Saturday, May 10, 2014

Expedition Amazon: Final Rating

The bottom level of the ruins. I'm sure the entrance to Ka was somewhere in here, but I never found it.

Expedition Amazon
Penguin Software (developer and publisher)
Willard Phillips (author), Greg Malone (graphics), Dave Shapiro (programming)
Released 1983 for Apple II, 1984 for Commodore 64, FM-7, PC-88, PC-98
Date Started: 15 April 2014
Date Ended: 5 June 2014
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 35/142 (25%)

[Edit from 5 June 2014: I wrote this posting before figuring out how to win the game. You can read my account of the endgame here. After winning, I updated the values above.]

I didn't intend to offer a second posting on Expedition Amazon, but I continued playing it for about six hours after the first posting, so this allows me to make something of that time while easing myself back into the blog after a regrettable, unanticipated absence.

The game has some interesting ideas but isn't, in 2014, very fun. The basic dynamic is to stock up on as much stuff as you can carry in the town, explore until your supplies run out, and return to the city. The party can only lug 200 bullets, 8 grenades, 4 lamps, 4 spare batteries at a time, so your expedition is over after about 10-15 combats or 2 game days of tunnel-crawling. Random events (e.g., some creature smashing a lamp, natives stealing grenades) can lead to faster depletion. Very rarely, you find needed supplies on slain enemies, but for the most part, you have to be careful lest you find yourself fighting with fists or bumbling through dungeons in the dark.

After the first couple hours of gameplay, by the time the characters reach Level 4, there is very little danger from combat. Your hit points are high enough that even when enemies repeatedly ambush you (and get a free round of attacks), they don't pose any risk of death. Combat is a horribly rote affair by which your party members either throw grenades (killing a maximum of 10 enemies) or shoot a pistol (killing a maximum of 6). Technically, the "guard" character can also fire an assault rifle, which kills a maximum of 20 enemies, but the guard always goes last, and there are never so many enemies that you need him to shoot that many bullets by the time the first three characters have acted. Combat swiftly became extremely annoying, and I groaned audibly every time "jaguar cult priests!" appeared in the dungeon while I was just trying to get from one place to another.

My party status not long before I gave up.

I don't know if there's a maximum number of levels, but every character maxed at 40 hit points, so further leveling didn't really do anything for me.

With combat posing no challenge, the only real threat to the party in the dungeons are the traps, which can kill a party member (or the entire party) instantly and are impossible to detect, disarm, or avoid. Every death requires a reload or a trip back to Iquitos for a Level 1 substitute. I typically chose the former.

I'd like to give the game credit for including some obscure element from Incan mythology, but I can't find any evidence that "Imatu" wasn't just invented by the game developers as a vaguely Incan-sounding name.

In the first post, I talked about overland exploration and the process of "completing" a map by exploring every available square, at which point the map is saved permanently. The party gets experience for every new square explored as well as every sector completely mapped. This dynamic continued in the dungeons, although the game mercifully allows you to complete a sector without stepping on the trap squares. There were a couple maps that I couldn't complete even though I hit every visible square. I suspect there were secret doors somewhere, but the game doesn't have a mechanic to search for secret doors, and no amount of bashing into the walls seemed to produce any.

With as much time as I invested in the game, it's annoying not to be able to win it. But I've explored every square multiple times, and I just can't see what I'm missing. There are no walkthroughs online, but a few hints gleaned from a variety of sources suggest that somewhere, something was supposed to convey on me the ability to read Incan runes, and all those gibberish pieces of paper I'd been recovering from natives would start offering clues instead. This never happened. One place suggests that you have to wait in a "poison room" until three of the four party members are dead before you can find the door, but I never found this location.

One of the unavoidable--and thus unfair--traps.

Viewing the game files in Notepad does offer the clues that I was supposed to be getting, but they're pretty cryptic and don't really help: "SEQUENCE IN PAIRS TO FIND THE PATH"; "LEFT IS MORE FROM 4 OVER 4"; "SUCCESS BEGINS AT THE BOTTOM"; "A BATH IS NICE, BUT TWICE?"; and so on. The last two probably refer to the map at the top of this post: a weird maze on the bottom level that keeps shifting paths every time I move from square to square. There's an encounter on the map with a "fountain of black," where you have the option to bathe, which depletes all but 10 hit points. A second bath kills you, so that makes sense. But if success was supposed to begin here, it didn't do me any good.

In a quick GIMLET, I give it:

  • 3 points for the game world. The back story is idiotic, but the game deserves some credit for offering a modern South American setting with themes from Incan mythology. This isn't the first RPG to offer a non-fantasy setting (that would be 1978's Space), but it is the first to offer a contemporary setting.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Expedition Amazon offers a Starflight-like approach by which each character occupies a role, and if he dies, you can no longer perform the functions of that role. It also offers a rare mechanic by which you accumulate experience through simple map exploration as well as combat. But the only obvious benefits of the experience--hit points and increased combat skill--max out fairly quickly.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. There are a lot of "encounters" both outdoors and indoors, such as snake attacks, ambushes by natives, traps, and pits, but there are no role-playing options, or really any options, associated with them. You just take the damage and suck it up, or hope some piece of equipment saves you.

Sometimes, stepping on a random square causes a volcano to explode and kill everyone.

  • 2 points for combat. As I described above, there are only a few options, no tactics, and very little danger. Combat is more about resource management (conserving bullets and grenades) than strategy.
  • 3 points for equipment. You have a variety of equipment to help you explore, and the basic dynamic of the game is to manage it and make sure you return to the city before key items deplete. There just isn't much that's interesting about it.

Playing the game is a process of routinely returning to this screen to replenish stocks.

  • 3 points for economy. You get money by finding and selling artifacts, but after a few hours of gameplay, you have more than you need. The most expensive items in the game are unnecessary.
  • 1 point for having a main quest, though with a silly premise.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound are both very primitive (as was common in 1983). The interface is simple enough, but at the default speed, everything, from movement to waiting for the results of a combat action, takes too long.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's relatively linear and offers limited replayability. The basic game mechanic is a bit too easy, although clearly some aspects are too hard, since I couldn't figure out how to win no matter how much time I invested.

The final score of 21 is about par for the course for these early-1980s, mostly-forgotten offerings that never had a DOS port. Since I did a u-turn with my "new plan" back in November, I've met a few non-DOS offerings that I'm glad I experienced (e.g., Dungeons of Daggorath, Sword of Fargoal), but none that I've felt are truly great RPGs, even for their eras. What will be the first, do you think? Questron?

What interests me is how well these authors thought they were replicating the tabletop role-playing experience. Some commenters have noted that game magazines made no distinction between "adventure" games and "role-playing" games in the early era; this may be true, but game developers clearly did make distinctions. Perhaps the earliest commercial RPG, Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai, begins with a long description of role-playing and how Apshai replicates the experience on the computer. So does Expedition Amazon. The manual opens with a section titled "What is a Fantasy Role Playing Game?," and it mentions all the conventions of the genre--attributes, character development, player identification with the character, economy, equipment--while carefully skirting the fact that Expedition Amazon makes poor use of all of them. Though, as always, we have to remember the technology limitations of the time.

A reviewer named Johnny Wilson covered Expedition Amazon in the August 1984 Computer Gaming World, calling it "a very enjoyable game that doesn't take itself too seriously," but he goes on to say, "For me, it's much more satisfying to adventure in this manner than to deal with a limited parser in a text only game," suggesting that he didn't have a lot of basis for comparison. His review does provide an interesting window on what players thought was fun back in the early 1980s:

One of the most satisfying features of this adventure game was that by having four player characters, I could have a group over and play the game together. We had great fun laughing at each other's misfortunes; harassing one another for inept shooting; and generally suggesting mutiny toward whoever happened to be piloting the boat or leading the expedition. We would name at least one of the characters for someone we didn't like and would absolutely refuse to give medical aid to them, regardless of what happened to them.

The limited gameplay doesn't remotely support this depth of engagement. It doesn't even really treat the four party members as individual characters, and harassing someone for "inept shooting" is to harass him for the outcome of a 1d6 roll. The idea of four friends huddled in front of an Apple II, hooting and hollering about the twists of fate in Expedition Amazon--not to mention what the review calls "sparkling graphics and gags"--makes me want to cry a little.

Cue peals of laughter from four desperately lonely individuals.

I wish I knew more about the game's author, Willard Phillips. MobyGames doesn't have him credited on any other titles. [Later edit: Mr. Phillips later commented below, and I have more information about him in a later posting.] As I noted in the opening post, Greg "Moebius" Malone and David "Dr. Cat" Shapiro, both of whom would go on to work at Origin Systems, are credited in the Apple II version. At first, I thought this was quite surprising, but it turns out that Penguin Software's stable of employees or contractors included a lot of future Origin employees, including Dallas Snell, Denis Loubet, and Richard Garriott himself (he's credited for graphics on 1985's Ring Quest). Penguin (later Polarware) has only one other RPG on its list: 1984's Xyphus.

If any later reader comes along and knows the secret to winning Expedition Amazon, feel free to drop a comment and I'll see if I can pull off a victory screen. [Later edit: I did it! On my own!] Until then, it's time to move on and get back into a regular schedule. It's been so long since I played Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan that I no longer remember what I'm doing. I'm thinking it makes sense to start the game over with a new party; I'm also motivated to do this because my characters seem to have suffered an irreversible loss of attributes. But I don't want to do that right away, so I'm temporarily removing the game from the active list and moving on to Lord of the Rings, Vol. I to the next position. I'll come back to Khazan later in the year.

Sorry for the long silence, everyone. I can't promise it won't happen again, but I'll do my best.


  1. I can't promise it won't happen again, but I'll do my best.

    We appreciate that if you're ever going to make it to Baldur's Gate, you've got to maintain a sustainable pace without burning out. Take it easy & enjoy your gimlets!

    PS, a new "Choice of Games" title set in your beloved New Orleans, NOLA is Burning -- -- relatively low on the RPG credentials however.

  2. Welcome back Chet! I think it's perfectly understandable that sometimes you have to take a break from blogging. But I would suggest announcing such a break by an open thread or something like that. That would make me stop worrying.
    Also, I knew you would post again today. I had taken a break from playing Throne of Bhaal for a couple of weeks, but resumed playing it today. And there you are. Magic.

    1. That would work if the break was intentional, but it wasn't. Every day, I expected I'd find time to post again.

    2. Why don't you create a twitter account? People could check it to see if there's going to be a delay for the next update.

    3. I can see it now: Chet excitedly tweeting when he levels up, ranting when he dies, having games ruined by people tweeting him spoilers.....

  3. Ahoy!
    Longtime reader, first-time poster here.

    Also same conundrum. I have party in BG1 going and gotten into 'Sir, you are being hunted', a new procedurally generated indie-game, where you are being hunted by gentleman-robots, but, alas — too little time at the moment.
    Hope you can get back to your regular schedule now,

    All the best

  4. WB! Not technically a CRPG, but I've been playing STALKER Call of Prypyat using the so-called "Misery" complete overhaul, and have found it very satisfying and CRPGish, and a bit like what I wish fallout 3 had been like instead of the more arcady product. No stats per say, but inventory management/equipment is in depth, and then there is food, cooking, worrying about radiation etc. I suppose you could compare it favorably to the Requiem mod for Oblivion, although I like it better because of the subject material.

    1. Erm, I realised I left out where that relates to you. If you are looking for a break from the 1980s, give it a go and let us know how you found it.

  5. I also feel sad that a reviewer would say they had so much enjoyment with their friends while playing this game. They're either lying (making their reviews questionable), lead very pathetic lives (in the old sense of the word), or only had that 'fun' for a few minutes but somehow feel they need to exaggerate their experience (which is really just lying again). Unlike movie reviews, I've always found game reviews - especially earlier ones - to be a little suspect, unfortunately.

    And: You don't need to apologize for taking a couple of weeks off from the blog - life happens and we're not paying you for coming here (other than ad views and a potential book). I found when I had a blog oh-so-many-years-ago, apologizing actually sped up my burn out since I felt I 'owed' it to the readers and would stress over it. Forget it. You owe us nothing - you've already provided us years of awesomeness (but I'll happily take more of course!).

    1. Of the options, exaggerating seems the more likely. It really is simply impossible to imagine one person, let alone four, becoming that invested in this game.

    2. Cannot comment specifically on this review but most CGW reviewers in those years were wargamers (in the miniatures and board games sense) and were used to play games with other people. CGW organized many tournaments and published multi-player replays of games. Johnny Wilson would later become CGW's Editor.

  6. LOTR can be very unforgiving to new players whithout a walkthrough. There's lots of easily missable stuff and it would be hard to point you toward it without directly spoiling anything. It might be worth reconsidering your choice for your next game, considering that the last two were probably a bit frustrating. (Amazon because it seems to be just frustrating to play and because you have to leave it unfinnished for now; and Crusaders because it's probably annoying having to start over.)

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I noticed you mentioned Questron as possibly being a great RPG of that era. I am eager to see what you think of that game. John and Charles Dougherty really honed the Questron engine as they released more games, and one I can't recommend enough that uses the Questron formula is Legacy of the Ancients.
    The Commodore 64 version was amazing, and if I remember correctly was maybe released in 1988? Would love to see you cover that, and it's spiritual successor, Legend of Blacksilver.

    1. Ralph The AvatarMay 10, 2014 at 7:12 PM

      Legacy of the Ancients was released in 1987, followed by Blacksilver in 1988. And give the PC port of Legacy a chance as some care went into it :) There was supposed to be a PC port of Blacksilver but Epyx was already on its last legs when the 8-bit versions were released.

      Questron on the other hand holds a special place in my heart as one of the best games I ever played. It was the first game that I ever finished and I still say to this day it has one of the best ending sequences in computer gaming history. The fact that it was 30 years ago makes it even more impressive.

    2. I never played the PC version of Legacy Ralph, but I remember seeing screens of it and it being visually atrocious compared to the C64 version. I agree with you 100% on the ending of Questron, it was astounding for it's time.

    3. Ralph The AvatarMay 11, 2014 at 9:14 AM

      Granted, it was 4 color CGA on Legacy for the PC, but it was very good 4 color CGA. If I were to fire it up today, like you, I'd play the C-64 version. It's also nice that I'm not alone in my Questron fanboyism :)

    4. I realize not everyone has read all of my entries, but for clarification: Questron was the first RPG I ever played, and I only skipped it in the original blog chronology because of my silly "DOS-only" rule. I did play and review both Legacy of the Ancients and Questron II on this blog and didn't think either had aged very well.

  9. Try to find the CD version of Lord of the Rings, it adds some unintentionally hilarious snippets from the animated cartoon, but more practically removes the need to reference the manual for a lot of the text, a la the Gold Box series. The CD version simply displays the text in-game.

    1. I'm struggling with that. The CD version is from 1993 and thus significantly more advanced than the 1990 game. In some circumstances, I'd treat it as a separate game and play both, but I don't really want to do that here.

    2. Well, I downloaded the "CD version," which consists of a .cue file and a .bin file. Apparently, there's some way to get these working in Dosbox using the IMGMOUNT command, but I'll be damned if it works for me. I just get a message that the file is invalid. I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who has ever gotten this to work, especially with this game.

    3. Never mind. I figured it out by mounting the .bin instead of the .cue.

    4. By mounting only the .bin image, you cannot listen to the CD soundtrack. I think that LOTR is a multi-track CD image, meaning that the first track is reserved for the game, and the remaining trucks are music tracks. (I count 17 different tracks in my version of LOTR. The first is reserved for data, the remaining tracks (2 to 17) for CD audio. You can even use it like a regular music CD in a CD player). You can either use a virtual CD utility like Daemon Tools, or you can burn the cue/bin image in a real CDR.

    5. The method I used played the movies okay, which is all I really care about. I almost always turn the game music off. Anyway, after experimenting with both versions a bit, I'll probably stick with the 1990 version. I like the drawn screens better than the animated film clips.

    6. If you wind up needing to use virtual CDs in the future, you will get vastly better results from mounting the discs in Windows and mouting the virtual drive in Dosbox rather than trying to use Dosbox's built-in mounter. The Windows-based ones are generally much more developed than Dosbox's relatively crude one. Slysoft's (the makers of the CD app CloneCD, which IIRC is the originator of the .bin/.cue setup in the first place) Virtual Clone Drive works extremely well, and is free.

  10. Welcome back Chet! we missed you.

    I remember myself palying LOTR back in the day but not really understanding what was hapenning there, just wandering around the land and using the ring ofently,,, not so funny for me, so Im eager to read about an actual play of the game

  11. I remember buying that LOTR game because it looked a lot like Ultima VI, my favorite game at the time. So I bought it and it kind of plays like Ultima VI but the world, characters, quests, combat, inventory, etc. were all not very interesting. I remember you basically follow the plot of the book and send your guys from the Shire, to Bree to that elf town to the west of Moria, through Moria then there's another elf town on the other side of Moria and I think I got bored and quit after that due to not knowing what to do next.

  12. If you are starting to feel burned out by a strong of less than stellar games, I don't think anyone here would know (or care) if you cooked the books a bit on what to play next. A more "fun" game that you know is coming up might be a great diversion and remind you why you love cRPGs and this blog in the first place. 1990 still has another Ultima game, another Gold Box, GfG2, and many more which could give you a breath of fresh air if you need one.

  13. I enjoyed Wizardry 1, 6 and 8, but they were kind of bland and poorly-designed. I recently played a superior game in the same style: Shin Megami Tensei

    Wizardry's plot is no more complex than,"this king is evil--wait, no, the queen is evil." Shin Megami Tensei has more plot, going into the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse and fighting a war between light and dark.

    Wizardry has the standard Dungeons and Dragons alignments, which occasionally change a bit of dialogue or a room you can visit. Shin Megami Tensei has morally ambiguous alignments which change the story, the factions you can support, the monsters you can get to help you, and the endings.

    Wizardry has a standard combat system. Shin Megami Tensei lets you hire monsters and fuse them to make bigger monsters.

    Both are very difficult and have awkward interfaces, but Shin Megami Tensei has conveniences like an automap and the ability to save at very rare and distantly-spread checkpoints.

    Now, the GIMLET: Game world: A modern world facing a Biblical apocalypse, being overrun by demons, angels and fanatics, collapsing on itself and dying. It works quite well, as the player can see the standard businesses turned into oases in the decaying Hell that is the only thing left. Score: 8

    Character creation and development: This is where the game gets interesting: Your main characters have a standard leveling system, with one skill point per level and a variety of upgrades scattered around to encourage exploration. This, however, is not the interesting part: You can recruit monsters into the party and then fuse them together to form stronger monsters. Balancing monsters, deciding which to let go when the database gets full, and deciding whether an upgrade is worth the loss are great fun and very exciting, requiring lots of thought. Score: 9

    N.P.C.s: Short but interesting conversations, presenting the ideas of optimistic fanatics, desperate rebels and panicked civilians. You also get upgrades from the great motherfucking Stephen Hawking, who survives the apocalypse because he is awesome. Score: 8

    Encounters and foes: A wide, colorful variety of enemies, and plentiful roleplaying options. You have to go through conversation trees to convince enemies to join you, there are several times where major choices affect your alignment and the course of the story, and there are virtually no safe zones: Almost every area after the world ends in infested. Score: 9

    Combat is pretty standard, but enlivened by the ability to recruit monsters and use them as party members. It is quite challenging, as enemies are everywhere and many have instant-kill spells. Score: 6
    Equipment and economy are standard. Score: 5 each

    Quest: Your goal is pretty vague until the end; side quests are few, but the main quest is quite substantial so that is not a big problem. Score: 6

    Graphics, sound and interface: Graphics are a bit behind that time, sound is good but pretty standard for that system, and the interface is kind of slow and awkward but better than in most of these old R.P.G.s.
    Gameplay: Wide open world opens up early in the game; fun, challenging gameplay; a sense of mystery. Score: 8
    Final score: 58, appropriate for a deep, fun game.
    Basically, if Wizardry had a lot more fun and imagination, it would be Shin Megami Tensei. Maybe you should play that before Wizardry 7.

    1. Anonymous, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I'm not sure why you keep commenting about Shin Megami Tensei in posts that have nothing to do with that game, nor why you keep comparing it to the Wizardry series specifically.

      Shin Megami Tensei is a console game and thus will not be appearing on my blog unless I make a special exception. This is not terribly likely.

    2. The very first game of the series (Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei) had MSX and PC88 versions, but a.) they're not real ports of the original RPG, they're Gauntlet clones b.) they're in Japanese and unlikely to be translated.

      I dunno why anyone would consider the plots of the series to be gold standards. It still might make a "Highest Rated" list for anyone doing the Console Addict thing though.

    3. I only mentioned Shin Megami Tensei a couple of times, and the reason I compared it to Wizardry was that it had a similar perspective, challenge and interface. You beat Wizrdry 2 and 6 recently, thus the game was appropriate. I never said the plot was great, just that it was better than that of a similar, inferior game. You will not play it, but someone else who reads the comments and like Wizardry might be curious and try it, so there is a point to the comments.

    4. Really? Why not just go to Wizardry review to do that? And why make fake gimlet for that?

      On top of that, at least for me this blog has made abundantly clear is that comparin a 1982 game (Wizardy II) and a 1992 game (Shin Megami Tensei) is just silly. There is a great deal of progress and the 1992 games should inherently be in whole different league in almost all areas.

    5. I also compared it to Wizardries 6 and 8, which came out in 1990, 1994 and 2001, which were fair comparisons. Making a fake GIMLET was just a simple way of explaining why the game was so good without violating the ideals of this website. I put it in a new p;ost so it would be visible, though perhaps I should have put in a Wizardry post.

  14. The Addict is back, long live the Addict!!!! Sir, never push it too much. It is better to have long silences than ending the blog forever. I am still afraid that you put so much mediocre or less then mediocre games on your list that It will overwhelm you on the long run. I think you shouldn't make you suffer playing bland games till the end.

  15. Wohoo! Your BACK!!! *dancing in the moonlight and crying out of joy, double-rainbow-style*

  16. Don't worry Chet-- We know you don't get paid for this and understand when you have to take some time off to knock over a bank.

  17. I'm going to jump on the "welcome back" bandwagon myself. I stumbled on the blog sinehow a few months back, and I've had a browser window on my phone open to it since then. As a relative contemporary of Chet's I really relate to the idea of revisiting games from my earliest days playing the computer.

  18. I completely agree with the critical remarks regarding EA. I will point out these facts: programing with 48k memory is a bit limiting. Take a look at the memory consumed by modern games; megabytes. The only computer game I had played before undertaking EA was Wizardry 1, so I had no preconceptions. I make no apologies. I simply had fun. Willard Phillips

    1. Certainly, no apologies necessary. You created an interesting game with a unique setting and some innovative elements. I don't have to "enjoy" it 31 years later to appreciate what it did.

      You mentioned that Wizardry was the only game you played prior to programming. Did you keep up with the genre after that?

      Based on our e-mail exchange*, I did take another stab at finding the entrance to Ka, but I still had no luck. I hate to leave it unfinished.

      *Update to the text above based on the e-mail as soon as I get permission from Mr. Phillips.

  19. Holy sh... THE Mr. Willard Phillips? Chet, you are a magnet for unsung heroes and almost-forgotten legends. XD


I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) THIS ALSO INCLUDES USER NAMES THAT LINK TO ADVERTISING.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters.

3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

NOTE: Spam has gotten so bad lately that I've had to turn on comment moderation for posts older than 10 days. I apologize if it takes a little while for your comment to appear.