Thursday, June 12, 2014

Game 148: Halls of Death (1983)


Halls of Death
Stewart Sargaison (developer); Supersoft (publisher)
Released 1983 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 9 June 2014
Date Ended: 9 June 2014
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 10
Ranking at Time of Posting: 5/143 (3%)

Halls of Death is one of those games that was probably a lot of fun when it was released in 1983, but a month from now, I'll have to read my own review to remember anything about it. It's one of several dozen games released for non-DOS platforms in the early 1980s that I originally skipped because of my "DOS-only" rule. While I now recognize the rule was stupid, it did have a certain utility. DOS may have been the worst platform in the early 1980s, but that means that anyone who took the trouble to port a game to it generally had a good game. Games that only existed for a single platform, like this one, are more likely to be instantly forgettable.

A typical Halls of Death screen. I'm on dungeon Level 3 (out of 6) and I've been in the dungeon for 153 moves. The partially-revealed map shows white dots in squares I've explored, circles at traps, and checkerboards at stairs. I've accumulated 451 in gold, and thanks to some lucky equipment finds, my strength has risen from 9 to 36. My constitution is very low, however, and I need to get out of the dungeon.

In Halls of Death, you maneuver a nameless adventurer through six levels of randomly-generated mazes. Each square in the maze can contain a monster, a treasure, a trap, a stairway, or nothing at all. The goal is nothing more or less than to amass treasure and increase your overall score.

As an RPG, it's very primitive. There's no character creation process--everyone starts with 9 strength, 15 psi (magic) points, and 9 constitution. If any of these fall to 0, the character dies. There's no equipment or inventory: magic items that you find in the rooms convert directly to one of the statistics. (Swords become strength, stamina potions become constitution, psi helmets become psi power, and so on.) There are no combat tactics except knowing when to retreat, when to cast a spell, and when to trust the sword.

Battle with a troll.

The game has only four spells: sleep, teleportation, lightning, and fireball. Each depletes a large amount of psi power, and it's unlikely that a player will be able to cast more than a couple in any one expedition, so they're mostly "hail Mary" options for when you're up against a tough foe. Physical combat is just a matter of trading blows until one of you is dead.

Putting a dwarf to sleep.

Enemies faced in the dungeon are standard D&D fare--trolls, dwarves, bandits, gargoyles, ogres, and the like. Some undead creatures have special attacks. Mummies can kill you instantly; wraiths can only be damaged by magic; and skeletons deplete constitution. Naturally, the lower you go in the dungeon, the tougher the enemies you face.

The game is almost entirely about luck. Every time you step in a new square, the game makes a random roll for what you find there. If you're lucky enough to get a few magic swords, bolstering your strength, you might be able to survive a few combats. If you encounter a tough enemy right away, you'll probably die.

Horribly.

In an emergency, you can trade strength for psi power or vice versa, at a cost of 3 points for every 1 point gained. The bigger problem is constitution. You lose a point for every combat you fight, win or lose, so the value acts as a sort of timer that counts down battles before you have to get back to the surface. Explored squares remain empty, so you can usually find a trail back to the surface if you need to.

Back on the surface, the game gives you a score based on how much treasure you collected and what enemies you've slain. Your strength and constitution regenerate if they're depeleted, and you have a chance to re-enter the dungeon and try again.


On the fifth and sixth levels, you occasionally encounter caverns with dragons guarding hoards of treasure. Naturally, these beasts are very tough. They have a lot of hit points, and they do significant damage with breath attacks. But if you can defeat them, you'll collect more treasure than you would in hours of roaming the upper floors.

Taking on a dragon guarding his hoard.

The manual suggests a sort-of "main quest" to achieve the rank of "Ruler of Light." But the manual doesn't tell you anything about where this rank lies in comparison with the others. I worked my way from "peasant" to "hero." Can we all just agree that there really isn't any "main quest" and I don't really have to play for hours and hours to achieve "Ruler of Light" to "win" the game?

"Hero" feels pretty good.

The game doesn't fare well in a GIMLET. With no game world description, no character creation, character development that consists only of finding items, no NPCs, primitive magic and combat, no controllable inventory, and so forth, it scores only a 10. I do give it credit for relatively brisk gameplay, an easy-to-master control scheme, and innovative use of color in an era where things tended towards the drab and monochrome.

The game cover.

In a broad sense, Halls of Death--just like Gateway to Apshai and Expedition Amazon--achieved exactly what it set out to achieve. It provided a reasonably fun dungeon romp in an era where the typical computer game was an arcade game. C64 players who transitioned to Halls of Death from, say, Space Invaders must have been enraptured by the idea of a persistent hero who could be saved to tape and could continue to grow more powerful. It's a dynamic that started with The Dungeon ("pedit5") on PLATO and continued throughout this era with the variations on DND and Telengard. It's just that, by now, Ultima III and Wizardry had shown what was possible with more evocative worlds, deeper stories, and more intense combat tactics. We stop seeing games like Halls of Death right around 1985, when the Silver Age offers titles like The Bard's Tale, Phantasie, and Might & Magic--all games that still stand up reasonably well in 2014.

Halls of Death is credited to Stewart Sargaison, who might be the same programmer who shows up working for Psygnosis in 1993, with credits on Bram Stoker's Dracula and Microcosm. He also might be the same person credited as a "3D programmer" on the 2000 Vin Diesel film Pitch Black. Given his two publishers were British, I'm guessing he is, too.

The game was published by Supersoft, a British company founded in 1978. Almost all of their offerings were arcade and action games; this and Lord of the Balrogs from the same year--coming up in a few games--are the only RPGs I can find in their catalog.

I'm not going to get my Pulitzer for this post, but I do appear to be the first person to have written about Halls of Death in any detail (no Wikipedia or MobyGames entries), so my blog has once again served the purpose of cataloging the obscure. Back, I suppose, to Dragonflight.



37 comments:

  1. Well, not bad. This post is 47 minutes old as I write this, and it's #8 on Google for "halls of death" (without the quotes). It's likely the other obscure games will return the first result for anyone who searches from now on. Well done, adding hard-to-find information to the internet is always a good thing.

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  2. I can imagine sitting next to a friend with an IBM PC/XT in 1983 and having them be instantly jealous at how awesome Halls of Death was.

    I like how your character's graphic scales with the size of the enemy he's facing, though quite frankly I think the cover art is depicting him as Bilbo Baggin's cousin. Maybe if he had worn armor his flesh would have been turned into a Stinking Mass (bleh!).

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    1. Bah, should have said "wouldn't have been turned...", stupid Blogger and not being able to edit posts!

      I've always been curious how to compute the first-person perspective for a dungeon crawler, but apparently it isn't as complicated as I think it is, for it seems to be very common.

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    2. I can picture sitting next to you being insanely jealous that your dad had $4000 in 1983 dollars to shell out for an IBM PC/XT.

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    3. I meant that my friend would have been the one with the IBM PC in 1983, stuck with monochrome or eye-bleedingly awful CGA while I had the lovely Commodore 64 palette and Halls of Death to enjoy.

      Your point is well-taken, though as kids we were far more interested in what fun something was instead of how expensive. The Super Nintendo seemed like a much better Fun investment than a friend's dad's 486 business computer.

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    4. 486s were excellent gaming pcs (as were 386s - ah my first pc a 25mhz 386 costing something like £1700 as I recall) :)

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    5. Yeah, the 286's were the last machines that were crap for gaming.

      On the 486 in 1994, I was playing Arena, Front Page Sports Football/Baseball, the Panzer general series, Master of Magic, Red Baron, Simcity... and many more. I liked my Sega, but the 486 era was a very good time to be a PC gamer once you learned all the DOS memory saving tricks and commands.

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  3. Looks like a game I could have enjoyed if I had a C64 back then.

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  4. I remember hating that game.

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  5. This used to be my favorite C64 game. Good times!

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  6. The mummy knew he shouldn't have been on the wrong side of the tracks in Hobbiton at night. (His mummy had always warned him.) As the gloom darkens, he tries to hail a cab: "Taaaaaaaaaxiii", he groans. But anti-undead discrimination is still legal in the Shire, and nobody stops. A few moments later, a left-handed mugger steps out of the library shadows...

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    1. This made my day!! I honestly laughed out loud.

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    2. That was great. The image does really make it look like the protagonist is mugging the poor thing.

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  7. So is this game more fun than Lord of the Rings?

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    1. Stop trying to get your gratification from obtaining fan approval, Mr. Jackson.

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    2. lol, and stop making the hobbit movies 3 hours long plz

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    3. What drew you to that conclusion? I rated Lord of the Rings three times as high.

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    4. See? He just wants to make you say it.

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  8. I guess you're going a bit through rough terrain there. This one and Gateway to Apshai were bland, KnightQuest was apparently nothing to write about either, FallThru and Lord of the Balrogs are text games, Dark Designs II apears to be as stripped down as the first one. Maybe not a bad time to throw Quest for Glory II in there.

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    1. King's Bounty is a bonafide classic, although I don't know how well it's aged and it's barely a CRPG.

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    2. King's Bounty is no more a CRPG than the Heroes of Might & Magic series is. A great game, but not a CRPG.

      And anything that has us covering Quest for Glory II I support fully. Did I mention it is my absolute favorite game of all time? I might have.

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    3. HoMM4 is more CRPG than a Strategy game. But that was always considered the odd one out in the entire series. Also, it's gonna take more than a (real, not game-published) decade before Chet could encounter that one.

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    4. HOMM4 was horribly broken, with terrible AI. But I don't think its basic principles were different from the others in the series. If you want a HOMM RPG, it may be better to pick up one of the more RPG-like scenarios, particularly in HOMM3,

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    5. HoMM IV campaigns are effectively CRPGs. I didn't feel that way for any of the rest of the series. The King's Bounty reboots are also CRPGs in my opinion.

      The basic principle that changed was that your hero went from being a passive container for armies to an entity on the battlefield that could 'party' with other heroes. When sufficiently leveled most heroes were armies unto themselves.

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    6. Precisely. In that sense, I'm reminded of Might & Magic 6 when my level 30+ party members could level an entire dungeon filled with hundreds of Gogs and Magogs and come out with not a scratch. Just like HoMM4.

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    7. I hadn't forgotten King's Bounty, but I heard that it's a pretty short game.

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    8. I'm going to let Trickster take the lead on Quest for Glory II. I'll start my posts after he does. As for the upcoming list, I still have to finish Dragonflight. It's not so bad.

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    9. King's Bounty is short, but the randomization in the setup ensures that it's replayable. I still take it out for a spin once every year or two, and it's still a good game. One of these times I have to try an all-undead lineup.

      I just hope fanatic commenters don't spoil the game like they tried to do for Sword of Aragon.

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  9. As I mentioned before, I've been playing this game on and off since your Sword of Fargoal article. A few additional comments from my experience:

    * You can destroy dungeon walls using magic

    * Dungeons are randomized, but the staircase going up seems to have a fixed location

    * I found successful ascents to be very rewarding especially when I was randomly teleported to level 6 with constitution 5

    * I went a bit farther than "Hero" and was proclaimed, in the order: Apprentice Bumpkin, Yokel, Trainee Warrior, Warrior, Swashbuckler, Seasoned Adventurer, Hero, Dragon Slayer, Champion, Necromancer, Sorcerer, Superhero, Guardian.

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    1. Let us know if you ever make it to "Ruler of Light!"

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    2. I think the score titles are: 0 Apprentice Bumpkin, 50 Bumpkin, 100 Yokel, 300 Peasant, 500 Novice, 600 Trainee Warrior, 750 Warrior, 1000 Swashbuckler, 2000 Apprentice Hero, 3000 Hero, 4000 Seasoned Adventurer, 5000 Dragon Slayer, 7000 Champion, 9000 Necromancer, 12000 Sorcerer, 15000 Mage, 20000 Superhero, 30000 Guardian, 40000 Lord, 50000 Paladin, 60000 Master of Power, 75000 Master of Wisdom, 100000 Ruler of Light

      So if you've made it to Guardian, that's about a third of the way. Hope you like grinding!

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    3. I bet the dragons like snacking on Seasoned Adventurers. Nom nom.

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    4. Hmm seasoned adventurer (drooling dragon)

      From Superhero to Guardian it was something like three dragons and a wraith (that is, not too difficult), so I just have to do that 7 more times and I'm done. If I do it that is, which I don't :P

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    5. "Winning" this game sounds like "winning" an arcade game by entering your initials for the high score. Or possibly earning a "kill screen."

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  11. Posts like these are exactly why I have to break from catching up and reading newer blog entries. Games that nobody nows anything about...until our dear addict digs them out of the dirt.

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    1. *knows* of course. I SO wish there was an edit function sometimes :(

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