Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Game 157: Super Quest (1983)

The opening screen, oddly, shows a mosquito vomiting.

Most games, good and bad, modern and primitive, generally offer a length of gameplay equal to their complexity. This is true even of games made in the early 1980s, when no one knew that games as rich in content as the Elder Scrolls or Fallout series would even be possible. Indeed, a primary virtue of some of the early games to which I have given middling reviews--Ring of Darkness, Expedition Amazon, Sword of Fargoal--is that you can win them in a couple of days. Games from the same era that take considerably longer, like Wizardry, make up for it with greater complexity in exploration and combat.

If a developer wanted to offer a game that could occupy players essentially indefinitely, they usually didn't include endings. Telengard, Gateway to Apshai, and the PLATO games are good examples. The entire goal of these games is to build characters and increase scores as high as possible before (inevitably) dying.

For years, I've been awaiting the RPG equivalent of Penn & Teller's Desert Bus, a game with virtually no content that takes forever to play and yet still does have an ending. I have found it in Super Quest. Like a six-hour play written by a kindergartener, this is a epically-long, primitive entertainment experience that, having been written in 1983, doesn't know it's primitive. As such, it enthusiastically offers a difficulty, size, and length which might have been mind-boggling in 1983, but which are simply unsupportable given the limited content.

A typical Super Quest screen. My character (the H) has just entered Room #183, which contains five goblins (the G) and a treasure chest (the +). I'm carrying 43 magic quarrels, 54 iron quarrels, 20 units of "tana powder" and 14 healing elixirs. I have treasure equivalent to 154 gold "denars" and I've amassed 297 experience points.

Super Quest takes place in a enormous dungeon of 1,024 rooms--256 in each of four sections. The character navigates through a series of fixed and random combats involving exactly four options: shoot a magic quarrel, shoot an iron quarrel, throw a vial of magic powder, and fight in melee combat, each action mapped to a specific key. The ultimate goal of the game is to find an artifact in the fourth section called the "Mega-Crown," but to do that, the player must first bulk up the character's experience and maximum strength by fighting monsters and collecting treasure.

Returning from the bazaar after a successful expedition.

I would guess that in 1983, actually finding the "Mega-Crown" was a pretty far-off goal, and the more practical quest was simply to jostle for positioning on the scoreboard stored on the disk. I say this because the game is ridiculously hard, with rules far more draconian than even Rogue. It adopts Rogue's permadeath--all deaths are immediately written to the character file--but adds to it the difficulty of limited save points; to save the game, you have to return to the opening "bazaar" or one of the rare "hospices" in the dungeon. In between, gameplay occurs in real time, with absolutely no way to pause, so you can't even take a restroom break. Add to this extremely limited tactics and inventory, and you have a game in which only luck and extreme caution keep your character viable.

The introductory screens provide a needlessly long framing story for the quest. The setting is supposedly on Earth, in the future (2275), but in a world in which magic and monsters are real. The "Mega-Crown" was created to achieve balance between magic and technology, but it worked too well and both magic and technology "were held not merely in balance, but in stasis." Frustrated by lack of progress, a king accidentally found a way to put a cap on the crown and negate its effects, then had it hidden in a huge labyrinth in Africa, surrounded by monsters and traps. Now, centuries later, magic has all but overwhelmed technology, and it's time for a hero to brave the dungeon and remove the cap from the crown.

One of 12 back story screens, or about 10 more than necessary.

Character creation is a simple process of specifying a name and choosing a race from among four classes. You will be shocked at the game's originality when I tell you that those races are humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits. Each has various strengths and weaknesses associated with both attributes and skill in melee and ranged combat.

The game does have fairly good in-game documentation.
  
In addition to name and race, you specify your "sponsor" in three characters. At first, I didn't understand what this was; then I later realized that the "sponsor" initials appear in the scoreboard after the character's name. The back story gives some palaver about "nobles who sponsor heroes . . . as an opportunity for competition in the accumulation of [status]," but the mechanic is clearly for the player to tag each character with his initials, I guess with the idea that multiple players would use the same game disk. I'm not sure if that happened in real life.

After creation, the player starts in the "bazaar"--basically, a shop at the top of the dungeon where he can purchase the few bits of equipment offered by the game:  iron quarrels, magic quarrels, tana powder, healing elixirs, and strength potions. Strength is the only attribute, so amassing enough money to purchase strength potions is a key mechanic of character development. In addition to combat effectiveness, strength determines how many arrows the character can carry at a given time; raising strength to the point that you can haul hundreds of arrows is a key element of long-haul dungeon exploration.

Money doesn't come easily. You don't get it simply from killing enemies. Instead, you have to find the rooms that contain treasure chests, but around the opening area, you're lucky if the treasures you find are worth a few dozen gold pieces--almost all of which you need to replenish arrows and healing potions. It's a long time before you have the 1,000 gold you need to buy that first strength potion (it technically sells for 2,000, but you can almost always haggle down to half the value for anything).

Bargaining for quarrels in the bazaar.

Movement in the dungeon uses the WAXD combination. Hitting one of the movement keys moves you continuously until you change directions or hit "S" to stop, which of course adds another level of difficultly. Monsters can move diagonally but you can't. Other keys are mostly intuitive: (F)ight, (I)nformation, (H)ealing elixir, and so forth, with the exception of the keys used to shoot arrows (<) and magic arrows (>), which are unintuitive to press and easy to get mixed up.

Facing vampires in a long corridor. I can't get the screen capture to show the line streaking from me to the target, which lasts only a microsecond.

There are only 13 monster types in the dungeon, and most of the rooms have fixed numbers of them, although random encounters can pop up at any moment. Each monster has different levels of respond to different attack types. Imps can be defeated in melee combat or with tana powder but aren't injured at all by quarrels or magic quarrels. If you want to fight a wraith, on the other hand, you'd better have some magic quarrels in the quiver because regular quarrels and melee attacks won't do anything. "Afreets" respond to nothing but tana powder. Fortunately, there are a few enemy types--skeletons, zombies, vampires, mummies--that will fall to just about anything. The game gives a rundown of these various strengths and weaknesses when you start, which is good, but remember that everything is in real-time, so when a creature appears, you only have a second to figure out what type of attack you want to use before he starts dismembering you.

Monster strengths and weaknesses. Despite the "relative strength," there's a lot of variance among individual monsters. Some vampires go down in three arrows; others take a dozen.

The one advantage for the player is that you don't have to line up arrow attacks; when you fire, the arrow automatically streaks toward any enemy on the screen as long as you have line-of-sight. Only one enemy appears at a time, but more might be waiting in the wings and will immediately attack as soon as his predecessor is killed.

Killing monsters increases experience, which supposedly affects accuracy and power of attacks. I didn't really notice this happening, but perhaps you need quite a bit before it becomes palpable. Your own health meter is represented in percentages, and it decreases shockingly fast once you enter melee combat. Against an imp, for instance--the weakest monster in the game--it disappears in about four seconds if you aren't actively fighting back. Yes, this is at authentic machine speed. You start with 15 healing elixirs which restore full health, and you can also get full restoration by returning to the bazaar, saving the game, and restarting.

I'm not even going to pretend to play this one straight. I did for about two hours, creating and losing a variety of characters, before resorting to save states just so I could make some progress and properly document the game. I also checked out a fan site run by Kipley Fiebig, who went through an impressive process to make image maps of the game.
  
The enormous first section, courtesy of Kipley Fiebig. I haven't explored more than 10% of it. The other three are stacked to the north of this one.
  
Looking at the map above, I have no idea how you were supposed to create this as a 1983 player when you couldn't look away from the computer for a moment without risking death by a random encounter. The rooms are numbered, so I suppose it's possible to create a cruder map like a node graph. Since rooms reset when the player exits and returns to the dungeon, the player would also want to take  notes about where to find certain monsters and treasures.

So far, I've invested about five hours in the game and--again, using liberal save states, though mostly to allow myself to take breaks--I've managed to get up to 1,497 experience points and 1,100 gold pieces. I just bought my first strength potion, which raised my human character from 25 to 39 strength, thus allowing me to carry 97 quarrels (of each type) at once.

An unwelcome message while limping back to base.
  
There are certain aspects of the game I've yet to experience:

  • Magic lamps, which are randomly-appearing treasures. Rubbing them transports you to a random location, and then the lamp disappears. These are apparently the key to speed-winning the game, assuming you're lucky enough to teleport someplace near the crown.
  • Though most of the dungeon is fixed, some of the rooms have a random configuration that changes every time you enter.
  • There are special "puzzle" rooms scattered among the levels, though I don't know what the puzzles are.
  • If you kill dragons, you take their ears as trophies. If you collect 60 of them, you automatically get a suit of "dragon fire armor," which is apparently the only equipment upgrade.

Super Quest was published in SoftSide magazine, Volume 5, Number 6, in 1983. The magazine itself just had a description of the game; to actually obtain it, you had to send in an order card stuck in the magazine as an insert. I was surprised to see it described as "shareware" on the credits screen (I didn't think the term had yet been coined in 1983), with a retail price of $3. The author, Jeff Hurlburt of Houston, Texas, is credited on only one other game that I can find: Instant Software's Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio (1978). But of course this is the Dark Ages, and we might be missing a lot of titles.
  
The copyright and credits screen.
  
The credits screen is unique in giving attribution for the various "ideas" in the game, and it cites Brian Reynolds's Quest 1 for the "original game idea." This is another game published in SoftSide, but as 400 lines of BASIC code rather than an ordered disk. I declined to play it because I couldn't find a digital copy, but the instructions indicate that it did have fairly similar gameplay, including WAXD movement, fixed rooms that respawn when you leave the dungeon and re-enter, and the same basic attack options (with arrows instead of quarrels and holy water instead of "tana powder"). Super Quest adds five more monsters, a lot more rooms (Quest 1 had only 58), a few special features, and an actual main quest (despite it's name, the only "quest" in Quest 1 was to get stronger).

I suspect that even cheating with save states and Mr. Fiebig's maps, we're looking at a long game time before I can get the Mega-Crown, but I'll play for a while longer and see if I can at least experience the elements above.

*****

Posts on Super Quest: One | Two

Further Reading: After finishing this game, I took a look at its source, Quest 1. For a later (and inferior) game in the same family, check out Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils (1984).
 

54 comments:

  1. So... this game takes place in... Africa?

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    1. Nominally. I suppose that's technically a first. But there's no sense of it in the game itself.

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    2. We haven't been to Egypt before this?

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    3. We have. Although Egypt was ruled by African Pharaohs before, I still think it should be considered as part of the (Middle East) continent of Asia instead of Africa.

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    4. Okay, before I'm being pointed out that modern Egypt is located in Africa, the empire (and being part of the Turkish Ottoman's empire as well) actually span out to Arabian (and even European) territory.

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    5. I meant "first" in the overall chronology, not my play order. Seven Spirits of Ra and Rivers of Light both took place in Egypt.

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  2. Considering that the basic code is well basic you could easily cheat "a bit" and compile your self a game with maximum 8bit integer worth of strength and steam roll through it. ;P

    I know I did with similar games for c64 anyway idea for those games wasn't the game it self but writing the program and then playing the game you had just "created".

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    1. I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to do that on the Apple II disk. It would take more time to learn that than to play the game.

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  3. I found it interesting that you start the posting with the topic of the right lenght of games.
    You have already played games which did it wrong (Bard's Tale, Dragonflight, ...), but it took you far longer until it dawned how they were artifically stretched. If it already starts with that impression, that can't bode well...

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    1. There have been a few games that have been too long, sure, but nothing has quite gone far beyond the boundary of decency, offering Skyrim length for Akalabeth content.

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  4. This seems like one of the worst games you've covered so far. That poor dragon looks like a squashed mosquito.

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    1. Again, "worst" from a 2014 perspective. It has some interesting ideas, and the mapping issue creates a fairly unique challenge that I'll cover in the second posting.

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  5. Oh wow, Brian Reynolds of "Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri" fame. A very capable designer. He probably knew that it's better not to overextend his ideas to more than 58 rooms. You probably want to keep your streak going, but a game like this isn't worth it. Everything about it seems laughably overblown.

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    1. Wow! That is one of my favorite games. Almost worth typing in the 400 lines of BASIC to see his early efforts. It seems that Q1 is the real piece of gaming history here while this effort is... well... not.

      If someone on the blog types it all in, would you (Addict) take a look at Quest 1? You should solicit for volunteers from your readership.

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    2. I think calling Q1 a "real piece of gaming history" might be stretching it. I don't really detect its influence in other games, and nothing that takes up only 400 lines of code is likely to be a truly rewarding CRPG experience.

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    3. It is a piece of gaming history, though perhaps not a "real piece" if you get my meaning...

      But it's a semi-lost 1981 cRPG written by a 13-year old Brian Reynolds who would later become one of a very small number of game designers who get known by name. Trickster will eventually play his "Rex Nebular" and I cannot tell you how many hours I spent playing "Civilization II" and "Alpha Centauri".

      So yes, I am excited by this! The game was released on a physical disk in 1983, and I have some friends looking for images, but worst case I may sit down and type it all in. Just so I can be disappointed that a game written in 400 lines by a 13-year old could never meet my expectations. The OCR I've already tried completely mangles the BASIC and I'm not sure at this point whether it's easier to start with the OCR and fix it or type it all in again... the former will have a lot more hard-to-spot typos...

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    4. Wow. I didn't realize he was 13 at the time. I guess I see your point.

      I do have a link to an Atari 8-bit review of Quest 1, but I've been avoiding learning the Atari 8-bit emulator, since there might be only one other game released for it exclusively. I'll think about dusting it off.

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    5. The funny thing is, I can probably guess what the gameplay experience is like without even playing it: exactly like this, but with far fewer rooms and no main quest.

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  6. I think Kip's by-hand map done in the game without pausing is even more impressive than his by-hacking-the-DSK version.

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    1. Kip here... thanks! I was a kid many years ago when I played through this game on the Apple II. I didn't have access to many games, so I would often latch on to whatever I had and stick with it, no matter how hard, long, or tedious it was. Revisiting it as an adult was interesting from a nostalgia perspective, and I enjoyed trying to optimize the experience (finding the quickest routes to grind up, etc.). But I never would have bothered sticking with it today if it hadn't been to relive the experience from yesteryear.

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    2. "I never would have bothered sticking with it today if it hadn't been to relive the experience from yesteryear." This quote applies to so many games on my list, and yet fans who remember the games wistfully don't understand why I don't consider them "gems" from a 2014 perspective.

      Kip, thanks for stopping by to comment. In my second post, I have some thoughts about the strategic/tactical aspect of mapping and navigation, and I'm curious if your experiences playing the game in its era match what I suggest in that post.

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  7. Also, are you playing a 1999 version of the game? Looks like you're playing version 5.5 and the copyright is extended to 1999.

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    1. The copyright might be extended to then, but I doubt that the game was actually last updated then. I'm curious about the annotation in the lower left: "AMDG 31DEC1999." This suggests that the developer intended the end of 1999 to be the end of the copyright, but does anyone know what "AMDG" stands for in this context?

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    2. Ad majorem dei gloriam. For the greater glory of God.
      Possibly.

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    3. Actually, I think it's not unlikely that he updated it. I found something like a homepage of his at: http://www.apple2.org.za/gswv/USA2WUG/FOUNDING.MEMBERS/HOME.PAGES/JEFF/

      The parent directory is a sort of historical Apple II archive of which he was a founding member:
      http://apple2.org.za/gswv/USA2WUG/

      He was apparently a huge fan. There's also some communication with Steve Wozniak at:
      http://apple2.org.za/gswv/USA2WUG/A2.20th.BIRTHDAY.GREETINGS/WOZ.A2.20th.Birthday.Greeting.txt

      As you see, most of these files were last changed after 1999, which means that Mr. Hurlburt was definitely interested in keeping the Apple II community alive after 1999. I'd guess that he continually updated the game. Who knows - maybe the original hardware didn't even allow for a game of this size?

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    4. Some more evidence that at least this version is a more recent one:

      This link here goes to an italian Wiki about emulators:
      http://www.vincenzoscarpa.it/emuwiki/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=RetroFAQ.RetroFAQ&lng=it&r=1&w=1680&h=1050

      As you can see, the Apple II emulator was apprently written by Mr. Hurlburt. Now click on the "scroll":
      A new webpage appears, last updated in 2011. Click the link on "FAQs".
      Scroll down to the headline "Csa2GAMES: Games, game info, and game creation". Click on it.
      Now, in the Games subsection, scroll down to chapter 11. There it says that SuperQuest v5.51 was one of the new games introduced since 1990.
      I wonder if Version 5.51 is a newer one than the one you're playing?

      Anyway, that page says where the game can be downloaded from, leading to this little page on the game:
      http://www.apple2.org.za/gswv/a2zine/Sel/sqx5.htm

      It tells interesting stuff about the game mechanics...

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    5. Some more stuff... maybe you already saw Mr. Hurlburt's email address in one of these links... It seems that his online pseudonym is rubywand. So I googled "rubywand superquest" and got more results:
      Here is a link showing him bugfixing the game on several emulators in 2000:
      http://macgui.com/usenet/?group=1&id=168547

      Here's a related link showing that your version as the "current version" (as of 01.01.2000):
      https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/comp.sys.apple2/Mjt68K6EJ34

      Apparently, version 5.5 was buggy in some emulators, which is why version 5.51 was released. So he definitely updated the game in 2000.

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    6. Very well. But the update simply fixed bugs. The game plays exactly as described in the edition of SoftSide from 1983, with no additional features despite the later updates. This is still very much a 1983 game.

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    7. Just saying... in 2000 he said "The current version of Super Quest has been uploaded to GS WorldView (...)". The word "current" only makes sense if the current version (v5.5 in that case) is not the one originally released in 1983, but you are probably right that the experience is very much the same - but hey, I offered you a way out, if you want to take it.

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    8. I played the original game on the Apple II (many years ago), and then replayed the "modern" version recently on the emulator. I can confirm that the gameplay between the two feels identical. And the size of the dungeon and the layout are the same, as well. Alright, so I can't remember if each of the 1024 rooms are all exactly the same between the two versions, but they felt "same-ish enough" that I doubt the data file was changed between versions.

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    9. Thanks, Alex. I didn't realize all of that was to offer me an excuse to reject the game in this year. But I won it anyway.

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  8. The copyright is 1999, so it is likely that the note "shareware" comes from then rather than the original date. However the OED places the first use that they are aware of of the term in Aug 1983, in InfoWorld magazine: "It certainly was a different bag of mail I received in response to the last shareware installment. Usually..the ratio of downloaders requesting programs to the uploaders donating them is about 20 to 1."

    Even so, that suggests that it was a well-known term by 1983 so the origin probably dates a few years earlier.

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    1. My hunch is that the developers simply offered 1983-1999 as the copyright RANGE. I don't think he was continually updating it throughout this period.

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  9. Out of curiosity, is this an historic first for "Find 20 Bear Asses" sidequests?

    If so, it would deserve much more scorn :)

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    1. It's sort-of like that. But getting dragon's ears means killing dragons, so the quest is really a way to reward you for becoming so bad-ass that you can kill 30 dragons.

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  10. According to Wikipedia, the first use of "shareware" was with PC-Write, which was also released in 1983.

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  11. So these inane and (justifiably) unknown 1980s game can get even more monotonous and unimaginative?! Good posting of a terrible sounding game. Because of that and the thoughts this game seems to bring up I somehow hope you go on to win even this one!

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  12. So one innovative feature that is in Quest 1 is that "dexterity" appears to have a "bullet time"-like impact on the gameplay. The higher your dex score, the slower the game goes to give you more time for your human reflexes to catch up. Is the same mechanic present here?

    I think at some point I may try to get an emulator to punch in the code for Quest 1 and play around with it. It seems to be a much better game than this (if shorter, or perhaps just better paced) and it is done by a game designer who I respect.

    The magazine offers versions for the S-80, Apple, and the Atari-- but I am not even sure which models/which emulator to use. (And do all of the emulators have a working BASIC interpreter? I assume that some do not since that would be in the ROM...) Anyone done this sort of thing before that can give me pointers?

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    1. No, there's no "dexterity" statistic in this game. That is an interesting dynamic.

      Your questions are why I didn't attempt this on my own.

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    2. Assuming emulators should be able to be programmed with basic as the interpreter is written to the hardware.

      So when you run a basic program the computer loads it up in to the memory for execution "in the fly" which is also the reason why games using only system basic are so slow in comparison to games written with machine language or higher operating languages such as C.

      Main reason c64 games look so bad in the early years is because it pretty much took 10years to bypass the 64k hardware limits for programs.

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    3. I might add that for example Pirates! on c64 can be interrupted while running and you can the fiddle with the code all you like !

      I tried translating the game to Finnish when I was a kid :P
      Which oddly worked but only as long as I kept the text in same length as in English version or the game would crash.

      Old school computers were so much more fun then these modern windows computers. : (

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  13. I remember playing Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio and liking it a lot. It's an expansion on the BASIC language Hammurabi game. If I remember correctly, SP&F allowed up to 4 players, each with his/her own kingdom. Each turn represented a year, and you decided how much grain to save, to feed your people, and to plant. Occasionally a disaster would wipe out the crops or most of your stored grain. Resource management game.

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    1. It's such an oddly detailed name for the era in which it was made. Somehow I always expect anything from the 1970s to have very basic names like Cave Quest, Space, and Combat. You'd totally forgive the developers of SPaF for coming up with a name like Kingdoms.

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  14. So elves are best at archery but worst at everything else? Seems kind of unfairly stacked against them, since the other three races are all best at something and middle of the pack on one or two other things. Unless bow skill is far and away the most important skill in the game, that is.

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    1. It actually is. Melee combat is a death sentence.

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    2. I've won BG with a "no arrows" conduct. It's possible.

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    3. Nice job.

      I believe the pros like tricked out thieves and use stab-and-run. It's kind of amazing how good people get at some games.

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  15. Nice blog post, about a game that took up (too) much time in my youth! Thanks for the shoutout to my website where I created a map for Super Quest. I looked around on the web to see if anyone else had posted a map already, and couldn't find any, so I figured that was a sign that I should be the one to do it.

    Even if you know exactly what you're doing, the game will take you days to complete. There's no way to get to the end without doing a whole lot of grinding to increase your strength stat. Is it worth it? I suppose that depends on how insane you are.

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    1. As you'll see from today's post, using your resources, I did exactly that. I grinded until I had the dragon armor, and a little beyond, then used the magic lamp cheat to zoom to the endgame. Thanks again for helping me out!

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    2. Congrats on completing the speed run! I could never bring myself to actually use the magic lamp to skip to the ending. As the process of mapping the game was the part that I enjoyed the most.

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  16. Chet! I didn't know you were a Desert Bus fan. Do you watch Desert Bus for Hope? If not, you should check it out this year. It is s charity live stream by some Canadian comedians were they play Desert Bus for five days, in 8 hour shifts while they busk for donations.

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  17. Jeff Hurlbert (rubywand/sifan) was a somewhat controversial character in the Apple II community. He also occasionally wrote for Computist (nee Hardcore Computist) magazine.

    In thinking about this game and how it was updated over the years it made me think of another Apple II RPG. Silvern Castle. It's very much in the Wizardry family of games. It was written by Jeff Fink and purchased by Softside in 1988 but never published. You can find it here: http://finkjsc.a2hq.com/silverncastle/

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    1. That should read purchased by "SoftDisk"

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