Monday, August 18, 2014

Game 159: The Keys to Maramon (1990)

 

One theme that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s is the use of an existing, admired property to tell somewhat minor stories in between the big titles, often using a version of a larger game's engine. We get Hillsfar in between Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds; the two Worlds of Ultima games in between Ultima VI and Ultima VII; Chaos Strikes Back between Dungeon Master and Dungeon Master II. Here, we have a minor game that occupies a brief space between The Magic Candle (1989) and The Magic Candle II (1991). It's set in the same world as the Magic Candle titles, maintains familiar themes (such as creatures and the types of mushrooms), and even uses a version of the Magic Candle engine.

The game features a single character fighting the forces of darkness on the island of Maramon. The game world is quite small, occupying only a little city and four towers that connect to a common multi-level dungeon. Combat is regrettably action-based and devoid of tactics--not unlike Times of Lore or Prophecy: The Fall of Trinadon--and the whole thing seems destined to take no more than my six-hour minimum.
  
Much of the game involves protecting the city from marauding beasts at night. Here I am on Day 9, with 2,030 experience points and 107 gold. My life is down to 12 from around 40; I'll need to heal soon. But I only have 1 monster to kill before I can go to sleep for the rest of the night.
  
The game manual opens with the news that King Rebnard--the ruler of Deruvia from The Magic Candle--is planning to move his court to an ancient castle called Oshcrun, on the island of Maramon, in the Sea of Oshmar, somewhere between the islands of Deruvia and the lands of Gurtex, the source of the evil demon Dreax. Lord knows why Rebnard is doing this, but towards the end of The Magic Candle, there were rumors of evil powers worse than Dreax assembling in Gurtex, so perhaps Rebnard wants to take the fight to the enemy. 

Maramon, from the map in the game manual. Much of the game involves finding various keys to it. Hence, the title.
  
Unfortunately, the enemy is all too aware of Rebnard's plans, and companies of monsters have been swarming out of four dark towers at nighttime and harassing the townsfolk. (I'm not sure if they were always there, or if they only recently arrived and decided to take up residence in the towers.) The back story opens in the Deruvian city of Knessos, where an emissary from Maramon has arrived seeking a hero. Four potential heroes hear the emissary's plea: a fortune-seeking huntsman, a glory-hunting young blacksmith, a dutiful female king's courier, and an aged scholar obsessed with finding magic.

The manual suggests that all four came to Maramon on the ship, so I don't know what the other three are doing while I play the hero.
  
The player gets to choose just one of these four characters; this isn't a party game like The Magic Candle.  Each comes with various strengths and weaknesses in terms of attributes (strength, speed, dexterity, and magic skill), starting equipment, and starting gold. The blacksmith is naturally the strongest character; the huntsman and courier are the fastest; and the scholar has the most magic skill. The huntsman starts with a longbow and leather armor but only 50 gold; the courier has no starting equipment but has the most gold (200).

My character at the end of this session.
  
It's funny how completely different games make connections with each other. I've played three games this week besides The Keys to Maramon: Super Quest, Captive, and Fallout: New Vegas, and this game has connections to all of them. The most obvious is Captive: they were both published by Mindscape. Before playing Super Quest, I don't remember any games where hitting the direction key moves you continuously until you stop, but Maramon does that as well.

As for Fallout: New Vegas, the moment I saw that one of the Maramon selections was "courier," I knew I'd have to choose that character. I like her back story, too; the manual has her fighting male prejudices and condescensions everywhere she goes, and no one believes she can really do the job.

Aside from the name, there's no other character creation process. You immediately start in the town of Maramon on a bright Monday morning. The town has several shops (weapons, armor, magic, mushrooms), inns, two taverns, and a town hall. You can talk and transact with their various denizens. There are also three "storage buildings," to which the citizens of Maramon give you the key when you arrive. You can rest and store items there.


Every night at 20:00, monsters come spilling out of one of the towers and start pillaging and vandalizing the city, and it's up to the player to stop them. You have until 08:00 the next morning to track all of them down and kill them, or else some of the businesses get vandalized and you lose out on a full experience reward. If shops are vandalized enough, they may have to close for a few days. During the day, the character can sleep (inns will only let you sleep during the day), shop, and explore the dungeons (see below), but every night she needs to be back on the streets on patrol. The town apparently has no other militia.

If you can identify the right tower, you can wait outside and kill the monsters as they appear.
You get a little "status report" every morning.

The dungeon is accessed by four towers that each require different keys, none of which you start with. For a while, I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing other than killing monsters every night. Eventually, through one of my conversations with a citizen in a tavern, I got a suggestion that I'd need to review the library's "rare books" stack to proceed.

Maramon's library has a few purposes in the game. The "open shelves" contain information on topics important to the setting, such as keys, towers, mushrooms, and the library itself. "Closed shelves" can be visited for 20 gold pieces and contain books that increase your strength, speed, dexterity, and magic skill by one point--but only every 1,000 experience points. "Rare books" cost 200 gold pieces to visit, but these books actually serve to advance the plot in some way. The one on "Keys" delivered me a copper key, which I used to access one of the towers and a few rooms of the dungeon.

Reading this book allowed me to find a copper key in one of the store rooms.

Once in the dungeon, a counter in the lower left tells you how many monsters remain in the portion you've accessed. As you find more keys and open doors, this number increases (or resets, if you already cleared the previous areas). The four towers all eventually connect to each other, but different combinations of keys are needed to open the doors. So far, I've collected bronze, brass, and copper keys, but I've found doors that require iron and steel keys as well.

Kind of a security overkill.

It takes a long time to amass 200 gold pieces, and there are plenty of other things to buy in the meantime, such as weapon and armor upgrades, magic items, ammunition, weapon repairs, and mushrooms.

Seriously? I'm pretty sure I only paid 50 for it.

A night's worth of monsters might drop 20 or 30 (along with some mushrooms). Fortunately, you get a 100 gold piece "salary" at the end of every week from the town hall, but you have to fight seven nights' worth of monsters in between.

Yes, I noticed your're not wealthy. Despite the fact that I'm trying to save the town, your librarian makes me pay to use the library.

Exploration of the dungeon has to occur during the day, or during the portions of the night after you've cleared the monsters. I've found I might have a few game hours to explore the dungeon before I have to return to the surface, rest up, and restore my hit points in time for the 20:00 attack. There's not a lot of breathing room in the game.

Having covered the basics, I'll say that I absolutely hate the combat system. It's so far on the other extreme from The Magic Candle's tactical screen (reminiscent of Ultima IV) that it's hard to believe they were created by the same developers. For melee combat, you have to charge up to an enemy (they rarely come to you) and start mashing the SPACE bar to attack. The problem is that if you're not facing their precise direction, your attacks do nothing while they pound on you. When surrounded by enemies, I find it extremely difficult to turn and fight with the keypad; I inevitably spend several rounds swinging in empty space while the game ignores my furious commands to turn and face a different direction.

Dammit, Eneri! TURN SOUTH!

Being in melee range, meanwhile, is survivable for only a few seconds against even the weakest enemies.

Enemies won't step on bags of dropped treasure, so I try to use them to funnel them to me. Unfortunately, the enemies could care less about my presence. They won't come and attack unless I get closer to melee range.

Ranged combat doesn't help much. If you're not in melee range, enemies wander around randomly and quickly, making it very difficult to line up a shot. And arrows and magic wands are so expensive that it's not a very viable option anyway. Wands, incidentally, are the game's only use of the "magic" skill. There are no spells.

I suspect everything would be easier with a joystick, but my attempts to get one working with DOSBox have only ever ended in failure, and I can't seem to find the last one I purchased anyway.

Mushrooms help a bit. They're expensive, too, but enemies frequently drop them. Most of them do the same thing as in The Magic Candle: Sermins heal (instead of restoring stamina), Mirgets increase strength, Gonshis increase speed, Luffins increase dexterity, and Nifts increase armor class. The supply is somewhat limited, so I've been erring on the side of conservation, even when it means a lot of reloads.

Finding a pouch of nifts post-combat--along with another key.

The flexible keyword-based dialogue system from The Magic Candle is gone. Instead, you just talk to shopkeepers and people in the tavern, who vary and have different things to say depending on the day. While you do pick up some lore from them, it's not nearly as interesting as Candle.

A vital tip.

The character doesn't really develop very fast. The "closed books" allow for a one-point upgrade of any statistic every 1,000 experience points; so far, I've been able to use 3. This also conveys an extra 2 hit points. Where you already start with attributes in the 25-40 range, an increase of 1 doesn't feel like it does much.
Eneri gets an extra strength point from a tome on "physics."
The game does offer what I think is one "first": in addition to wands, the magic shop sells something called a "fire globe." You place this on the ground, and it erupts the next time an enemy walks over it. It's essentially a land mine. I don't recall any other games so far in my chronology that have offered the ability to put traps in places of the player's choosing. (Ultima VI had bear traps and caltrops, but I don't think the player could pick them up and place them where enemies would step on them.)
Nice. If only they didn't cost so much.

In total, not a fantastic game. At least it feels like a quick one. One more posting will probably do it.



43 comments:

  1. I still have a copy of this game in mint condition. Never bothered to even install it since it looked so boring.

    Oh, and an Chaos Strikes Back a minor game? Now that's funny.

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  2. If you find your joystick again, try Joy2Key or Xpadder. They let you map keyboard and mouse input to your joystick, so you don't need to worry about dosbox recognizing it.

    Oh, and it's *couldn't* care less: http://imgur.com/cXn3IIW

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    1. I don't mind when readers correct blatant errors (cf., "scotsman," below), but you really could have let that one go.

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    2. And besides, given the context, Addict's usage makes sense. The enemies care sometimes about his presence (if he's close), so it IS possible for them to care less.

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    3. Anyway, "could care less" has become idiomatically correct due to usage. That's how language works. I know there are sticklers who don't like that, but at a certain point they will have to accept that this is not a fight they will win.

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    4. I will have to revert back to you after finding an apt rebuttal.

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    5. "[A]t a certain point [sticklers] will have to accept that this is not a fight they will win."

      No, we won't, because defeatism is not in our nature. We will bitch on the beaches. We will sass in the streets. We will flame on the forums -- ahem, fora. We will never surrender. And we will never die, as long as there's an Oxford.

      (Apologies to Winston Churchill.)

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  3. I remember having a bit of fun with this game at the time - I liked the graphics a lot (I LOVE the ega art in Magic Candle II) but the combat was too twitchy for me. Never finished it.

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  4. Interesting, the game seems to almost be ahead of its time with the female character's backstory. By the way, there seems to be a Freudian slip where you called the huntsman a "scotsman" once :)

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  5. I played this a lot on the Amiga, but unfortunately it had a bug that prevented me from saving. There's an enemy type later one that has a one-hit kill and i never got past that.

    The game looked very exotic to me at the time, since it was converted to the amiga with exactly the same EGA colours, so it was very different, graphic-wise, to any game i had played before. The sound was also very minimalistic, and i remember the game being quite atmospheric in its sparseness.

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  6. "It's essentially a land mine. I don't recall any other games so far in my chronology that have offered the ability to put traps in places of the player's choosing."

    Captive has actual land mines you can use. Also the remote-controlled cameras have a self-destruct switch, though that maybe falls more in the category of "weapon" than "trap".

    Nethack IIRC has a Wand of Create Trap, though I don't know which version added that (and which version first enabled enemies to be hurt by traps).

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    1. I noticed them in Captive after I wrote this. Another weird coincidence: two games adjacent to each other both vying for "first" in something. That wand wasn't in the last version of NetHack that I played (3.0.9).

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    2. Ultima V also had sleep, fire, and poison fields that could be strategically placed on the battlefield and which would affect any monster that walked into them. Not exactly 'land mines', but perhaps a type of trap.

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    3. Fireglobes come back for the rest of the Magic Candle series. But they tend to be rare, expensive, limited in their blast range, and worst of all, NOT throwable (your character has to run out, drop it, and run back, which is a great way to get ganked by any enemies high-level enough to justify using one -- unless you're willing to burn a lot of Jump spells, which has other pitfalls). I don't waste time using them at all.

      Wands of create traps aren't in NetHack 3.4.3 either. Scrolls of Create Traps ARE in that cult-favorite roguelike Castle of the Winds, which may be a first. Awesome game, by the way, in lots of ways. It's a great "my first roguelike", too (played on Easy, that is).

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    4. Gaguum: It was my first Roguelike! Great game, emailed the creator once telling him how much I liked it, and got a very nice email back.

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  7. > Eneri gets an extra strength point from a tome on "physics."

    I guess it was a really heavy book. :-)

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    1. Studying hardcore Physics is as much a physical strain on your body as it is a mental one. I nearly died trying it. Guess my Endurance wasn't high enough.

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  8. Escape from Mt.Drash is next. From what I've read it may be difficult to track down a file for play via emulation. You may have to settle for the much more recent PC port.

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    1. Is "Mt. Drash" even really an RPG? Do you improve as you battle monsters? Or do you just have to escape a maze?

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    2. It's just a maze. As I recall, there's no equipment, no statistics, no economy, no NPCs, no story... It's just a maze with monsters and the kind of button mashing combat you hate.

      On the other hand, the game is 15 levels long (I think) and each level has a hard time limit of 100 seconds. Provided you don't die, this means you can play through the game in what... 25 minutes? If you're comfortable with the VIC-20 emulator, you might give it a shot just to check out a curious bit of Ultima history.

      Ophidian Dragon at Blogging Ultima got the game to run so if you have trouble finding a copy, he might be able to help.

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    3. Playing Mt. Drash makes me no longer question why Sierra pretty much refused to admit it existed for years. It's a game that would be completely unknown today, except for the name.

      That said, it is an Ultima game so I hope I can beat it soon so I can personally tell like-minded fools that I've beaten every Ultima game.

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    4. I'm fine with the VIC-20 emulator; I just can't find the VIC-20 files.

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  9. Too bad this game isn't that great. Any chance that it was originally going to be an original IP and they decided to shoehorn it into the Magic Candle universe? It seems unlikely, since it uses a modified version of the Magic Candle engine. MobyGames doesn't list Ali Atabek as working on it at all, but the lead guys seems to be the second on the original Magic Candle. It's almost like they were trying to replicate the success of Origin spin off projects with new leads (like Warren Spector)...or is this game too much around the same time for that to be an option? Magic Candle seems to be have been so well received that perhaps they really did think they were going to be the next Origin.

    Also, your hunch is correct, and Rebnard is taking the fight to the enemy. I remember the castle of Oshcrun being the starting point and main base of Magic Candle 2, but I didn't remember that it was actually on an island called Maramon.

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  10. The island is Oshcrun, I think Maramon is supposed to be between Deruvia and Oshcrun on the way to Gurtex

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    1. I might have misunderstood something from the back story.

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  11. The crazy jRPG person that comes around sometime might point out that side-stories like this are a Japanese game trope (called "gaiden" in Japanese). But I suspect those come much later.

    Ultima is even worse than you indicate: there were FOUR games in the gap: Savage Empire, Martian Dreams, the first Ultima Underworld, and the first Runes of Virtue game for the Game Boy. Of course, you will only play the first three since the latter is not a cRPG.

    Strange how quickly the Ultima brand was wiped out after that. One more "Ultima Underworld" and one more "Runes of Virtue" (both 1993), but by the time U8 rolled around (1994) the company and brand were in a tailspin they never recovered from.

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    1. huuuhhhh? you mean the "world" went crazy with Ultima Online?

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    2. Sorry. I cannot play MMOs and so I tend to forget they exist. Yes, UO does perpetuate the brand, but as the cost of solo-play.

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    3. yeah, basically that's what happened. Afaik, after realising all the mistakes made with UVIII, they wanted to fix those issues with IX. But UO was such a hit, that they shelved it for a couple of months and when they started to work on it again, it got into development hell which just distrupted the team so, EA just released it in it's miserable state and cancelled the numbered entries all together. However UO after 17 years is still alive and well.

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  12. Actually, The Magic Candle series comes from the company; Mindcraft. Mindscape is a totally different company.

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    1. MobyGames has the DOS version distributed by Mindscape. Whether they're right or wrong, it was never meant to be more than a tenuous connection.

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  13. Thank you, CRPGAddict. It warms my heart beyond belief that this site exists. Please consider me to be a new fan.

    I can still appreciate these games, even with the super high-quality graphics that come out now. One of my top 5 favorite games of all time is Ultima VI and I remember how it took me 6 months to finish it! So much of my time was just wandering about and seeing what trouble I could get into while in town (Spells + barricading doors + explosive barrels = multiple felonies).

    Now I think that I will have to boot up The Keys To Maramon and join in the fun....I hope! ;)

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    1. Glad to have you with us. I might suggest waiting for a better game to join in the fun, though!

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  14. I just realised Addict that as you hate 3rd person RPG's wait till you to get your first actual first person only 3D RPG's where each level is designed like a maze to keep the game last longer (also because old computers couldn't handle very large areas without loading).

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    1. What did I ever say that made you think I hate 3rd person RPGs? Especially with Ultima IV, V, and VI on my top 10 list?

      I don't like or dislike any particular perspective. It's the game mechanics that make it good or bad.

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    2. 'Third-person perspective' in video games is not the same as it is in the literary sense. Ultima games are considered top down perspective. NWN series are, for the most part, third-person (you can switch to top down in the second expansion for NWN2)

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    3. You can also, Gods forbid, switch to *shudder* 1st person perspective.

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    4. Okay, but that still doesn't explain why anyone thought I "hate 3rd person RPGs." I don't remember saying anything like that.

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    5. Probably because no 3rd Person RPGs are in your Highest Ranked List... Not that this mode is even available in the pre-90s.

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