The Return of Heracles
Stuart Smith (author); Quality Software (publisher)
Date Started: 6 July 2014
Date Ended: 7 July 2014
Date Ended: 7 July 2014
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting: 141/223 (63%)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting: 141/223 (63%)
As we've seen from Fracas and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Stuart Smith was making some of the most original games of the era. They're relatively quick, challenging, nonlinear, and built for replayability, encouraging players to set challenges beyond the main quest. Most important, they're among a small number of games in the early 1980s based on classical mythology rather than Tolkien- or D&D-derived high fantasy.
In The Return of Heracles, action moves to ancient Greece, where the player can control up to 19 characters from Greek mythology, collaboratively or competitively, either at the same time or in succession if the previous selections die. (They start in different places, and I found it annoying to control more than one character at the same time, so I only played them in succession.) The list includes classical heroes and demi-gods, both male (Odysseus, Perseus, Castor, Ajax) and female (Hippolyte, Melanippe) as well as Pegasus. Each character has various strengths and weaknesses in terms of the game's attributes (strength, dexterity, speed, weapon skill), and a lot of them have special characteristics. Asclepius (the god of medicine) can heal other characters; Polydeuces fights well with his fists; Odysseus gets his dog Argo as a companion; and Palaemon, who starts weak, can literally become Heracles.
|The real area corresponding to the above.|
The environment of Heracles is in typical Smith style, with multiple portals changing the scale from half a continent to a single room in a few moves, multiple nested areas, and navigational mazes that make it difficult to get back where you came from. The action within these areas also maintains Smith's signature style, which I described in Ali Baba as "joyfully chaotic." Monsters wander on- and off-screen, attack the characters, attack each other, wander into traps, pick up treasure, and otherwise make a hash of any plans the player tries to make.
Exploring the Hellenic Peninsula is laughably deadly. In a longer, more serious game, all of its random perils would be frustrating, but here they're all part of the fun. Picking up treasure is particularly dangerous, with players alternately dislodging boulders that come crashing down on them, catching a disease from a corpse, or getting poisoned by an asp, with consequent losses in hit points and attributes. Janus, the god of portals, may decide he's sick of opening doors for you and smite you instead. There are a bunch of locations where a wrong step will cause you to play out some Greek tragedy, such as being dragged to the depths by nymphs, stumbling upon Artemis bathing and getting turned into a stag, getting killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus if you wander too far up Olympus, or having Selene petition Zeus to grant you immortality, which Zeus interprets as never letting you wake up.
|I was just trying to walk through a door. Jeez.|
|Odysseus walks one square too far.|
These events happen with absolutely no warning simply from stepping in the wrong (empty) square, so players would have to take careful notes to help inform future play-throughs. But after every death, you can choose another hero to continue the quest, so "death" isn't the end game until you run out of heroes.
|Castor has just died, so I need to bring a new hero into the quest.|
As for that main quest, it concerns completing 12 labors for Zeus. You can theoretically go to the Oracle of Zeus to get them one-by-one, then ask the Oracle of Delphi for hints, but it's easy enough just to stumble across them as you explore. By my account, the labors are:
- Recover the Golden Fleece
- Slay the hydra
- Rescue Penelope
- Find the treasure of Stymphalus
- Slay the minotaur
- Find the golden apples of Hesperides
- Rescue Helen of Troy
- Recover the Cattle of Geryon
- Kill the Mares of Diomedes
- Rebuild Thebes
- Kill the Nemean Lion
- Solve the riddle of the Sphinx
Seven of these are the same as Heracles's "twelve labours"; others allude to other Greek heroes or themes. I really think Smith missed an opportunity to simulate cleaning the Augean Stables.
|This screen, with your current score, comes up at the end of each task completion.|
Most of the quests have some kind of associated reward. For instance, the Nemean Lion's skin turns into a nice set of light armor, the Hydra's blood permanently poisons your weapons, and killing the minotaur gets you his axe. When you slay the Serpent of Areas to get to Thebes, Ares curses you by turning you into a snake. I couldn't tell whether that was a good or bad thing.
Each character starts with a set of equipment (sword, dagger, and armor) and has some default proficiencies with his weapons. As the game progresses, weapon proficiency increases, but you lose it (as well as any poisoning bonus) if you switch weapons, so it's good to find a nice set early in the game and try to stick with them. Frequent shops sell weapons and armor for new characters, or for when weapons break (there's a small chance with every successful hit). There are also shops that sell poison and hemlock for weapons and weapon and armor blessings.
|Purchasing an armor upgrade.|
As with previous Smith games, combat is mechanically simple but mathematically complicated. If you attack from one square away from enemies, you fight with your sword; if the enemies occupy the same square, you fight with your dagger (or fists, if the dagger is broken). Enemies frequently leap into your square for close combat, and you'll often get into a situation with multiple monsters pig-piled on the same square, each fighting everyone else.
|Having been turned into a stag for the crime of seeing Artemis bathing. I didn't last much longer against the hounds.|
Accuracy and damage in combat depend on strength, dexterity, the weapon, your weapon skill, the size of the monster, whether the opponent is resting, defending, or unconscious, and a bunch of other factors. Maximizing your chances in combat means avoiding it as much as possible until you can improve these various factors.
|When enemies die, the game has fun with metaphors.|
What I love about Fracas, Ali Baba, and Heracles is that enemies aren't just generic "monsters" but rather NPCs with their own factions, travel patterns, and goals. The manual catalogs the attributes of all 250 of them, including beasts (boars, lions, rats), humans (treasury guard, inebriated thief, not-very-smart thief), and mythological characters and creatures (minotaur, Cerberus, Erymanthian boar). Some will be hostile, some not depending on their preferences or whether you get in their way. These NPCs can collect treasure, fight each other, and do everything the hero can do. They can even solve some of your quests by killing key enemies (though you still get the credit). In Fracas, they could increase in skill through combat, though that mechanism doesn't happen in Heracles even for the player; the only benefits to fighting enemies is treasure, quest points, and they stop fighting you.
|In Minos's palace, I take on one guard to the right while the other is occupied with a rat.|
Character development is thus mostly through equipment upgrades and special encounters that increase statistics, though you can also pay at a gym to raise strength, dexterity, and weapon skill (regrettably, there is a maximum to these upgrades). Money contributes quickly to encumbrance, and treasure would quickly lose its utility except that your multiple character deaths ensure that you'll frequently be needing to get a new hero up to speed to take on the next task. I'm not saying it's impossible to get through the game with the starting hero, just that you'd need a lot of practice and luck, and you'd have to plan the order of events carefully (or do a lot of save-scumming).
|I contemplate a strength upgrade.|
As I played Heracles, I had a lot of fun seeing how Smith modeled classic scenes from mythology. The manual has an extensive glossary--it takes up more than half the manual--and I enjoyed reading both it and Wikipedia entries and filling in holes in my education. I beat the cyclops, Polyphemus, in his cave; killed Troilus, Hector, Paris, and Aeneas on the fields before Troy; navigated the labyrinth on Crete; raided King Minos's palace; got rich in the Laureion Mines; killed the flock of Stymphalian Birds; and otherwise traipsed through a thousand years of mythology, completely messing up the canon, in about six hours.
|Kids, you all know the story of Perseus and the minotaur, right?|
With 19 characters to exhaust, I don't think it's terribly hard to win the game, but the point isn't to win so much as to win with the highest score possible. You get points from completing Zeus's tasks and bonus points for completing them in a limited number of moves and without the loss of any heroes. Apparently, 10,000 points is the maximum; in the manual, Smith says he achieved 9,500 and thinks "9,650 might be possible with phenomenal luck." In about six hours of play, with several false starts and a lot of bumbling around, I was able to get a score of 6,664.
Upon completion of the final task, the game congratulates you, notes that Greece no longer has any need for heroes, and says that the survivors "ride off in chariots of fire to Elysium for an eternity of games and civilized life." You then get a portrait of Zeus.
|Zeus: the original "advice animal."|
In short, The Return of Heracles is Smith's usual combination of frenetic fun and education. I wouldn't like it for a long game--too much depends on luck and hardly anything on skill and tactics--but it's an original, enjoyable experience for a day of gaming. In a GIMLET, I give it:
- 4 points for the game world. Why aren't there more RPGs set against Greek mythology? Smith's worlds are rarely very self-consistent, instead liberally adapting themes and stories, but the glossary is a lot of fun and does provide some gameplay hints.
|Perseus faces off against the heroes of Troy. He will die in this encounter, and it will be up to Jason to enter the city via the Trojan Horse and free Helen. To balance things out, I had Achilles find the Golden Fleece.|
- 3 points for character creation and development. Unfortunately, a weak part of the game. You get no experience from combat; the only development is plot-based or by purchasing training at the gyms, and it's easy to lose both when a hero dies and you have to start a new one. There are some neat considerations associated with the choice of heroes, though.
|Castor was doing well before he got turned into a snake.|
- 2 points for NPC interaction. There really isn't any distinction between "monsters" and "NPCs" in this game, although some of the wandering creatures are in your "faction" and won't attack you. You have no dialogue options and only get messages from NPCs in a couple of places.
- 4 points for encounters and foes. There isn't much in the way of encounters or puzzles, but I'll give some weight to the quality of the monsters, each of whom has hand-set strength, speed, and agility level and marches about with his own agenda regardless of what you do. There are also some fun death "encounters" that have you play out tragic roles from mythology.
- 3 points for combat. Like most of Smith's games, it's relatively devoid of tactics and based mostly on luck, although you do have the fun strategy of trying to get enemies to fight each other. There's no magic.
- 3 points for equipment. There's a limited selection of weapons and armor, and nothing like potions or spell items to juggle, but I like the way you can purchase or find "upgrades" for your weapons, and the game rewards you for sticking to weapons that have been with you for a while instead of always jumping to the next upgrade.
- 3 points for the economy. Although treasure can become overly-burdensome, it takes on a strong role because you have to keep getting new heroes outfitted and trained. You can also use treasure to buy weapon upgrades, attribute training, and hints from the Oracle of Delphi.
|It's nice to know religion hasn't changed much in 2,500 years.|
- 3 points for the main quest which has a series of sub-quests and encourages you to maximize your point total with each by completing it quickly and with a minimal loss of heroes.
|Do you suppose any player solved this without knowing the answer from mythology?|
- 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Probably the weakest part of the game. Smith was never a great graphic designer--even the main screen and portrait of Zeus look pretty lame. Sound on the Apple II is shrill and piercing and best turned off. The interface is optimized for joystick control; those using the keyboard have to use the SPACE bar in place of a joystick button to cycle through commands. I also don't like the way you lose health if you accidentally walk into a wall.
- 5 points for gameplay. Like most of Smith's games, the difficulty and length of the game are well-balanced. If it lasted a long time, the random events and randomness of combat would get tiring, but if those elements were improved, it would seem too short. The game is very replayable and mostly non-linear, especially given that the heroes all start in different locations.
This gives us a final score of 32, a little bit lower than I normally consider "recommended," but in this case let my text override the score. None of Smith's games are conventional RPGs, and thus they do poorly on my scale, but all have an ineffably enjoyable quality the transcends the common RPG of the period.
The December 1984 Computer Gaming World offers a review of the game from none other than Ken St. Andre of Tunnels and Trolls fame. St. Andre highlights what I think is an important point about all of Smith's games: "You can play poorly, but there is no way to do anything wrong . . . you will always be accomplishing something as long as you just move the characters." There are no "walking dead" moments in Stuart Smith's oeuvre, no way to do things out-of-order, and essentially no way to "break" the games. If you can't think of anything else to do, just kill the closest enemy. That's one more you won't have to face on some other screen.
Unfortunately, St. Andre then ruins his own review by making laughably nitpicking comments about Smith's use of Greek mythology, opining that "if you're going to tell the myth, tell it right." Wow. And people say I'm a snob.
|Okay, maybe calling Helen "faithless" is a bit of a stretch.|
This was Smith's second-to-last game. His last would come out the following year as part of the Adventure Construction Set. (Not counting the repacking of Heracles and Ali Baba as The Age of Adventure in 1986.) Owing to my DOS-only rule when I started blogging, I played his game's out of order, hitting the Construction Set before experiencing Fracas, Ali Baba, and Heracles, and thus before I really understood what Smith was about. When I get to the appropriate point in 1984, I think I'll take anther look at the Construction Set (probably for one of the other platforms) and its packaged game, Rivers of Light, which I didn't win the first time through.
For now, I suppose it's back to Fallthru, though I think I've run out of things to try in that game. My next post might be a plea for help.