Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Game 177: Caverns of Zoarre (1984)

 

Caverns of Zoarre
Thomas Hanlin III (developer); published as shareware
Released 1984 for DOS
Date Started: 26 February 2015
Date Ended: 1 March 2015
Total Hours: 6
Reload Count: 8
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 17
Ranking at Time of Posting: 26/174 (15%)
          
This is going to be a quick one. In July 2010, about five months after I started blogging, a reader gently informed me that my master game list was so incomplete as to be laughable. I had been relying on Wikipedia's chronology of RPGs, which at the time maybe had 1/3 of the games that were actually released, at least in the 1980s. The reader clued me in about MobyGames (now, I can't believe there was ever a time that I didn't know about MobyGames), and the resulting research more than doubled my list--and I was still on my DOS-only rule at the time!

For the next couple of weeks, I engaged in a series of "backtracking" postings to quickly cover the games I had overlooked, giving each a scant few paragraphs and giving none of them an official game number or GIMLET rating. I later rectified this with The Wizard's Castle and Oubliette, and now it's time to do so with Caverns of Zoarre, a game that I originally covered in two paragraphs in a longer posting about similar games.

Zoarre  is a shareware game written by Thomas Hanlin III of Springfield, Virginia, who offered the manual for a $25 fee. It is an entry in a long line of games that goes back to the first extant CRPG, The Dungeon (aka "pedti5"), developed by Reginald Rutherford for the PLATO system at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1975. The Dungeon soon inspired Ray Wood's and Gary Whisenhunt's The Game of Dungeons, better known by its file name, "dnd." These games pioneered the classic top-down adventure in which a little character icon finds random monsters, treasures, and special encounters.

The first game in the DND line is also the first extant CRPG.
             
Purdue University in Indiana was also connected to the PLATO system. Sometime in the late 1970s, Purdue student Daniel Lawrence played The Game of Dungeons and liked it enough to program an adaptation (or, as Game of Dungeons contributor Dirk Pellett has it, "a blatant copy...without the knowledge or permission of any of dnd's original authors") on Purdue's DEC PDP-10 mainframe. The game spread in popularity and was copied to a number of different platforms.

We no longer have Lawrence's original DND, but we do have a large number of its spawn, including C. Gordon Walton's Dungeon of Death (1979) for the Commodore PET, Lawrence's attempt to commercialize the game as Telengard (1982), Bill Knight's DND (1984), Caverns of Zoarre (1984), and the variant known as Heathkit DND (1985). Looking at the histories, I can't tell exactly which versions simply copied the original code and which ones reverse-engineered it to offer the same experience.

Telengard was a commercial version of games in this family.
           
The games in the DND line always start by rolling a set of standard Dungeons and Dragons attributes followed by a quick descent into the dungeon. After that, the random encounters come relentlessly. There's a map, but it doesn't really matter--you can stand next to the entry stairs and still encounter a continuous wave of monsters, treasures, and special encounters. Death is swift, frequent, and permanent--you can go through dozens of characters in an hour--and generally the only goal is to get to as high a level as possible.

Most of the variants use crude graphics to represent the character, the walls of the dungeon, and monsters (Zoarre has no monster graphics). You could almost describe them as roguelikes, but they lack the sophistication of Rogue when it comes to inventory and varieties of monsters. There's also no Amulet of Yendor waiting in the DND dungeons--just the inevitable death screen. There are no real tactics or role-playing opportunities, except your general tendency on the risk-caution scale.

Command options in Caverns of Zoarre
            
Zoarre is a typical representative of the DND family, better than some but not as good as Telengard. It has lots of random monster encounters and a handful of special encounter types, but no equipment at all (making it technically not an RPG under my rules). There are two character classes, fighter and sorcerer, and the latter has a selection of D&D-derived spells.

Creating a new character.

As you traverse its corridors, you fight off attacks from goblins, hobgoblins, fell dwarves, white wraiths, wargs, "ugluk-hai" trolls, and other creatures drawn from both Dungeons & Dragons and the Tolkienverse. Though influenced by your level and attributes, combats are heavily dependent on random rolls, and the only options are to attack, flee, cast spells (for mages), and bribe creatures to leave you alone.

The throes of battle.

One unusual and fun feature of the game is that losing monsters will sometimes offer you a bribe to let them go.

        
As you defeat monsters, you gain experience points and gold, and occasionally (quite often in the early game), you want to go back up the entry stairs and turn in your gold for experience points. This gets  more difficult as your character starts heading downward in the dungeon. and further away from the stairs. You gain one level for every 1,000 experience points; rather than increase the number of experience points needed for each level, the game reduces experience point rewards for killing monsters as you increase in level.
 
In between monster encounters, there's a small selection of special encounters. They include:

  • A witch who sometimes steals your gold before disappearing, sometimes heals you. (This might be influenced by charisma.)
  • Fountains of varied colors. Drinking from it may increase or decrease attributes, hit points, or experience.
  • Altars, where you can pray or donate gold. I haven't seen any effects from either option.
  • Thrones, where you can sit down or read runes, also to random effects.
     
Note the similarity with the Telengard screenshot above.
        
  • Machines with buttons. Pressing them produces a random punishment or reward.
  • A wishing well, in which you can deposit gold or take gold. The effects of doing so seem to be random, as with the fountains.
      
   
  • Chests and random piles of treasure.
  • Traps, including gas traps, pits, and trap doors.
  • A blue-green glowing area that "soothes your troubles away" by restoring hit points and spell points to your maximums.
  • Random messages about hearing noises, finding indecipherable runes, hearing a "boom" in the distance, and other bits of flavor.

If they can survive the first few levels, sorcerers have an easier time in Zoarre than fighters, since their selection of spells (including both offensive spells and healing spells) gives them more options. You can only cast a limited number of spells per combat (I'm not sure what affects this)--you have to fight like a warrior for the remaining rounds--but some of the spell selections are massively powerful, including "Death Spell," "Stun Beam," and "Charm Monster." Mages also have a "Glyph of Recall" that takes them back to the inn, although at a loss of a couple hundred experience points and all their gold.

The cruel result of a "Charm" spell.

Fighters regenerate hit points as they walk. Sorcerers don't, but they regenerate spell points that they can use for healing spells. Either way, the regeneration is very rapid.

A full list of combat spells.

There are a couple of mysteries in the game that would probably be cleared up with the manual, but I haven't been able to find anyone with a copy, and I haven't been able to track down creator Thomas Hanlin. The first mystery is called a "freen." When you start a character, the game asks if you want one, and if you say yes, the character profile says that you're "wearing" it. During combat, it absorbs damage from poison. This makes it sound like it's some kind of magic item, but you can also be attacked by freens and "call" them with a spell, which causes you to lose hit points permanently. I don't know how to reconcile a freen as a creature and something you wear.

The second mystery concerns a command: "(A)ctivate mad Uncle Sisten's device." The command fails most of the time but occasionally randomly teleports the player. The back story probably tells more about who Uncle Sisten is.


Zoarre doesn't scale the monsters very well, and after my sorcerer character hit Level 8 or 9, I found it very difficult to die, even with occasional level drains from undead. An area of gas raised my sorcerer's strength to 18, which made him as effective in combat as a fighter. I explored downward maybe five levels, ultimately rising to Level 27, until I noticed that I wasn't finding any more down staircases or trap doors. I started mapping the level and soon discerned that it was a large 35 x 27 squares.

I screwed something up in that area in the lower-left, so I ultimately gave up.

An area in the upper-right corner seemed closed off, so I used my "Melt Through Wall" spell to enter. The game informed me that I had found the "Kinoben Cat," an item that appeared permanently in my inventory from thereon. Clearly, this was supposed to be some kind of main quest.


After I got the Cat, I noted that "Glyph of Recall" no longer worked, so I began to slowly make my way up the five levels to the surface. With such large levels, it took forever--especially since trap doors kept knocking me down again. I started using "Melt Through Wall" to systematically explore each level, recharging in place when necessary (my fighting skill and level meant I didn't have to waste spell points in combat). Eventually, I made my way to the surface and got a winning screen!


Main quests and winning conditions are rare for games in the D&D line, so I'm glad I explored this one long enough to find it. It only took me about 8 characters, which makes this one of the easier D&D games. In 6 hours, I would have gone through 157 Telengard characters.

The winning character.

I haven't been able to find much information about Thomas Hanlin III. He was living in Springfield, Virginia at the time of Zoarre and he developed at least one other game, a text adventure called Moon Mountain Adventure (1987). MobyGames's trivia section says that Zoarre was originally titled Dungeon of Mirador and was developed for the TRS-80 after Hanlin played Telengard in 1983. These claims are unsourced and not reported anywhere else, so I'm not sure where the MobyGames contributor got the information. I've messaged him for clarification but haven't received any replies yet. [Later edit: Commenter Bob Rivard found the original quote. It was "Mirandor," not "Mirador." See the text of the comment for more information about the development of the game.]

The game earns only a 17 on my GIMLET, hampered by no backstory, no equipment, and no NPCs. It gets 3s in "Magic & Combat" for its selection of spells and effective use of bargaining (from both sides!), in "Encounters & Foes" for its variety of random encounters, and in "Gameplay" for being swift and simple.

An area of Level 4 is called the "Ancient Dragon Lair," and it has multiple fights with ancient dragons, all of whom have far more gold that the character is capable of carrying.

The DND derivatives are fun in a mindless way, but they never rise to greatness. True roguelikes offer similar gameplay but with many more features, and it's hard to imagine spending time on DND or Caverns of Zoarre instead of, say, Moria or NetHack. Nonetheless, it's a fair enough independent effort and it effectively occupied me for another 6 hours before my inevitable death. Let's see if we can win Tunnels & Trolls.

*****

Further reading: Posts on the entire DND line: The Dungeon (aka "pedit5," 1975); The Game of Dungeons (aka "dnd," 1975); Dungeon of Death (1979); Telengard (1982); DND (1984); and the Heathkit DND (1985). For a discussion of Lawrence and plagiarism, see this account by one of The Game of Dungeons's original authors. 

42 comments:

  1. You probably found this, but there's an email address, twitter handle, and Florida street address for a Thomas G. Hanlin III on a website that appears to have been set up in 2012 and includes a free download of Moon Mountain Adventure. I don't know if you want to contact him for a first hand account of the development, but if you do the address is

    http://www.tgh3.com/contactus.html

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    1. So, no, I missed this. You can understand how I missed it, given that it's literally the first result when you Google "Thomas Hanlin III." I must have misspelled something when I did the search. But I got a lot of links to the game, so...I don't know what I did.

      Anyway, I just sent him an e-mail.

      Delete
  2. A vague dusty corner of my brain seems to recall that a freen was a type of "familiar" like a demon that would assist you. This fits with what you've described since carrying it around on your shoulders in stereotypical wizard fashion could be described as "wearing" it.

    Another random bit of trivia I recalled is that Rings of Conflict in Nethack were originally always Engagement Rings instead of being randomized like other rings. This was eventually changed, either because it was too misogynistic or because it was too depressingly accurate.

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    1. That makes sense. If Mr. Hanlin responds to my e-mail, we'll know for sure.

      Delete
  3. Unlike games that incorporate world exploration, quest lines and NPC interactions, the enjoyment of the Dungeon/Rogue/Wizardry lineages are all heavily impacted by the combat variables. If you get the challenge level right, the game will be fairly fun, if not it will either be boring or frustrating.

    When you get to Citadel of Chaos (which is an electronic gamebook) you may want to use diagramming software to map it (I've mapped a few gamebooks with yEd). If you're interested in exploring a good chunk of it for your review, keep in mind that there will probably be about 300 sections to the story tree.

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    1. I didn't work it out that way, but that will be an interesting one to play after (or concurrent with) T&T, which also has a gamebook feel to it.

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  4. Savage Empire has appeared on the list! Now I guess I'll start to play it so that I am caught up before you get there.

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  5. Purdue and Perdue are not the same thing. :/ Interesting to read that there was a piece of CRPG history at my school!

    - Purdue graduate

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    1. That's embarrassing. Literally in the line right above it, I had it right.

      Delete
  6. Some words from author Hanlin, cribbed from an abandonware site:
    "For what it's worth, this started out as a TRS-80 game, Dungeon of Mirandor, which never quite made it out. The TRS-80 market fell off a cliff about the time I finished it. Mirandor owed a lot, conceptually, to the DEC VAX 11/780 version of Telengard, which I'd played extensively around ?1983?. Zoarre was an expanded version, finished painfully at intervals over the course of a year or so. The "fight" handler was unduly tedious to program, and balked me for too long. I wrote Zoarre using the IBM BASIC Compiler, a renamed version of one of Microsoft's early BASICs. The compiler went through DOS and BIOS services for I/O, and was so unspeakably slow at updating the screen that I had to write assembly language routines for direct screen writes. Plus, it didn't support the new DOS 2.0 features like subdirectories... albeit this wasn't a major issue on the typical floppy-only system of the time. Anyway, the assembly language routines eventually made it out as a separate product, AdvBas, which was far more successful than Zoarre. AdvBas later went commercial, and started me on my career in writing tools for programmers. But, that's certainly a great deal more than you wanted to know. Anyway, it's nice to have a copy of Zoarre again. I'll bet it cranks along very smoothly on a Pentium. :-)"

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    1. Thanks for finding this! I Googled "Dungeon of Mirador" (which is the way that MobyGames has it), couldn't find the original source, and got confused. One letter makes all the difference.

      Delete
  7. Some words from author Hanlin, cribbed from an abandonware site:
    "For what it's worth, this started out as a TRS-80 game, Dungeon of Mirandor, which never quite made it out. The TRS-80 market fell off a cliff about the time I finished it. Mirandor owed a lot, conceptually, to the DEC VAX 11/780 version of Telengard, which I'd played extensively around ?1983?. Zoarre was an expanded version, finished painfully at intervals over the course of a year or so. The "fight" handler was unduly tedious to program, and balked me for too long. I wrote Zoarre using the IBM BASIC Compiler, a renamed version of one of Microsoft's early BASICs. The compiler went through DOS and BIOS services for I/O, and was so unspeakably slow at updating the screen that I had to write assembly language routines for direct screen writes. Plus, it didn't support the new DOS 2.0 features like subdirectories... albeit this wasn't a major issue on the typical floppy-only system of the time. Anyway, the assembly language routines eventually made it out as a separate product, AdvBas, which was far more successful than Zoarre. AdvBas later went commercial, and started me on my career in writing tools for programmers. But, that's certainly a great deal more than you wanted to know. Anyway, it's nice to have a copy of Zoarre again. I'll bet it cranks along very smoothly on a Pentium. :-)"

    ReplyDelete
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    1. unlike Terry Pratchett, god rest his lovely soul, I aten't dead yet. Not yet! maybe tomorrow, but not today. I'll probably be fuzzy about details if you ask me about 30-year-old games, but i'm game for it. /cough

      Delete
  8. It was interesting to see that one of Gordon Walton's first games was a dnd clone. Gordon is currently very successfully Kickstarting an MMO called Crowfall - https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crowfall/crowfall-throne-war-pc-mmo. It looks interesting, and he has a great team assembled to make it.

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    1. Except that great team is going to be working for peanuts. $1M doesn't even cover the salaries.

      Delete
    2. They state upfront on their kickstarter that they already have 2.1 million in non-kickstarter funding. Star Citizen supposedly ammassed 35 times the funding from kickstarter through more traditional means. Kickstarter should these days be looked as more an excercise in advertising, and showing potential backers that your product has genuine interest.

      Delete
    3. Well Star Citizen is the exception rather than the rule. What happens far more often is projects getting funded and then either not delivering at all or delivering a poor quality product.

      I'm glad to hear they have 2.1 in the kitty already, and they'll probably have $4M+ in total by the end of the campaign, but that's still pretty darn tight for an MMO, especially one with such lofty intentions.

      Delete
  9. Oh, I should also mention Underworld Ascendant, the followup to Ultima Underworld 1 and 2, many of the original developers. UU was one of the first games to apply first-person immersive graphics to something other than an FPS. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/othersidegames/underworld-ascendant/

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    1. Seems risky to back. It's an FPS with a sufficiently good engine to allow for emergent physics-based (and co-op is a stretch goal) gameplay, set in a dynamic environment with high levels of reactivity to the player's decisions. And it's asking for 600k. And it has an estimated delivery of nov next year. I think $6M would be a lowball figure.

      Delete
    2. Kickstarter is a great service, but it's set-up leads developers to underestimate costs and development time and over-promise particularly wrt stretch goals.

      Delete
    3. Shadowrun and Wasteland asked for around $1M but look!

      Anyway, I backed the shit outta UA already.

      Delete
    4. This is great, I haven't played a good UU clone since Arx Fatalis.

      Delete
    5. Yeah, There have definitely been success stories, but consider Wasteland graphically - it's no high def first person shooter, it's a game where you want to be maximally zoomed out so you can't see the models. Shadowrun is also graphically sparse, and the first kickstarter earned 1.8M and presented us with a really weak RPG. Thankfully, Harebrained did something useful with the engine the second time round.

      Delete
    6. True, but there's still Legend of Grimrock to be considered. IMHO, I don't really care if the graphics are a decade too old as long as the playability and core storyline makes it up.

      Also, these are veterans that we're talking about. Most of them have their own awesome development tools and/or game engine that is just waiting to explode onto the scene stashed somewhere. And their network or oodles of money had from their developer-cum-rockstar heydays but just using Kickstarter to gauge reception.

      Who knows? Might as well let them know early on how much they're appreciated before they fizzle out from naysayers.

      Delete
    7. Oh I have about a dozen games that were kickstarter'd and really enjoy several of them. I think the service is fantastic. But it's definitely a case of backer beware. It's no place for someone naive of the financial realities of game design, whether you're a dev or a backer.

      Delete
    8. Yeah, I know. Same here. But, so far, the scene is improving. We've a lot less scammers than before. Also, half-hearted proposals and projects get canned soon enough nowadays. Kickstarters like "Adventures of Pip" gets back on track after failing the first time.

      Caveat Emptor, sure, but Caveat Ignoratio Ingeniosus too... lest they die out.

      Delete
    9. I backed Underworld Ascendant because the original Ultima Underworld was the reason I decided to get into making games, and is one of my top 2 games of all time, so I kind of had to.
      It does seem a ridiculously low figure to ask for, but maybe they have additional other funding. I certainly hope they pull it off.

      Delete
    10. Speaking of early 90s games, I would love to see a sequel to Bloodnet, maybe one where the main character is turning into a werewolf or a mummy. Bloodnet was a great game with a tricky time management system and a cool mix of cyberpunk and gothic horror, and I would like to see what new developers would do with it. Ultima, Wasteland, Wizardry, Might and Magic, Megami Tensei and Quest for Glory have all gotten sequels and remakes recently, so why not a make obscure game?

      Delete
    11. I want to see a remake of the NWC published 1990s strategy game 'Chaos Overlords'. Apparently work on the sequel has been off and on for the past 7 years.

      Delete
  10. Chester I'm not sure about your problem with color blindnes, but I discover http://enchroma.com/. Maybe they could help you.

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    1. Thanks. I've had these on my wishlist for a few years, and Irene keeps saying she's going to buy them for Christmas, but she keeps forgetting.

      Delete
  11. I have spent the last 3 months reading through this site from the very first post in 2010, and I just wanted to say, Chester, that you are a scholar and a gentleman. I'm impressed by your wit, your endurance, and your attention to detail, and this blog has honestly done a lot to educate me about RPGs which came out long before I was born (1992).

    I think the earliest RPG that I've actually played is also the one that made me love the genre - Baldur's Gate. I'm very much looking forward to you reaching that masterpiece of a game!

    Thank you very much for all your hard work so far, and I hope it continues long into the future. You can count me as another loyal and dedicated reader.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Harry. I'm glad you like the blog. Please keep contributing to the comments.

      Delete
  12. Wow, I cannot believe it's been almost five years since I wrote that comment ...

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    1. "... a reader gently informed me that my master game list was so incomplete as to be laughable."

      Delete
    2. Oh, THAT comment. I don't know if the word 'gently' and 'laughable' could be used in the same sentence to avoid sounding sarcastic though. Chet's probably the only person who could do it.

      Delete
    3. I only realized recently that the fifth anniversary of my blog went by unnoticed a few weeks ago.

      Delete
  13. Do the Apshai games not fall under the category of The Dungeon / dnd derivatives?

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    1. No, Connelley went to college before the 70s and hadn't seen the mainframe RPGs. Freeman and Johnson hadn't either.

      They were part of the same Dungeons & Dragons group. You can certainly see that influence in the vivid text descriptions of areas given in the manual.

      Delete
    2. Jason is right. They look similar in screenshots, but the gameplay is very different. Apshai is more action-oriented in combat, supports a greater inventory level, and has a number of fixed encounters and treasures (supplemented with room descriptions).

      Delete

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