Monday, July 7, 2014

Game 152: Dark Designs II: Closing the Gate (1990)

Dark Designs II: Closing the Gate
Softdisk Publishing (developer and publisher)
John D. Carmack (designer)
Released 1990 for Apple II, 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 3 July 2014
Date Ended: 4 July 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 78/150 (52%)

Dark Designs II is less a sequel to Dark Designs I: Grelminar's Staff and more a second half. Since the first game took me only 5 hours and one posting, it would have made sense if I'd just played this one immediately and rated them both as a unit. They use the exact same engine and mechanics, and I recommend reviewing my post on the first game before reading this one.

The basic plot is that a "mysterious warlord" is threatening the kingdom. In a volcano called Delkeina, he's opened a portal to another plane and is summoning demons, devils, "chaos avatars," liches, and worse. In the first game, the party explored the ruins of a castle to find a magic staff with the ability to close planar portals. Now, with the staff in hand, they're assaulting Mount Delkeina itself, battling their way through hordes of summoned monsters to their source.

The game supports importing the party from I or creating a new one. Imported characters start at a significant advantage, with all their levels, spells, and equipment from the first game. All of my imported characters were Level 10 (and almost midway to Level 11), whereas created characters start at Level 9. Imported characters will never have to use the second game's equipment store, spell store, or healer (since the priest probably comes with "Cure All").

The main menu. You have to return here throughout the game to recharge spell points.

The party explores a mountain lair of five twisting levels, with corridors and rooms revealed as you explore them. As with Dark Designs I, a strength of the game is the way it organizes its dungeons into logical, named rooms, with a little bit of accompanying flavor text, and groups of enemies that make sense in context. Some of the rooms have amusing designations, like "AGGRESSORS' SWIMMING POOL," "A USED-TO-BE SEALED DEMON LORD ROOM," and "ICE DEMONS' FROLICKING ROOM." The center of each level is the volcanic core, and you can easily go stumbling over the edge to your doom if you don't pay attention.

I always admire games that enliven drab graphics with evocative descriptions. A few other shots:


Combat remains unchanged--somewhere between Wizardry and SSI games like Shard of Spring. Although you see characters on a tactical map, you can't actually maneuver them around it. The only thing that matters is which "rank" the characters and enemies are in, because it determines who can fight in melee combat. The two front characters start in melee range; the two rear ones have to spend a round moving (F)orward. Each character selects a combat action--attack, cast, use item, change weapons, move forward, or move backwards--in turn, and then all execute at once in order of speed.

Entering combat options. My characters are on the right; the enemies are on the left. They're all in the front rank, so I can target any of them. I think maybe this was the last combat of the game.

The sequel offers no new spells, nor any missile weapons. "Found" equipment is rarer than in the first game, and throughout the entire game, I only swapped out weapons or armor a few times. Gold is plentiful but essentially unnecessary except for resurrections, which are so expensive that you really can't afford them more than a couple of times, making most deaths an occasion for reloading. Oddly, where every chest in the first game offered exactly 96 gold pieces, the chests here all offer exactly 24.

Uh . . . no one?

Also like Wizardry, the only way to recharge spell points is to return to the "store" area outside the dungeon. Thus, the typical dynamic is to explore the map as long as you can, until you run low on spell points and hit points, then make a beeline for the exit (or, if you saved enough priest points, you can cast "Word of Recall"), recharge, cast healing spells, recharge again, and then re-enter the dungeon. If the game had only allowed saving in the town, it would have some of the tactical tension of Wizardry, too, but alas you can save anywhere, removing the delicious fear that comes with over-extending yourself during your explorations.

My crippled party limps back to the surface.

What makes Dark Designs II a little more annoying than its predecessor is that spells are far more necessary. The enemies are a lot harder, necessitating lots of healing and mass damage spells. Unfortunately, your spellcasters get paltry spell points. I started this game with 26 wizard points and 33 priest points, and I maxed at 28 and 39. Any spell worth casting is between 6 and 8 spell points, meaning I can cast maybe 4 or 5 spells before I need to head for the exit and recharge. My party combination of two fighters, a priest, and a mage made sense for the first game, but it would make  more sense to ditch one of the fighters for another spellcaster in this one.

One of the things I like about the game is that enemies have the same spells as the party. This is rare for the era, although generally a staple of Dungeons & Dragons-derived games. Nothing is more annoying--but in an almost delightful way--to get a chaos avatar down from 100 hit points to 5 only to have him cast "Cure All" on himself. One of the oddities is that enemy spellcasters also have "Word of Recall," but instead of transporting them out of the dungeon and to the town, it transports the party! This can be alternately beneficial and annoying depending on how close you were to needing a return anyway.

The game shares a problem that I identified with Wizardry II, where you hardly gain any levels in the sequel. I gained 10 levels in the first game and only 3 here. That created a much more limited sense of character development.

Lesson learned: always follow the sign.

Despite these drawbacks, it took me less time to explore the mountain than the first game's castle. Unlike the castle, the mountain didn't require full exploration to find a series of keys necessary to unlock the doors to the next levels. There was one such door here, but for the most part, exploration was open, and I reached the endgame before I'd revealed every corner of the dungeon. I didn't find a single secret door, despite searching for them in places where secret areas seemed obvious. My party went through a series of abandoned rooms, monster barracks, laboratories, and so forth before finding a key necessary to unlock a door to a forgotten chapel. Inside, I battled some undead for a "Holy Sword," then met an ancient spirit, upset that this "once sacred mountain" had been turned into a "stronghold of evil." He automatically teleported me to the titular gate.

At the gate, there was some confusion because the game never actually shows the gate or tells you that you're standing in its square. I initially moved past its room into the next one, where I found a never-ending series of combats against various creatures. It turned out I just needed to use the staff somewhere in the general "chaos gate" room.

Using it causes the gate to collapse on itself, which of course causes the entire mountain to come crashing down. The game gives you about three moves to get out of there before it happens, so you have to hope your priest has enough spell points for "Word of Recall"; otherwise, you get a message that everyone died but "at least you closed the gate."

Closing the gate!

If you make it out, the end game message indicates that without his chaos-supplemented armies, the Warlord's forces are destroyed by the combined might of the kingdoms. But the Warlord himself remains free, and the game promises an encounter with him in Dark Designs III: Retribution.

Until reading that endgame screen, I had no idea that there was a third Dark Designs. MobyGames doesn't have it. Apparently, it was released only for the Apple IIgs. I've added it to my 1991 list.

Oddly, after winning, the game freezes the party members and refuses to let you continue to play them. You can generate and play with new characters, but the level maps remain saved, so the new party encounters only random monsters and can't "win" the game again. (How they're able to explore the dungeon despite its destruction is left unexplained.)

Although I rated the first game a bit low (31), I was generally positive in my review. The two games aren't epic RPGs; they're little diskmag games, two among many cranked out by staff developers operating on monthly deadlines. You have to admire them for not trying to be more than they are. They're tightly-programmed and plotted, pitched at just about the right difficulty level, compact, and winnable in an afternoon.

You can read my first review for the GIMLET. In this one, I'd subtract a point for more limited character development, one point for a somewhat useless economy (unless you really want to save for resurrections), and one point for less equipment than the first game. I'd add two points to gameplay for being a little more challenging and a little less linear. The final score of 30 ends up being essentially the same as the original. I still wish the developers had thrown in a few NPCs and maybe a non-combat encounter or two, either of which would have pushed the series into "recommended" territory.

Based on screenshots, the third installment seems to have some improvements to the graphics and game engine, so I look forward to it. For now, back we go to Fallthru.


Looking ahead, Corporation is supposed to be my next 1990 offering, but I've investigated it, and while it has attributes and skills for the various character options, I'm not sure if they improve during gameplay. That's a key component of my decision on whether it's truly an RPG. It would be nice if it wasn't, because so far I hate the controls.


  1. Neat. The total opposite of Dragonflight. And now the game designer can say: Hey, I made a game that had two sequels!

  2. Ha - the plot is more or less the same as DOOM - portals, evil hell armies, second phase where you seek to close the portal that's spawning them, etc. Carmack was barely 20 at this point - I'm sort of charmed by his teenager's approach to things...see also Vampyr, I suppose.

    1. That's funny. I never thought about the thematic similarities to DOOM. Fan theory: the "demons" in Dark Designs are actually the marines from DOOM, having come through with helmets, gas masks, flamethrowers, grenades, M60s, and whatnot, all making them seem "demonic." Meanwhile, the demons in DOOM are just orcs and trolls and such from this game.

    2. Ha! That would be great - and develop on the "have I been wrong along?" themes you were hoping Ultima VI would tease out more. The possibility exists that all of these games actually take place in the same universe, with the different imagery and naming simply reflecting bad translations, cultural misunderstandings, and the Telephone Game.

  3. Interesting, its hard to find informations about third game on internet...


    1. I found a text file of the manual, but none of the websites I found that let you play Apple games online had Dark Designs III available.

      But this blog has had success in the past digging up 'lost' software, so here's hoping.

    2. I found a site where you can download the entire issue of SoftDisk. The problem is that the game only works on the Apple IIgs, so I guess I'll be looking at another emulator. That's 1991's problem, though.

    3. Dammit, I saw a bunch of those in my schools ewaste bin, still working. Could have mailed you one to play on the real hardware.

    4. That's about as close to a nightmare scenario as I can imagine, but thanks for the thought.

      Will you get caught the #$& up already?

    5. Working on it! Having a girlfreind who lives basically nextdoor means that what used to be 'read Chet's blog' time is now "Watch Classic Dr. Who while cuddling with my love" time.

    6. Can't you, y'know, use an iPad with one hand while the other... well... do whatever guys do with their girlfriends.

  4. Mt. Drash is now on the upcoming games list!

    One scheduling thought: You also have Savage Empire coming up somewhere in 1990. It might be "cool" or "fun" to do the Mt. Drash single post when you eventually do Savage Empire. Kind of thematically resonate to have both of the Ultima spin-offs you will be doing this year at the same time. How did the various non-Origin developers adapt the source material?

    1. That's not a bad idea I can probably get them close together. Mt. Drash isn't an official spin-off, though, and really has nothing to do with the source material, so the cross-post comparisons will be light.

  5. So you can cast "Word of Recall" on yourself to get to town.
    Or a demon can cast "Word of Recall" on you and force you to town.
    It'd be awesome if you could cast "Word of Recall" on a demon and send him to town to terrorize the villagers.

    Even better is if after you did that, all the villagers were gone/dead and the store ransacked.

    1. Better yet, cast Word of Recall on the Gate itself and have demons spewing out in the middle of the town like a fountain.

    2. This reminds of that one time in Fallout 3 when my "pet" Deathclaw somehow got inside Megaton and killed everyone in sight.

    3. Whoa! Not me! I was envisioning a town POPULATED by demons with imps as servants, demons as shopkeepers, devils as guards and/or the ruling class members. Them two are talking about genocide.

  6. Incidentally, games like this are an interesting reminder of aspects of computer gaming that are sort of under the radar now. At first glance, it seems completely bonkers that anybody would still be putting out garish, starkly fleshed-out CRPGs for the Apple II in 1990 - or CGA ports of same in 1991! I mean, graphically, this doesn't look much further on from things we saw seven or eight years earlier, and a history of games generally favors the state of the art for any given moment in time.

    But of course, there were magazines, they needed material for their diskettes, and all those Apple IIs didn't just evaporate in 1989...

  7. Hi -- mind if you get rid of the ad on this site? I am using Samsung GalaxyNote to read your blog and each time I visit your site, my browser is always redirected to h t t p:/ / and proceeded to ask whether I want to download Baidu Browser. It is very annoying since I do enjoy reading your blog.

    1. I really don't see how AdSense is doing what you describe. I'm not getting rid of ads entirely unless I have some confirmation that this is affecting multiple users.

    2. I think something else is to blame. I have a Samsung Galaxy Note II and I just tested the site from both Chrome and the built-in browser and had zero problems.

    3. Baidu Browser is a spyware bundle. You may want to try a different to view the site and see if it persists.

  8. I hope I'm not being annoying, but I suggested two games to add to your masterlist earlier, maybe you overlooked the comment.

    The games are:

    - City of Death (1985, ZX Spectrum) Source: Mobygames

    - Kayden Garth (1989, C64) Source: lemon64 (might be worth checking out the comment by one of the authors...)

    1. Kayden Garth is DEFINITELY a decent CRPG.

      City Of Death, though, is pretty light. Then again, Chet has played games with less RPG credentials than this and COD deserves a little more mention since there's not much info on the web on this game.

    2. Just behind on answering comments. I've added them both to check out.

  9. I am not sure how to ask this question intelligently so stick with my convoluted thought process.

    When this game was released, what was the cost? I know you mentioned it somewhere but did it come free with a type of magazine subscription? Sorry if you answered this but I am foggy on exactly how this game was provided to the masses.

    If it was relatively cheap, how does it compare to its peers of the time. It is true that games back in the 80's and 90's still cost around $50-60 for a new release?

    I guess I am trying to think what it would be like 15-20 years ago and comparing apples to oranges. On one hand you have games that cost $50+ (what's that in today's dollars?) vs a game that was free.

    I know its not in the scope of this blog, but if we knew the costs of the games what would your thoughts be on the value of these games would be.

    This post still doesn't make much sense. In essence I am wanting to pick your brain on video games and cost and how certain games compare not only on a rating scale but how they compare when price is factored in.

    1. I can answer part of your second question. I remember begging my parents to buy me Master of Magic in 1994 and I remember it being $55 exactly.

      If you spent $50 on a game in 1991 it would be as if you spent roughly $91 today. So a full price release was a pretty good impact on your wallet.

      By 1990 the Apple II was woefully out of date. Games would continue to be released for it via 'publishing houses' such as Softdisk that would hire a bunch of people to make a collection of games for a monthly or bimonthly magazine. I guess if you still had an AppleII the games still represented a good value, but only due to having just about no other choice for new releases.

      From what I've read, the revenue stream for the AppleII games pretty much dried up by 1991. Softdisk's former website now redirects to a go-kart supply store. Such is life in the Information Age.

    2. I found a game in my Dad's C64 collection with a recipe on it for $90, so in Canada at least they could go a lot higher.

  10. Dark Designs II was released by SoftDisk, which was a magazine-on-disk. According to, it sold for $13 in 1984; I don't know whether the price was higher in 1990. SoftDisk games were definitely in the "budget game" category.

    Commercial releases in 1990 were typically in the $40 - $60 range. I think Quest for Glory II had a retail price of $49.95 or possibly higher. (Sierra could not have profitably sold it for less.)

    Should the equivalent of a "shareware" game be judged by the same standards as a far more expensive commercial game? I think using the same scale is useful to today's players. You can purchase the entire 5-game Quest for Glory series for $10 on (and occasionally for $5 when they have a sale). So when choosing an older game to play today, cost isn't much of an issue. Game quality is.

    1. That's a great idea! Since Chet's initial idea was to compare & contrast how much enjoyment games of yesteryear are to games of modern era, pricing would also be a very good benchmark to measure the fun-cost ratio of each game when pricing is also factored in.

      So, for a game with a GIMLET score of 30 priced in today's price of $150 versus, say, "Divinity: Original Sin" with a theoretical GIMLET score of 60 but priced at only $40? 'Nuff said.

    2. I've always been curious: what were the biggest costs going into something like a Sierra game? I'm assuming overhead and the salaries of a substantial development team working over a long period on a game as two big things that a Softdisk wouldn't have had to deal with. But with a Sierra game, how much of the cost was things like the (rather nice) packaging, your embossed covers, your instruction manuals and flavor documents. In particular, did CD-ROM change the economics at all? (Or even going from 5 1/4 to 3 1/2 floppies?) I remember the boxes for the disk games getting thicker and thicker as the number of disks rose , which had to present some issues for retailers...

    3. Yeah, Mr. Cole, your input will be valuable in satiating our curiosity.

      Also, I believe a lot of man-hours were spent creating tools and assets from scratch as compared to the convenient ways you could get them through online stores and virtual artists.

      Since you have been through the various eras of game-making, how would you describe the affiliating of budget, what pros were lost and what new pros are gained over the ages?

    4. Game companies run cost estimates and analyses for every product and with a number of assumptions. For example, for one game we estimated sales at 50,000 units worldwide. Direct costs were $591,000 (including development, travel, overhead, licensing and royalties, etc.). Manufacturing and shipping cost was $172,000 or $3.38 per copy. Of that, $1.10 was the cost of each CD and jewel box in quantity 50K. With allowances for returns, expected profit was $115K. Any overrun would have eaten that up quickly.

      I didn't find my oldest royalty reports (the floppy games) from Sierra. But I remember something like $50 retail sales price, with Sierra getting 40-60% of that, so $20-$30. Materials cost was about $8 per unit, so $12 - $22 per unit paid for development, royalties, administrative overhead, and so on. Actual numbers may vary, but the point is that the store and the distributor took out a huge percentage of the price before paying the remainder to Sierra.

    5. Japanese games are the bestJuly 9, 2014 at 10:03 PM

      Price is not an excuse for poor quality: Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Cave Story, Eternal Daughter, Passage, Half Minute Hero abnd Super Mario Brothers X were all released for $15 or less, and they were excellent. I might be a little more forgiving if the creators were very inexperienced, though that is not a free pass.

      I remember that around the time Corey and his company were making great games like Quest for Glory, Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Gabriel Knight,etc, Origin was making the most expensive games. Wing Commander 3 was famous for costing about 5 million, and then Wing Commander 4 drove it up to 10 million. Classic games, well worth the money and too bad that E.A. destroyed the whole thing, just like it is doing to Bioware. Computer Gaming World parodied this with an article where Origin spent 100,000,000,000 to send an actual spaceship into the sky.

      Did you guys and the guys from Access ever get together and commiserate after the Full Motion video bubble burst and the adventure genre died?

    6. Japanese games are the bestJuly 9, 2014 at 10:07 PM

      Also, please add The Binding of Isaac and Half Minute Hero to your list: They are great, obscure R.P.G.s that do things differently. You should do an article about them so readers can learn without having to wait 50 years for a GIMLET.

    7. Nah, I don't think Chet should skip the eras. It would defeat the purpose of this blog.

      Also, (not saying that your examples are wrong) the games that you cited have really short game hours. Quality aside, if you take away the virtual tools and arm those indies with the same computers that Sierra and/or Origin had to use to make those games with back then, I doubt they could produce a game that can be on par with the commercial products.

    8. Binding of Isaac qualifies as an RPG as much as Zelda does, considering there's no leveling and any upgrades you can get are either sword power ups or more hearts. It's still a decent game in its own right, though.

      And yeah, one of the things that make this blog stand out is how it progresses from the beginning of CRPGs to the modern age, so skipping some of it would be a bad idea.

    9. For the record, I have no beef with shareware, and/or games made with small budgets. Nor would I ever equate a big budget with big quality - we've all played too many big-budget turkeys for that to ring true. And I enjoyed the heck out of Cave Story, for example.

      But there are certain things that sometimes, or should, come with a bigger budget, a longer development time, a dedicated development team, a QA department, etc. Carried too far, all of these can actually begin to undermine a game, as things are designed by committee - but a big-team effort also means more eyes looking at good ideas and hopefully molding them into great ones, or anticipating possible problems, or filling in the dialogue/world. Person A can be refining the combat engine while person B is giving another think to how the economy works... etc., etc. Of course, a smaller, faster game can still play great, and can still introduce major innovations...

      I don't know much about the games suggested here, but I have to say neither looks much like Chet's definition of a CRPG... obviously, he'd be a better judge of that.

    10. As tempting as it is to break chronology for the first time in the history of my blog and jump forward 27 years to play an obscure shareware quasi-RPG based on the Book of Genesis, I think I'll pass nonetheless.

    11. Binding of Isaac is awesome, and in some sense, I guess you could say that "Chet should play it", but:

      A) It doesn't seem like this particular blog is the right place to explore its significance.

      B) There are dozens of contemporary reviews for it already.

      C) There are hundreds of games that Chet should play!

  11. Corey, thanks for the thorough response! This is really interesting. It's weird to cast my mind back and remember how many dedicated software stores there were back then, and how dependent they were on that percentage of the retail price. Digital sales must have been the final nail in the coffin, but I feel like these places were fading even by the late 90s, for reasons I'm sure others could explain better than I. That retail slice really is dramatic, though - and illuminates for me how viable a shareware-based operation could have actually been, simply in terms of bypassing those costs...though clearly to charge the prices they charged they had to have lower development and overhead costs also, which is sort of "duh" considering (most of) the shareware games out there.

  12. I tried to post this as a reply in the discussion of prices, but couldn't get it to work, so now I'm just trying it as a new post.

    Regarding game costs, if one does manage to track them down you then have to be careful about whether you've found list price, often found in old catalogs and ads how much you'd pay if you ordered by mail right from the publisher, and actual retail price you'd pay in a store, which was almost always incredibly lower. I seem to recall Origin in particular would have prices in their catalog that were something like twice or more what you'd pay at Babbages or Electronics Boutique or whatever other stores were around at the time.

  13. I appreciate Corey jumping into the price discussion and offering his recollections on how prices were set and how profits were shared. I assume that, just like today, prices decayed fairly quickly after the initial release. I remember as a kid finding games in "bargain bins" that were just a couple years old.

    Since my blog is more about enjoying games today, and not trying to recreate the times of release, I'm not eager to add research into the games' original prices in my entries. Wasn't a bad idea, just doesn't interest me.

  14. Ancient thread, but just spotted at Mobygames: entries for Dark Designs 3 through SIX, a persisting legacy on the Apple 2 only. So you likely won't be covering them, it's just very curious to see that this particular thread kept on keeping on. I imagine they just kept Carmack's engine, IP and name to capitalize on his fame once iD broke into the mainstream.

    1. Wow, no kidding. MobyGames didn't originally have any of these when I first compiled the list. What makes you think I won't cover them? They certainly meet my criteria.

  15. MobyGames didn't originally have any of these when I first compiled the list.

    They were newly-documented by some Apple 2 zealot at the time I left the comment. As for my assumption that they'd slip your net, first impressions linger a long time: I figured that as Apple 2 exclusives without MS-DOS versions, they would find themselves saddled with low priority. (The big question is what insight the "lost" games of the Dark Designs series lends to Softdisk's Catacomb (3D) series, which uses the same characters in a different genre.)

    1. Did you know there were other Dark Design titles (probably not the same author but in the series)

      Dark Designs I: Grelminar's Staff

      Dark Designs II: Closing the Gate

      Dark Designs III: Retribution

      Dark Designs Character Editor for I,II,III

      Dark Designs IV: Passage to Oblivion

      Dark Designs V: Search for Salvation

      Dark Designs VI: Restoration

    2. Yes, already commented about it by him on 19/10/2014.

      They were Apple only though.

    3. ah, my bad. I must've missed that.

  16. PetrusOctavianusJune 12, 2016 at 5:56 PM

    This is the room next to the Old Weapon Storage Room on Dungeon Level 1 there is an "empty" encounter, ie there is no monster listed, and there is nothing to attack. Bug?

  17. PetrusOctavianusJune 13, 2016 at 1:56 PM

    Hmm...what happened to my comment?
    Oh well, let's try again.
    On Dungeon Level 1, in the room next to the Old Weapon Storage Room there is an "empty" encounter; no enemies appear on the combat screen. Anyone know if this is a bug or something special.

  18. PetrusOctavianusJune 22, 2016 at 3:09 PM

    For some reason "Reply" and "Add Comment" doesn't work.

    Anyway, I just completed this game, and I excpect I spent far more time with it than Mr. Addict did (smelling the roses and all that).

    So I have to make some nitpicks:

    The game is obviously balanced for an imported party. At least the difficulty seemed on par or slightly more difficult with my imported party.
    Too bad part III is Apple only, since I played the DOS version of I and II. :-(

    There are four levels, not five.

    There are some secret doors, but they don't lead to anything interesting.

    I thought this was a nice little CRPG, but then I'm a "blobberer", so it's right up my alley.
    I thought the level design was quite good, and the weapons were interesting, since they could cast different spells. Being able to change weapons in combat added some extra tactics. Always nice to get a free Dispel Undead fromt he Holy Sword when facing undead, for example.


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