John D. Carmack (developer); Nite Owl Productions (publisher)
Released 1989 or 1990 for the Apple II.
Date Started: 4 April 2015
Date Started: 4 April 2015
Date Ended: 4 April 2015
Total Hours: 2
Reload Count: 0
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 20
Final Rating: 20
Ranking at Time of Posting: 42/181 (23%)
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.