Monday, March 31, 2014

Game 142: The Valley (1982)


The Valley
Argus Press Software (developer and publisher)
Published 1982 as code in Computing Today; commercial versions released 1983 for any computer capable of understanding BASIC
Date Started: 25 February 2014
Date Ended: 30 March 2014
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2/5)
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at Time of Posting: 8/142 (6%)

The Valley was originally published as code in the April 1982 Computing Today, a British magazine from Argus Press. Later, Argus Press's software arm commercialized the game on tape for a variety of platforms. (I'm playing the C64 version using the VICE emulator.) It is the earliest British CRPG, at least under my definitions.

I frankly had more fun reading the article than playing the game. Although the magazine offers a detailed back story (not found in the commercial version's documentation), it feels like it published the code more as a programming exercise than as an enjoyable game. The 18-page article walks the reader through the code, module by module, explaining the importance of each subroutine and the need for each command. I would have loved to have this in the mid-1980s when I was trying to learn programming. As a game, I think it falls flat, even for 1982. Its events are too random, almost inevitably resulting in death, and it takes too long to win.

Deep in the Valley. The white dot represents my character. You can see the two castles at either end of the map, the path between them, and various randomly-generated buildings. I'm in the midst of fighting a harpy, who has 26 stamina and 9 "psi power" against my 75 strength, 69 "psi power," and 101 stamina.

The back story, which possible takes up more text than the code itself, sets the game in a valley called Tybollea, situated between two castles. Thousands of years ago, one castle was ruled by Princess Evanna and the other by her brother, Prince Xeron. When the valley was besieged by the "Selric hordes," the princess allied with Vounim, the "mightiest wizard of the Northern Reaches." Together, their magic made the valley safe, and in gratitude, Evanna invited Vounim to settle there. But as the years passed, Vounim grew corrupt, invited an evil group of wizards known as the White Order to visit, and built temples to an evil lizard god named Y'Nagioth. Finally, Evanna had to act against him. Vounim's former apprentice, Alarian, allied with her and gave her his magic six-stoned amulet, and Evanna was equipped with her own magic helm. In the ensuing battle, Vounim was banished from the plane, but Evanna was mortally wounded. She scattered the magic artifacts throughout the various dungeons in the valley and shrouded the valley in mists before she died. Now, Vounim is fighting his way back to the world and the valley has become accessible again. An adventurer needs to find the magic artifacts and stop him.

Players can choose from wizard, "thinker," barbarian, warrior, and cleric classes. The choice affects only the starting and maximum attributes for combat strength and psi power. Although I won with a barbarian, characters with high psi-power seem to far better, as they are more capable of effectively casting the game's three spells: sleep, psi-lance (the only spell that works on undead and magic beings), and "crispit."

The main Valley area consists of a large map of 37 x 12 squares. A winding path cuts through the map, connecting two castles, and the entrances to four sub-areas--two swamps, a forest, and a tower--are randomly situated, changing even within a single game every time the map refreshes. The two swamps and forest all have maps as large as the main map, and they each have their own one-story buildings in the middle.

Traveling through one of the swampy areas. There's a temple in the lake in the northeast.

The size of the world is wasted, as almost all of the events are random. In each square of the main map, the sub-maps, and the buildings, one of the following things occurs at random:

  • Nothing
  • Combat with an enemy
  • A hoard of gold
  • A "circle of evil" that drains stamina and psi power
  • A "place of power" that restores stamina and psi power
  • An "aura of deep magic" that increases maximum psi power and combat strength

The only exceptions to these random events are the Valley's path, where travel is always safe, and a handful of randomly-dispersed treasure locations, marked by asterisks (*), in the buildings.

A random encounter while walking through the Valley.

Successful encounters raise both treasure and experience, which together determine your overall "rating." The only way to see your rating is to visit one of the castles, where you'll also get healed--although this is rarely necessary since stamina regenerates as you walk, and the "places of power" handle the rest. Both experience and "deep magic" locations slowly increase both psi power and combat strength until you hit the maximums allowed by the character level.

Combat is a rote affair made vaguely interesting by a timeout system. In each combat round, you have the option to strike for the enemy's head, body, or legs, and you have to make your decision within about two seconds; otherwise, the game says "Too slow . . . too slow . . ." and the enemy gets a free attack. Attacks can hit or miss, and when they hit, they might do no damage for a variety of reasons.

Combat. I have only a second to hit one of the options before it times out and the enemy gets a free attack.

The essential randomness to the game extends to combats as well. You meet a variety of foes, from the easy (orcs, hob-goblins, fire imps) to the tough (dragons, thunder lizards, balrogs), but neither their distribution nor your chances of success against them seems influenced by your experience or attributes. I've defeated dragons with early characters and I've been slain by hob-goblins with experienced characters. The choice of body part to strike, and the damage dealt, also seem to produce essentially random results. Spells offer the only real "tactic" when it comes to combat, with "sleep" acting as a kind of "hail Mary" that, when successful, ends the combat instantly. Some foes, like "ring wraiths" and "barrow wights" are only damageable by the "psi lance" spell, which you don't get until comparatively late in the game. Fortunately, their lightning bolt attacks consume their own psi points, so if you can withstand them, they'll burn themselves out in a few rounds.

I do like the incantations that appear when you cast the spells.

The mission of the game is fairly simple: head to the Temple of Y'Nagioth (one of the buildings in the swamps) and search the distributed treasures until you find the Amulet of Alarin. Then head to the Black Tower of Zaexon and search its multiple levels for the six stones that go with the amulet. Once you have the amulet and its stones, go to Vounim's Lair (in the forest) and find the Helm of Evanna.

The game complicates this process in a few ways. First, since the treasures are randomly distributed, you may have to enter, exit, and re-enter the buildings multiple times, searching through all the treasures, until you find what you need. This is particularly notable in that even if you find one of the amulet stones, there's a 5-in-6 chance that it's the "wrong one" and does you no good.

I have to leave the dungeon and return, let the treasures regenerate, and hope for better luck next time.

Second, the game won't even randomly generate the Helm of Evanna until the character has a rating of at least 26. This takes forever. The reason that there's such a gap between the start date and the end date of my play-through is that after about 3 hours of gameplay, when I had the amulet and all my attributes were at their maximums, I still only had a rating of 13. It took another 3 or 4 hours of constant, boring, random grinding to achieve the needed rank, so I saved doing it for times when I had other stuff to occupy me--meetings, webinars, and the like.

I only have one thing left to get before winning the game--except that I have to develop twice my treasure and experience first.

During this process, the likelihood of eventually getting killed by some random monster approaches 100%, but fortunately the game allows saving at the castles. I couldn't figure out how to mimic saving on a tape drive, so I just allowed myself to take a save state every time I got to a castle. Once you have the Amulet of Alarin, you'll automatically get resurrected when you die, but at the cost of all your gold. Since achieving a rating of 26 based on experience alone would take well into the next decade, this is a scenario for reloading.

There's no special screen or anything when you accomplish the primary objective and "win" the game. You simply find the Helm of Evanna among the random treasures in Vourin's Lair:


The game notes that you have the Helm when you check into the castle, but you otherwise can just keep playing and trying to increase your score. If you reach a rating of 28, you can call yourself "Master of Destiny," but I'm going to quit at 26, or "Demon Killer."

The closest we get to a winning screen.

On a GIMLET, I can't do better than an 11. Its primitive approach to character development, its lack of NPCs or equipment, and its boring, random gameplay put all of its scores at 0, 1, or 2. It barely qualifies as an RPG under my definitions.

The game's box art from its 1982 or 1983 release.

Overall, nothing about The Valley is very fun in 2014. The graphics are primitive; there's no sound; the encounters are too random; there's no depth to the gameplay; there are no tactics or tactical challenge; and it takes way too long to grind the character to the necessary level. Even walking through empty squares, having to wait a couple seconds for it to tell you "Nothing of value . . . search on" is annoying (and you can't defeat it by speeding up the emulator because you'll hose yourself in the timed combats). There's no reason that a modern player would want to fire up the game.

A shot from the Paul Robson's DOS remake of the Valley.

A shot from vounim's Windows remake.

So, naturally, there have been remakes, the first by British programmer Paul Robson in 2001 for DOS, the second by a Norwegian programmer named Jan (writing under the name "vounim") in 2013 for Windows. Once again, this proves Bolingbroke's Nostalgia Theorem ("every game, no matter how awful, is someone's favorite") and its Remake Corollary ("if that person is a programmer, he will attempt to remake it"). Seriously, I do admire the efforts that go into these remakes, even if they leave me a bit confused as to their purposes. I've written to both Mr. Robson and Jan to see if they want to stop by and comment on what they see in the game. My understanding is that Jan's closes the game better by offering a final level and endgame screen.

An early character dies right away. There's a cute death message.

This game did not interrupt my playing of Crusaders of Khazan; I just happened to finally reach Level 25 and win the game while in a boring meeting on Friday, and I already had this post written (except for a couple of paragraphs) last month. More on Khazan later in the week.

In other news, we've had another massacre on the older games list. After some investigation, I've rejected Volcanic Dungeon (1982), The Dark Dungeons (1983), and Federation Quest 1 as belonging more to the adventure game category, Fortress of the Witch King (1983) as being a strategy game, and Chivalry (1983) as being a board game. Oh, all of them have some RPG characteristics, but honestly, I need to trim this list, and I'm sick of playing half-assed quasi-RPGs from the early 1980s, so I'm going to start being more strict about my three elements. Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils turns out to be a 1984 game, so I moved it to the appropriate chronology.

This means that Expedition Amazon (1983) is the next game on the "old" list; despite the name, it definitely has all the RPG elements. It also means, more importantly, that I've closed out 1982. I may have a post on re-thinking its "Game of the Year" soon.

56 comments:

  1. Your review is fairly accurate and pretty fair. You kind of miss the point of it, a bit, when you say ‘it feels like the code was published more as a programming exercise’ because it pretty much was. It was designed to be ported, so the code had to be understandable, and reasonably ‘modular’

    The game was more about the programming than the game, really. Computing Today had big plans for it - more modules and so on. CT was a developers magazine, not a gaming magazine (it was an outgrowth of Electronics Today International which was running more and more computing articles after its first series in 1978)

    I’m quite impressed you actually managed to complete it, I never did. I got bored with it quite rapidly. I didn’t play the remake at all, other than to check it worked.

    The events are not entirely random, though they are pretty much. The location and graphic tile determine which of the monsters you can encounter.

    So, the remake. The reason there is no enhancement to it is that it isn’t just a remake, it is a shot-for-shot remake. It uses the same algorithms and the same code structure as far as possible, and behaves in exactly the same way as the original. So adding an endgame is cheating a bit.

    But the real reason is nostalgia ; when I in my teens, when the game came out, I remember porting it to my Sharp-MZ80K. I think a lot of people ported it.

    Things were different in the UK. Americans had the Atari 2600 and machines like that, a history of games, albeit quite limited. In the UK , these didn’t exist really. Pacman sold something like 7m cartridges - I doubt they sold 700 here. There was no visibility of these machines in shops, they were sold in specialist niche shops if at all (I never saw one). We went pretty much straight from AY-3-8500 based Pong machines to early computers (Pet/Apple/Tandy) and they were a rarity, and our own machines like the ZX80/81. In the US you’d had a collapse of the market before we even had a market.

    In those days, firstly, almost nobody had a computer at all, and if you did there weren’t many, if any, games for it. Until I owned a BBC Micro the games market was almost nonexistent, and I didn’t have any commercial games at all, except I had Microchess for the PET. Apart from that I wrote them myself. There weren’t even any shares - no-one else I knew knew what a computer was let alone owned one. The games market started to arrive around this time, a bit later maybe, given a big boost with the Sinclair Spectrum (the C64 was never the big thing it was over the pond). Very few of those were CRPGs either - there was the occasional text adventure, but mostly it was simple Arcade conversions or variants. It’s much quicker to write Space Invaders than it is Dungeon Master :)

    (A consequence of this is that there was a group of British programmers who were good coders - those who had machines from about this time to the early 1990s. They don’t exist so much now)

    I knew games like the Apshai series existed (and wrote my own sort-of versions for them) but they were pretty much unobtainable - you needed a 32k PET (most had 8k) and there weren’t many Apple II’s about.

    There is a point to this ; why did we like The Valley at the time - pretty much because that was all we had. You might look at the AY-3-8500 Pong systems and wonder, how could anyone spend so long on such a simple game ; but they sold by the bucketload.

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    1. The C64 may not have been a big hit in the UK, but it certainly was popular in other parts of Europe (at least in Sweden where I live).

      The thing is, these kinds of "copy this code to your computer"-games were fairly common in computer magazines here.

      Although I didn't really like the coding style in this article -- too much crammed into every line. I guess it was to make the best use of the magazine real estate, though.

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    2. Paul, thanks for taking the time to comment on the game and your remake--especially your insight into the computer (and computer game) situation in the U.K. in the early 1980s. I guess you remade it for similar reasons that I played it: it's important to recognize and document landmark games--this was, after all, the first British CRPG--even if they're not terribly fun today.

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    3. I think it was because computers were seen as very business-like machines in its early days because, f*cked if you're gonna spend thousands of 1970s dollars on an arcade machine that's slow as shit.

      Since there aren't much professional games studios back then (which I doubt that there is one in the first place), it only makes sense that games are basically fruits of self-taught programming lessons.

      Much like this game, it's not about the goal (product) but the journey (learning about coding). Anyway, this game isn't exactly free since you had to PAY for the magazine that the codes were written in.

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    4. Although not strictly relevant :) I'll just echo Paul's comments about the Atari 2600 (or Atari VCS as it was originally known here in the UK).

      I had an Atari VCS but only ever owned two games due to their horrendous cost. If I recall correlty, they were about £30 in 1979/80 (that's about £128 today!). Luckily, I had a friend whose gada was a University computer lecturer, and he ahd tons of games :)

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  2. Why do the screenshots have all those horizontal lines in them? Makes them hard to see.

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    1. probably the screen rendering was done interlaced, for performance reasons (unsubstantial assertion without checking the code :))

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    2. I think it's the PAL emulation in the VICE emulator, a filter to make it look like it's being played on an old CRT television.

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    3. That's exactly what it is. There's probably an option to disable this somewhere like there is in the Apple II emulator, but I haven't sought it out yet. I can barely discern the scan lines, to be honest.

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    4. It's the "PAL Emulation" option in the "options" menu, as opposed to "video settings" in the settings menu where you would normally expect it.

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    5. Why would you want do disable it?

      That'd be like trying to shove a vinyl record into a DVD player! Harmful and blasphemous!

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    6. It's more like listening to a remastered edition of an early recording instead of the scratchy original.

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    7. Yeah, well, there're still people out there who'd still love that CRT feel that no LED/LCD monitors could emulate... er... without an emulator!

      So there! Shut up with your logic and common sense and whatnots!

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    8. It does increase the file size of images a tad (in my experience) though it does look nostalgic.

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    9. I've used C64 emulators and they never had this problem. It's one thing to have scanlines in a moving animation, and quite another to freeze those scanlines for all time in a screenshot. These screenshots are very hard to read and I would prefer if the scanlines were turned off for screenshots in the future.

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    10. Sure. Anything else I can do to accommodate your needs, Your Lordship?

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    11. Gimlets with little umbrellas would be nice.

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    12. Does the emulator include a little bit of 60 Hz hum, or the smell of hot electronics?

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  3. It's kind of limited compared to the contemporary Rogue (1980), but it was written for 16kB machines so you didn't have that many options. It could have been expanded a lot for the commercial C64 and Spectrum versions but it wasn't.

    You're right about the deadly hobgoblins. The game gives a random strength to all the monsters you encounter, so if you're really unlucky you'll meet an uber-strong lowly monster who to top it off gets a really good attack roll which kills you off. It's impossible to play this game unsegmented due to this, you need to save constantly to make any progress.

    My remake was done just to get back into coding again, and I wanted to see how it would be with some graphics and sound. If I expand on it further it will be to add animations and an option to make it play itself (botting).

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    1. I noticed that. The manual offers strength values for each creature in the game, but in practice, they're all over the damned place. I assume the value in the manual is a base or starting point, but the actual value has some randomness attached.

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    2. Thanks, by the way, for stopping by and commenting on the game and your remake. I hope you've received positive reviews on it. Can you fill us in on what the "extra level" does?

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    3. It's an extension to Vounim's Lair (in the forest), when you get the Helm of Evanna, a door opens up in the back that will take you there. Once inside you have to navigate a circular dungeon that takes you to a fight with Vounim (65/65).

      On your way to Vounim you encounter a lot of nasty creatures like Barrow-Wights, Harpies, Fire-Imps, Fire-Giants, Minotaurs, Wraiths, Dragons, Ring-Wraiths and Thunder-Lizards.

      It was so difficult that I hard-placed healing spots (aura/ancient power) at several spots.

      If you kill Vounim, Alarian shows up and rewards you some experience and treasure, you can then choose to go to the left tower to finish the game. If you go to the right castle then you can save and keep playing later.

      http://i156.photobucket.com/albums/t39/dcruze75/Untitled-2_zpsafffcdfc.jpg

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    4. Cool. The original game lacks anything like a wrap-up, so I appreciate that you built that in to your remake.

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  4. I first played this in 1988 (kind of late) on the C64, it was the first Rogue-like I played and I thought it was extremely challenging so I never finished it. It loaded up really quick compared to other (better) games I had like Bard's Tale tape version and Times of Lore. I guess the nostalgia factor is it being my first RL, and how it could be atmospheric yet be so small (code-wise).

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    1. I've heard it described as a "roguelike" in several places, but I don't think it quite merits that designation, particularly because it lacks permadeath.

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    2. Maybe, if permadeath is an absolute requirement. It would take astronomical luck to win it then :)

      At least the levels are somewhat random and different each time you play.

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    3. Oh, no question. Permadeath would make this game impossible. Most roguelikes aren't quite as random in their encounters and combat, and they give you more tactical options to get out of trouble.

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  5. I view these old games like I view a picture of children throwing a ball back and forth. Why is throwing the ball back and forth such an entertaining thing? Because when your other option is sitting outside doing nothing at all throwing a ball sounds great.

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    1. Were you that kid playing ball with your friend next door? I think I asked if you guys wanted to join me pouring salt on garden slugs once.

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    2. I still enjoyed throwing balls back and forth with Dad years after getting our first console and PC.

      In fact, I'd probably still enjoy it!

      Garden murder? Not since I was about 10.

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    3. Seldom do I see the words "balls" and "murder" in the same post.

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  6. Chester Bolingbroke -- playing CRPGs while in meetings since 2010.

    ;-)

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    1. The neat thing is, this game was so graphically primitive that if anyone had seen me playing, they probably would have assumed I was working in some obscure GIS or CAD program.

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    2. Yeah the mountains could easily be mistaken for a line graph: D

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    3. I often play Nethack at work while waiting for IR spectra to collect (Takes about 30 second for background, then that again for measurement, more if you have to clean it first, as you have to wait for the ethanol to evaporate.) I don't hide what I'm doing, but no one has figured out that it is a game at first glance.

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  7. Holy heck, I'm kind of amazed you managed to play this one at all, looking at the screen shots - was the text not next to invisible with your colourblindness? - Bobbledog

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    1. Even with colorblindness, I can still see shades.

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  8. Maybe your next "lifelong project" will be playing all the adventure games. :)

    Before this blog I never realised how just many different RPG's there really were in the -80's when I got my first c64.

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    1. Someone else is already on that project: http://advgamer.blogspot.com/

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    2. I really like Trickster's blog. I don't get the opportunity to read it as often as I'd like.

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    3. I think he'd complete his quest way earlier than you, Chet. Not sure if it's possible for you to complete it in our lifetime either. XD

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    4. It could happen... Especially if life expectancy increases by 50%.

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    5. Yeah, well, what about newer CRPGs with their 50+ hours of contents plus all those never-ending DLCs? Speaking of which, is Chet supposed to play a game with all its expansions and DLCs?

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    6. I'm sure that's a question Chet will have to answer eventually. The first in my memory is Diablo's expansion that added an extra dungeon and the monk class.

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    7. Diablo (1)'s expansion, Hellfire, was not actually designed by the same people. Vivendi/Sierra were outsourced to create one for Blozzard, and the whole story of it was retconned for the sequels (notable given that you do revisit Tristram!) That's not to say it's bad. If anything it is probably better a game just for the talking cow who gets you to go find his goat suit (or was it the other way around?)

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    8. I think depending on the game, the answer to the DLC/Expansion question is one of:

      A) Review original game, comment on added content
      B) Review with added content
      C) Review and then Review added content

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    9. Zenic Reverie wrote:
      > It could happen... Especially if life expectancy increases by 50%.

      It doesn't help unless he starts to actually go through a game-year in less time than a year. And even then it will take a *long* time to catch up.

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    10. And seeing that, with Kickstarter, we're experiencing some kinda CRPG revival, starting with Shadowrun and Wasteland 2 (followed by Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera and many others from smaller indie studios).

      Some of these games might not even be considered if they were released 10-20 years ago. But with GoG, Humble Bundle and Steam, indies are getting so much more exposure that you can't rule them out as "commercially unavailable" as a reason for not playing it.

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    11. Once Chet retires in 2035 he'll start making better time. It's all good.

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    12. Yeah, and I'm expecting by 2040 that the technology to preserve a brain in a jar will be around.

      However, I had a better plan. Add a CPU to Chet's brain, with a RAM bank that duplicates his short-term memory. This should elminate a lot of the problems humans have multitasking. Then in the spare memory run a CRPG. Then Chet can a) Play a CRPG in his brain, and b) do literally anything else while doing it.

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  9. I'm eagerly awaiting your review of Expedition Amazon, not because I loved the game, but because I'm curious to see if you'll be able to find an ending to the game. I played it a lot after I'd finally finished Wizardry I and before I could afford another (better) game.

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  10. I played Expedition Amazon on my Apple II. The only thing I can remember about it now (assuming I am remembering the correct game) is that the items had amusing, or silly depending on your taste, names.

    Another game from 1983 I would suggest you take a look at is The Standing Stones for the Apple II. It was published by Electronic Arts. I recall it being a "Wizardry Lite".

    I put many hours into the Standing Stones so I must have enjoyed it. Unfortunately I couldn't finish it because I accidentally hit a key that caused the game to crash and wipe out my saved game.

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  11. Flyby typo check, Chet.

    The only exceptions to these random events are the Valley's path, where travel is always __ save __, and a handful of randomly-dispersed treasure locations, marked by asterisks (*), in the buildings.

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  12. Than CRPG addict. Your post helped me to port this classic to my favourite 8-bit, the TRS-80 MC-10: Only on rating 8, but I do have the 6 Amulet stone, now for the helm...
    See: http://jimgerrie.blogspot.ca/2016/11/october-retrochallenge-3-valley.html

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    1. Well, congratulations. I might not understand the fondness for the game, but it's an accomplishment nonetheless.

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