|As commenters pointed out, the game manages to misspell its own name on the title screen!|
Gateway to Apshai
Connelly Group (developer), Epyx (publisher)
Date Started: 23 May 2014
Date Ended: 24 May 2014
Date Ended: 24 May 2014
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 10
Ranking at Time of Posting: 4/143 (3%)
Final Rating: 10
Ranking at Time of Posting: 4/143 (3%)
What a disappointment. I had been looking forward to Gateway to Apshai--the last of the long and noble Dunjonquest lineage--for a while. I thought it would improve upon the experiences we saw in Temple of Apshai (1979) and Hellfire Warrior (1980), but instead it's a dumbed-down bastardization, an arcade game with RPG aspirations rather than a true RPG. It only uses the Apshai name.
Temple of Apshai, as you may recall from my review, is the first commercial role-playing game that we can definitively call an RPG. It had a full set of statistics, equipment, and evocative and detailed descriptions for its dungeon's many rooms. It was also the first RPG series, and the first RPG ported to a variety of platforms. There are 13 games in the Dunjonquest series, divided into several sub-series; my post on Hellfire Warrior catalogs them in detail.
The framing story has Gateway serve as a prequel to the Temple of Apshai by recounting a warrior's discovery of the path, through a series of dangerous caves, to the titular Temple. Reading the manual, I was struck by how weak the production values were compared to Epyx's previous games; there were only a couple of amateur illustrations and a page-and-a-half backstory in a five-page manual--this from a company famous for detailed illustrations, exhaustive documentation, well-written narratives, and treatises on role-playing. In any event, the framing story is just that. Nothing during the game suggests anything about the story, nor even any sense that you're in a world called "Apshai."
This might be forgivable if the gameplay was any good, but it's not. The C64 had a full keyboard, of course, as did the Atari 8-bit series, but many developers of the era seemed to feel that it was a console, good primarily for its joystick. The game uses only the joystick and three function keys, one to cycle through the available inventory, one to cycle through available commands (instead of doing something sensible like mapping each command to a key), and one to enter combat mode and cycle through modes of combat. Any of the cycling related to equipment, commands, or combat is executed with the "fire" key on the joystick. I'm using an emulated joystick (the number pad on my keyboard), but I'm having trouble envisioning how this worked. The player would have had to use the joystick one-handed while the other hand hit the F-keys (which were, admittedly, conveniently grouped on the right-hand side of the keyboard). If you're going to make the player use the keyboard at all, why not give him a fully-mapped set of keys?
|Stuck between a goblin and a ghoul.|
Every player starts with the same nameless character with 3 points in agility, luck, and strength; 9 points in health; and 5 lives. You begin on Level 1 of the dungeon, with all but the starting area concealed in the fog of war. Room by room, you reveal the corridors and chambers, fighting monsters, picking up treasure and new equipment, and avoiding traps. The moment a level begins, you have a counter that starts at 99 and works its way down to 0. When it hits 0, you're automatically transported to the next level. The counter goes at a rate of about 1 for every 4 seconds, so practically speaking you have about 6-7 minutes on each level. There is no save mechanism.
The nominal goal of the game is to reach Level 8, but this isn't really any kind of achievement, given that you can manually transition levels any time you want, without waiting for the counter to hit 0. When you reach Level 8, there's no kind of congratulatory message. The game doesn't end; rather, if you successfully time out the level, you just return to Level 8 again, repeatedly, until your 5 lives finally run out. The real goal, therefore, is to amass as many points as possible and impress your friends. 1980s game players, judging by many game manuals of the era, had easily-impressible friends.
|No true RPG ever says "game over" at the end of the game.|
At the beginning of the game, and when you transition between levels, the game asks you to pick what dungeon you want from a selection of 1-16. The game manual boasts that each dungeon level has about 60 rooms, for a total of "over 7,500 different rooms for you to explore." "Explore" in this case means walk in to a featureless rectangle, pick up any treasure, kill any monsters. There are no room descriptions, textures, names or anything to differentiate them--nothing, in short, that made the previous Dunjonquest titles so memorable.
The combat is entirely action-based. Until you find a bow and arrows or magic arrows, you just have a melee weapon, and fighting consists of hitting the trigger repeatedly to wave it in the vague direction of your foe. Different enemies move at different speeds, so it's possible to do a kind of fighting retreat with some of them, hitting them but turning and running before they can touch you. Beyond that, the only "tactic" is to exploit the poor pathfinding to get an enemy hung up on a wall or corner, allowing you free hits while he struggles to get loose.
|What passes for "combat tactics" in Gateway to Apshai.|
I toyed with dismissing the game as an RPG entirely, but it technically meets my three categories. Although the combat is solely action-based, damage does draw from the underlying strength, agility, and luck statistics. These statistics are improvable throughout the game; if you time out a level (rather than manually moving to the next one), the game will give you an attribute bump if you amassed enough points while you were there. You can also find special equipment like "strength stones" and "agility amulets" to give an attribute boost.
|A reward between levels.|
My third core RPG category is equipment, and Gateway does a reasonable job here for a game of such limited aspirations. You start with a dagger and leather armor, but you can find weapon and armor upgrades, shields, helms, amulets, gauntlets, spells, potions, salves, magic maps, and other items throughout your explorations, using them whenever you think it's best. Many of the items are trapped, doing damage, freezing you, or teleporting you to another part of the level when you pick them up.
|My weapons and armor late in the game. This character never did find an upgrade to his starting leather armor.|
There are a few game mechanics that draw inspiration from RPGs but are rendered in their most primitive form here. The commands that you cycle through with the F5 key include unlocking a door, searching for a trap, searching for secret doors, checking supplies, checking status, and going to the next level. But unlocking doors, searching for traps, and finding secret doors works 100% of the time, so it simply slows down gameplay to bother with the options in the first place. Why not just have doors open the moment you walk up to them, instead of forcing the player to hit F5 until "Keys" pops up, then hit the joystick button?
|Woo-hoo! I've made it to Level 8! I wonder if there's a secret door around here somewhere.|
At best, the game is an action RPG, but one that isn't very fun. It seems primitive even for 1983, and the Apshai label seems like a cynical attempt to cash in on a famous name. Aside from the brief framing story in the manual--which could have been written to fit the game into any franchise--there is no thematic connection to the rest of the series.
In a GIMLET, I give it:
- 1 point for the framing story, which has no impact on the game itself
- 1 point for the limited character development process; there is otherwise no customization. You can't even pick a name.
|A mid-game character, after finding some attribute boosts.|
- 0 points for no NPC interaction.
- 1 point for encounters with a typical variety of monsters (ghouls, theives, wizards, giants, etc.). They do have different speeds and power levels, but otherwise no variance in how you fight them.
- 1 point for the all action-based magic and combat.
- 2 points for equipment, perhaps the best part of the game. Some of the items you pick up have very subtle effects; for instance, a cross causes your sword to do double damage to undead creatures.
- 1 point for economy. The only thing you can do with gold is amass it, but it's there.
- 0 points for quests. Despite the manual's insistence, in gameplay terms, there is no main quest.
- 1 point for graphics, sound, and inputs. Graphics and sound are not horrible for the era, but they make no real aspirations. The joystick movement works all right, but the whole approach using the function keys was silly. Either you allow the player to sit back from the keyboard, relax, and just use the controller, or you give him a full array of keys to use. If the player must use the keyboard, it's silly to limit the controls to three keys.
- 2 points for gameplay. You could argue that the difficultly is about right, the pace is brisk enough, and it's technically "replayable."
This gives a final score of 10, one of the lowest I've ever given.
|The cover art has nothing to do with the game. I didn't even encounter any insect-based enemy.|
I've only found one contemporary review, from A.N.A.L.O.G. in 1984. The reviewer is unabashedly positive about the game, concluding that "if you're interested in D&D games or enjoyed the original Temple, then I heartily recommend Gateway to Apshai," both clauses of which should have gotten the reviewer banned from ever reviewing another game. In more modern times, Vesuvius ("The RPG & Strategy Gamer") played it briefly before concluding that it wasn't an RPG and recommending "don't bother." Perhaps most telling, unlike just about every other barely-adequate RPG experience from the early 1980s, no one is currently trying to remake this one.
Gateway to Apshai was developed by The Connelly Group, owned by Epyx co-founder Jim Connelly, who left the company about the time this game would have been in development. From what I've read, Epyx's other co-founder, Jon Freeman (who had also left by this point), was the mind behind the Dunjonquest series. His lack of involvement in this one definitely shows. This appears to be The Connelly Group's only attempt at an RPG, and it's one of the last RPGs that Epyx ever published, the only exceptions being the compiled Temple of Apshai Trilogy in 1985 and The Legend of Blacksilver in 1988.
Well, at least it didn't take very long. On to Dragonflight!