Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Game 145: Galactic Adventures (1983)

With all of its features crammed into two disks, Galactic Adventures wasn't going to waste space on introductory screen art.

Galactic Adventures
Tom Reamy (developer), Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1983 for Apple II and Atari 8-bit
Date Started: 5 May 2014
Date Ended: 20 May 2014
Total Hours: 10
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at Time of Posting: 90/142 (63%)

Galactic Adventures is a game of impressive ambition and complexity, beating against the cage of the limitations imposed by disk size and computing power. Taking perhaps some inspiration from Space or Empire I, it offers an open-ended science-fiction campaign setting, where you create a character, assemble a team, and perform a variety of both space missions and "dungeon" explorations that collectively increase your experience, skills, inventory, and finances. The gameplay experience, at least in 2014 terms, isn't as good as its ambitions, but the result is still impressive.

The game is a sequel to SSI's 1982 wargame, Galactic Gladiators, one of over two dozen strategy and simulation games the company published during an extremely prolific period from 1980-1983. It is part of the company's "RapidFire" line, which was a series of games published by the company but developed and programmed by third-party authors. In this case, the author is Tom Reamy, who programmed these two games before going into other pursuits.

The visitor's area of an opening planet.

The setting is a 7-planet alliance called the Interstellar Community of Intelligent Species, which has some limited government "but the emphasis is on the autonomy of the individual." This and the fact that it takes place in 2918 are the only background the game gives you, but the manual offers that "you don't need to read [the background]" and that the player "should also feel free to make up [his] own" history and lore for the setting.

The player begins by creating a character from one of seven races. Humans are there, of course, as are a genetic offshoot from humans called "Wodanites" (large, strong, have horns, modeled on Vikings). Other races are based on birds, amphibians, and even four-legged beasts. Each race has attributes in strength, dexterity, endurance, speed, intelligence, and "sensitivity" (which is the probability of successfully using certain artifacts). These attributes are immutable throughout the game except the very rare increase by 1 point by using a very rare artifact.

The player races of Galactic Adventures.

Each character also has a selection of weapon skills and "advanced" skills, the latter group drawn from a list of 7 object skills (star pilot, engineer, gunnery, cyborg jockey, physics, lock pick, and linguistics) and 7 people skills (transvaluation, noetic logic, holistic logic, bio transform, mind cloud, atomic wand, and medical). A character could have all of these skills, but it makes more sense to specialize from the outset, since unlike attributes, the skills are advanceable through both practice and purchasing something called an "RNA tab."

Creating a new character.

You only create one character, but you can recruit others from the streets of the planets, or even from the survivors of defeated enemies (a mechanism I can recall in no other game), which includes 8 additional species. The party can be as large as the lead character's "leadership" rating, which goes up through successful adventuring and can get as high as 20. Unfortunately, party members cost up to $1,000 per day depending on their levels, so you have to balance power with economics. Players also have the option to spend $10,000 to clone the lead character once or twice. Clones never cost any money and can take over if the lead character dies.

The game begins in the "Visitor's Area" of the character's home planet, from which the party can purchase equipment at the market, visit guilds to get assignments, go to the space port to blast off into space, or just wander the streets looking for encounters. The player starts with 30,000 "frilbees" (the game's currency) and a generic vehicle called a "transport."

My party (right) encountering another party (left) on the streets of Valhalla.

I found that wandering the streets was the best way to develop in the early game. As you roam, you encounter a variety of parties that you can fight, talk with, trade with, or ask for work. Fighting is risky, since occasionally you'll get arrested for disorderly conduct and made to pay half your money. A better approach is to recruit individuals with needed skills and look for "jobs." The "jobs" concept is one of the game's interesting innovations. They draw from the various object skills and have a defined complexity level, so you might get an "engineering job at level 7" or a "lockpicking job at level 5." To complete it successfully, you need to have the appropriate tools for the trade plus adequate level in the related skill.

If you select a job, you have the option to play a mini-game to simulate performing it or go with "abstract resolution" in which a random roll is made against a base probability of success. (The base probability is 50% if the character's intelligence plus skill level equal the job level.) The mini-game is essentially a variation on Mastermind with alien races instead of colored pegs. You have to figure out a random selection of 7 races in 4 positions with between 1 and 10 guesses dependent on the variance between your skill level and the job level. After each guess, the game tells you how many correct positions you guessed and how many races were correct, but in the wrong positions. You deduce from there. I've played a lot of Mastermind and I find it very difficult to beat in less than 7 guesses, so I lost the game a lot. If you fail at a job, you get fined; if you succeed, you get paid and your skill level has a chance of increasing.

Fortunately, my skill level here is high and I get 10 guesses. In guess 4, I was correct about three of the positions.

Space travel is the least complicated of the game's primary mechanisms, but first you have to save up $200,000 to buy your own spacecraft. Once you have it, you can transport cargo or passengers between planets for reasonably good rewards and fairly low risk. Navigating space is a matter of selecting a destination and then moving the space ship to a "hyper-gate" and hitting the SPACE bar. The trick is that the hyper-gate moves randomly around the screen, you have a limited amount of fuel, and your ship's thrusters obey the real laws of physics. If you're already accelerating by 1 unit to the "east" and you turn to the "south" and accelerate by 1 unit, you don't immediately turn south; you end up accelerating by 1 unit to the southeast. Frantically trying to thrust in the direction of the gate will just deplete your fuel and send you careening on an unintended tangent. You have to carefully plot the use of both forward and reverse thrusters to get the bearing right, while simultaneously trying to anticipate where the gate is going to go. The process isn't easy, but fortunately the main menu offers practice in both hyper-gate navigation and combat.

Trying to reach the hyper-gate.

Pirates occasionally intercept you in space, and combat takes place on the same kind of map but with the added difficulty of trying to face your enemy and fire lasers (with success dependent on the "gunnery" skill). You can channel fuel into your shields and even use a tractor beam to capture and board the enemy ship. Boarding ships and defeating pirates in tactical combat is the only way to recruit the valued "Gorsai" species into the party, who have near-maximum attributes in both strength and dexterity.

I've already described what sound like a lot of gameplay elements, but the heart of the game, like almost every SSI title, is really in tactical combat on complex battlefields. Once again, I find myself wishing I'd rejected the "DOS-only" rule the moment I thought of it in 2010. If I had, I would have played this game early, and would have seen what is probably SSI's first fusion of strategy game and role-playing game. I would have referred to it when analyzing the combats in Wizard's Crown, Shard of Spring, and Pool of Radiance, and I would have been giving Tom Reamy credit for introducing this kind of combat mechanic into the CRPG genre for the first time.

A tactical combat screen with numerous options.

You can get into these battles on the streets of planets or by boarding Gorsai ships, but for the most part, the tactical combats take place on a variety of planets and asteroids that you visit by accepting quests from one of the game's four guilds: the Agency (a massive intelligence service), Space Patrol, the Adventurer's Guild, and the Sensitive's Guild. These missions always whisk you to some other world, where you engage in a text-based dungeon crawl through multi-roomed structures and find combat in most of them.

The beginning of a guild mission.

The combat is difficult, complicated, and more than a little exhausting. I can easily see why SSI chose to add a quick combat option to Wizard's Crown, the next RPG to use this kind of interface. Assuming no one is ambushed, it begins by positioning the various party members on the map, and there are limitations in this process I can't quite figure out. The party and its foes then trade turns, during which the party has group options to surrender or flee, and individual options to move, attack, load weapons, use items, rest, and dodge. After each side makes its selections, they execute all at once. The speed of the actions, and the enemy's AI, are just fine in AppleWin with an accelerated processor, but at era-specific speeds they're an unmitigated nightmare, and winning even the simplest combats would have been a multi-hour process.

Combat takes place on a variety of terrains, each with their own logistical challenges.

As I said, combat is extremely difficult and deadly as well as long. I learned the hard way that characters with melee weapons have almost no chance of successfully reaching enemies before being killed or rendered unconscious by enemy phasors and explosives. Meanwhile, characters of low weapon skill (less than 10 or so) miss constantly. If I was really invested in this game, I'd probably spend a lot of time winning low-risk battles on planets before accepting any guild missions.

In this combat option, character "V" is going to move two spaces to the northwest, then attack "Y" with his laser sword. Note that the icons above each character indicate whether they have ranged or missile weapons.

The funny thing is, there's a way to cheat the entire thing. SSI built in the ability to change to two-player mode at the beginning of each round, just in case a friend happens to wander into the room or something. The friend can play the enemy while you play the regular party. Of course, you can exploit this mechanic to take control of both parties yourself and just have the enemies "rest" while the PCs pound on them.

You don't have to kill every enemy to win; they'll depart the battlefield if sufficiently wounded. After combat, you have the ability to recruit from among the survivors as well as "rob" the defeated party (I rather prefer "search" instead) of their money and equipment. You then can continue to explore the area by moving north, south, east, or west to the next sector.

A rare complete victory.

Very often, in between sectors, you'll encounter some kind of challenge that you need a skill to solve, like a locked door (requiring lock picking) or an especially dense swamp (requiring the "cyborg jockey" skill, or more effective use of the cyborg transport). When these occur, you engage in them the same way as the "jobs" back on the planets.

I guess the ultimate goal of each quest is to explore long enough to find the path off the planet, but at any point you can "give up" the mission. I'm not really sure what the difference is, since you get adventuring experience even if you "give up."

The game is full of things we haven't yet seen in 1983 and that I've never seen before at all. There's an extremely long list of weapons of different types and classes. There are special artifacts called "k-devices" spread throughout the galaxy (relics of an earlier civilization) that have a variety of powerful effects (a "k-reanimator" is the only way to resurrect a slain party member). Combat occasionally takes place in zero-gravity, which includes an additional "bounce phase" where characters careen backwards in proportion to their actions during the round. Certain weapons are illegal on certain planets, so they'll be confiscated by customs when you arrive. An "adventure construction" option lets you make your own quests and encounters.

Even the skill system, which certainly isn't unique to this game, has a few selections that I've never seen elsewhere, such as "atomic wand," the ability to duplicate small objects; and "bio transform," the ability to change the appearance of a living organism. The two "logic" skills sound extremely interesting. "Noetic logic" is the art of persuasion through highly-structured reasoning, and "holistic logic" is the ability to make intuitive leaps. Of the latter, the game manual says, "Some of its uses are gathering information (like tracking down a rumor through the back alleys of a space port city), or confirming if someone is telling the truth, or predicting the likely actions someone will take." Unfortunately, I never really found uses for these logic skills, but perhaps I needed to develop them more.

There is no main quest in the game; the manual encourages you to "set up a number of your own goals, like reaching a certain rank in the shortest elapsed time, or collecting all possible K-devices, or amassing a fortune in Frilbees." However, there is a general goal to reach the rank of "Independent Adventurer" before you die. In my time with the game, the best I ever got without dying was "Trial Adventurer," but I only played for 131 days of game time, and this is the sort of game that's meant to be cherished for years. If I had bought it when I was 10, I could see myself rushing home from school every day to fire it up and see if I could get through one of the adventures before dinner. Alas, I have too little time and too long a list these days.

My best attempt at a high adventure rating.

In a GIMLET, I give the game:

  • 2 points for the game world, which was deliberately left under-developed. The alien races are a bit goofy and the planets are essentially uniform.

Blasting off from spaceport.

  • 4 points for character creation and development. The various mechanisms to develop skills, and the satisfying effect that this advancement has on gameplay, are almost unique to the era.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. There isn't much to the street encounters on the planets, which are essentially the only NPCs in the game, but you can role-play them to a limited extent.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. In this I'm rewarding both the "jobs"-based encounters as well as the variety of alien enemies and monsters that you fight, each with different strengths and weaknesses.
  • 4 points for combat. A great early example of the tactical combats that would make SSI famous. Unfortunately, from a modern perspective, the battles are a little too long and difficult.

  • 5 points for equipment. A great selection for such an early game, including weapons, armor, tools, and artifacts.

Some of the options in a weapon shop.

  • 4 points for economy. Given the costs of maintaining a party, buying items, paying for botched jobs, buying ships, and--especially--keeping a full stock of fuel, money never goes out of style.
  • 2 points for quests. There's no real main quest, just a general goal, but the guild quests are mildly interesting.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are (as usual for the era) relatively primitive, and there's no sound. The interface is mostly menu-driven and doesn't have any real problems.
  • 4 points for gameplay for being completely non-linear and fairly replayable. Overall, though, I found it too difficult, and many of the mechanisms took too long even with a modern processor.

The final score of 33 is pretty high for the era, though perhaps a smidgen lower than the point at which I'd say "definitely check it out for yourself." In contemporary times, Computer Gaming World called it a "superb job," praising its combat mechanism in particular, and advising readers to "treat yourself to a great game system and role playing fantasy."

The game doesn't support female characters, but we must market those legs!

Galactic Adventures is little-remembered today. It has no entry on MobyGames or Wikipedia. I couldn't find the original manual (not even the MOCAGH has it), but thankfully someone named Dan Vernon translated it to HTML 12 years ago on an obscure site; otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to play the game. One YouTube user has uploaded videos for both the Atari 8-bit and Apple II versions. Its obscurity is all the more notable given that it had a clear influence, in both combat and skills, on Wizard's Crown (1986), which in turn influenced Pool of Radiance. Unless he had an obvious inspiration that I'm missing, Tom Reamy is the grandfather of the combat system I love so much in the Gold Box games. I'm just glad that SSI simplified the system a bit and offered "quick combat" options in later games.

Unfortunately, according to Tom's own account, both Galactic Gladiators and Galactic Adventures "got better reviews than sales," and he went broke trying to make a living out of software programming. Ultimately, this forced him to transition to other fields. I've written to the last e-mail address I can find for him, and I hope he responds, but for now it's back to Middle Earth!


  1. According to this paper, for the generalized mastermind problem of 4 slots and 7 races, you mathematically cannot do better than 6 guesses in the unluckiest case. So if you're doing 7 in your head, that's pretty good!

    1. 7 is the LEAST I can do it in. Sometimes I failed even at 10. The automatic method turned out to be a less risky proposition for me.

  2. I found the easiest way to win mastermind is to use one color in all 4 slots on the first try. On the second try, you know if you can ignore that color or if you need to find the right spot for it. You then place the first color in one slot and a second color in all three other spots. On the third try, you either have to place the first color in a different spot or you know that it belongs there. You also know if the second color is part of the solution or can be ignored. And so on and on... you filter the colors that are part of the solution and at the same time, determine the right slot.

    1. That's fine...if you have unlimited choices. This game gives you ten chances at best.

    2. This is basically the approach I took, but it's also why I needed a minimum of 7 guesses, especially if the game used the 7th alien type in any of the slots. If it did, I'd have to have the others all sorted before I got there.

    3. I believe it is better to start with 4 different colours, then use the remaining colours on the second row. After that you can change things round a bit and hopefully be getting some 'hits' within a row or two. Once you're sure of a space you can use it to identify whether a different colour is present somewhere.

    4. That method seems more likely to achieve victory quicker if you happen to be lucky with your initial guesses, but Alexander's method seems more likely to achieve victory in a consistent number of guesses.

  3. Why would Light Armor and Heavy Armor cost the same amount? That seems strange, unless there are reasons other than the protective value to choose one over the other.

    I've been giving any game on this site playable on an Atari a try on my 800XL, I'll have to fire this one up and see how it is. I remember the original Home of the Underdogs rating this as a 'Top Dog' and giving it a very favorable review. Unfortunately that was way, way back in the day and it does not exist any longer on the (now shutting down) revival site.

    1. Heavy armor reduces movement speed. I found that movement speed was more valuable than heavier armor. Let me know how it goes on the Atari!

    2. Wish I could, but every disk image I've download neither works with my Atari 800XL, nor with an emulator. Very frustrating, but probably not a huge loss.

      The Apshai series is pretty good on the Atari though and I should be able to play Gateway to Apshai when you hit that game. It's not as much of an RPG as Temple of Apshai though.

    3. Late to this, but the Galactic Adventures on the site seem to work. At least with the Altirra emulator.

  4. "You have to ride your tempermental cyborg"

    Sounds kinky.

  5. I wouldn't normally bother with this game... but the cover sold me!

  6. IIRC Autoduel can recruit from the survivors of defeated enemies. Or was it Wastelands? The one where you can go to the game developer's offices in California and receive one of every item in the game.

    1. The player can recruit survivors in The Last Federation and in Space Pirates and Zombies, though neither is an RPG.

      In The Last Federation, survivors have a small chance of joining you as independent contractors - they'll help the next time you research a tech or construct a building, then go on their merry way.

      In SPAZ, well, some join your crew, the rest go back out of the airlock.

    2. That sounds like Wasteland, but I don't remember that mechanic.

      I did just recall that Pirates! lets you recruit from defeated ships, but of course those are just an abstract number, not individual characters.

  7. Very, very interesting. It reminds me of those Empire games you played earlier, both in the incredibly ambitious scope and in the open-ended type of gameplay.

  8. I am impressed by this game. I suspect if I was unluckily sent 30 years back in time, I'd play this one a lot.

  9. This game is literally a childhood wish come true, but I only found about it as an adult. I had Galactic Gladiators on the Apple II as a kid and loved its tactical turn-based combat, even as slow as it was. The back of game's manual had suggested "Sample Quests" -- battles connected by a story, but you were really just artificially setting up separate combats and pretending they were connected and that there were goals. I longed for the program to actually provide for that in-game. Lo and behold many years later exploring the Asimov archive I find Galactic Adventures - the answer to that wish. Quite an excellent game for its time and still interesting now, I need to fire it up again.

  10. I'm probably pointing out the obvious here, but "Weapon Shop of Ichor" is a clear riff on A.E. van Vogt's famous story (later expanded into a novel) about the Weapon Shop of Isher.

    1. Not pointing out the obvious at all. I'd never heard of the story.

  11. Galactic Adventures is little-remembered today. It has no entry on MobyGames

    I read that, then conspicuously noticed that an entry for it just washed up there...

    Hats off for taking the extra bit of time to share your research with the wider game historian community outside your own blog!

    1. Yeah, I figured rather than just bitch about it like I usually do, I should try to contribute.

    2. Heh...

  12. This reminds me a very little bit of the solo board game, 'Star Smugglers'. The characters have a similar feel to them, at least.

    SSI really had its act together for a long, long time, didn't they? They were one of the few companies where if I saw their logo on a box, I knew it would be a quality game. These stand alone wargame/strategy games were awesome. The Gold Box series was awesome. The various 'General' games in the early/mid 90's were awesome, too. It's a shame they're not around anymore. It's like they never adapted to the Windows era.

    The only other companies that had a similar 'seal of quality' to me were Accolade and Epyx. I can't think of any modern company that makes me feel like that.

    1. SSI was a great company that consistently churned out quality RPGs and wargames. But while I think the games almost always achieved "very goodness," they never quite achieved greatness. The company stressed a team approach to game development rather than a single, ego-maniacal project manager, so there was never a Richard Garriott or Brian Fargo pushing the envelope. The result is a series of games in which almost nothing is bad but in which nothing ever quite leaves you awestruck.

  13. Part of the strength of Galactic Adventures was the construction kit to create modules. Want to see how good your team is? Try fighting 10 Gorsai.

    The same for some of the skill challenges. If they weren't used directly in the campaign, you still could utilize either form of Logic in the editor.

  14. I bought Galactic Adventures when it first came out. It was a marvelous game, kept my entertained for countless hours, and I still have very fond memories of it. From your description, I can tell you're not a master of the game. With experience and skill, you can overcome many of the game's hurdles. By the way, a medium-sized battle (10 vs. 10) used to take around 15 minutes on the Apple II+. Difficult, yes, but doable when you know how to move melee fighters into range while your gunners snipe. Just avoid wide-open maps.

    There are tricks you can use to pick up Robot and Gorsai party members. Once you've accomplished that, combat is much easier.

    1. No, indeed. It's difficult to become a "master" of any game when you're working your way through a list of 2,000 of them.

  15. I'm looking for a copy of GALACTIC ADVENTURES for the apple II but having no luck. if anyone was willing to make me a copy please leave me a post thank you

  16. im looking for a copy of GALACTIC ADVENTURES if anyone has any idea where i can get it or download it pleaes send me a email at any help would be great thank you


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