Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Game 183: Shadowforge (1989)


John D. Carmack (developer); Nite Owl Productions (publisher)
Released 1989 or 1990 for the Apple II.
Date Started: 4 April 2015
Date Ended: 4 April 2015
Total Hours: 2
Reload Count: 0
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 20
Ranking at Time of Posting: 42/181 (23%)
In preparation for this posting, I read the first few chapters of David Kushner's Masters of Doom and I was struck by the similarities I found between me and John Carmack. We're both about the same age, both nerdy and introverted as youths, more at home in front of computers than with other people. Our parents were both divorced at about the same age. We both experimented with burglary as teenagers (he was caught; I wasn't). We both got horrible grades in high school despite having the intelligence to do better. In our late teens, we both tried to break out of our "nerd" roles by investing more in physical fitness (Carmack studied judo; I joined the Army Reserves). And we both dropped out of college, made some of the most iconic video games of the 1990s, and became multimillionaires. Okay, that last part may have just been him.

From Kushner's account, Carmack got out of a year in juvenile detention in 1986 or 1987, was given an Apple II by his parents, and got to work on Shadowforge, his first game. Although admittedly based on the look and feel of the early Ultima titles, he programmed it from scratch and sold the completed game to Night Owl Productions, "a mom 'n' pop publisher that made most of its income from manufacturing camera batteries," for $1000. He used the money to purchase an Apple IIgs and used it to write his second game, Wraith: The Devil's Demise, after he'd dropped out of the University of Kansas. He used his developing programming skills to get a contract with Softdisk of Shreveport, Louisiana, and the result was the Dark Designs triology.

We, of course, have already had a look at Dark Designs I and Dark Designs II, both released in 1990. But some production issues at Night Owl also delayed the release of his first two games until 1989 and 1990. I naturally should have played them first. Rather than compound the error now by looking only at Wraith, I decided to reach back to 1989 and call up Shadowforge first.

Shadowforge feels like exactly what it is: a first game from a teenaged developer who grew up schooled on Ultima. It's so small that the only disk image I've been able to find also has half a dozen other games on it.

The game takes place in the town of Jaterus, which is being threatened by an evil mage named Greymere Shadowsender. Greymere's newly-constructed Shadowforge has given him unprecedented power, and the town needs a hero to descende into Greymere's three-level dungeon and destroy the device.

A dungeon scene from Shadowforge. I'm about to fire a bow at one of two enemies.

There's no character creation except designating a name. Each adventurer starts with 25 hit points, 0 experience, 100 gold, two potions, and has only his hands and skin for defense. Jaterus has an armorer, a weaponsmith, a tavern, a bowyer, an inn, a temple selling healing potions, and a casino hidden behind a secret door. You can bet 50 gold pieces on craps there; odds seem about 50/50.

There are miscellaneous NPCs running all over town, and one key difference between this game and Ultima is that you can't talk to any of them. You can't attack them, either; they really serve no purpose at all. The only "dialogue," as such, comes from tipping the bartender, who provides a handful of hints for the quest ahead.

The armorer, weaponsmith, and bowyer each offer 3 or 4 items escalating in price and quality. As you enter the dungeon--which is right off the city; there's no outdoor area--you start to encounter goblins, ogres, and such. Killing them gives you experience and gold, which you spend on better equipment and a stock of healing potions.

That's about all there is to it. At first, your expeditions to the dungeon are short, but once get the best equipment and can carry more than a dozen potions at a time, they last a lot longer. Cleared rooms remain clear while you're still in the dungeon, but they respawn when you leave and return.

None of the three levels is terribly large. Although there are no special encounters or treasures to find, Carmack does make use of the walls and textures to create "scenes," often with large letters giving some kind of room title like LABORATORY or GOBLIN BARRACKS. This shows a clear Ultima II influence.

You get a new level for every 100 experience points, and each one comes with another 3 or 4 maximum hit points. Resting in the hotel restores maximum hit points; potions convey only 1-12 per gulp.

Combat consists of hitting (S)hoot if you see enemies from a distance and (F)ight if they're adjacent to you. There aren't many tactics except to take care that you don't blunder into foes. You can make some limited use of the terrain to make sure you don't get attacked by more than one foe at once. Foes that have missile weapons have no melee capability, so the best approach to them is to close the distance and start whacking. There is no magic in the game.

I fight an elder demon in melee combat on the way to the Shadowforge.

There are a few secret doors in the dungeon, signaled by subtle breaks in the wall pattern. Behind these, you can find special encounters with "merchants" who provide special items. I got a suit of "water walking" armor this way, along with a "light blade." I needed the former to get to the stairs from Level 2 to Level 3, and the latter to destroy the Shadowforge. There was apparently a magic bow somewhere, but I didn't find it.

The introductory text warns you not to confront Greymere directly, "since he can kill even an experienced adventurer with only a few spells," but when I ran into him on the third level, I was able to kill him in a few hits.

Greymere a couple of hits before death.

That kind of rendered the rest of the quest moot, I thought, but I kept exploring until I found the Shadowforge and hacked it to destruction.

In my version of the game, the endgame text shilled Wraith, meaning this is either a slightly later version or Night Owl didn't publish the original until they had Wraith in hand.

Overall, it was pretty easy. I didn't die once, and it took less than two hours to win. The game does allow you to save, and it autosaves every time you enter a new area. Death has you resurrected in the town's temple with a slight loss in experience, only 5 gold pieces, and no potions.

I almost expected some encouraging words from Lord British here.

It's a promising game, certainly impressive for someone who was in his mid-teens when he wrote it. It showed that he was capable of whipping up a functional game engine that could serve as a basis for a more complicated experience, which he essentially offered in Wraith. Compared to other 1989-1990 games, particularly commercial titles, it doesn't offer much. It gets 1s, 2s, and 3s across the board in the GIMLET--its best categories are "Economy," "Interface," and "Gameplay"--culminating in a total score of 20.

Next up, we'll see how he adapted the engine in Wraith: The Devil's Demise.


  1. "You get a new level for every 100 hit points, and each one comes with another 3 or 4 maximum hit points."
    Shouldnt that be experience points?

  2. > We both experimented with burglary as teenagers


    1. Then he lost an eighth. That set him straight.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I thought Richard "Lord British" Garriott already clarified that, “Stealing is OK as long as it's done properly.”

  3. I am trying Savage Empire now, and it is an interesting game and fun, though the navigation can be annoying. I figured out how to become an Avatar of the virtues in a fun way: I show compassion to bandits by pointing that Empath Abbey probably has lots of expensive gilded religious icons; sacrifice some of my best weapons by giving them to the bandits; show humility by saying that I am too weak to help the bandits fight the monks; go to the abbey and spiritually sacrifice some animals to the Gods; wait until the monks are forced to fight the bandits, then valorously kill the bandits; honestly tell the monks they have now violated everything they believe by committing violent acts, and nobly and justly kill them so their Gods can send them to Hell; now, I qualify to become an Avatar!

  4. Is this the same Night Owl that did the Night Owl shareware collections around that time (games, BBS stuff, software)? Unfortunately, now that I've been reminded of them, I've spend the past hour just going through the list of games... yowzers.

    This game looks like one that I programmed in early high school (admittedly a few years after). A friend and I whipped up a decent RPG where you have to accomplish Heracle's 12 Labours. I guess inspired by Ultima as well, now that I look back. Sadly, I don't have the code anymore :(

    1. I don't think so. The publisher of this game spelled it "Nite," among other things, and software seems to have been a temporary lark for them.

  5. Your mention of subtlety different textures marking secret passages evoked a memory of Taskmaker, a 1989 Mac game that was one of few available back then with only a Mac user.

    I'd recommend that you push it up your list instead of returning to it a few years from now, as it is one of the 'foundation' RPGs for those of us who grew up with a Mac at home.

  6. Ah, when you mentioned "Wraith", I found myself thinking of Dr. Dungeon's Ultizurk spin-off, also entitled Wraith.

    As noted before, Softdisk continued making more Dark Domains games, but presumably after Carmack had checked out.

  7. If I'm remembering my Kushner right, hopefully you get along better with any feline friends that happen your way.

    1. My house suffered significant water damage this winter, and Irene and I are going to have to be out of it for almost three months starting in a couple of weeks while it gets fixed. We have to find something to do with our three cats during this time. I wish I was callous enough to just take them to the pound like Carmack did, but I can't.

    2. I would never wish that on any cat...

      Boarding animals can get expensive, but your insurance may cover part or all of it. It may be cheaper to just get a hotel that allows for cats, especially if your homeowners insurance includes hotel costs for water damage.

      I vaguely think you are in the Boston area and I have used Angell Memorial for boarding my cats during lead and asbestos removal for 10 days around the time we had our son. It was not cheap, but the people were fantastic and I was even sent pictures every day or two to show how they were doing. I may be able to reach out and get other kitty boarding recommendations from the area. You have my email address.

      I also had ice damage this year, but was fortunate that I could just block off the affected room for a while while it was being repaired.

  8. I remember watching a Youtube video about forgotten, but influential games and it mentioned Ultima Underworld (a bit cruel to call it a forgotten game) as the precursor of Doom. So it makes sense that Carmack started as an RPG designer. He might then have been directly inspired by Ultima Underworld to create Doom, which, technically, is a very simplified action RPG (much like Shadowforge is a simplified Ultima).

    1. I don't buy "Ultima Underworld" as a precursor of Doom. Underworld and "Wolfenstein 3D" were both released in 1992. "
      "Wolfenstein 3D" was definitely a precursor of Doom (similar mechanics, same company).

      Now, they had some differences. "Ultima Underworld" allowed look up/down and verticality (Wolfenstein was all flat). However, Wolfenstein ran a a better framerate and Underworld had to force the camera to keep returning to center in order to keep framerate up (rendering the textures tilted was more expensive)

      Carmack is known for pushing the edge of graphics tech, so he might have been inspired by Underworld to go for a more 3D approach with Doom, but even if true (and not the natural next step after Wolfenstein), that's just graphics, not the full game.

    2. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesApril 9, 2015 at 1:31 PM

      Underworld and Doom were two very different games: Underworld had more depth and complexity, but Doom had a better interface, movement and action. Wolfenstein 3D was not the only First Person Shooter before Doom: There were also games like Catacombs 3D, Faceball 2000, Blake Stone: Planet Strike and Wolfenstein's expansion, Spear of Destiny. I love both Underworld and Doom, but have serious doubts that the games were connected.

    3. This was the video:

      The critical comment is at 5:20min. Personally, I think it's a bit regrettable that Dungeons of Daggorath wasn't mentioned.

    4. There is a very tenuous connection between Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D, in that Carmack was told by a friend that the new Ultima game the friend was working on used the new technique of Texture mapping, which led Carmack to see how such a thing could be done, and led him to develop a game called Catacomb 3-D, which built on ID Software's old 3D game Hovertank to create a 3D game where the player ran around a texture-mapped maze shooting fireballs. ID's Apogee contact saw that game and enthusiastically asked for a more ambitious game that would be published as shareware. Casual discussion around the office resulted in them deciding to do a 3D texture-mapped remake of the Apple ][ classic Castle Wolfenstein. Wolfenstein 3-D.

      Later, while tinkering with the 3D code for a Wolfenstein sequel, Carmack realized that he could make different parts of the screen lighter or darker than the others, including sprites moving through those areas. In other words, he figured out how to do lighting. Combined with a push from Romero to push the boundaries of acceptable games again, and having also made the underlying engine capable of much more dynamic maps than Wolfenstein's one-level 45-degree mazes, they eventually cranked out DooM.

      Ultima Underworld wasn't a precursor to DooM in any way, with the only influence (in either direction) being the mention of a technology that Carmack could easily have heard of in a dozen other ways.

      The book mentioned in this blog article, Masters Of DooM, is an excellent one, and I recommend reading it.

  9. Trying Ultima: Savage empire. Already annoyed at the stupid pulp fiction tropes. Couldn't we avoid having to save a leopard-skin bikini clad idealised native beauty from the jaws of a dinosaur and/or brutish suitor?

    1. I think the cover of the game is a good indication of what you're getting into.

    2. If you want a terrible example of gratuitous fan service I remember the Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic box actually has a raised portion for the female elf on the cover. The elf's armored chest essentially "popped up" out of the cover. So stupid.

    3. PetrusOctavianusApril 9, 2015 at 6:13 PM

      Personally I spent more time with the game than with the box.

    4. At least the game is up front about it, Raifield! Metroid was always weird to me because Samus is portrayed tastefully 99% of the time, but that other 1% of the time they just can't help but put her in a bikini. They were trying to have their cake and it eat too, so to speak.

    5. "stupid pulp fiction tropes" is what the Worlds of Ultima series was all about, though.

    6. I think you can capture the memorable and defining aspects of a genre while subverting some of the tropes that might be considered archaic. For some artists, like Tarantino, that's almost their stock and trade.

    7. Yeah, but this is Lord British; the guy who gave us a game that's basically a mish-mash of Star Wars/Dr. Who/LOTR. That said, there wasn't even a trope for a CRPG that is based on Pulp Fiction magazines yet for it to be subverted. It's a bloody new concept, actually.

      Come to think of it, is there any other CRPGs like that?

  10. Speaking of the "Dark Designs" games, the two index pages (by year and by title) only seem to mention Dark Designs I, missing Dark Designs II. An oversight?

    1. No oversight. I haven't played it yet.



    3. I somehow misread the original, thinking it was asking about the third one. Yes, it was an oversight. I just fixed it. Thanks, and sorry for the confusion.

  11. Yes!!! This game looks awesome. Thanks for covering this one. Makes me want to make a mobile scroller with that white, green odd, purple even pixel colors!

  12. According to Wikipedia, he went to University of Missouri–Kansas City, *not* the University of Kansas.

    1. According to Masters of Doom it was the University of Kansas, so I guess we'll need to find a tie-breaker somewhere.

    2. Carmack spoke of attending the University of Missouri in a 1999 interview with Slashdot.

      It appears that either Kushner or his editors made the common "Kansas City" geographical error.


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