Saturday, February 14, 2015

Game 174: Quest for the Unicorn (1990)


Occasionally, I review some past blog entry--usually when someone comments on it--and I have trouble remembering playing the game or even writing the entry. But I suspect that I'll always remember late June, 2013. I was doing some work in Trinidad, staying in a Hyatt right on the waterfront in Port of Spain. Every evening that week, I retired to a patio bar, watched the sunset over the Caribbean, drank a few gimlets, and played an obscure 1980s shareware game called The Land on my laptop. Sometimes, it's not a bad life that I lead.

The Land was based on Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a series that I've tried to read twice but haven't been able to enjoy. The game had a number of bugs, one of which made it impossible to win after I'd invested about a dozen hours in it. In frustration with both the mechanics and the setting, I prematurely wrote a final rating and gave up on the first game I hadn't won since Bloodwych a year earlier.

Then the author, Mike Riley, came along like a deus ex machina. He fixed the bug that prevented me from winning, gave me a personalized copy, and offered a number of comments on my posts. His last-minute editing allowed me to offer a "won!" posting the next day. More important, he took notes based on my postings, went back to the source code, and produced a new version in September 2013. You can download it from the RogueBasin page. In short, he was a gentleman developer.

A screenshot from The Land. This game looks similar and uses almost identical mechanics.
   
Mike came through again with Quest for the Unicorn. The official site only allows downloading of the Linux/Unix version, which has been continually updated through around 2010, and a "hardcore" version for roguelike fans, replacing the graphic interface with ASCII characters, that Mike started offering in 2010. I didn't want to play the "HC" version, which was really a 2010 game, and I didn't want to mess around with a Linux emulator. Fortunately, Mike still had the last DOS version and was kind enough to e-mail it to me. I'm playing version 2.0, technically from 1995, though most of the files still bear a 1990 date stamp. I'm reasonably confident that I'm getting a 1990 experience.

Quest for the Unicorn is Mike's second RPG. It uses the same engine as The Land but in a more generic, Dungeons & Dragons-influenced way. In some ways, this is too bad; the Covenant-inspired classes like "Loresraat" and "Bloodguard" were fun to learn and role-play even if I didn't understand the source material very well; Quest for the Unicorn's standard selection of races (human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, hobbit), classes (fighter, paladin, ranger, cleric, druid, mage, monk), and attributes (the standard D&D six) are less interesting. On the other hand, I feel on firmer ground with Unicorn and won't have to spend so much time looking up terms on half-completed wikis.

Character creation in Unicorn is actually reasonably similar to Moria: you select name, sex, race, class, and attributes (everything starts at 10; you adjust based on a pool of 20 points), and the game tells you where you stand in a variety of abilities like melee attack, missile attack, searching, disarming, and magic. There are also a variety of specific skills (e.g., scouting, edged weapons, lore, healing, boats) that can be increased through training and leveling.

My first character, a paladin.
          
In look and feel, the game is a cross between something like Ultima and a roguelike, with a third-person, iconographic interface, a tile-based world that's slowly revealed as you explore, and a variety of one-letter keyboard commands for things like (i)nventory, (g)et an item, and (l)ight a torch. Like The Land, it's not quite a "roguelike," as it has graphics and no permadeath, but it does show its roguelike influences.

I don't know much of what the plot is about. The manual has been "lost to the ages," according to Mike, but the basic theme is that "all the unicorns have disappeared from the land and it is up to you to find out what happened to them." He also offered that of the game's 60+ dungeons, only about 5 are actually necessary to the main quest. The plot was modeled on a D&D campaign that Mike created in the 1980s.

The opening area. The city of Radon is to the south and a dungeon entrance is to the north. The forest outside the dungeon offers good hunting opportunities.

The character starts outside the city of Radon with absolutely no inventory, 250 gold, and no food, and he gets hungry almost immediately, so the first order of business is to enter the city and find someone selling food. After that, you can start to explore and talk to the denizens. If Radon is any indication of the rest of the game, the indoor areas are huge, just as they were in The Land--nearly 100 x 100 tiles.

A bit of the opening town. Note the shopkeepers in the upper-left corners of each building, and the partly-filled automap in the lower-right.

The city contains a large array of shops, including those selling weapons, armor, rations, magical jewelry, scrolls, magic items, and potions. There's a temple, several inns, a library, and a university where you can pay for training in the game's various skills. Magic items and training are extremely expensive, so it's clear that gold will never run out of value.

I'm a long way from being able to afford any of this cool stuff.

There's a "travel agency" that sells passage to 8 cities and sells ships for $10,000. A "cavalier's guild" tells me that I haven't proven myself worthy yet.

A big part of the game involves the accumulation of lore from various NPCs, much as you do in Ultima or The Land. As in Mike's previous game, the game itself keeps track of what you've learned so you don't have to write anything down. The library lets you pay to seek out specific lore. Mike indicates that the lore is the key to knowing which dungeons are necessary to the game.

A bit of lore from an NPC.

And my accumulated lore from all interactions so far.

In the northwest of the city is a big castle, and I assumed I'd find some NPC inside who would give me a first quest, but there was no one special. So after I mapped the entire city and bought some leather armor, a shield, and a dagger, I decided to head out into the wilds and start making more money.

The game's approach to inventory assigns specific slots for each item, plus a large pack.

For a while, I couldn't break the pattern of constantly starving to death. You get hungry fast in this game--every three or four steps--so you have to have a mega supply of food to navigate the wilds. (I assume that when I get a mount, food consumption will be reduced.) I couldn't find enough random encounters to make enough money to keep up with my appetite. Eventually, I realized that if I stood in the forest and kept (h)unting, I'd replenish rations in a faster pace than I was eating them, and find some random combats, too.

Combat in the game is the same as The Land. Outdoors, you're taken to a larger area map in which you fight the foe on a tactical terrain. In dungeons, you don't get the larger map unless you face a group of enemies or you have a party yourself. At this stage of the game, combat is basically just ramming into the enemy until one of you is dead; later, it will become slightly more complex with ranged weapons, magic items, and spells.

Fighting a giant spider in an outdoor combat screen.

There's a dungeon near the first city, and I've been trying to explore it, but I can't stay alive longer than a few fights. I started grinding on the surface, but I've been noticing that the "maximum experience" available from all enemies on the first level of the dungeon (which it tells you every time you enter) keeps going up as my levels do, suggesting that the dungeons scale to the character level. If that's the case, the only real point in grinding is for gold.

The dungeon resets every time I enter. Sometimes, I find myself surrounded by enemies, like this.

In the first few hours of gameplay, I managed to get up to Level 5. I had a lot of deaths and reloads in the first three levels, but I'm starting to stabilize a bit. By next time, I should be able to tell you more about the game's content.

A few other notes for now:

  • (S)earching a wall in a city always produces a secret door right next to where you search unless there's already a door in an adjacent square. This makes it easy to move through the city methodically, but it's a bit weird.

Maybe my character is building doors in all these walls?

  • The game is heavily customizable. When you run the setup program, you can set not only the graphics adapter and sound but also whether you always go to the special combat screen, whether the game remembers dungeon levels while you're still in the dungeon, and the maximum level of all dungeons. The default to the latter is 10, but I changed it to 2 to make things move a bit more briskly.
  • The gambling game called "die square" was broken in The Land; it offered such favorable odds that you could make hundreds of thousands of gold pieces in a half hour. This game removes "die square" and offers only "dragon dice," a slot-machine-style game that features much less favorable odds.

A losing proposition.

  • As you level up in the game, your skills increase randomly. (I think so, at least; I suppose it's possible that it's partly based on what skills you've used, but that seems awfully advanced.) This was one of my least favorite parts of The Land, too; I would prefer to be able to manually set my skill development.
  • NPCs appear in dungeons and offer the same lore if you (t)alk to them as in towns. Monsters don't seem to attack them. The character can walk on top of NPCs but monsters can't, which means NPCs can serve as useful shields if you're trying to get away from monsters. This is particularly helpful given the fact that monsters can move and attack in the same action, so if you have one right next to you and you're trying to flee, you get attacked with every step.

An NPC helpfully blocks an ant as I make my way back to the stairs.

  • The game offers the ability to (J)immy a door shut, but monsters seem capable of opening them anyway.

The character finishes giving himself a false sense of security.

I don't know how much I'm going to enjoy alternating between two games with very similar gameplay (Moria and Quest for the Unicorn), so you may see me add a third game to the mix unless I can win one of these two within a few days. It's nice to be playing a game that no one has talked about online before.
        
(Yes, this is a new thing that you'll see from now on):

Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 11

59 comments:

  1. I like the ongoing time spent and reload count. Nice touch.

    Also, exceptionally cool of Mike Riley to help you out with the games.

    Offtopic: After knowing of Nethack for more than a decade and never really being interested, rereading your old entries about it tempted me to try the game. It takes a mindset where you embrace terrible things happening to you repeatedly and frequently, but it's a little entertaining. Frankly, if it had only one of 1) the constant need for food, 2) all items being unidentified and roughly 50% of items being cursed, and 3) a ridiculous number of hidden tunnels/doors to search for, I might even like it. But I mostly dislike all three of those things, and with all of them combined I don't think I can stick with it for long. I may save-scum just to play around a bit, but it's not my thing. When I get bored, I just discovered that I apparently own Pirates! on GOG (another entry I just read) so I may give that a shot next. Your effusive writing makes that one sound more promising anyway.

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    1. I had the very same reaction to NH when I first started playing. Eventually, you get pretty good at figuring out the blessed/cursed status of items, and what items are, through round-about means.

      Food is a horrible annoyance in the early game but becomes a non-issue after you slaughter your first barracks full of guards. Remember that you can establish caches.

      I'd give you more advice, but I'm sure they changed a lot of stuff after the versions that I played. I think it's not so easy to create holy water, for instance.

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    2. Food isn't THAT big of a deal. Just don't dawdle on levels forever after you finish them. That's basically what it teaches you. That, and to eat corpses.

      Cursed items aren't 50% prevalent, more like 5%. Cursed isn't even THAT bad, really. Just means you can't take the item off. Again, the game is teaching you. It's telling you to haul all those orcish helmets to an altar, or spread them out on the floor to see which ones your dog steps on (pets won't step on or pick up cursed items). Got a cursed item you can't get rid of? Congratulations, you just found a use for the "worthless, why did they include it in the game" Scroll of Destroy Armor.

      Nethack is full of that kind of thing.

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  2. It's funny the things that trigger nostalgia or recognition; with this one, it's not the game or the graphics (which I've never seen before) but the text. Those screenshots of the character creation sheet and so on, with all that MS-DOS system font (I think?) in different colors for emphasis - - - this was the visual toolkit of most MUDs and nearly all BBS games. I played a lot of games that looked like this - right down to the graphics having a higher-res but evidently "homemade" quality that didn't really seem to be part of the same aesthetic universe as the text - but I had forgotten it.

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    1. Yeah. That DOS text. What font is that, actually? Lots of fonts sort of look like DOS text but aren't.

      I have this vision of a DOS RPG that uses VGA graphics and text to play. It has hit points, levels, dungeons that don't use spinners or teleporters, an excuse plot, and a dragon at the end. I don't know if it's a 1-man RPG or six-character party. It's not too long, but not so short you can win it too quickly.

      I used to go through abandonware archives, looking for this game, but I never found it. Probably because it never existed in the first place. But every time I see that text, I want to find it.

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    2. The font is simply called "system", I'm pretty sure.

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    3. It is called "System", and that gave medium.com a bit of a shock recently: https://medium.com/designing-medium/system-shock-6b1dc6d6596f#.5zij5lnns

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  3. Reload count <3

    What non-roguelike do you think had your highest, Sentinel Worlds? Bard's Tale?

    'Difficulty' and 'reload count' are probably near synonymous.

    I once competed with my brother, trying to finish Neverwinter Nights with the least reloads. We both sucked. I think the final scores were him - 36; me - 35. It was exciting because he finished first, and my build got much stronger as my level increased, so I'd already hit about 30 mid game, and had to drastically improve my play. If the last boss had killed me, we would have tied.

    I'm a considerably better gamer these days, and could probably finish it with half a dozen reloads (Or maybe I'm underestimating Act III's dragons).

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    1. That's a good question. I wish I'd been tracking it since the beginning. I doubt it was Sentinel Worlds. It was probably something I didn't really highlight at the time, like one of the Warrior of Ras titles. Chaos Strikes Back would definitely be way up there.

      The number of reloads may be less an indication of a game's difficulty than the ease of reloading. Games that make it hard to save/reload encourage you to play a lot more carefully, and thus you might have fewer reloads even though the game is technically harder.

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  4. Linux emulator? Come on! Just fire up an Ubuntu Live CD or USB stick. Or put an Ubuntu in a virtual machine. It isn't that hard, really. :-)

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    1. I was going to say the same. I think nowadays Linux is the easiest OS to try: Burn a live distro in a DVD or in a USB stick, reboot with it and... voilĂ ! Instant Linux awesomeness on any computer.

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    2. But he cannot install and save this game persistently on a live dvd (?)

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    3. Why not? You can access any drive you want booting from a DVD: hard disk, usb drive, SD card... whatever.

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    4. Well, actually, if you get Puppy Linux you can tell it to burn your session back to the disk on shutdown... It's a pretty nifty feature, although the distribution itself is pretty bare-bones. Would be enough to run a game like this though.

      The other thing to do is to just install it on a thumbdrive. Ubuntu and similar will fit on an 8G. Less if you strip out the extra language packs and choose a filesystem that's capable of compressing everything as it comes in.

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  5. Linux emulator? Come on! Just fire up an Ubuntu Live CD or USB stick. Or put an Ubuntu in a virtual machine. It isn't that hard, really. :-)

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  6. I immediately noticed your character's alignment is "Lawfull Good". Typos in games just really bother me for some reason.

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    1. I'm the same way. Reading the introduction text made me grumble several times... Usefull? Regestration? Recieve? (He has Registration correct in the yellow text, but wrong everywhere else, which is odd). Unless a friend recommended the game, I probably would have passed it up just due to the spelling (there was a lot of shareware and not enough time!).

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    2. He does have a regrettable number of them. I've avoided calling attention to them in other games (see the winning screen shot of Dragon Sword for instance), mostly because every time I do, someone points out that I've made an even more embarrassing error in the same posting.

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    3. Sorry, never was a good speller and running source code through a spell checker is more painful than you can imagine. I do fix spelling errors tho as I find them or if told about them.

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    4. @Mike OMG, I completely sympathize with the whole: "I made this program with a ton of text and it is all misspelled!"

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    5. This is the main downside to writing in LaTeX. The spellcheck dictionary in my text editor is terrible, and doesn't have an 'ignore all' feature, so I just get used to ignoring underlined text, since it doesn't know so many Canadian spellings and chemistry terms. Then I find I missed truly horribly basic spelling errors due to that.

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  7. hi, i want to talk to the author if he is reading these comments, could it be possible to share in his page this msdos version? thanks!

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    1. Shortly I will be publishing the 25th anniversary version of this game and redoing the webpage for it. I will be posting the dos version of this game along with it's source code as well as The Land and it's source code as being part of the heritage of this game.

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    2. Thank you, Mike, for being an all around awesome kinda guy :) Just wanted to say that- too many people don't even put in a quarter of the effort you are putting into this. Thumbs up! And thanks for hanging around the comments section, too :)

      William

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  8. That looks like a game I would have had a lot of fun in playing with some interesting and advanced mechanics: auto map, quest log/lore book, good interface, ... The main factor would be the character creation/improvements and balancing. Wouldn't hurt to have 256 colours as well, the look is a bit discouraging (but only a bit).

    I hope it's as good as the promise and you enjoy playing it!

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  9. How do you track your play time?

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    1. Low-tech. I just keep it in a notepad. If I was billing for the time, I'd try to be more precise, but for these statistics I'm happy to round to the nearest hour.

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    2. Hm, so far you didnt encounter CRPG that track your play time?

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    3. No, I'm not aware of any RPGs that track playing time. My Xbox does, but not the games themselves as far as I know.

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    4. Most jRPGs do, but with the caveat that they only track time spent on the current save (in other words, if you load a game, your "time played" clock goes back to whatever it was when you saved the game), making it useless for the purpose tracking play time for the blog.

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    5. My playtimes are always horribly inflated. For example, add an hour tweaking the graphics options. Add another 8 due to times I paused then went to eat dinner. Add 6 for that time I left it on overnight after my girlfriend called and wanted help with something and I went over to her place for just a minute and we wound up watching half of some Youtube series on video game history....

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  10. City of Radon, eh? Someone should fire their PR consultant. Presumably you'll be journeying to the kingdom of Astatine next.

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    1. It's clearly situated above a Uranium deposit.

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    2. I know, kinda funny. I did not actually know about Radon gas at the time that city was created in my D&D campaign in the early 80s.

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    3. They owe you buttloads of royalties then.

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  11. I am boggled by the platform restrictions the developer is forcing on his players.

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    1. Try buying a laptop without Windows preinstalled and then tell me about "platform restrictions".

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    2. Just some info here. I had at one point converted the game's source code from Pascal to C. I was primarily playing around with Linux systems at the time and so the graphics was converted to work on X-Windows for Unix. In all reality the game can be played on Windows by installing Cygwin. The newest version of the game (HC version) can be compiled using MinGW and therefore can have native Windows builds, something I do now provide on my site.

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    3. @Laertes System76 is where I got mine. Hardware is nicely modular too.

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  12. ""all the unicorns have disappeared from the land and it is up to you to find out what happened to them." [...] The plot was modeled on a D&D campaign that Mike created in the 1980s."

    Was he inspired by Peter S. Beagle's fantasy novel, "The Last Unicorn"? It was written in the 60's, and the animated movie came out in 1982.

    "The Last Unicorn" has exactly the plot described above, although the main characters, including the unicorn protagonist, do get repeatedly sidetracked. (The sequel, "Two Hearts", wasn't written until 2004).

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    1. That's what I was wondering, too. The movie is a favorite in my household, and I heard the book is quite excellent, also

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    2. I've never seen the movie, but few novels are more exquisite than The Last Unicorn.

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    3. Actually, the similarity to The Last Unicorn is coincidental, I did not even know of that book at the time I wrote this game. I first read the book several years afterwards.

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    4. Funny coincidence. Great minds think alike eh? :)

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    5. I keep thinking of a book I read years ago --Can't recall the name-- where they send two youths to go find the last unicorns to help stop an invasion of a hostile race. There is a prophecy that they will lose, but someone shows pretty early on that the details can be changed, as it shows me riding his favourite warhorse, which he kills right after. He still dies in the same way, but on another colour of horse, giving people hope.

      Anyone know what novel that was? I know it isn't The Last Unicorn, but every time I hear people talk about it, I'm reminded of it.

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  13. Just a couple quick notes. The version being played here is quite old and in many ways similar to The Land. In the years since this version was released there have been extensive changes to the game. Shortly I will be releasing version 6.0 of this game which is the third major revamp of the game. The first revamp occurred when I converted the source code from Pascal to C, the second is when I converted the game to the HC version, which is much more rogue like in that it uses ascii graphics and has permadeath. Version 6.0 changes a lot of the base mechanics to make the game more strategic than older versions. Monsters have resistances and immunities and many monsters require different strategies than just running into them. Version 6 also finally replaces the map generator that makes much more sensible maps than everything before it , no more doors next to doors next to doors or weird intersections or long rows of secret doors along parallel passage ways. Secret doors also do not appear in cities any more!

    The skill system was also revamped in that skills increase with usage rather than random at level up. They can still be trained, but they are primarily increased by using them. Kind of like the Skyrim model for skill building. Want to increase a skill? just use it to increase it.

    The main story of the game in the old versions was contained in the manual. Like The Land, the older versions were shareware and since I did not cripple the game for unregistered versions I gave the incentive to register by providing a more complete manual. Unfortunately this manual is long gone. The modern versions of this game contain the story as messages from NPCs or scrolls. If there is interest I could post a synopsis of the story here.

    Unlike The Land, there is no character in the game that gives guidance on what to do next. The game was more about exploration and going after things you heard about in rumors or scrolls, although the original manual did give hints about what to do. Modern versions contain a magic compass that points you to the next dungeon in sequence, version 6 allows you to specify what the compass points to, allowing you to select any destination you have been to before or heard about from NPCs or scrolls.

    Unlike The Land which had a definite progression path, this game was modeled more after my D&D campaign and was meant to be more open world, letting you explore and do what you wanted. There is a main quest to the game, but it is small in comparison to the world provided. Only 4 dungeons are absolutely required to finish the main goal, although obtaining one of the legendary weapons makes the final boss more survivable, and therefore in practical terms 5 dungeons need to be done. The rest of the dungeons can be used primarily for leveling or for obtaining interesting items. There are a couple of Easter eggs contained in a couple of the dungeons. All dungeons are accessible from the start, and I am sure you already noticed, they are not hidden like in The Land.

    Thanks for trying another of my games! I will be reading along and am more than willing to answer any questions. Enjoy!

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    1. Thanks as always, Mike, for being so affable and accessible.

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    2. @Mike Riley: Is there a link here to your site that I have missed? I tried to google one, briefly, but I have had no luck yet.

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    3. nevermind, I found it. I was looking for the "Last Unicorn" instead of "Quest for Unicorn" may bad, google-fu critical miss.

      Looking forward to version 6!

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  14. Man, I really applaud your patience and dedication.

    Considering that you've played games like Baldur's Gate and the Elder Scrolls series, to play games qith old mechanics and interfaces like these classics...

    You really are hard-core, Chester.
    You know, I think you should consider writing a book. Something like an "history of CRPGs" or an essay on the theory of CRPGs.
    I'm not joking. Think about it, please.

    I think the game industry needs serious studies in certain fields. Specially when they come from the gamer/consumer field.

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  15. There actually is a book on the history of crpgs, I believe it is called desktops and dungeons. A very interesting read.

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    1. In my experience, history is only enriched when recorded through multiple lenses and told in multiple voices. I am in total agreement with Mike about Chester writing a book. I would buy it.

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    2. I would buy it as well. I agree, the more angles the better.

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  16. Keighn here not logged in:

    I find this looks like it was made with the Azalta kit you could buy on does. It sure looks like it or close to it. Maybe I'm wrong.

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    1. I just found this today: The silver anniversary of Unicorn

      http://www.elf-emulation.com/rcs/unicorn5/index.html

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