Thursday, January 22, 2015

MegaTraveller: Won! (with Final Rating)


MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy
United States
Paragon Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS; 1991 for Amiga, Atari ST
Date Started: 22 December 2014
Date Ended: 21 January 2015
Total Hours: 28
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at Time of Posting: 109/169 (64%)
Ranking at Game #458: 320/458 (70%)

Well, what a weird little game. After spending about 20 hours on gambling, bounty-hunting, and trading to amass my "Jump 2" drive bank, I only had about 3 more game hours before winning. The plot and quests were staggeringly lame, consisting of 3 fetch quests and a final battle. Specifically, I had to:

  • Finish exploring the base on Neaera to find Arik. Showing him Lenara's half of the Imperial Seal got me his half and a quest to get his "decoding key" from a friend on Yres.

His reaction if you approach him without the seal in the hands of the first character.

  • Travel to Yres and show the full Imperial Seal to a hotel clerk to get the decoding key.
  • Travel to Akarates to give the decoding key to Lenara (glad she made it out of the game-opening bar okay) and get the final quest to kill Konrad Kiefer, along with a passkey to the warehouse where he's hiding on Efate.
  • Return to Efate, the opening planet, and storm the warehouse.

Getting the final mission.

None of these quests involved anything more interesting than landing on a planet and hunting around for the right nearby building. The backstory, which I described in the first post as "as intriguing as anything I can remember" turned into absolute nonsense--essentially just an easily-replaceable framing story for a game that's mostly about logistics and mechanics. Kiefer was hiding in a warehouse 10 steps from the opening screen, and the only thing stopping me from getting to him was a key? And why don't these agents just travel to each other? If Lenara knows where Kiefer is, why doesn't she just instruct Imperial forces to bomb it off the map? What does this group really need us for? Not to mention that the titular Zhodani don't show up in the game at all.

The final battle was difficult, and I suppose I could have done a better job preparing for it with side-quests to increase my funds, training, and armaments. There were about 8 thugs wandering around a large room, protecting the doorway to Kiefer. I took them out one-by-one, but with quite a bit of reloading and retreating for healing.

Carnage and destruction lie behind me as I blow apart the door with a demolition charge.

Kiefer himself wasn't very hard.

Tough talk from a guy facing 5-on-1 odds.

I beat him?! He is destroyed.

Once he was dead, the game immediately cut to an awards ceremony in which Strephon, the Emperor of the Third Imperium, gave the party an "Imperial Certificate of Achievement." Three screens of text awkwardly recapped the game's plot . . .

Do we really have to hear about the decoding keys again? I just did that 20 minutes ago!

. . . and the game mysteriously gave me a code to write down for no reason that I could discern.

For god's sake, someone tell me what this means.

If nothing else, the endgame gave me the pleasure of imagining my five characters leaving the awards ceremony clutching paper certificates printed on some template from OfficeDepot rather than the riches and titles they expected.

What's particularly staggering about MegaTraveller is how much of the game is simply unused. The main quest only takes you to 3 of the 8 systems. Some of the planets have caves--essentially the game's "dungeons"--none of which are necessary. This includes a long maze on the planet Sino, a planet I never visited in a system I never visited, which contains very deadly creatures guarding a bunch of treasures whose combined value is worth about 4 trade missions.

Wandering around an optional "dungeon."

Even in the systems that are used, most of the planets aren't, and even on the planets that are, most of the territory isn't. My visits to Yres and Akarates involved simply walking from the starport to a nearby building when there were screens and screens of the planet to explore. Some planets had areas only visitable by gravity vehicles or watercraft--just no incentive to actually visit those areas.

Space combat is also entirely unnecessary. It never comes up as a plot point. You only engage in it if you want to earn your money through pirating. I played around with it, but it seemed extraordinarily basic--switch between the two gun turret views, "target," and "fire."

Attacking an innocent ship.

Finally--and this is the most damning aspect of the game--skills seem unnecessary. Of the 82 skills, the manual explicitly says that 25 are unused in MegaTraveller 1, leaving 57 that are supposedly useful. As far as I can tell, I got use out of exactly two of them: "laser weapons" and "gambling." I grant that some of the other skills would have come in handy if I'd made different weapon and armor selections--skills like "assault rifle," "energy weapons," "brawling," and "sword"--and others would have come in handy if combat had been harder and I'd been less willing to reload (e.g., "battle dress," "tactics").

What mystifies me more is the host of skills that seem like they ought to have done something, but for which I couldn't detect anything. For instance, characters without the "pilot" or "navigation" skills are perfectly capable of flying the ship; characters with no "ATV" or "grav vehicle" skills don't seem to have any problem operating those vehicles; and characters with no "medical" or "communications" skills can still operate those stations on the ship. "Trader" doesn't seem to affect buying and selling prices, and none of the interpersonal skills seem to affect interaction with NPCs. If characters with those skills are somehow better at the tasks than the others (perhaps someone with "navigation" makes the ship use less fuel and "computer" makes the programs load faster?), it's extremely subtle and ultimately a non-issue in gameplay.

Skill seems to have no bearing on who can use a medkit or how much it heals.

Having said all of that, you can detect the foundations of a much better game beneath all of this rubble. That 5/8 of the systems are unused in the main quest isn't necessarily a bad thing; after all, most of the locations in Skyrim, Baldur's Gate, or Fallout 3 aren't really "necessary," either. If these planets had been more interesting, with more NPCs to talk to, more lore to discover, and side-quests that involved something more than finding an item in one place and selling it in another, the result would be a reasonably good sandbox game. If the main plot had required a different variety of skills and the combat had been harder and more interesting, and the rewards had been more balanced, the player would have had a reason to do all of the side-quests to pay for better equipment and skill-development. The developers spent a lot of time on mechanics but didn't integrate them into a sensible, cohesive, balanced game.

I expect it to perform in the low 30s in a GIMLET, but let's see:

1. Game World. The background of the universe, drawn from the pen-and-paper Traveller RPG, is complex and interesting. It just doesn't translate well to the CRPG itself. It acts primarily as a framing story for a set of mechanics that could have been transferred to just about any story. The titular Zhodani Conspiracy is pretty pathetic, and the Zhodani themselves never appear.

There are maddening hints at a better game if the developers had simply had more time and technology. Most of the lore in the game comes not from NPC discussions but rather nuggets of information that you buy for $2,000 each at special shops. For instance, one discussed a civil war in progress on Yres, which explained why I kept getting randomly shelled as I wandered around the city. This could have been more interesting if there was anything to do with it. Score: 4.

There is an explanation for these craters and bodies; it's just not very interesting or helpful.

2. Character Creation and Development. A great creation system--one of the best I've ever experienced--undermined by almost no character development after creation and a lack of use of the skills, making all the development a waste of time. The only way to increase skills after the character creation process is to pay around $40,000 per point. Again, it's an issue of balance. If skills were more useful, training cost a bit less, and rewards from miscellaneous side quests were a bit higher, there would be more incentive to spend time on skill development. As it is, you can pretty much win the game with the starting party.

Aside from skills, none of the other aspects of the character's background--in particular, branch of service and rank--seem to affect the game at all. Score: 4.

3. NPC Interaction. For all the random NPCs wandering around, interaction is pretty pathetic. Most of them just say, "Greetings, Traveller!" Others tell you to bring them various items for a reward. Only a couple have anything to say relative to the plot or game world, and none of them offer dialogue options. I found maybe two opportunities to use the "bribe" skill and no place to use all the other interpersonal skills--"leadership," "carousing," "interview"--that the manual insists are important. Score: 3.

I forgot to mention this. On some planets, you get stopped for an "illegal weapons" search. What's "illegal" differs from place to place; sometimes my laser weapons were confiscated; sometimes they weren't. But I never saw any negative consequence to just saying "no" to the search. Imagine if the TSA worked that way.

4. Encounters & Foes. There are really no non-combat encounters, and the selection of enemies is limited and boring, mostly consisting of interchangeable thugs in gray combat suits. None of them seem to have particular strengths and weaknesses. Score: 2.

5. Magic and Combat. Ground combat is mostly boring. You simply order your characters to fire at an enemy and the two groups exchange shots until someone is dead. I guess it was even worse in an earlier version of the game (I'm playing 3.0) when there was no option to pause to issue orders, and essentially you could only control one of your characters at a time.

Ground combat does probably have more tactics than I actually used. For instance, I never did much with grenades, even though they would have been helpful on clusters of enemies. There are some considerations with terrain and character placement that could have made a difference. If the battles had been harder (or, in any event, less random), I might have been inspired to explore these options further.

Giving orders in the penultimate battle. Technically, I could be hiding my characters behind these objects, but it's more trouble than it's worth.

Because it wasn't necessary to the game, I simply didn't explore space combat much. It has some interesting ideas, with a variety of laser and missile weapons to buy and a variety of programs that you can purchase and run to increase ship maneuverability, defenses, and weapon effectiveness. In my few attempts at it, nothing really gripped me about the mechanic, though. Score: 4.

6. Equipment. Like many things in MegaTraveller, equipment is solid in concept, flawed in execution. There is a lot of stuff to buy and use, including weapons and armor, medkits, grenades, demolition charges, vacuum suits and helmets, spare oxygen tanks, electric torches and lanterns, and various quest items. There just isn't much reason to buy them.

Early in the game, I bought everyone the best level of vacuum suit, which also provides decent armor protection, at $9,800 each. The next level of armor, "combat armor," costs $122,500 each, so I never bothered to go there. Again--and I know I keep repeating myself--if combat had been harder, the armor less expensive, and the quest rewards more lucrative, there would have been a much greater incentive to continually upgrade equipment. Score: 4.

Some of the items I can sell.
7. Economy. This one category encapsulates the game's entire raison d'etre and almost everything wrong with it. The economy in MegaTraveller plays a huge role. It's key to the main plot--the first step is to acquire $2 million for the "Jump 2" drive--and it's the only real mechanism of character development, both in terms of equipment and purchasing new skills. You constantly need to resupply ammunition, fuel, and healing (if you don't want to waste a lot of time in the ship's sick bay). It's the driving force behind all of the side quests as well.

On the surface, the economy has everything I like in an RPG: lots of ways to make money, lots of ways to spend it, never a time when you can just ignore it. It's just that the balance is horribly off. When a single reload of "Laser 12" ammo costs almost $20,000, it's hard to get excited about a side quest that offers a $15,000 reward. When you can make almost $60,000 flying back and forth between Efate and Louzy in less than 10 minutes, why would you spend 20 minutes flying a "space race" between three planets for $10,000? When the difference between an adequate combat suit and a great one is $113,000, are you really going to spend a lot of time grinding for that extra cash?

With a few tweaks in rewards and costs, the economy could have been much better-balanced, which would have changed the nature of the game entirely, making the side quests more of a necessity than an option. In particular, I would have removed the trading mechanic entirely (or made the prices more variable) and made the "Jump 2" drive cost a lot less. Score: 5.
8. Quests. The game has a multi-stage main quest with no options or alternate outcomes and a pretty pathetic series of events. There are side quests--still oddly rare in the era--but almost all of them are fetch quests with such small rewards that they're hardly worth the time. The exception is bounty-hunting, which is both lucrative and somewhat fun. Score: 3. 
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Nothing here is going to win any awards. The graphics are VGA but look EGA and haven't really advanced beyond games like 2400 A.D. from several years prior. The NPC portraits look simply awful. The sound consists primarily of an annoying rat-tat with every footstep and a blasting noise during combat. I played with the sound off. The interface is generally okay. I like that it supports a mouse without (usually) requiring it. Some of the inventory-related activities, like dropping an item or transferring an item to another character, are clunky and non-intuitive, and it's actually quite easy to drop an item without realizing it (if it's the active object when you hit ESC to leave the inventory screen). Score: 2.

Even not considering the hair, this is the ugliest NPC portrait in history.
10. Gameplay. As a quasi-sandbox game, gameplay is mostly non-linear, allowing the player to explore the systems in any order and do whatever he wants to achieve the first step of the main quest. But since there's so little of interest in the universe--basically just retrieving objects for rewards--it's hard to regard the non-linearity as a major advantage or to call the game "replayable" because of it. The difficulty is moderate, which ends up hurting the game, as it makes so many of the mechanics unnecessary. The pacing is way off, with the first 4/5 made up of boring grinding and the last fifth a quick flurry of fetch quests. Score: 3.

That gives us a final score of 34, right about where I expected it.

I'm tempted to give the game some bonus points for a few of its innovative ideas, like being able to refuel a ship from gas giants, or the mechanics of spaceflight, in which Newtonian physics prevent easy turning, gravity wells of planets can capture you and throw you off course, and an inattentive player can easily get sucked into a sun. But I'd just have to take them away again for its bugs (my fifth character never did fire his weapon) and dumb gameplay decisions, like starting the party in the middle of a hopeless combat. Thus, we'll leave things as they are.

Wow, did this game get polarized reviews. The best seems to come from the always-charitable Dragon, which offered its modal score of 5/5 and praised how well it followed the rules of the tabletop Traveller (ahem, Gaguum?) and designated it "one of the best science-fiction role-playing games ever for the computer."
Much as we're used to high praise from Dragon, we're equally accustomed to reviews from Amiga magazines in which the reviewer seems to have never played an RPG before. From the July 1991 Amiga Computing, we learn that MegaTraveller 1 is--I'm not making this up--"undoubtedly the best ever computer RPG" just before the reviewer goes on to describe an experience that sounds more frustrating than fun. In the June 1991 Amiga Power, our old friend Stuart Campbell, who gave Secret of the Silver Blades 8/100, opines that "if you took the Pacific Ocean, stacked another Pacific Ocean on top of it, and then attached two more Pacific Oceans to either end, it wouldn't be quite as deep as MegaTraveller 1" and concludes that "the attention to detail is almost breathtaking, and if there's been a game with more to do in it than this one, I haven't seen it." I'm tempted to suggest that Mr. Campbell therefore hasn't seen the last three Ultima titles, either of the two Starflights, or any of the Gold Box games, but we know he's seen at least one of those.

Sanity comes from the June 1991 ACE (combat "irritatingly difficult to control"; mechanics "serve to slow down the action rather than generate excitement"), pretty much all the German Amiga and Atari ST magazines (ratings in the 50s out of 100), and Computer Gaming World. Back in the 1980s, when CGW was pretty much the only show in town, I thought my own opinions were widely divergent from those of Scorpia and the other reviewers. Now that we're in the 1990s and puerile gaming magazines like Amiga Power are springing up everywhere, CGW's coverage always seems like a refreshing oasis of reason. In the November 1990 issue, L.S. Lichtman offers a fair and sober review of the mechanics, drawing from some previous experience with the tabletop Traveller. He indicates that fans of the RPG will be both pleased and disappointed with what did and didn't make it into the computer version. He praises the game for simplifying the character creation process (while still leaving it interesting) and extensive manual but criticizes the combat system and issues with the economy, ultimately labeling it an "unfinished product" and "seriously flawed" while still praising its "variety of activities and natural feel to the adventuring that it offers." In 1996, the magazine included the game on its list of "50 worst games" of all time.

Paragon never did have a decent track record with RPGs, and I'm curious how they managed to get the rights to Traveller and other RPGs in the first place. (By contrast, SSI and D&D were a natural pairing.) Their only previous offerings were the nonsensical Alien Fires: 2199 AD (1986) and Wizard Wars (1988), neither of which exemplified a good RPG. Now, suddenly in 1990 and 1991, they got this agreement with Games Designers' Workshop, and issued games based on MegaTraveller, Space: 1889, and Twilight: 2000.
The project lead for MegaTraveller was Jane Yeager, and this is the only game on which I can find her credited in such a role; all her other credits include art design and direction. We've seen her work before on DarkSpyre (which, artistically, bears a passing resemblance to MegaTraveller) and will again on Dusk of the Gods (1991), The Summoning (1992), Dungeon Hack (1993), Veil of Darkness (1993), Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession (1994), Menzoberranzan (1994), and Anvil of Dawn (1995), before she leaves the field and turns to computer education and web site development.

Most of Yeager's later work was at DreamForge, which was co-founded by her co-designer on MegaTraveller, Christopher Straka. This is the first game on which he's credited for "design," but he went on to become the lead designer on almost all the titles above, plus Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War (1999), his last credited game.
Next year, we'll see MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients, which everyone seems to think is much better, likely because it involved the active participation of Marc Miller, co-founder of GDW and co-developer of the tabletop Traveller. Also, it looks like primary game design was taken over by F. J. Lennon, who wrote the manual for MegaTraveller 1--arguably the best part of the game.

The 143-page manual provides a solid intro to the Traveller tabletop RPG, not just this game's mechanics.
I am sick to death of 1990 games that don't crack the 30s in the GIMLET. When I designed the scale, I really thought that the average game would be in the 50s or 60s by now. In my entire last year of blogging, there have been only a handful of really good games--Ultima VI, Quest for Glory II, Secret of the Silver Blades, maybe Lord of the Rings--and a bunch of mediocre offerings that feel like throwbacks to 1986. The future doesn't look any brighter, and soon we have to deal with Space: 1889, yet another science-fiction RPG from Paragon that's based on a tabletop game. Maker's breath, will I be happy to see 1990 in the rear-view mirror. 
Hard Nova, written by the same person who thought "Malcolm Trandle" and "The Key of Thor" were good ideas, is next. Yay.


Further reading: My coverage of the sequel, MegaTraveller 2, begins here. Paragon's other GDW-based games includes Space 1889.


  1. Congratulations! So much exposition, and so much waste. It's as if Joss Whedon had said that Firefly didn't need more episodes anyway...
    Maybe play a presumably better 1991 game in between? The next Might and Magic game or a Gold Box game? However, as far as I can tell, the average quality in 1991 isn't much better. 1992 and 1993 are where it's at.

    1. Yes, 1990 and 1991 were the years that had the highest crap to quality ratio when it comes to CRPGs. Games like MegaTraveller is the reason why I think 1990 was a terrible year. And as you said 1991 was not much better, but with three Gold Box games there are _some_ good game to look forward to.
      Once 1991 is over things will pick up. 1992 and 1993 were probably the best CRPG years, and in the following years the number of games went drastically down.

      Once again I'm impressed that Mr Addict is able to complete such a mind numbingly boring game. His Endurance stat must really have improved since that start of the blog.

    2. It's not a bad idea, Alex, but if I start messing with the chronology, I'll probably never go back to normal.

    3. At this rate, "Savage Empire" is probably starting to look pretty good...

    4. Just 13 1990 games to go! Speaking of which, when I play with the filtering on your spreadsheet it has "Spirit of Excalibur" and "Bad Blood as unplayed instead of Played - Finished and Rejected respectively.

    5. Yes, it's a slippery slope. I had the idea when I looked at the annual index and saw that you, technically, already played a game from 1992. It's a bad coincidence that the end of 1990 is full of bad sci-fi RPGs. Though I seem to remember that Hard Nova had decent reviews.

    6. Re: PetrusOctavianus

      Yes to all you said. I counted all the games that the Addict wants to play (the Y/N filter makes it very easy) and 1992 is the peak. 1993 and 1991 are closely behind though. The golden age ends with the year 1993 (nicely symbolized by Ultima VIII in 1994) and Amiga went bankrupt in 1994. The number of games then declines by half.
      The years 1990 and 1991 have a lot of bad games, maybe because of the exploding shareware scene, or maybe because the Gold Box games caused a boom of interest in CRPGs?

    7. Ultima 7: Black Gate and Ultima 7: Serpent Isle are the pinnacle of that time, until P:ST and Fallout 2 in my book.

      But yes, 1990 and 1991 were interesting games when it comes to flooding.

  2. The game with the absolute worst 'required locations:available locations' ratio easily belongs to Rockstar's L.A Noire. They went through the trouble to re-create 1947 L.A, but never gave you a reason to see more than 3% of it throughout the entire game. Utterly baffling.

    Coming up is 'Castle Adventure'. I remember playing that as a kid using my grandmother's ancient IBM clone. It was the only game on the computer and I must have played it a hundred times. It's pretty similar to the Atari 2600 'Adventure' game.

    Can't say it was a great game, but it was the only one I had every other Saturday morning. It won't be hitting double-digits on the GIMLET scale.

    1. I agree 100% about LAN. The contrast to Red Dead Redemption, where you actually have reasons to visit all the wonderfully-crafted locations, is stark.

      A while back, I started a post titled "It Should Have Been an RPG" but never finished it. LAN and RDR featured prominently. They're ALMOST RPGs. RDR with experience levels and dialogue choices (instead of scripted scenes) would almost be the perfect game.

    2. Thirded for LA Noire. I completed the whole game and only seen, at most, 40% of the entire map. What a waste.

    3. I have beat Castle Adventure before. Just as a heads up (and I know you've heard this line before) I don't consider it an RPG (to enough an extent I am baffled how it got in your list in the first place).

      It's an adventure game. As far as I remember there are no stats/levels/character building whatsoever.

    4. Noire does have an optional 'scenery' mode where you can just drive around aimlessly watching the scenery but game wise very little of the city is ever used unless you take the long rout to destinations or spend your time stealing fire trucks like I did.

    5. Do you think non fantasy/scifi RPGs don't sell?

      A western or film noir rpg would be awesome. I'm sure there are probably a few.

    6. The Wasteland/Fallout series has a pretty strong Western vibe. There's a natural marriage between post-apocalyptic fiction and the wild west.

      The 'superhero' setting has been pretty lucrative for crpg publishers.

    7. IMO LA Noire's dev team likely ran into some sort of time crunch and had to abandon plans to actually use more of the city in that game.

      As folks mention they clearly spent a lot of time painstakingly recreating Los Angeles, only to really send you to about 10% of it. It just reeks of a time-crunch based content reduction.

    8. Jason, I checked out Castle Adventure and you're right: not an RPG at all. I'm deleting it.

    9. LA Noir had a famously troubled development, with a blatantly exploitive director who set up contracts so you only got overtime and a number of other things if you were still working there when the game shipped, and then deliberately demanded insane amounts of overtime, so people would quit.

      Wikipedia has an article on it:

  3. Trivia from MobyGames about MegaTraveller...


    Computer Gaming World
    November 1996 (15th anniversary issue) – #4 Worst Game of All Time

    1. the same ranking but.. in Best Game of All Time (I took only CRPG):

      2.Ultima IV
      9. Wasteland
      16. Wizardry
      23. Might and Magic
      44. Ultima VI
      49. Dungeon Master
      55. Starflight

      From Worst Game of All Time:

      20. Ultima VIII

      And explanation for U8: A once-great RPG series reduced to the level of Mario, but with hateful, virtue-less characters

      Interesting ...

    2. Some comments on the "best" list:

      1. The list was made in 1996, six years after my current period, but I've already played all of the CRPGs on it. That doesn't bode well.

      2. I generally agree with the selections, though I don't know how you can leave off Pool of Radiance.

      3. In general, CGW's list represents the games that are most significant for their times, not necessarily those that are most enjoyable to play. I think U4 is an awesome, ground-breaking game, and I'm glad to see it top anyone's list, but I can't argue that it's a more "fun" game than U5 or U6.

    3. Continued list of "BEST"

      89. The Bard's Tale
      98. System Shock
      105. Crusaders of the Dark Savant
      144. Ultima III
      Sword of Fargoal 147

      Continued list of "WORST"

      41. Fountain of Dreams

      The CGW has many different rankings. The most interesting:

      The 15 Hardest Computer Games

      3. Ultima VII

      Until the Serpent Isle add-on came out, you suffered from mysteriously disappearing keys, unsolvable plot sequences, and party members who could not feed themeselves.

      The 15 Most Memorable Game Heroes

      6. The Avatar (UltimaIV-VIII)

      The anonymous hero of most of the Ultima sagas When you Particular interesting trying to balance the Virtues.

      The 15 Most Memorable Villains game

      2. Werdna (Wizardry / Wizardry IV)

      3. ... (Ultima VII) maybe a spoiler for you so blank

      9. Scorpitorn (Westland)

      And the "funniest":

      The 15 Least Rewarding Endings of All Time

      2. Eye of the Behold (censored, because of the spoiler)

      6. Starflight 2 (If you destroyed your crew, you lost your saved game files, as well)

      9. Champions of Krynn (Upon the completion of the quest, characters were "rewarded" for having Their most powerful artifacts removed)

      15. Ultima III (After all the mega-combat in this game, the actual dispatching of archvillain Exodus was anti-climatic).

    4. I spoiled Eye of the Beholder on here awhile ago and caught some flak for it, despite it being a rather infamous ending that I'm sure any fan of the genre already knows about.

    5. Interesting list. Regarding CRPGs, the years 1994-1996 are something of a dark age, or, to use a term from egyptian history, an intermediate period. The Gold Box games were over and Interplay's resurgence was yet to come. I wonder if the list would have included Arena or Daggerfall if it had been known in 1996 that they would begin a commercial juggernaut franchise. I mean, these years might yield positive surprises because the attention of the gaming world was elsewhere.

    6. On the other hand, they were good years for JRPGs.

    7. After it got fully patched, Ultima 8 was actually not bad. By Ultima standards it was god-awful, of course, but taken out of context it was an "okay, but not great" game. Miles better than Megatraveller. People complain so strenuously out of disappointment and frustrated expectations but Chet has played a lot of much worse games by this point.

    8. Things are going to be rough for a few years of blog time. The PC market went incredibly stagnant, largely due to the rapid explosion of non-RPG genres that were becoming technically possible at the time, while much of the RPG market shifted to console, which produced several games in that period that remain (in the form of rereleases) blockbusters to this day.

      There were obviously good games released during this period, but they're rather sparse, and more and more of the "bad" games are going to be excessively derivative slogs like Dragon Sword instead of deeply flawed with a few clever innovations ones (which, even if they score badly, are still interesting from a historical viewpoint.)

    9. @Chet

      "2. I generally agree with the selections, though I don't know how you can leave off Pool of Radiance."

      I think you have rightly recognized PoR as the best of the Gold Box series. They really got a lot of subtle things right in that game, that they never were able to re-create in the follow ups.

      Unfortunately though, PoR was definitely not recognized by the general pubic as being better than other Gold Box games, at the time, due to the engine refinements that were lacking in it.

      It seems that the lack of a "fix" command, and the odd engine quirks (e.g. page up/page down to move through items in a list, instead of up arrow/down arrow, like everything past Curse) really turned a lot of people off back then.

      It does make sense in some regards, the subtleties that make PoR stand out were ignored or downplayed due to obvious engine improvements.

      If I had to guess the Gold Box games on that list, if any were on there, were later ones like Pools of Darkness or Death Knights of Krynn. Those games tended to combine engine refinements with a story and sandbox environment that while inferior to PoR, were superior to Curse, Secrets or Champins.

    10. I still don't know why I keep seeing people list Zelda games on RPG lists. There is only one game in the series that fits it, Zelda II. I think the rest are lumped in since they helped inspire the top-down view, and exploration of the genre.

    11. I think a fantasy setting fools a lot of people into thinking many non-RPGs are RPGs.

  4. I picked the game up from ... somewhere... after your first post.

    After some playing around, I read about a cheat. You can sell weapons which are illegal on a planet for a good profit. And when you pick up the most expensive weapon to do this it completely breaks the economy. I did.

    Then I went to Louzy. There I learned that if a planet has police, they will shoot at you if you do not comply with the illegal weapon search. There I also was not able to open one last door to finish a side quest.

    That annoyed me and I finished the main quest out of spite.

    1. I wouldn't necessarily call that a "cheat." They probably intended it. Everything about the economy is out of balance this way.

    2. You make a profit of around 100,000 credits per plasma gun and you only have to travel within the Efate system. It not only breaks the economy, it actually breaks the game, making the 2,000,000 credits thing (and the best armor and weapons) incredibly easy.

      If a tester found this trick (probably a better word than cheat) they probably would have complained about the very short game.

    3. I think exploit is the right term for this one.

    4. Tester. Bahaha. You think this game had testers?

    5. Reviewer would probably be the word I should have used.

      This implies that I am that naive that I think the games are actually played for a review.

  5. The November 1990 issue of Computer Gaming World you link to has a blurb on page 60 about an RPG not on your master list, "Citadel, Adventure of the Crystal Keep," published by Postscript International for the Macintosh.

    1. The Macintosh-only nature of this game may rule it out for the Addict. That said, Citadel is one of the few I had. I only played through it once, but it was enjoyable. Poor graphics, but there was some measure of graphical interactivity (you could click and aim to throw things, and see a wavering line to indicate the precision of your character). I remember it having a bit of the Monty Python Holy Grail "run away" audio clip when you ran away from a fight.

      Oh, and an interesting spell system where you memorized spells by assembling glyphs in the right order. (Unlike Dungeon Master/Grimrock where you type them realtime, they were pre-assembled.) One funny thing is the manual gave you some spells and hinted you'd have to discover others. I found one, and then decided to spend a bunch of time working through all possible iterations (four glyphs, five slots, I think?) looking for other undiscovered spells, only to find that the one spell I'd found was the *only* spell to be discovered. That ticked me off a bit.

    2. There are (at least) two Mac emulators. First is ARDI Executor, which used to be a commercial product in the 90s but is now free. This one is rather unusual in that it includes a reimplementation of the Mac operating system. Some software might not like that.

      The second is vMac which emulates a very old school monochrome Macintosh Plus. Perhaps useful if some 80s game has compatibility problems with Executor.

    3. I looked at the manual, and I can't argue it's not an RPG. It's disconcerting finding one so late that doesn't make MobyGames of Wikipedia's list.

      In any event, it seems to be a 1989 game, so I'll pick it up on my second pass.

    4. @Quirkz: wow, four glyphs, five slots = 1024 possible arrangements. Very impressive.

      In contrast, I recently found it fairly painful to run through only 26 choices (testing for all possible ROT encodings).

      My hat is off to you!

  6. Like I said the manual was the best part lol. It really felt the designers had this fantastic game design in their heads but had terrible programming skills which resulted in this mess of a game.

    I must have had the original release version as I don't remember being able to pause combat leading to crazed clicking as I tried to get my squad members to fire back. This was back in the pre-Internet days so there was no chance I could ever get a patch.

  7. Interestingly, I remember you feeling the same way about 1989 when it was winding down. ~_^

    I'm not an expert, but I think the plethora of useless skills was a common problem in tabletop RPGs of this era. I've heard it called the "Silver Age paradox": everything had obsessive statistics, but it was assumed that the player would ignore those and role-play through encounters. I have a sourcebook for Skyrealms of Jorune, which is another great example: the character sheet has twelve basic stats, and amongst the usual adventuring skills, it also has stuff as far-reaching as shipbuilding and philosophy. Not to mention separate skills for different branches of science, different skills for stealth in the cities and country, and two different basic stats to determine your magic skill. The CRPG based on the system (Alien Logic, which you'll be seeing a few years down the line) wisely threw all that shit in the garbage and used only the setting. Which is great- one of the most original settings ever.

    1. I wouldn't call any skill in a tabletop RPG useless. The fact no one in our party has shipbuilding has come up multiple times in my GURPS game, and I've gotten a lot of use out of my carousing and dance skills.

  8. A small point, but I'm pretty sure that skimming fuel from gas giants is not quite an innovation here, having been featured in Elite (1984), which also featured a lot of other gameplay elements seen in MegaTraveller (cargo trading, bounties, space combat, etc.). And Elite itself inherited many of these from its own spiritual predecessor, Star Trader (1974). It's just that Elite is a space flight simulator rather than an RPG, so it lies outside of this blog's experience :)

    In fact, by focusing so heavily on CRPGs, we are probably missing out on lots of connections to broader gaming history -- designers taking inspiration, paying homages, etc., etc., across genre boundaries. Of course, you are just one man, so it makes sense to specialize :). But it makes you think... there is this huge tapestry that would take a lifetime to map out.

    Incidentally, Star Control is another spiritual successor to Elite, with a lot of the same gameplay elements as MegaTraveller, and contemporaneous with it (1990). But it's neither a space flight simulator nor an RPG (or if it is an RPG, it's a weird one where it's more like the ship is your character). There could be some cross-pollination going on there, too.

    1. Sorry, I mixed up Star Control (1990) with the more famous Star Control II (1992) in that last paragraph :/

    2. Yes, totally. I couldn't help but thinking "Elite" while reading about Megatraveller. If you think about the way you progress in Elite, basically leveling up your ship, it is kind of an RPG anyway.

  9. Looking at the Master List and the number of games per year, I wonder if the quality problem is twofold:

    First, there's a glut of RPGs around 1989-1993--almost 50% more than in the years preceding and following. We remember the fantastic ones, but the sheer number of mediocre games is presumably overwhelming if you play them all. And, of course, if companies are jumping into the game because RPGs sell, we can anticipate a lot of less-than-stellar efforts.

    Second, we're entering an age when "short" RPGs barely exist anymore and length is a selling point. Sure, the 1985-era games may have largely been awful, but they were mostly quick. Now even a bad RPG (like MegaTraveller) is designed with crazy amounts of padding in order to stretch out playtime. Everyone wants to imitate Ultima.

    One of the things I find so valuable and fascinating about this blog is the completionist nature of the endeavor, so I'd hate to see our friendly Addict become less thorough. On the other hand, mental health counts for something, too, and I'm sure the blog readership would support you if you wanted to sample more games for just a few hours before deeming them not worth your time. Or alternating between, say, 1984, 1990, and 2000. Or whatever.

    The rest of 1990 doesn't look great, but maybe there are some gems in there. (Circuit's Edge?) I'm looking forward to Savage Empire and Angband, and about 20% of the 1991 games look immediately interesting. 1992 looks a tad stronger, granted, and has a number of amazing all-time greats.

    All that said... I enjoyed the MegaTraveller posts, even if playing the game wasn't thrilling!

    1. I like Circuit's Edge but that doesn't mean Chet's going to. It's an adventure game with RPG stats and combat glued on. And unlike Hero's Quest the puzzles are not super obvious formalities. It will try your patience for arbitrary adventure game frustration shenanigans.

    2. I thought Circuit's Edge made a lot more sense than most adventure games of its time, I had a good time with it, loved the setting and the very well done EGA graphics. If QFG gets played, Circuit's Edge should as well.

    3. I totally think he should play it, but while the RPG elements are well integrated it does technically fail one of his criteria, in that there's no experience / level up system... your character only improves by getting new equipment (although the fact that that equipment includes new personalities might blur the line *slightly*).

  10. I wonder if there might have been encounters/mechanics/etc that would use some of those seemingly unused parts of this game and they were simply too obscure or poorly cued to register without out of game knowledge.

    1. I doubt it...what usually happens is that they start with grand plans for a million statistics, then as production goes on, they get bored and refocus their attention elsewhere. They just want to get the project over with. If it were a personal project, they would have quit and it would have ended up as a half-finished bookcase in the garage. But, this is a job, so they just hurriedly finish it in slipshod fashion and ship it out the door. Then, they go on to their NEXT big idea, with TWO million statistics!

    2. It just seemed like (from Chester's posts, at least - never played it myself) there wasn't much in this game that was intuitive.

  11. I've played after picking it up from a bargain bin more than a decade or so ago.

    I couldn't figure out the combat after fiddling with the controls after 3 full hours. It's now in some landfill.

  12. Yeah, the part about the Amiga heads having never played an RPG before is probably correct. I forgot *just how in love they were* with their computers. Everything was super, spectacular. Not that the Amiga wasn't an amazing machine, because it was. But this type just went overboard, not because the Amiga was super, but because they were in love with *the idea* of the Amiga being super. A game was good not because it was a good game, but because it was on the Amiga and let them gaze lovingly at the graphics. And let's not forget the mouse-only controls, because the keyboard was a hopelessly antiquated legacy input device that was to be discarded the first chance possible.

    1. Also Amiga did had a terrible keyboard feel compared to actual PC keyboards which were meant for actual typing, so I'm not the least surprised for 'non keyboard' games.

      Also I had completely forgotten had infatuated those amiga magazines were about any game on amiga back in the days.

    2. Amiga RPG's will eventually reach maturity with Legend (AKA The four crystals of Trazere), Black Crypt and Ishar. I'm curious to read Chet's opinionn on these games. But yes, during the late 80s and early 90's, most players and reviewers were clueless about RPG, since most of them migrated from the ZX Spectrum that had hardly any games of this genre.

    3. Ishar not on the level of the other two games you've mentioned, not by a long shot.

  13. My guess: when you'll try to import your party to MT2, the game will ask you for that ending code.
    Are you going to play through Angband? Because it's just Moria1.2, and 2x longer. Or are you going to skim Angband and 100+ variants, writing a bonus post about them after you finish Moria?
    I wonder what will you do with, say, the Exile series. Jeff Vogel made his career by writing basically the same game over and over 6+ times already.

    1. It's definitely worth playing Angband. There is a chronology of innovations that happens in the roguelikes, and Angband has some major ones. Whether it's worth persisting to the point of winning each is debatable, but a certain amount of save scumming will allow for the game to be experienced more linearly without the amount of restarting that a "true" win would require.

    2. The Exile series? I think the question is academic. Chet might reach Exile and won't reach Avernum.

    3. I thought Angband was a lot better than Moria. Much brighter and more populated than Moria's desolate town and dungeons. There were several gameplay innovations as well, which definitely made it a better game. It's not just a Tolkien re-theming, though that is great as well.

    4. Except that the Avernum series is significantly mechanically different in each iteration of the game. Not always for the better, and in fact, I think the first batch of Avernums are the best of the lot. If anything, they're a perfect case study for the purpose of this blog: The same story, told through different game mechanics that reflect the different times those games were made. The re-remakes of Avernum definitely show Spiderweb trying to be more mainstream and streamlined, and more focused upon setpiece climactic boss battles than player ingenuity.

      Besides, he's made 6 remakes, with a seventh coming soon, while he's made 15 original games, with a sixteenth coming soon, and I'm probably forgetting a few original games that weren't in the main highlights.

    5. I never played the Exile trilogy, but of the three Avernum engines I know: 1-3 ; 4-6 and the reboots, I think the reboots have the weakest engine.

      The Geneforge series uses a similar (though a bit better in my opinion) engine to Avernum 4-6 and the Avadon series uses an engine similar to the reboots (which is part of why I don't enjoy it that much).

      I count 7 remakes: Avernum 1,2,3, Blades of Avernum, Nethergate: Resurrection and the two new reboots.

    6. Ah, I forgot that Nethergate was a reboot, too. Ironically, it's the oldest Spiderweb game available on Steam, now that I look.

      In any event, I don't mind the reboots, especially the reboots of the first Exiles and Nethergate, because the controls for the first few games were so terrible that I just never could get into playing those games. I loved Avernum 3, but I never bought Avernum 1, since the controls made it too frustrating IMHO.

      In any event, I seriously hope that Spiderweb gets out of this "four base D&D classes" mentality, and goes back to making some depth in character creation. Earlier Avernum still basically only let you make four classes, but at least let you blend them. Avadon is just "do you want DD attack spells or stat effect spells"... and make all the stat effects have the same effects, so it's just a waste to put them all on stat effect, at that.

  14. This is a good example of two typical problems that a lot of RPGs and reviews had at the time: Game mechanics that aren't integrated well into the game or simply not at all (while still appearing as window dressing) and reviewers praising games they've barely played.

    I didn't own a computer in the early 90s and only played a handful CRPGs in short bursts with friends. When I finally got my own PC and discovered abandonware I didn't even know where to start. All these great, deep and complex RPGs that were waiting for me... turns out many of them sucked and were much more simplistic than they seemed to be.

  15. As someone pointed out before: This hunting for money (Firefly-like) is a big part about Traveller, so I can somewhat understand, why they have put it in.
    Im very sure, this ran under a strict deadline - it was a license after all (and an expensive one, I think). AND there was a lot to implement. What was missing was the playtesting. They managed to run the game (relativly) bug free, but aparently there was no time for balancing. The strange rewards for some of the sidequests show that there was a kindf of inflation happening during the design process.

    1. Yeah, this game seems like a master class in learning how not to port a solid tabletop system to the computer. It's a shame, because Traveller is a fantastic system that lends itself to procedural generation, which would seem a natural fit for the PC.

  16. The lack of good sci-fi (and specifically those set in space) RPGs is a bit depressing to me, as I seem to have an attraction to the combination. Sentinel Worlds sounded so promising first, Star Command seemed disappointingly mediocre.. I enjoyed the first Buck Rogers quite a bit and played it through. OTOH if I had other Gold Box engine experience it would probably pale in comparison. The assessment of it as an average game seems fair. I guess I should spend a bit more effort to get into Starflight, though it has no tactical combat, which I would find interesting.

    I've heard good things about Hard Nova, so I really hope it turns out a positive surprise.


  17. Just wanted to note my experience with Hard Nova as you'll be playing that shortly. From what I remember when I played it, you get to lead a party of adventurers in 3 different modes of playing (on foot, some kind of shuttle over a planet surface and in a spaceship). The interface is pretty hard to figure out, but it's possible to learn it without a manual (as I did). Mostly I remember the on foot combat, where once you click an enemy on screen it starts to blink, which means you have targeted it, and then you proceed to mash the fire button to make all your characters fire. This was the greatest stumbling block for me. The spaceship parts do have combat, but it's pretty fast, so I mostly avoided it. I know you said you are not looking forward to playing it, but I suggest you try and keep an open mind, as it does have some qualities of its own, and even if it's not the best game out there, it surely beats mega traveler by far.

    1. I concur, Hard Nova is more interesting than Megatraveller, though it's almost as hard to look at - VGA primary color ramps everywhere. The people that coded Hard Nova were successful at what they set out to do, can't say the same for the unfinished mess that is Megatraveller 1

  18. I suspect some of those reviews were bought.

  19. Im wondering if those certificates can get you free stuff im imperial shops, or whether they are more decorative like a medal.

  20. In the wake of a game like this, all I can say is: thanks for sticking with this project. I'm sure there are times it's hard to summon the motivation, but I hope it helps to know that, by doing this, you're contributing something of genuine worth to the world.

    (Or maybe the purely selfish motives are more compelling -- hey, that works too. :D)

  21. Kiefer's final speech is awesome. HE IS RUINED! Did you feel the wrath of his hatred and rage?

  22. Were you really drinking a gimlet when you wrote this GIMLET? Be honest!

    1. Well, I only drink when I'm on the road. I spent 256 nights in hotels last year, and I have a gimlet probably 75% of the time when I'm staying in a hotel. Since I do about 90% of my blogging at night, the odds that I have at least one gimlet in me are 256/365 * 0.75 * 0.9 = 47.34% for any given post.

      But I wrote this one during the day, while I was home, so no.

    2. I'm not sure whether to be envious or sympathetic. On one hand, I enjoy the solitude when I travel alone, on the other, that's a lot of dinners away from your own (or Irene's) kitchen. I guess 256 is probably double what I'd be happy with.

  23. Sounds reasonable, but 47.34% is still a far cry from the unqualified mixological promise you made way back in your Final Rating post on Pool of Radiance :)

  24. Eye of the Beholder was my first cRPG - and I loved it - but even without such personal involvement I'd say you will enjoy it much more than Megatraveller ...
    It cannot be played without a good mouse control though.


  25. Man, it sucks that such a historic tabletop game got such a terrible treatment. This was the *second* science fiction RPG (1977!), and the first you could fly a ship in, and BOTH the games based on it so far have been tripe.

    For those wondering why I'm falling more and more behind: PhD work kept me from doing much to enjoy life for a while (I could justify an hour of Fallout or the RTS Spring after I was too tired to write or study anymore, but if I was able to read without headache then I was able to edit). Plus a relationship in which I'm spending more of my time not at my computer, and instead snuggling with my girlfriend, cooking dinners with her instead of eating at my keyboard, etc.

    I'm hoping to work on catching up over Christmas, as I think that was when I fell behind, two years ago.

    1. Ah! Lured away from your geeky pursuits, eh. By the way, why isn't Mara here as well?

    2. I'm trying to talk her into dropping by. However, she is reading enough blogs as it is, and trying to write her Masters thesis.

  26. Text of a fun e-mail I received that, among other things, explains the "code":


    Hey, I was killing time at work today looking at old game reviews. I once had a fondness for Sentinel Worlds and Hard Nova (your reviews were unkind to them, but you're right, I was just pretty young when I played them). And I noticed you'd done a review of MegaTraveller, which I have some interesting information about.

    In your wrap-up, you mention that odd code the game spits out when you win, wondering what it was. I actually have a story about that.

    I was 14 years old when this game came out. Bought it at Software, Etc. at a mall near where I grew up in Kansas City. Somewhere in the packaging materials of the game was a registration card or something for you to enter that code. There was no real indication about what would happen if you filled out the card. Just an invitation to do so if you beat the game. It was all very cryptic.

    When I played the game I had much the same impression as you did - it was intriguing at first, the skill system looked amazing, but at the end of the day it was an ambitious effort with little to back up all that the character creation screen promised. I remember going out of my way to make sure my characters all had the "gambling" skill so as to do better on the die roll charts when your character left the military.

    Early on I discovered that you could make a lot of money ferrying water to a desert planet. And not long after, I discovered you could make even more money ferrying plasma rifles to planets inhabited by lower tech societies (might have been same planet). I just remember it took a while running water back and forth to even afford a plasma rifle, which was the most expensive weapon in the game IIRC, and before you know it I was hauling entire cargo bays of those things. I soon had my entire crew outfitted with all the top gear in the game. And the spaceship upgrades were ridiculously expensive, this trading exploit made even that trivial.

    Anyway, I beat the game, I remember almost nothing about the plot, particularly wondering why they called it the Zhodani Conspiracy and don't ever recall even finding out who the Zhodani even were, and got that code, wrote it on the card, and mailed it off. I promptly forgot about it and moved onto whatever the next game I was playing at the time.

    To my surprise, a couple of months later I received a package in the mail with a bunch of games in it. I was shocked. I guess I won the contest? Included inside was Space:1889 (they had been heavily promoting that game as the next big thing, to make a long story short I was underwhelmed and never beat the game), that text based game where you go back in time to try and stop the Kennedy assassination, and a few other forgettable titles. I think I got five games in total, and they all kind of sucked. I had been so excited to have gotten this huge bounty of games, none of which I really cared for.

    I don't think they even included a fucking letter telling me I'd "won" anything. I just got a box of games. So that was cool, I guess.

    Anyway, that's what the code was for. I guess I won first prize in a contest I didn't even know existed. Probably because I beat the game before anyone else, since I discovered game breaking bugs that made winning trivial.


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