October, The Man Who Would Be King...you could make an argument for The Rock. For every one of those, there are three films that are exceedingly average and more than a few that are absolutely awful.

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    3. I think Sean Connery's a good example of actor that everybody looks up to for reasons divorced from great carreer choices. Namely, his overwhelming maleness (in a heteronormative way), as established in early Bond films have made him an icon for debatable reasons. He didn't have to do much more after that to keep his reputation but speak in that accent and age gracefully.

      Also in your list, no Indiana Jones - I think that's an alright movie, though I wouldn't call it a classic.

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    4. The Rock, for better or worse, is THE archetypal American big-budget action movie, exemplifying the excess and tropes of the genre. Many would award that title to Die Hard, but it's really too focused and condensed. The Rock on the other hand tries to cram in every trope in the book - if the car chase seems out of place, it's because it wasn't in the original script, but Michael Bay decided there had to be a car chase.

      As such, while it may not be a good movie per se, it's essential viewing in my book. You might susbtitute Con Air, incidentally both star Nicolas Cage in his prime.

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    5. He's also in the Highlander, though, oddly enough, -not- as one of the Scottish characters.

      The Highlander himself is played by Christopher Lambert.. who is French.

      But yeah, I think maybe you're underselling the whole James Bond thing in terms of his impact on his popularity.

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    6. I guess, but he sure coasted on that for a while, then.

      I didn't mean to leave out Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Untouchables is also a good film. Highlander, in my opinion, is a godawful film with a good concept. I'd love to see it re-made with decent actors.

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    7. Oh, and to bring it back to the theme of the post, Sean Connery also played King Arthur, in First Knight. The movie had some good moments and combat scenes, but the liberties it took with the legends were too much for me to bear.

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    8. Off the top of my head, he's also in Time Bandits, The Hill and The Name Of The Rose, all of which are excellent. And I'd say the first 4 Bonds are all fine films. Of course, he's also in a lot of rubbish, but his CV's a good one.

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    9. >>Oh, and to bring it back to the theme of the post, Sean Connery also played King Arthur, in First Knight.<<

      Not to mention that, after a while, I really wanted forthe bad guy, to win.

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    10. One more vote of confidence for Zardoz -- I have an expression I dig up when I'm trying to justify my strange tastes to friends, that I'd rather an interesting failure than a boring success. Zardoz is perhaps the flag-bearer for interesting failures.

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    11. To our dear addict. I now peg you as a high school generation older than me. At my age the original highlander was a great film and that was only marred by its sequels. Of course I also rate lady hawk as a good film.

      I do have to say that Sean Connery can join the list of Rutger Hauer and Samual L Jakson, as good actors to base a B movie night/drunken party off of.

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    12. Chet was in high school in 1988, the year I was born. Also, Chet? An early comment of mine made you think that you were the same age as my Dad; Don't worry, you are decades younger them him then.

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  7. If you look at the map, you see that there are fiefdoms yet not under your control.

    As for currently, you have two tasks, havent you?
    Scotland and the Saxons.

    The game allows for several parties simultaneously btw.

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  8. Is this the first Arthur Game with a lot of actual story? It seems strange that it would take until 1990 for this to be a theme. Sorta a natural fit for an RPG.

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    1. That was kind-of the theme of my next post. This is the first RPG I know about with an Arthurian theme, though there were some action, strategy, and adventure games before this. I don't know how much plot they had.

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    2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur:_The_Quest_for_Excalibur

      This is from 1989 and I've played some of it, it's good. It's by an infocom imp that later on went to start Legend Entertainment, if memory serves, and I *love* their adventure games.

      I haven't finished it (The Quest for Excalibur) but I did play it enough to notice that in the in-game documentation there's a length thought piece on why Bob Bates chose to change aspects of the mythology to suit an adventure game. He obviously did a lot of serious study.

      So, there's that. Two out of two early computer games based on Arthurian Legend are relatively well researched.

      I never could play Spirit of Excalibur or it's sequel because of the engine of the game - on which you haven't commented so far, but I expect you will be the end, hopefully on the gimlet - it's so rickety. It barely holds together. I understand how ambitious this game is and I know why it's held together by duct-tape and hope, but still, it impacts the play experience for me.

      Also worth keeping in mind for how you score this: for 1990 standards, this stuff

      http://youtu.be/3E4K-NHO4No

      Was pretty much state of the art, cutting edge, completely awe-inspiring.

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    3. disregard video, I meant to just post the rolling intro to the game, not some bad let's play

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    4. The Bob Bates game is fantastic. One of the puzzles (outwitting the demon) is in my top 10 favorite of all time.

      Anyone play Conquests of Camelot (the Sierra adventure game, 1989)? I liked the sequel (Conquests of the Longbow, Robin Hood rather than Arthur) but never had a chance to play the first one.

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    5. Adventure Gamer (aka Trickster) blogged about it recently: http://advgamer.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/game-38-conquests-of-camelot.html

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  9. Another game with similar historical vein is Joan of Arch that follows loosely the story and campaigns of the titular peasant maiden, though game isn't an rpg more of a strategy game with some light action scenes thrown in to a mix.
    I always ended up as tyrannical despot milking Duke of Bedford every single penny he was worth to the king of England, hanged anyone who opposed me, assassinated all of my rivals and so forth, you know being a good king or maybe kids shouldn't be kings with absolute power. :-)

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    1. For some reason there seem to be more games that follow actual history among strategy games than RPG:s. A shame really, I'd love for more history related RPG:s.

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    2. Same here. I'd love an RPG set in World War II or the Revolutionary War, or Chicago in the Jazz Age, or at sea during the Napoleonic Wars. I don't know why fantasy and sci-fi are always the defaults for RPGs where action, adventure, and simulation games are more likely to embrace real settings.

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    3. You need a setting where the good guys are heroes and the bad guys are villains. Reality is loaded with too many grays. Take the action/adventure game LA Noire, it features the post-war era and no scifi or fantasy elements, yet still it is a mediocre game due to the amount of filler combat they were forced to include (or the lack of meaningful combat depending on your preference).

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    4. I thought L.A. Noire was a fantastic-LOOKING game that suffered from a railroad plot in which you hit the same plot points no matter how much you bumble the investigation. I didn't think the combat was so bad (for an action game), but the combat episodes were over too quickly, and they were too self-contained. Red Dead Redemption used the same combat mechanic but much more effectively.

      Anyway, I'm not sure I agree that RPGs need a good/bad dichotomy any more than strategy games, adventure games, and first-person shooters. What makes RPGs so special?

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    5. There was a Fallout-like WW2 RPG game, I think it's called "Another war"
      I didn't play it, a friend had it, but as I renember he wasn't so excited

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    6. "Chicago in the Jazz Age" - Shadow Hearts From the New World for the PS2, set in the US during the Great Depression. Parts of it take place in the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, New York, and yup, Chicago.

      "At sea during the Napoleonic Wars" - not sure they're at that time period specifically, but "Uncharted Waters" and "Uncharted Waters: New Horizons" for the SNES are both historical-themed, seafaring RPGs, often compared to "Pirates!"

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    7. Choice of Games' "Choice of Broadsides" is a pretty good Horatio Hornblower pastiche.

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    8. A main problem with historical settings in RPG:s is that RPG:s is a lot about the players choices and the players perceived ability to change the course of history. This would not be as easy in a historical setting where we already know history. This in difference to strategy games where the "what if" mostly is the point of the game.

      Also, RPG game makers are too enamoured with storylines that are Epic with a capital E.

      And I should probably go and play Expedition Conquistador. :)

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    9. You should consider SSI's 50 Mission Crunch. It's a WW2 RPG as you have crew that has stats and they increase etc with experience. Matt Barton considers it an rpg in his book

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    10. Hey! I own that one for either C64 or 386/Windows 3.1 or MS-DOS.

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  10. Thank you for the history lesson! I love let's plays, reviews, etc. that put games in their historical / mythological context and explain not just the game but the background as well. I would be delighted if more of your posts were history lessons. :)

    In that vein I also love a Let's Play by geop on Assassin's Creed 1 and 2 that really have lot of history from the crusades and the Italian renaissance. http://www.youtube.com/user/GeopLP/featured

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    1. Totally agree, but I think this was extra special due to Chet's obvious and infectious enthusiasm for the topic :)

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    2. Of course. While I can enjoy one of Addicts rants (perhaps I should call that critique), his best works are about works that he loves.

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  11. From what I recall of playing it way back in the 90s, I only got a little bit further than you've managed.

    I seem to recall sending people to find Lancelot and others to fight in a battle to the North (against whom, I can't recall). I lost a few fights on the road and the battle in the North, either because I did things in the wrong order or more likely just because I was terrible at the fighting parts.

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  12. Isn't it curious that this matches both the other Arthurian-related games that I can remember in being a strange mishmash of genres -- "Lords of Magic: Special Edition" (the non-SE version is pretty limited), and more recently and obviously named "King Arthur: The Role Playing War Game." Unfortunately bugs prevented me from ever finishing the latter when I played it, and it's been many years since I played the former, although I remember loving it at the time.

    Do you happen if you played either of those, and if so what your reaction to the Arthurian content was?

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    1. Both versions of Lords of Magic have nothing to with Arthurian legend at all, it's a fairly generic fantasy turn-based strategy game. A good game and one I enjoyed, but not an Arthurian one.

      The "Special Edition" just added a few scenarios, but a ton of bug fixes. Something in my memory is telling me that people who purchased the original Lords of Magic got some sort of discount on the Special Edition, but that might not be correct.

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    2. I'll have to trust the recollections of other readers. I never played them.

      I guess I can see why they're "mishmashes," though. The Arthurian legends themselves are mismashes. If you read Malory, in one chapter you get two paragraphs on an epic battle involving thousands, and in the next, a single knight is sobbing over the loss of his squire. In the space of a few pages, Arthur both goes on a quest to slay a giant in single combat--and conquers Rome. It's hard to depict both the epic and the personal in a single game.

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    3. @Raifield, the expansion scenarios included with the SE edition (I never owned the original) included a pretty involved Arthurian scenario (not all factions were on the map, it was MUCH more of an rpg) as well as one featuring Beowulf and another loosely Wagner based scenario.

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    4. Unfortunately King Arthur: The Role Playing Wargame is not an RPG. Fortunately, its RPG elements make the Total War - style wargame a lot more fun. Unfortunately this is fun that the player may have to force out with a knife and a pair of pliers, which is to say that I constantly played a few turns ahead of my main save file to try out different events and see if I'd trip event flags before proceeding with my main save, for fear of triggering some avalanche of enemies. I like the game, I still can't recommend it.

      The game is a clumsier, plot-driven clone of the Total War games. The Knights of the Round Table are hero units, who can raise fog, call lightning, or strike six men with each blow. They have skills and inventories and XP. "Total War with fireballs" is a brilliant concept, so I say again, the game's rather masochistic.

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  13. I'm a huge fan of King Arthur as well! I remember reading and re-reading The Book of King Arthur (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002MHSOWU) as a kid. Not to mention watching the same Disney Classic and Jon Boorman films that Chet talks about in this post.

    I also have a strong affinity for Merlin, so for those interested I would also recommend the miniseries (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00005NB95/) and the TV show (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00mjlxv)

    For those who want a little more in-depth reading material on the subject of Arthurian legends, two very good sites I've found are:

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/index.htm#arthurian

    http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project

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  14. Thank you very much for this introduction! I have nothing to say about the game, but your post reminds me of how much I neglected to read the Arthurian legends even though I've always wanted to. Such a game, if it's any good, could be quite the influence on young players. Much like the Dune games made me want to read the books, and then go beyond them to other books and so on...

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  15. This is easily my favorite post of the blog so far due to how much personal knowledge you've crammed into it.

    I bought 'The Once and Future King' a long time ago and never got around to reading it. I am thinking this oversight should be remedied.

    On a more humorous note (but not as much as the Monty Python suggestion), you might enjoy reading 'The King' by Donald Barthelme. It takes the cast of characters from the Arthurian legend and transplants them into World War II. The Holy Grail is the atomic bomb (not a spoiler) and the knights need to decide whether or not to utilize the weapon.

    Not available on Kindle unfortunately, but the physical edition is pretty cheap on Amazon.

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    1. Are the characters in "The King" allegories for the Arthurian characters, or are they literally the same people? If the latter, how do they go forward in time 1500 years?

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    2. They are the same exact people and they pretty much all recollect their 'earlier' days wistfully when all they needed to do was bash some chap on the head.

      The issue of them jumping forwards in time isn't explained, but that's how Donald Barthhelme simply rolls. It isn't a book dedicated to Arthurian lore, per se, but rather one dedicated to showing how stupid war is by transplanting the knights and their supporting cast members into a world they simply don't fit in with any longer.

      It's like Don Quixote, only with more knights and machine guns. Really a hilarious read, but like Kafka, not for everyone.

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  16. Really enjoyed hearing your knowledge on Arthurian Legends. However, I have a comment on this sentence you wrote:

    "The interface is a combination of the campaign level and the local level, and the action chugs along whether you're ready for it or not, switching schizophrenically between episodes and themes."

    Schizophrenia, although commonly spoken of as relating to multiple personalities, is not actually characterized by such. The DSM IV refers to schizophrenic symptoms as "(1) delusions (2) hallucinations (3) disorganized speech (e.g., frequent derailment or incoherence (4) grossly disorganized or catatonic behaviour (5) negative symptoms, i.e., affective flattening, alogia (poverty of speech), or avolition (lack of motivation)

    As someone with a degree in psychology, I imagine my annoyance with the lack of knowledge about schizophrenia mirrors your feeling about Arthurian inaccuracies, such as you mentioned in this post.

    That said, still really enjoying the blog.

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    1. It was probably a mistake to use the adverb for these very reasons, although in its metaphorical meaning, I wasn't trying to allude to multiple personalities so much as a certain frenetic randomness of theme. Dictionary.com gives the second definition of "schizophrenic" as "a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements," which basically describes what I was going for.

      In any event, using medical or psychological conditions as metaphors is probably asking for trouble. I once described a particular unit of my organization as "sclerotic," which didn't sit well with my boss, whose husband had MS.

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    2. Not to shoot you down, but "schizophrenically" can also mean, "of, relating to, or characterized by the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic elements" according to, at the very least, The Free Dictionary. I personally don't associate the word in this context with the condition, but rather with the above definition.

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  17. If you ever wondered what the British population looked like before the Romans, before the Germanic tribes', before the Norms, and before the Vikings invaded the land, visit rural Northern England. Not even the notorious sexpest Vikings would mate with them.

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  18. Sometime you should take a month off and do a month of "Arthurian addict" posts playing through the games at http://www.mobygames.com/game-group/king-arthur-camelot-games

    I've read a few collections of crusades-era paladin tales and I'm convinced that someone could go to the bank by devising an engine to procedurally generate their plots.

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  19. I wonder if this game picks up the theme in Malory where whenever two knights meet in the countryside somewhere they have to fight to the death, and then after one of them won and they revealed their identities to the other the winner invariably cries "Oh no, I have killed my brother/best friend! What have I done!". It got quite comical after a while.

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    1. Not so far. I was almost looking forward to that, plus one of those big battles where knights are always switching sides to keep things balanced.

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  21. Despite putting the myth in the right era, the tech is all wrong. It looks like 1250-1300CE, rather than 500. Those dwellings, armor and heraldry did not exist before the high middle ages (or even later).

    In reality, Arthur's castle would have been little more than a hill fort and he'd have been packing chain mail at best. The supposed chivalry possessed by Arthur and co developed from 8th century French military practice. Far more likely that a 5th century British chief would be described as fearsome and brutal than noble and just :)

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    1. You're absolutely right, but the game joins a long and proud tradition of this. Until a couple hundred years ago, writers didn't seem to care much about preserving historical authenticity. During the most active period of classic Arthurian literature (c. 1175-1250), when most of our modern conceptions were created, writers had no compunctions using terms like "knight" and "Sir," dressing warriors in plate armor, putting them in modern castles, using modern names for countries and cities, giving them modern titles, and so forth.

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    2. It was not uncommon, at the time. In the East Roman Empire iconography, Alexander The Great, was depicted wearing scale armor, and using a slightly curved one edged sword, like the ones that the Empire used at the end of the 10th century.

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  22. I love the Arthurian stuff. I took a medieval seminar class on the subject in my undergrad, and it stuck with me a lot better than most courses. Do you have a favourite work? I imagine the recommended reading at the end counts as that, but I thought I'd ask--particularly because it presents a flimsy pretext for supplying my own. The de Troyes stories amazed me from first reading and were probably the first time I'd accepted that middle age literature is worth reading. And I've appreciated sir Gawain and the green knight more and more as time goes on.

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    1. Among the traditional sources, "favorites" are few and far between. Narrative prose wasn't very good during the times in which most of the classic Arthurian legends were written; writers hadn't learned how to show rather than tell. I find most of the texts interesting intellectually, but not aesthetically pleasing.

      The Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles amaze me. I don't know that they're terribly well written (I've only read translations), but their scope is incredible. When Norris Lacy translated them in the 1990s, they took up five huge volumes (that went for $300 a pop). With 1200s technology (remember, everything was scribed back then), the idea that someone produced and RE-produced works of such volume is absolutely staggering.

      Most of my favorites were little themes or vignettes at Arthur's court. There's a whole subset called the "loathly lady" where a knight must marry an ugly woman. It has a strong message (startling for the times) about women's liberation. Chaucer used the theme in the "Wife of Bath's Tale," but earlier sources are "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" and "The Wedding of Sir Gawain."

      I also like the series of "chastity test" stories, exemplified by Robert Biket's "Lai du Cor" of the mid-12th century, in which some troublemaker shows up at court with a drinking vessel that tests each person's chastity. Knights and ladies are left sputtering explanations when the vessel douses them all, one by one, and despite the circumstances, the tales usually have a happy ending, with the message being that no one is ever completely "faithful," but we should love our partners anyway.

      There are a few texts that I prize for their uniqueness. "Culhwch and Olwen" is just absolutely bizarre; all of the Welsh legends have an utterly different tone than the French ones, even when covering the same material (e.g., "Peredur" vs. "Perceval"). Heinrich von dem Turlin's "Diu Crone" from about 1230 tells a Grail story you'll find nowhere else, with Gawain as the Grail hero and a strange ghost story associated with the Grail. "Perlesvaus" is another one. It continues Chretien's "Perceval," but with unbelievably weird stuff you'll find in no other source, like Arthur and Guinevere have a son who is murdered by Kay, causing Guinevere to die of grief. Kay then leads a rebellion against Arthur.

      In general, writers from outside France and Britain tended to take a lot more liberties with the legends, sometimes with cool twists. One of the earliest Lancelot stories is Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's "Lanzelet" which seems to have been based on the same source as Chretien de Troyes's famous version, but it omits his affair with Guinevere. Instead, Lancelot is a total Don Juan, and the story is basically his sex odyssey through Britain. There are characters that appear nowhere else, like an evil knight named Valerin who kidnaps Guinevere and a wizard named Malduc. A much larger source is the Italian "La Tavola Ritonda," again based on French sources, but unafraid to make up characters and episodes.

      The culmination of the above themes is my favorite early Arthurian source: Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival" from 1200-1210. It's one of the few sources of the era with the power to move me just by language alone. It tells a classic, tightly-plotted story that reaches a satisfying conclusion. The only problem is that it's about as "nontraditional" as it gets, with adventures in Africa, German-named characters in Britain, and the Grail is a STONE. Despite its quality, it had little impact on Arthurian tradition. Still worth reading.

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    2. I love the weird details in the stories, like the giant who wants King Arthur's beard to add to his collection.

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  23. "Some useless advice from a maiden along the way."

    Happens to me daily

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    1. If you're married to a "maiden," something has gone amiss.

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    2. maid·en (mād′n)
      n.
      1.
      a. An unmarried girl or woman.
      b. A virgin.

      Yes I would say if you are married to a maiden you are doing something wrong. Thankfully there is a remedy to the second definition.

      Unfortunately for me my wife is not the only one who gives me useless advice.

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  24. For lovers of British history and the time period when this game claims to take place in, the British History Podcast (http://thebritishhistorypodcast.com/) has an insanely detailed narrative from pre-Roman, to Roman, and now to Anglo-Saxon England. It covers the transition period, where many stories of Arthur originated, in some detail.

    At the risk of being smacked down for advertising, their member's podcast (which has a small fee) includes several episodes on the historicity of Arthur, as well as an excellent dramatic reading of the first several chapters of Le Morte d'Arthur.

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    1. For a general history podcast, the best one I've found is Hardcore History, while we are talking about history podcasts.

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  25. Chet, you might want to read further in the manual if you're stuck, as I recall that having a rather extensive hint section. As a side note, the map that comes with the game started a cloth map kick for me (when I found my parents copy of the game again a few years ago) that ended with me covering my dorm room that year with cloth and paper maps from old video games.

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  26. I know I'm echoing others here, but this is probably the best post to date, Chet. It's great to see how passionate you are about Arthurian legend. I had a similar experience with Graves's "Count Belisarius", which I read at about 15 and which started me down the road to being a Byzantiphile and lover of history.

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    1. I'm with you Nate; I'm a history geek, though the only Arthurian bits I know are from a kids translation I read, so this was always incredibly interesting for me, and, I agree, one of his best posts to date.

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  27. Chet,

    I meant to ask this earlier, but have you ever been involved with the ArthurNet mailing list?

    In any case, it's good to find another person with an interest in both computer gaming and the Arthurian legend. I still have fond memories of the adventure game Conquests of Camelot, although I'm not sure if it would still hold up today if I replayed it.

    Matt

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    1. Way back in the 1990s, I was subscribed briefly. I was an amateur scholar at the time, so it was helpful to hear from some people with better credentials.

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  28. Great post! I spent many hours playing this game when I was in middle school. Have you played the sequel to Spirit of Excalibur, entitled Vengeance of Excalibur? It takes place shortly after Spirit, only now in medieval Spain. You can even import saved characters from Spirit. As I recall, the Spanish setting was fascinating--the Christian north was in conflict with the Muslim south, and the visuals and music were very atmospheric (for the time). It's worth checking out!

    Mark

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  29. Here is a link to some info on Vengeance of Excalibur (the sequel to Spirit):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vengeance_of_Excalibur

    Mark

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  30. 1) Do you feel that Ultima shares some themes with Arthurian legend? I feel some of the morality bits are inspired by Arthurian legends, but I don't know a ton about King Arthur.

    2) Have you studied any other old myths like Beowulf, or are you strictly an amateur Arthurian scholar?

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    1. 1) No, I rarely see elements from Arthuriana in RPGs. Maybe the occasional obvious homage, like a sword in a stone. Lord British doesn't even come across much like a "King Arthur" figure, and none of the themes from the Arthurian saga--rescuing maidens, tournaments, even destroying oppressors--really appears in the Ultima series.

      2) I was strictly an Arthurian fan. I realized later that I probably needed to study other legendary traditions to really understand Arthurian literature in context, but I never got to it.

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  31. Nice to see someone else with a deep interest in Arthuriana. I'm not as widely-read as you - having only read Caxton's version of Malory, Malory, de Troyes and the Mabinogion, as well as various individual prose/verse stories (the Prose Merlin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc). I used to spend a fair bit of time reading Middle English texts at the TEAMS website.

    I've also read a lot on the historicity of various Arthurian characters, especially Arthur himself. I find myself of the opinion that there may have been some British (read: Romanized Celt) general or warlord who initially got the ball rolling, assuming the Annales Cambriae can be trusted, but that many different historical persons contributed aspects of their lives and achievements to the myths and legends surrounding Arthur, which were then elaborated on non-historically by later writers.

    I suspect that I would enjoy this game a lot with the aid of a walkthrough. I know those aren't part of how you're playing these, but it seems to me that what the game has to offer - variety, Arthurian legend - would be best appreciated in the present day by removing the obstacles you discussed in your posts, i.e. reading about who to send instead of trying and failing 9 times.

    That might not give the truest measure of how good a game it is, overall, but might better allow a player to get out of it what there is to be had.


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  32. That blog actually kindled my interest in the tales of Arthur.

    I started my own blog, where I chronicle my reading experience.

    Some feedback would be appreciated, and I think I've got some interesting things, although I just started out.

    s-writing.blogspot.com

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  33. See, this is why I'm going back and reading the whole blog. At first I picked out favorites, and then I picked out games I'd heard about or wanted to know in more detail, but eventually I decided even the ones I didn't have any clue about were worth reading, and that's how I find a game like Sword of Aragon, which didn't sound interesting (I actually assumed by the name it was historical instead of fantasy) but upon reading seemed tempting enough I put it on my to-play list. Or there's this, an interesting historical and literary fact-check interleaved with a so-so game.

    I'm reminded, as I say to myself maybe once a year, that I should go back and reread The Once and Future King. It's been about 26 years, so I'm due. I remember liking it best of everything I read from that year of high school. I've also often told myself I should learn more about Arthurian legends. A while back I read a trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay that referenced it heavily, and I realized I didn't know half the things he was referring to.

    I used to work with a guy who spent a year in Wales during college doing an intensive program of Arthurian studies. He said it basically amounted to sitting with a small group of classmates by the seaside, with an instructor who looked like Gandalf and smoked a pipe, just talking about Arthurian legend and related books all day long. It sounded frankly amazing.

    Finally (I'm all over the place here) I think one of the reasons Arthur doesn't get much play in games is it straddles a line that's too fictional for those who like history but not magical enough for modern fantasy lovers. The stories are also thoroughly told and filled with conflicts among them, so that most attempts to work in this material is going to feel like both a rehash or, worse, go against the favorite interpretations of the player. The concept given by this game, of picking up after much of the primary legend, seems at first glance like it would be a great way to evoke the spirit of the era without railroading players. A shame the developers then decided to essentially make it a path-finding puzzle.

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  34. In breaking news in the somewhat slow field of Arthurian RPGs, Choice of Games have just released one -- https://www.choiceofgames.com/2015/12/pendragon-rising-seize-the-throne-in-the-age-of-king-arthur/ -- seemingly a slice of Celtic speculative fiction without too much obvious Arthuriana. I dug it, but of course I also dug Braminar. (FWIW, I dug it for different reasons 8)

    Whether or not you consider the Choice of Games titles to be RPGs remains to be seen, and of course these may be nearly as ancient history as Arthur himself before you get caught up to the classic RPG year of 2015... but I had to throw it out there. It's an afternoon's play of an hour or so, something that could cleanse the palate between more substantial playthrough-bloggings 8)

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