Monday, September 7, 2015

Revisiting: Adventure Construction Set/Rivers of Light (1984) (Won!)

The title screen from the original C64 version.

Rivers of Light
United States
An adventure that was created with, and accompanies, the Adventure Construction Set
Stuart Smith (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1984 for Commodore 64 and Apple II; 1986 for Amiga; 1987 for DOS
Date Started: 27 October 2010
Date Ended: 6 September 2015
Total Hours: 13
Reload Count: 4 in this last session; wasn't keeping track in 2010
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at Time of Posting: 66%
Raking at Game #437: 307/437 (70%)

It's rare that I return to a game that I've already abandoned and rated, but if any piece of software is worth some additional attention, it is Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set and its accompanying adventure, Rivers of Light. I blogged about it in my awkward, often-confused first year, when I still thought the primary purpose of my blog was to have fun personally. Looking at the posts now, I can't believe that 9 months into the project, my DOSBox screenshots still had title bars. What was I using to take the shots? ALT-PRNTSCR? Jesus.

I'm returning to the game not because I didn't fully document it--I made up for the part I didn't play with text and screenshots from a YouTube player's winning session--but because I didn't understand its historical context. I was playing Stuart Smith's last game without having played any of his prior ones.

Prior to Adventure Construction Set, Smith's series consisted of Fracas (1980), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981), and The Return of Heracles (1983; links to my reviews). Each of the games is reasonably enjoyable as an RPG, but there's something more--a certain zest, a joyful irreverence--that is difficult to describe in writing and in rating scales like my GIMLET. Part of their charm is their frenetic pace. You don't have a lot of time to pause and think in a Smith game--not with 40 thieves, Greek villains, or other potential enemies wandering freely through the landscape and attacking at any moment. Combat in the games is a true "fracas"--not much strategy, but lots of fun as you and your enemy exchange blows and are often interrupted by other NPCs deciding to join the battle. Death is frequent and often random, but the games are short enough that you almost don't mind. Plus, both Ali Baba and Heracles let you play multiple characters, either concurrently or consecutively.

My character explores the Fertile Crescent in Rivers of Light.

A lot of other features characterize Smith's games: a foundation in classical mythology rather than Tolkienesque high fantasy (though this doesn't stop hobbits from appearing in Ali Baba!); cooperative or competitive multi-player options; rapid changes in scale from campaign level to room level; hidden, one-way, and otherwise often confusing portals between screens; and limited reliance on traditional RPG inventories and mechanics. In fact, it's hard to detect the influence of any previous CRPGs on Smith's series. Except for a few nods to the tabletop RPG genre in some of the attributes, you could easily imagine that Smith never played an RPG in his life.

Perhaps the most notable element of the Smith games is the way that they handle NPCs and monsters--which are essentially the same thing. There are no generic orcs or goblins in the games; each creature that occupies the world is named and has a specific set of equipment and statistics. Each belongs to a particular faction as well, and monsters of opposing factions will attack each other. Fracas allowed monsters to level-up by killing each other. I don't think the other two had this mechanic, but NPCs and monsters in all games can pick up gold and equipment. A few of them are confined to their starting screens, but a lot more have the run of the map. You could play the three games without fighting a single foe--instead, just watching as other NPCs wander along and mop up the enemies in your path.

Rats ignore my character and decide to steal grain instead.

Given how much Smith's games differ from traditional CRPGs, it's ironic that he would create the first graphical RPG construction set. (Technically, the all-text Eamon was first.) Numerous Internet pages claim that he was inspired by Pinball Construction Set (1983), but in a comment on my blog, Smith said that he'd never heard of that game; that instead, he was inspired by his previous work on an accounting program that would automatically write a report-generating program. However, in naming Smith's game, Electronic Arts was clearly referencing its previous title.

Adventure Construction Set came with two adventures: The Land of Aventuria and Rivers of Light. The former, written by EA's Don Daglow, is a set of mini-adventures that walks the player through the capabilities of the set. But Rivers of Light is a full-fledged game, based on The Epic of Gilgamesh, requiring some creativity and a good 8-10 hour investment. My previous attempt at the game ended after 8 hours, when--at least 3/4 of the way through the game--I came to an area called "Two-Hero Valley" in which you need--you guessed it--two heroes to open the way forward. I declined to roll up a second character and get him all the way to that point, although it later turned out that it wouldn't have been as hard as I thought.

A screen from the Land of Aventuria. My character icon is an axe.
I still don't know what other CRPGs or adventure games influenced Smith, but in the Rivers of Light, we can see him making some concessions to them, such as respawning of random creatures and a more standard set of RPG statistics and RPG inventory. Some monsters still roam freely across screens and attack each other (as well as you), but in a less frenetic, unpredictable way than in the previous games. There's a clear distinction here between monsters and NPCs; the latter are immobile and can't be attacked. They just wait until you walk into their square and then offer some dialogue on title cards.

A late-game character sheet in Rivers of Light.

Rivers of Light is stronger than the other games in its mythological basis. Ali Baba was loosely based on Arabian myth, and Return of Heracles was loosely based on Greek myth, but neither game was afraid to introduce characters and themes from other traditions. Rivers is more firmly in Mesopotamia, and as the character walks the path of Gilgamesh, he must contend with some of the same foes (Humbaba, Shedu), meet some of the same NPCs (Utnapishtim, Urshanabi), and solve some of the same puzzles, like using cedar poles to cross the Waters of Death.

Meeting the Sumerian Noah.

Consistent with the era, a sword made of iron is fantastically rare and the best melee weapon in the game, and barley serves as the game's currency.

Rivers of Light begins.
Rather than recap all my earlier posts, I'll just quickly summarize. In choosing the character icon, the player can select any of the game's tiles, including monsters, equipment, and terrain. After the player gives a name, the game randomly generates constitution, wisdom, strength, and dexterity statistics.

Missile skill, melee skill, armor skill, dodge skill, and parry skill are all attributes that increase as you successfully use them. This is not the first time we've seen that dynamic, but it's still pretty rare for the era. Encumbrance is an issue, with every item you carry reducing the length of your turn.

A character with a skeleton icon starts the game.
There is an impressive variety of monsters throughout the game, some fixed, some random, including bulls, trolls, rats, asps, bandits, master thieves, ghosts, alligators, bats, and scorpion men. In one notable place, you have to fight a clone of your own character, equipment and all.

The game's action takes place between Mesopotamia and Egypt, in locations like Great Assur, Ashurbanipal's Great Library of Knowledge, and the great pyramid at Gizeh. As he explores, the player gets a number of clues and items necessary to solve puzzles in other areas. The game culminates on an island in the middle of the Nile river, where the player must use his assembled items, powers, and clues to pass through three gates and encounter the spirit of the god Osiris.

Preparing to cross the Sinai peninsula, Chester stocks up on water.
As I said, I was mostly there back in 2010, but I got annoyed in Two Hero Valley, thinking I'd have to build up another character until he was strong enough to make his way across the Sinai Peninsula and join the primary hero. Some commenters alerted me to a "shortcut," but I still didn't think it was worth it and declined to return to the game.

Getting "Helper" over here took a trivial amount of time.
Little did I know that the shortcut was laughably close to the start of the game. This time around, it took less than 2 minutes to create a character and bring her over to Two Hero Valley. There weren't even any combats on the way. I can't believe I gave up that easy in 2010.

Approaching the final area, Chester uses a "power" to quench the fire.
Given that your goal is eternal life, the endgame text is a little disappointing:

You have found the "sealed thing in darkness with fire about it." The essence of Osiris himself rejuvenates you. You can feel a new body forming about your disembodied spirit, bringing your seven souls back together from their wanderings.

Rapturously entertained by a chorus of your past lives giving a joyful rendition of your life and struggles, you are taken to a land of milk and honey where you are born again. Wiser now, you may retire with honor or move onward to more adventuring.

On the next screen, the character reappears in the Fertile Crescent and can run around fighting random combats or be saved to the disk for other Adventure Construction Set scenarios.

Better than the DOS prompt.
I gave the game a 30 on my GIMLET back in 2010. Reading over my comments, I want to make a couple of adjustments. I gave it only 1 point for the economy, reasoning "there's not much to buy," but that isn't quite true. The game does a good job duplicating some quest items among the shops and giving you backups for weapons that break or are lost. It's still not a great economy, but it's worth at least 2 points. Gameplay, meanwhile, deserves a bump from 3 to 4; on my replay, I found it just about the right challenge and length. Moving NPC interaction from 2 to 3 would be more consistent with how I've rated things since then, and the quest deserves 3 rather than 2 points for its originality. That raises the score to 34, a couple points higher than The Return of Heracles, which makes more sense.

The game's approach to buying and selling items is a little odd and cumbersome.
Aside from Rivers of Light, it's worth discussing how well Adventure Construction Set serves as an RPG maker. The answer is that while it serves reasonably well for 1984, it would have gotten outdated very quickly. The interface is quite bad, requiring (in the DOS version) the player to constantly hit the INS key to acknowledge messages and choose commands. (In the C64 version, the joystick serves as the sole input and is no less cumbersome.) The inventory system is under-developed: it has a single armor slot and a single weapon slot, the latter constantly switching between melee and missile weapons. The magic system is also bare-bones, with spells appearing as items.

But it was popular enough at the time. Ported to four platforms, the construction set generated enough enthusiasts that they formed a club, published a newsletter, and reviewed and traded adventures. It's hard to find many of them now. An ACS fan page that wants to catalog all user-created adventures has only 10 of them, almost all for the Commodore 64.

Every ACS adventure starts with an introductory title card.
I spent a little while on one of them: The Hobbit, by Neil Tiedemen. The description promises to replicate the book. It started predictably in the Shire, with Gandalf as a nearby NPC. I played for a while, but I was confused when I was attacked by another hobbit and had to kill him.

Where are the dwarves?
Later, I got trapped between a troll and a skeleton and I was killed. It seemed like it would have been a serviceable enough game, but I wasn't motivated to restart.

This didn't end well.

Contemporary reviews of the Adventure Construction Set were somewhat bad. The rudest comes from (naturally) a British C64 magazine called ZZAP!64, which made fun of the graphics and lack of sound and called it "a waste of time and money." The mystery of the review comes from the beginning of that sentence, which is, "Compared with programs already available for writing your own adventures...." What programs is the reviewer talking about that existed in 1985?

Much later, in 1989, Orson Scott Card wrote a Compute! article in which he called ACS's adventures "quite playable" but opined that the interface "was designed by the Kludge Monster from the Nethermost Hell." The best review comes from Scorpia, in the February 1989 Computer Gaming World, who extensively discusses the set's flexibility in things like graphic editing and monster behavior, but complains that even a simple project can take a long time to create.

Good or bad, Adventure Construction Set was all we had for a while. Barring some discovery based on the ZZAP!64 quote above, I think the next RPG creation kit was 1991's Bard's Tale Construction Set, followed by Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures (1993). If lists I can find online are exhaustive, there aren't really that many of them. That makes Smith's contribution all the more notable.

Unfortunately, it was his last game. Seeking financial stability, he moved on to other industries in the late 1980s. He left us a small but unique set of titles, and I'm glad I had the chance to play and talk about them all.


  1. Nice work wrapping up Smith's little set of games properly. It's a real shame he left the industry as his games seem to have far more interesting ideas and settings than 95% of the stuff you cover on your blog.

    While you were slogging through the game books and proto-JRPGs I was worried that you were going to deem 1984 as not worthy of a GOTY, but between this, Questron, and Hack it looks like at least you will have a choice on your hands. Here's hoping you get a couple more good ones in the last few games of '84.

  2. My guess is that the ZZAP!64 reviewer didn't recognize RPG games as a distinct genre and compared ACS with systems such as Mirrorsoft's Game Creator.

    There's also Crystal Computing's 1983 The Dungeon Master for the ZX Spectrum, which could be called a dungeon crawl construction set, but that was a text-only game and almost certainly not what the reviewer was thinking of.

  3. Regarding an upcoming games. I can see Knights of Xentar on the horizon and I'm interested about what version of this game you will play. Of course, it doesn't affect gameplay in the slightest, but will it be a NR-13 or NR-18?

    And I don't see Cobra Mission on your game list. It might be a bad news, but despite Wiki listing it as an adventure game, it's actually an RPG under your criteria.
    There is screenshots demonstrating character stats and inventory.
    Also, you may consider playing it in place of Knights of Xentar, and putting Xentar lower on the list. They are both from 1991, but Cobra Mission was released in English first.

    1. Both are Hentai. Then again, Cobra Mission will be the first and closest to a full fledged JRPG Chet can play on the PC for 1991.

    2. I'm playing the English version of the game, which I understand is based on the NR-13 version. According to MobyGames, "Only the Japanese version is the full NR-18 release."

    3. Cobra MIssion is on my 1992 list. According to MobyGames, although it is based on the 1991 Japanese version, it was "developed from scratch, and has many important differences that make it an independent title rather than a port." I'm thus treating it as a brand new game rather than an English version of the 1991 game.

    4. According to Wikipedia, both versions of Knights of Xentar received ratings in Britain, and a simple patch to change the NR-13 to the NR-18 was available, so using the English release does NOT guarantee that you have the less explicit version. It doesn't matter too much since the only difference is less nudity and less crude dialogue - not something that affects the quality of the game itself.

      It is a good idea to be prepared for the possibility that it is the NR-18, as it could be an awkward surprise otherwise.

    5. I had a roommate who owned "Knights of Xentar". An English version of the "NR-18" content could be ordered separately. It included erotic cut scenes and English voice action, which had been obviously edited for US audiences. (For example, as a would-be rapist overs over Red Riding Hood, the English dialogue had been edited to say, "She looks really young for a 20-year old!")

      The NR-18 content adds no game-play elements, only hard-core porn. I wouldn't be surprised if CRPG Addict gives up on the "hentai RPG" genre very early. I won't be disappointed, either. Xentar was pretty generic as even JRPGs go.

    6. That does not exactly make me look forward to a review of this game, you know.

    7. Knights of Xentar is actually a solid RPG of that time. Not super amazing, but definitely not bad either. Unfortunately, the RPG part is overshadowed by the hentai part.

      The NR-18 patch was distributed on a separate disc. However, the vast majority of archives include only the patched, adult version. I should be able to dig up the non-patched one, if need be.

  4. That Zzap!64 review is by Steve Cooke, who wrote the text adventure section of the magazine, so the other systems he would be talking about would be things like The Quill or GAC, which were explicitly text adventure creators.

    CRPGs were not, as I recall, particularly common in Britain in the early to mid 1980s. Things like Ultima were only available on import (expensive) and required a disk drive (very expensive, especially if you were a teenager), so would often not be reviewed at all, or if they were, be grouped in with things like adventure games. It was really only the coming of the next generation machines like the ST and the Amiga, along with industry mergers producing larger distributors that saw such games becoming widely available.

  5. I can't think of many other early titles that didn't treat monsters as one monolithic group. One of the really fun parts about the fallout series is witnessing random combat encounters between two factions. And then looting the corpses.

  6. There was also the Japanese RPG Maker, which was first released in 1992, and which is still getting updates and releases to this day (including in Steam!). It was also released to the PC, so I'm guessing you'll take a look at it some day.

    1. According to Wikipedia, the RPG Maker had predecessors as early as 1988, though I don't really know anything about how these earlier versions differ.

    2. They are not "updates", my good man. They are new versions. The newest one released in 2011 is called RPGMaker VX Ace and is backwards-compatible with most of the assets meant for earlier versions.

      There is an RPGMaker MV released earlier this year but I believe quite a lot of assets aren't backwards compatible. It's like a totally different beast altogether but the games it can generate are a lot more contemporary.

  7. Great re-look at the game! I had forgotten that you did not beat it the first time, so taking a look again (and re-scoring it) seems like a great idea. I am shocked that it did better than Questron, but that may just be because you write about Questron with a fun sense of nostalgia that we don't see in all of your posts.

    Only 6 more games for 1984 on your list (unless you decide to get farther in "Out of the Shadows" or find "Empire III") and I think you've hit two solid "Game of the Year" candidates in two posts.

    1. Too bad he rejected The Lords of Midnight. I'm not surprised he rejected it as an RPG, however it's one of the best games of 1984 and a great landmark of the early to mid 80s. And since he seems to have had a lot of fun with Sword of Aragon, another game that's more strategy than RPG, I suspect he would've enjoyed LoM as well.

    2. Sword of Aragon had all the trappings of a CRPG: character development, story, tactical combat. LoM didn't, but it was a great game; the best one in 1984 along with Elite, IMO. But I too would have liked to see it on this blog.

    3. Seriously, guys, let's cut Chet some slack. This IS a blog about CRPGs after all. If he had to cover all the games with bare minimal RPG mechanics/trappings that any of us wanted him to, he'd probably have said "Fuck this!", retired to the Bahamas with Irene, sit down in his lounge chair in front of the sea with a vodka gimlet and play the latest CRPGs available. Witcher 3 is cool, yo.

    4. Everyone's raving about Witcher 3, and I'd like to check it out, but I haven't finished the previous two. Revolutionary games that everyone raves about ought not to be sequels.

      And before anyone says, "you don't really need to play the previous two games to understand the third one," ha. I don't believe it for a second. I tried playing Witcher 2 without finishing the first one, and I had absolutely no idea what was going on.

    5. I generally agree with you, but Fallout 3 was my big exception. That is one of the very few "new and revolutionary" games that I hadn't played the previous games but still jumped into without an issue.

      But I am avoiding Witcher 3 until I can play 1 & 2 as well, but I have too many other things to do.

    6. >Revolutionary games that everyone raves about ought not to be sequels.

      For what it's worth, I had only a few hours in W1 (bounced off because of how women were represented, mostly), and skipped W2 entirely, but I didn't feel particularly lost in W3. There's enough in-game explanation that it wasn't hard to figure out what I needed of the backstory. They do a truly excellent job of weaving the background into the dialog, enough to give you an solid sense of context, without being obvious or clunky about it. They do an excellent job of 'show, don't tell', and the writing in general is of very high quality.

      There's at least one questline where I don't think you get the explanation for why you're interested in doing it until about halfway through, but it ends up being a little bit of a reward... the 'aha! that's why these two characters react that way.' I think I might actually have enjoyed that quest more because of that moment, rather than knowing about it ahead of time. The explanation was an interesting little mini-reward, all by itself.

      I'm moderately interested in going back, now, for some of the backstory, but it's far from a pressing need. I'm just, well, mildly interested; if I never do it, I won't feel like my W3 playthrough was impaired.

      My $0.02.

    7. I'll jump on the sidetrack line here and also say that Witcher 3 is fantastic. It out-Skyrims Skyrim and out-Biowares Bioware. The combat is merely "good," especially compared with something like Dark Souls, but the game overall is damned amazing.

    8. I tried playing The Witcher 1 and honestly couldn't stand it. They say a million Elvis fans can't be wrong... But good God, am I the only one who thinks this series is awful? I know the first will be different from 2-3, but what really bothers me is the world/storytelling, which from what I understand is pretty consistent throughout the series (The boring gameplay is just salt in the wound in this case.) First of all, Geralt is not nearly as cool as he so clearly thinks he is. Second, not every single woman you meet will sleep with you, no matter how cool you are. Some will be in monogamous relationships. Some will not want to ruin the relationship you currently have with them. Some will think you are unattractive. And when you "bag" yourself a woman, you don't get a trading card of their likeness. If you tell me the author also wrote Porky's I may be more understanding. Though that wouldn't explain the extreme violence towards women I've heard about in the third one. Sounds more like someone turned 12, stopped growing, and wrote these books.

    9. What's even crazier is no one seems to mention this stuff, despite how blatant it is- the only article I saw that addresses it in 3 is the review from Polygon.

    10. I keep hearing that the books are pretty good in their own right, so perhaps you can use those to give you a context to the games, especially if you want to jump straight to Witcher 3.

    11. >And when you "bag" yourself a woman, you don't get a trading card of their likeness.

      You see how I referenced bouncing off Witcher 1? That was the *precise* reason for it. I found that absolutely abhorrent.

      But when I've talked about it over on Gamers With Jobs, people more or less told me I was full of shit, that W1 isn't horrible about women. I strongly disagree, and avoided W2 because of it.

      Regardless: W3 is fine. No issues with it at all in that regard. I thought the writing was generally quite good. They're particularly skilled at blending what you need of the backstory into the normal dialog, so if you have no idea what's going on, you can find out without it feeling awkward or stupid.

      So: from someone who agrees with you strongly enough to have brought up the issue repeatedly, and who didn't play the second, Witcher 3 is excellent, and well worth your gaming dollar.

    12. From what I understand of putting a few hours into The Witcher the sex-card mechanic is unconnected from the rest of the game. By the second and third games your relationships have started to firm but and I'm the third game sleeping around has story consequences.

  8. The INS key thing wasn't so bad once you got used to it.

    I spent at least 2 years of my childhood with this making games. I am incredibly grateful for Stuart Smith.

  9. -- The mystery of the review comes from the beginning of that sentence, which is, "Compared with programs already available for writing your own adventures...." What programs is the reviewer talking about that existed in 1985? --

    Since, as Peter already said, I doubt the author of the article made a difference between adventure games and RPGs, I suspect he was referring to stuff like The Adventure System which came out in 1982 and especially The Quill which came out in 1983 and was pretty big in Europe (though largely unknown in the US).

    I hope Chet won't mind me linking to this article from the Digital Antiquarian, which goes into a bit into the history of these pieces of software:

    1. No, I never mind linking to other blogs. I think you're probably right about the solution to the "mystery."

  10. Thank you for keeping up this blog. As a game designer, I find your commentary fascinating, insightful, and inspiring.

    It's always important to remember that the original designers weren't "retro" -- they weren't doing these things because they were adhering to an established set of design principles. There were no established principles. Some of these ideas would be dead-ends, others would be new discoveries.

    It's great that this blog sets out to ask, how do these ideas stand up today? It's all too common for CRPGs to fall into a rut of expectations: these are the race options, these are the classes, that's the gear, etc. It's not so much that many CRPGs are "Tolkien-inspired" -- many of them are "other RPG inspired", one or more steps removed from the original source, and stuck being very similar.

    Your thorough process where you play the game, you look up the original context and contemporary response, and you contact the designers to interview them, is a valuable resource to the art of game design. What were they thinking? What was good? What was bad?

    Seeing Fracas and ACS reviewed here is a high point in a blog already filled with great moments. Perhaps the innovations of these games will inspire future games.

    I'm going to recommend tracking down the manual that came with ACS. Back then, EA released their games in these "record sleeve" formats, and the manual was this enormous square book. It's filled with public-domain clip art, and the discussions of coding overlapping tiles hints at a complexity that the games never quite realized. I'm still fascinated by the game's artificial-intelligence system, where enemies have "fighting" and "looting" behavior that can be made random or not, and which is both so simple to implement and yet so rarely seen today.

    Thanks again. Good luck with Antares!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Norman. I'm glad to know from your perspective that I'm succeeding in what I'm trying to do.

  11. Will you be revisiting other games that you quickly ditched in your first year?
    I'm specifically thinking about Alternate Reality: The City, which is considered by many to be one of the best RPGs for the 8-bit Ataris, but the Dos version of which you quickly went over in one post.

    1. Not all of them, but I will definitely go back to AR: TC since I'm going to be looking at its sequel later.

  12. "...when I still thought the primary purpose of my blog was to have fun personally."

    Ouch. Is fun at least a secondary purpose?

    These CRPG history tours continue to be amazing. I hope they eventually become a lucrative series of books.

    1. I think primary purpose of his blog was to have fun generally.

    2. I didn't necessarily meant that in a bad way. Over time, my interests evolved more into fully documenting the history of RPGs than just enjoying myself. I'm still having fun most of the time, but unlike in 2010, I don't immediately stop playing if I'm not.

    3. I really appreciate you going the extra mile to polish your blog posts. While your writing was always good, you really raised your standards for the "stuff around". You have found a good mix of pictures/text and also descripton of mechanics and anecdotes from gameplay.
      I hope you have the satisfaction of delivering enjoyable and high quality articles, it's justified. :-)

    4. I agree with sucinum. I'm a bit spoiled at Chet's being the first gaming playthrough blog that I latched on onto back in 2011 or 2012. Since then, I've been generally disappointed with other blogs where the quality of writing hasn't been as good.

    5. I personally liked the fringe information and in-depth details of the developers that sometimes helped to unearth them from obscurity and even made them comment on this very blog.

      Also, this blog definitely had a hand in causing a renaissance of retro-RPGs, what with heightened awareness of these games of yore and even inspiring indies to create Kickstarting campaigns for their own CRPGs.

  13. Long time fan and lurker. Took me 2 1/2 years to fully catch up on all the posts (granted there was a long break or two in there). Thanks for the amazing blog and writing skills!

  14. DC Play is another construction set from the early 1990s. I still use its map tile images in my virtual tabletop program when playing PnP DnD with my widely-scattered friends.

    I'll see if I can dig up my copy, or if it's available on any archive sites. It comes with a basic adventure that's reasonably well done, and the engine itself is reminiscent of Ultima in a lot of ways. I started using it to build a sequel to the bundled adventure when I was in fifth grade, but rapidly ran out of plot ideas and moved on to other projects.

    1. I know I spent quite a bit of time on the c64 version. I finally uploaded some adventures my Dad & I made (mostly his). My final game never got finished but I did make a new gfx set. I need to remember where I put them. I should just put them in a dropbox or whatever media is used these days for online storage.

  15. I saw that you tried to play the ACS Hobbit game. I've played it on the Internet Archive's emulator and here are some tips:
    You were wondering where the Dwarves were. They're at Rivendell.
    The Wood-elf part of the plot,Laketown,and the part where Bilbo steals the Arkenstone are non-interactive "cutscenes".
    Elrond shows up at the Battle of the Five Armies.
    Gollum is 8-bit and there aren't any riddles. Bilbo finds a ring (that may or may not be the One Ring) but it doesn't have any effect on the plot.
    Gloin has the highest hit points of the dwarves, Thorin the lowest.
    The ending is another cutscene:Bilbo says his farewells to Thorin and leaves the mountain with Gandalf and some Elves. When they reach the Great River (Beorn doesn't exist in-game),Gandalf bids the Elves farewell and gives them some silver. Interestingly enough,Bilbo gives the ring he found to Elrond before he leaves Rivendell. Bilbo and Gandalf return to the Shire (no auction) and there's some cheery music that ends the adventure (no end-game text). There's some other sound effects (including blooping Dwarven swords).

  16. A fantastic title. I enjoy the music, and actually put it on audio cassette back in the day. I made my own RPG "Adept's Revenge" based on the Archon series of games utilizing the same monsters and my own story ... back when I was 14. I somehow lost the disk and I think I only had it 80% complete but I did spend much time in the tile/character editor! One thing I find I must do nowadays when enjoying ACS titles is to bump the VICE Emulator speed up to about 120% -- this makes it run nicely but not too fast.

  17. I made a complete RPG with ACS back when I was a kid. Sadly it's long gone. It was called 'The Sword of ...' something-or-other, I think.

    I remember struggling mightily to get the tile graphics to look as much as possible like those of Ultima III, but the pixel dimensions and color limitations made it tough.

    ACS is a problematic title but also hugely ambitious for its time, and it absorbed me for more hours than I can count. And yeah, the music by Dave Warhol is great. I'll always love it, quirks and all, and I'll always respect Smith's decision to base a game on the Epic of Gilgamesh, which in the context of most warmed-over-Tolkien CRPGs, is almost heroically iconoclastic.

  18. I've always wanted to write a fan letter to Stuart Smith / Stig Ward. Stu, if you can read this…

    When I was about 10, ACS was the coolest. It exposed me to stuff like the epic of Gilgamesh as well as the entire concept of brass knuckles.

    "Dad, what are brass knuckles?" I asked after some baddie came into a small brick room and “harmed" me with them.

    My imagination became ACS-shaped. I sketched out plans for how I could adapt "The Phantom Tollbooth" into an ACS scenario. At first "River of Light" was too weird for me. I preferred the immediate funland of "Land of Adventuria” (which had everything from George Washington crossing the Delaware to “M.U.L.E.” references). But soon I was drawn into the search for eternal life, and I'd be in the Cedar Forest sneaking around the pixelated trees and feeling somber about the loss of Player 2 to the creature Humbaba.

    My parents would be left with instructions to leave the light switch on in the computer room, so that the power strip would stay on and ACS could complete the mysterious decisions it it was making, building a randomly-generated ACS story. I'd be on hikes through the woods with my dad, wondering what adventure would be ready for me when I got back home to my monitor. Though the story that resulted was always sort of a Rorschach test…I wonder if anyone has a Git of the source code, so we could see all the possible names and combinations.

    In terms of genre, as a kid I considered myself strictly sci-fi. I’d be thinking at the dinner table about all the possibility for plasma weaponry and robot gadgets which I somehow remember as all being purple.

    But then I branched out into the mystery/spy mode, in which a dude with brass knuckles might wander into the room, grab a random object, assess the situation and GTFO. As far as the fantasy mode goes, and when I think about it, I think of the Bugbear summoned by stepping on strange purple flowers that looked like little pixelated eyes.

    I recently got to visit the ruins of the real-life minotaur maze in Crete, where all this stuff started. And thoughts came to me of how much I loved ACS as well as the one Smith did with the ancient Greek heroes. I wished more games had been like Stuart Smith’s mythology games.

    "The minotaur HARMS you..."

    Thanks Stuart Smith!

    1. "My imagination became ACS-shaped."
      Same here! I get a bit of the same kick from Super Mario Maker: how can I make these different items do this cool thing I thought of? I'd say ACS & Rivers of Light was one of the top three influences on my youth, no kidding. As an adult, I started making two painstakingly accurate adventures based on Beowulf and The Great Escape, but then life got in the way and I didn't finish them. But my kids know all about the billowy shirt, iron sword, swimming skill, and gray-grow-young.

    2. Gray-grow-young! Great comment.

      The game is the reason I have Gilgamesh on audiobook...

  19. Orson Scott Card, game reviewer?! Now I'm wondering what a Tolkien game review would be like...

  20. There was Arcade Game Construction Set and Bards Tale construction set, I used both.


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