Thursday, December 31, 2015

Game 207: Dungeons of Death (1983)

Dungeons of Death
Independently developed; published by Aardvark Software
Released 1983 for Commodore VIC-20 and TRS-80; re-released in 1984 for Commodore 64 as Dungeons of Magdarr
Date Started: 27 December 2015
Date Ended:
27 December 2015
Total Hours: 4
Reload Count: 0
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 9
Ranking at Time of Posting: 3/204 (1%)

We've hit a milestone, folks. Dungeons of Death is officially the worst RPG--perhaps even the worst game--that I've ever played. It has the elements necessary to to be considered an RPG for the purposes of my blog and literally not a single frill or original idea on top of that. There would have been no reason to play it even if it was the only game available for your platform. It's so bad that I feel like I need to apologize for even blogging about it.

What passes for dungeon exploration.
That I was able to play this game at all, I owe to ("have to blame" might be the better term) Antonello Molella over that the Archeogaming blog and his associate, a coder going by the name "Flavioweb." Antonello not only managed to get someone to rip him a copy of this rare game, but with Flavioweb's help, he fixed a corruption that otherwise rendered the game completely unplayable, instead making it only marginally unplayable.

The game's "back story." I love that it asks if you want to enter the dungeon, as if there was any other reason to start the game. (If you say no, it dumps you to the prompt.)
In broad strokes, the game sounds like another boring Dungeons and Dragons knock-off that we've seen a million times in the early 1980s. For vague reasons having to do with fortune and glory, a party of up to 6 adventurers enters a multi-leveled dungeon and fights goblins and stuff. Races are human, dwarf, elf, and halfling; classes are fighter, ranger, cleric, wizard, and thief; attributes are strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. We don't even need to look at the manual for this part, although the game has a single innovation in that the character has to be invited to play as a ranger if the attributes are good enough; you otherwise can't select the class during character creation.
During character creation, stats are rolled on a scale of 9 to 18. You specify race, sex, class, and name. You get a random amount of gold and use it to buy a small selection of weapons and armor with the usual class restrictions. You enter the dungeon and fight the bad guys. Periodically, you escape back to the Inn of the Red Dragon, level up, and spend your accumulated gold on new equipment.
So far, it sounds trite and derivative, but not actively bad. So how does the game manage to screw up this basic concept? Let me enumerate the ways:

1. The worst production values in the history of RPG-dom--specifically, 20 pages of this in the game manual:
The all caps is a special bonus. There's no attempt at a background or framing story except that your characters have heard there are riches in the unnamed dungeon.
2. No validation rules on prompts. When the game asks you what your race and class are, you'd better spell "HALFLING" and "WIZARD" correctly, because the game will happily allow you to create a HAFLING WIRZAD. The resulting character seems to have no class restrictions, so I don't know exactly what the game thinks he is.

3. The worst interface ever. You navigate the dungeon through a series of "yes" or "no" questions rather than being able to actually, you know, move. Do you want to progress down the hallway? Do you want to enter the room? Do you want to search the room? Do you want to leave the room? By the same door you came in? Answering "no" about progressing down a hallway makes the game assume that you want to leave the dungeon. You can't cast spells, use items, or even view characters or their inventories while exploring.
Let it hit you in the ass on the way out?
3. The lamest combat ever. When you encounter enemies, the game gives you no indication of how many you face, only how many you've already killed. You have to specify what weapon your character wants to use every round, even if you only have one. You have to hit unnecessary keys to activate combat and see the results. The wizard has only one spell at a time--"Magic Missile" on early levels, "Fireball"  and "Death" on higher ones. Only at the end of combat can your cleric cast healing spells on your characters, but the game doesn't show you their current health levels, so you had to be paying attention during combat.
4. Horrible error-trapping. Practically every errant keypress sends you to the prompt.

5. A bunch of inventory items that do nothing. You can buy cloaks, boots, lanterns, oil, rations, and several other bits of adventuring gear that have no purpose in the game, nor even any set of commands that would allow you to view, equip, or use them.

None of these items have any purpose whatsoever.
But the worst part I've saved for last: the game has no save ability, so you have to keep track of your character's statistics, experience, and equipment yourself, manually, on a paper character sheet. The game's character program continually generates a 16-character code that stores your character's current statistics and inventory. You have to enter it every time you enter the dungeon and every time you return to the inn.

After character creation, you're given three screens of statistics to manually write on the character's chart (helpfully included).
You see, I play computer RPGs so I don't have to do all this myself.
As you leave the dungeon, the game tells you what experience, gold, and items you collected. When it transitions back to the town program, you have to recite all this data back to the game. 

As I leave the dungeon, the game tells me how I did...

...and I faithfully pass on this information to the town program. I have to remember how much gold I had when I entered the dungeon, since the game doesn't bother to track that at all.
When you return to the dungeon, you have to go through this all again.
Not only does this take too long to be fun, but of course, you can tell the game whatever you want. I earned 10,000 experience points! I found a million gold! Do I have a Ring of Protection +5? Sure I do! Did someone die in the dungeon? Sure looks alive to me! The process of selling and buying items is particularly ridiculous, because the game just takes your word about what items you already possess and how much gold you have.
Sure he does!

(By the way, if anyone's interested, I used Wizards of the Coast's official D&D character name generator to create the names for my party. It produced, without a doubt, the worst character names I've ever seen: Belendithas the Dwarf Fighter--I had to shorten it to 8 characters; Cruril the Elf Mage; Jannys the Halfling Thief; and Stoaga the Human Cleric.)
Fortunately, the game seems to lack a main quest--I'm going to ignore some throw-away in the manual about diamonds--so having experienced its tedium for a couple of hours, I'm going to call it quits.

The game can't even let me search my defeated foes without being creepy about it.
I give this one a 9 on the GIMLET. It isn't technically the worst score I've ever awarded, but it's the worst awarded to a game that I couldn't have rejected for not meeting my definition of an RPG in the first place.

At first, I thought the Inn of the Red Dragon had a really cool symbol, but then I realized it's just two chairs and a table.
Dungeons of Death was written by Dave Frederiksen and published by Michigan-based Aardvark Software. Aardvark--which also went under the name British Intelligence for a period--offered a library of text adventures, arcade games, and RPGs that, to be blunt, simply aren't very good. By one account, Rodger Olsen started the company after writing some games for his children and convincing himself they were good enough to market. The company seems to have focused on quantity over quality, and "crude" is the adjective most associated with its titles in game databases. (When a single person is listed as the author of 17 different software titles in two years, you don't hold out a lot of hope for features.) I originally had two other Aardvark titles on my list--Quest (1982) and Wizard's Tower (1983)--but after some investigation, it appears that not only are they the same game, but they're blatant knock-offs of Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979). In any event, neither is RPG enough for my blog.
Credit where it's due: the cover art is pretty metal.
Aardvark's catalog promised a Commodore 64 release of Dungeons of Death that never seems to have happened. (Its absence was covered by both Games That Weren't and Archeogaming; let it not be said that no one cares more about RPG trivia than me.) Antonello Molella guessed that it never appeared because Aardvark decided to update and re-name it as Dungeons of Magdarr, and I think he's correct.

The question is whether Dungeons of Magdarr is different enough from Dungeons of Death for me to consider it a different game. The answer is not quite, but it does solve some of the problems inherent in Dungeons of Death and thus earns a slightly higher score.

The differences start right on the main screen:

Screw you, Dave Frederiksen, right? I mean, clearly these authors had to re-code it, but still--not even a nod?

The substantive manual text is the same, as is the selection of races, classes, and attributes, and the basic character creation process. Equipment costs more but you get more starting gold. While the game still gives you the 16-character code and encourages you to record the character's statistics on a sheet of paper, it does also save the character to the disk.

Character creation in the update. Note the option to "enter the player into the archives."

Once in the dungeon, you navigate a more standard wireframe third-person view (though drawn ineptly so the lines don't connect) with the greater than (>) and less than (<) keys to turn and the SPACE bar to move forward.

Some crude graphics are offered for monsters, but combat mechanics are otherwise identical, and there's actually less information (such as your current hit point total) available on the combat screen than in the predecessor.
You can also check inventory and status from the exploration screen. Upon return to the surface (called the Inn of Golden Dreams here, instead of the Inn of the Red Dragon), the game automatically records your stats instead of forcing you to do it (and allowing you to cheat). This renders the whole 16-character code superfluous, but the game gives it to you anyway.
You can feel the programmers desperately trying to patch what made Dungeons of Death a broken game, but there's only so much you can do with Dungeons of Death to start with. Essentially, in Dungeons of Magdarr, the authors took a trite, derivative game with no purpose and a horrible, buggy interface and improved it until it was just a trite, derivative game with no purpose. Nonetheless, this version earns an extra couple of GIMLET points for its improved interface and less tortured gameplay and winds up with 12.
Dungeons of Death retailed for $14.95 on cassette and $19.95 on disk, or around $35.00 and $45.00, respectively, in 2015 dollars. Magdarr bumped up to $24.95, or about $60.00 today. I suspect most of Aardvark's business came from people too shy to return things.
I don't want to rag on a game too harshly if it was independently developed by a programmer who honestly tried his best. But if you start offering games for sale commercially, I expect you to have a sense of the overall market. If you ask $20 for a game like this the same year that Ultima III came out, years after games like Dunjonquest and Wizardry showed you how to do it much, much better; if you can't even be bothered to come up with a framing story for the game; if your programming skill is so limited you can't even pass data between programs and essentially require users to manually record their own hex values--you deserve a little bit of scorn.

Let's move on to something more interesting while I continue to get slapped around in Disciples of Steel.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Disciples of Steel: Cold Forge

Despite my best efforts, this single scorpion is destined to destroy my party.
Disciples of Steel is absolutely brutal in its opening stages, so much that I'm not entirely convinced I haven't done something wrong. But Wizard's Crown, Disciples's obvious inspiration, had the same early-game difficulty curve, so I figure as long as I'm making any progress, I'm doing okay.

My first quest, received from King Leoniadas Krassus of Farnus, had been to find a survivor of the Battle of Unthar, rumored to be living in Teal to the southwest. I started my party southwest, but I soon ran into an ocean. While I was bumbling about, I was attacked by a party of assassins and slaughtered. On a reload, I was attacked by a party of ogres and slaughtered. On another reload, I was attacked by a party of orcs and slaughtered. I think maybe I defeated one party of bats in there somewhere, but this pattern has otherwise held steady throughout the game, and throughout the rest of my recount of my session, you have to imagine the occasional interspersed combat in which I inevitably died.

Such as this one.

Eventually, I thought to read in the game manual about Teal. (And much, much later, I discovered that there's an in-game map.) The book notes that it lies on the island nation of Sesserna and ruled by a pirate king named Thelig Rathbone. For years, Farnus has been paying tribute to Teal to forestall piracy in their shared waters.

A map of the kingdom.
Since I clearly couldn't walk to Teal, I returned to Farnus and checked out the shipyard. It will be a long time before I can afford my own ship, but the place sold passage to Teal for 160 coppers, so I booked it.

On arrival, I visited King Rathbone's palace and got a quest from him to retrieve the latest tribute from King Krassus.

Teal has a guillotine in the middle of town.
In the south of the city, in a random hut, I found Ethan, survivor of the battle of Unthar--the epic battle between the united human kingdoms and the orc/goblin horde that makes up a key part of the game's backstory. Ethan related that he and the missing hero Ustfa Nelor were captured by orcs and loaded onto a ship on the northwest coast. Ethan managed to jump overboard "while en route to an unknown destination"; he was picked up by a trader and eventually deposited in Teal.

Getting the story out of the survivor.
I didn't have enough money to book passage back to Farnus, so I wandered around the island a bit, hoping for an easy combat or two, but instead I was slaughtered by giant scorpions and something called a "death knight." Eventually, I realized I had a spare set of robes that I could sell for enough copper to get back. Krassus listened to my story and rewarded me with 20 experience points and 50 copper pieces per party member.

I asked him for another quest, and quite happily he gave me a sack of gold to take to Rathbone, so I made another journey to Teal and got another 20 experience and 50 copper from the pirate king.

Rathbone gives me his next quest.
For Rathbone's second quest, he asked me to clear a tower of the giant bats "and other little nasties" that overrun it. I found the tower to the northeast of his palace. My brief foray into its corridors gave me a look at the game's approach to dungeons. In a departure from the Wizard's Crown roots, the dungeons are first-person, with decent textures and atmospheric messages.

Unfortunately, I was unable to come close to defeating the horde of giant bats awaiting me at the top of the tower, so I ignominiously took passage back to Farnus and saved Rathbone's quest for a later date. King Krassus gave me 40 experience and 100 coppers for delivering the tribute.

I was here a little too soon.

Krassus's next quest would have me go to Lone Mountain and kill the leader of some orc raiders, but that sounds beyond my abilities. It's clear that I need to spend some time grinding the party, even if it means I only win 1 combat out of 8 at this stage. I've been lurking around the forest south of Farnus where groups of giant bats (much smaller than the tower horde) serve as relatively easy pickings. I've learned that I need to take everything from the battlefield at the end of each combat and sell it in town--they'll even buy carcasses and bones. Every copper piece counts, and there are plenty of weapon and armor upgrades waiting.

I'll happily take it.

In the meantime, I've begun to spend some of my accumulated experience on skill increases. Increasing attributes costs 1,000 experience points each, and I've only earned about 150 (per character) so far, so I'm far away from attribute bumps. But a skill increase might require anywhere from 4 to 16 experience points depending on the character class and the skill's governing attribute. I've made a list of skills to prioritize for each character; for instance, "Armor," "Edged," "Shield," "Dodge," and "Body" for my knight, and "Hide," "Backstab," "Steal," "Perception," "First Aid," and "Edged" for my rogue. The increases haven't been enough to really make a difference in combat so far, but in a game where I lose 85% of the combats in which I engage, every little statistic bump helps. 

Leveling a character.
Lots of miscellaneous notes:

  • You designate a party "leader" whose skills govern what happens to the party in certain situations. I've decided it makes sense to put the character with the highest "Perception" score as the party leader in the wilderness, and the character with the highest "Haggle" score as the party leader in town.
  • For some reason, my characters always seem to miss on their second attack in a given round in combat.
  • The "Aim" action in combat, which sacrifices a round for a better chance of hitting next round, turns out to be a really good investment. My characters have a really hard time landing their blows.
  • Health recovers quickly outside combat once a character with "First Aid" has stopped any active bleeding. If you can survive one combat, you can usually heal in time for the next one just by walking around.
Healing a character after combat. The game treats active injuries separate from the hit point total, a mechanism it took from Wizard's Crown.
  • Each character has a food and water meter that slowly depletes. I've found that I can "hunt" for food reasonably successfully, especially in a forest, but hunting for water always produces no results. Fortunately, the Disciples' guild has 100 days of food and water in stock, and I can dip into that until I have enough money to pay for my sundries. My priest also has "Create Food" and "Create Water" spells.
  • The game's economy supports platinum, gold, silver, and copper pieces. The manual has nothing to say about their relative values, but all prices so far have been quoted in copper and the game does any necessary currency exchanges for you.

There's a place for a game like this, where it pulls no punches even in the beginning stages and every handful of copper pieces is a major victory. The rare successful combat really does feel like a reward. I just hope the entire game isn't like this. Next time, when I've hopefully advanced more, I'll have more on combat, magic, and equipment.


In list news, we just had a bit of a massacre in the "upcoming" list: 
  • Sword of Kadash (1984): I can't get it running. If anyone reading my blog has successfully emulated it, I'd appreciate hearing from you so we can compare emulator versions and settings. I can't get it to work with the Apple II or the C64. The C64 version freezes shortly after the loading screen with the bottom half of the next screen loaded. (I have tried messing around with "true drive emulation" to no avail.) The Apple II boots to a prompt and freezes if I try to LOAD the program. I've downloaded both versions from multiple sites and have the same problems no matter what versions I try.  [Update: I have since solved this problem.]
  • Return of Medusa (1991): I don't think it's any more an RPG than its predecessor, Rings of Medusa (1989). The dungeon-crawling part looks like an RPG, but I don't see any evidence in the manual or game screens of character leveling, and I'm not even sure about the inventory. It feels more like a strategy/simulation hybrid like Pirates! than an RPG. I've rejected it for now, but if anyone wants to defend its RPG credentials, I'm happy to listen.
  • Shadow Sorcerer (1991): I was surprised when I looked at the manual for the game and saw that it was an SSI D&D game. I'd never heard of it. It seems interesting, but there doesn't seem to be any character leveling. Its own manual describes it as a "graphic action/strategy game." Unless I'm missing something, it belongs in the rejection pile. 
  • Doom Cavern (1981): Can't find it. I was rather keen to play it because it's a Robert Clardy game, but the usual places don't seem to have it. The best I could do is buy it on eBay and find someone with an Apple II to copy it off the disk, which is a little more work than I normally put into such things. 
  • Ragnarok, the roguelike, seems to have been released in 1993 rather than 1991 as Wikipedia originally reported. 
  • Elfhelm's Bane, after some investigation, seems to have been released in 1986 instead of 1984. I kicked it down the pike a bit. The game has a really interesting story and I look forward to playing it. 
  • Dungeons of Magdarr (1984) is only a slight upgrade to Dungeons of Death (1983). I removed it as a separate title and will cover both in a single posting.
Thus, when the dust all clears--unless someone helps or corrects me on the issues above--that clears up the pre-1984 games and leaves only Tyrann, Xyphus, and Zyll left for 1984 and a new set of games drawn randomly from 1991: Vengeance of Excalibur, Dusk of the Gods, and Gateway to the Savage Frontier.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Standing Stones: Won!* (with Final Rating)

The Standing Stones
Independently developed; published by Electronic Arts.
Released 1983 for Apple II, 1984 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 13 December 2015
Date Ended:
26 December 2015
Total Hours: 9
Reload Count: 18
Difficulty: Hard-Very Hard (4.5/5) in its intended difficulty, moderate (3/5) with save states
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at Time of Posting: 21/203 (10%)

The Standing Stones had some weird surprises before the end.

The main part of the dungeon was, as I said last time, 15 levels up and down. I found that if I took the time to walk on my way down and was careful about my magic expenditures, I could usually use "Jump Plane" to climb the levels one-by-one to the surface. Monsters naturally got harder on the way down, but the rewards were greater. Armor +2 gave way to +3 and +4; I found rings of various types and agonized over which to keep (you can only have two at any given time); and a helm +5 rounded out my protection.

On Level 13, I found Excalibur, and on Level 14, I found the mithril armor. I was cheating pretty heavily by this point, not only using Andrew Schultz's maps but also using multiple casting of "Etherealize" to fully explore each level, noting treasure locations, and then reloading to get the treasures for real.
Finding Excalibur.
I realized belatedly that carrying gold makes you a target. The more you carry, the more enemies swarm you. Thus, I began dropping it as soon as the game gave it to me. The extra experience points were not worth having to slog through 30 battles per level. I probably wouldn't have even survived it.

I still don't know what underlying mathematics govern success or failure in combat, but something weird is going on. I found that as long as I had perfect health (99 at my maximum; I'm not sure if this is the game maximum), I would easily defeat most enemies without losing any hit points. But the moment I lost 1 or 2 hit points in combat, in the next combat, I was far more likely to lose 5 or 6. Once I'd been knocked down by 10 or 15 points, I routinely lost that many. By the time my hit points reached half their original level, combats would often become fatal or near-fatal. Essentially, the game seems to regard hit points as a kind of "strength" meter and the more you lose, the more you lose.

A similar thing happened with spells. When I was perfectly hale, they would succeed almost all the time, but when I needed them most, enemies would be most likely to laugh them off. Losing health in the game thus becomes a swift downward spiral.
This never happens when my hits are higher.
Level 15, as I suspected, was a navigational nightmare with a slew of one-way doors and walls continually funneling me into dead ends that required a "Passwall" spell to escape. Fortunately, I had Schultz's maps and I was able to reach the center square with just a couple of quick teleports.
The endgame begins.
Upon reaching the Chamber of the Grail, the game got very weird. It prompted me to insert the second disk, and when I did, I found myself in an adventure game interface:
This could have been interesting, but it was short and most of the commands were obvious. An old man stood at the entrance to an ancient temple. I said HELLO. He asked me to sit down and I typed SIT. He asked me my name and quest, and I typed CHESTER and GRAIL respectively.

Then, in the first of what would be several unfair questions, he asked my current experience total "give or take ten thousand." If you get it wrong, he kicks you out of the chamber. I had to reload a save state, check it out, and then re-enter the chamber.
Weird language, breaking the fourth wall, an idiotic puzzle, and a contradiction of the game's own back story all on the same screen.
It continued to get more bizarre. He handed me a test booklet and said I'd have to pass in order to enter the chamber. The game asked me a series of five multiple-choice questions that were both unrelated to the game and astonishingly unfair to a contemporary player without save states and Internet access. Some relied on arcane game details; some required technological knowledge external to the game; and a few were just random trivia. And it was timed! The player has to answer each question in about 10 seconds, so back in the day, you couldn't quickly shuffle through documentation to find the right solutions.

Here are the questions I got:

  • Which spell is most effective against a spectre on Level 2? (SLEEP, DISPELL, LIGHT CANDLE, or PRAY). Well, all right, "Light Candle" is the most effective cleric spell against undead on any level, so that one wasn't too bad.
  • Which processor does this machine use? (6510, 8080, 6800, or 6502). Seriously? I'm not sure I would have known that even when I owned a C64. I had to abuse save states to enter the correct answer: 6510.
  • What is RAM an acronym for? (READ AND MODIFY, REACTANCE ACTIVE MODULE, RESISTOR ARRAY MEMORY, or RANDOM ACCESS MEMORY.) Naturally I know this, but enough with the questions that have nothing to do with the game. 
  • Who is the leader of the gang that's made for you and me? (DONALD DUCK, RONALD REAGAN, MICKEY MOUSE, or MENACHEM BEGIN.) First of all, it's the club or band, not "gang." Second, there are two acceptable answers in the list depending on who's doing the singing. Third, I think the developers just screwed any reader born after 1980 or outside the U.S.
  • How tall is the average elf? (THREE TO FOUR FEET, FIVE TO SIX FEET, SEVEN TO EIGHT FEET, or UNDER THREE FEET.) This sounds like manual arcana, but in fact I don't see it in there anywhere. The answer is the first one, which naturally hoses anyone who's thinking of the Tolkien elf.
"M-E-N-A, C-H-E-M, B-E-G-I-N. Oy vey!"
These questions had been drawn randomly from a larger pool. Schultz's walkthrough offers the rest of them; many of them require a knowledge of completely unrelated trivia, and some are just unsolvable except by guessing:
  • How many knights does it take to change a lightbulb? (The answer is apparently ONE.)
  • What is the Turing Test? (Would the average gamer of the 1980s have known this?)
  • How many bytes of RAM can the Apple's processor access directly? (I assume this was replaced by a similar one for the C64.)
  • How many home runs did the Sultan of Swat hit? (Pretty unfair even for U.S. players, many of whom, like non-U.S. readers, are likely to be unaware that the "Sultan of Swat" is Babe Ruth and that the answer is 714.)
  • What is Durin's Bane? (You'd have to read Lord of the Rings to know that the answer is BALROG.)
  • Who killed Arthur? (At least this one comes from the game's setting, but you'd have to have external knowledge to know that it's MORDRED.)
  • What is First Officer Spock's father's name? (The game incorrectly spells it as SARAK.)
  • How many crew members were on the U.S.S. Enterprise? (I mean, the show had been off the air for 14 years by this time, and you'd have to be the biggest Trek geek to know that the answer is 430.)
Anyway, if you get this ridiculous test correct, you get to ENTER the Chamber of the Grail, which is guarded by the dragon Drungankham. I'll save you a trip to your nearest Arthurian dictionary to tell you that neither this name nor the old man's, Kormath, appears in Arthurian literature.
The game compounds its blasphemy.
I missed out on the final dragon fight. This is how Schultz describes it:
You will see the dragon as a dot. You are in a 20x20 room. You face east. You can go 2W before setting off an alarm, or 9N or 9S. Items show up at random. You can probably go 1N then back west and east until you get the potion of fire resistance, or the smoke bomb or hand grenade or missile launcher.

If you go outside the boundaries, there will be an alarm. All you need to do is go one north (you are facing east) then east past the dragon. You can loop around him if you want. Just don't run into him. Attack him from behind--you should have picked up a few items. It should not be too bad since he takes two turns to move and face you. With very good armor protecting you, you should find he does very little damage.
It sounds like an interesting little mini-game. This is what I got instead:
I suspect the reason my "battle" was so anticlimactic is that one of the rings in my possession was called a Ring of Dragon Control. Apparently, I willed the creature to kill itself rather than fighting it traditionally.

The game isn't done screwing with you at this point. You find yourself in a room with the Grail, where a colorful series of letters asks, "What wilst thou be if thou doth not succeed in thy holy quest?" A square box held a prompt for the answer.
The game's own death screen, which I encountered many, many times, gives the nonsensical answer:
Whatever the hell that means.

The correct answer finds the Grail in your possession. You then have to make your way back up 14 levels to the exit. I still had enough spell points to "Jump Plane" all the way there, but in addition to occasionally randomly sending you down instead of up, casting the spell occasionally causes you to drop the Grail, meaning you have to return to Level 15 to get it again--that is, if you're not abusing save states.

Reaching the exit produces the message "You have completed your holy quest" and the image at the top of this post. The titular standing stones literally jump up and down in the image, until one of them topples over.
In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 2 points for the game world. I feel that's even a bit generous. The Arthurian nonsense is a framing story, not in any way integral to the gameplay, and the developers didn't make any attempt to stick to Arthurian themes or characters.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There isn't much to creation, and the one hit point per level plus a couple of spell slots are only mildly rewarding, but at least you level rapidly.
  • 0 points for no NPCs to interact with.
Preparing to blast a vampire.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The weird gallery of monsters is indistinguishable from any D&D-derived game except when it has you fighting TRS-80s, silver spoons, and cereal bowls. A couple of friendly monster types don't add much to the game. There are no "encounters" other than monsters except for the end-game quiz, and you're not going to see me awarding points for that.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. There's only one tactic: fight or cast a spell.
  • 2 points for equipment. Scattered scrolls and potions plus some magic armor and weapons as you get lower in the dungeon.
My late game character sheet.
  • 2 points for the economy. Except for paying for healing and un-cursing items in oases, money is just for conversion to experience.
One of the few uses of money in the game.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options or side-quests.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, all going to the interface, which is easy enough to master.
  • 1 points for gameplay. Highly linear, unreplayable, and way too large and difficult. I was able to beat it with maps and save states, but with permadeath this game would be spectacularly unfair.

The final score of 17 is relatively low, but I'm going to lower it to 15 by subtracting 2 points for that absurd end-game quiz. If I had fought my way down 15 levels legitimately only to lose the game because I didn't know Babe Ruth's home run total or my computer's processor number, I would have been marching on EA with torches and pitchforks.
This isn't a video game box. This is a Yanni album cover.
As I noted in my first posting, I played this game a year late. I had originally tagged it as a 1984 release, but it really came out in 1983. In my post about this early era, I talked about some of the themes The Standing Stones exemplifies, including roots in the PLATO games (in mechanics, The Standing Stones is a fusion of The Game of Dungeons and Oubliette), innovative dead-ends, and sparse in-game content. The Standing Stones feels very much like a 1983 game. It adopted some good elements from its PLATO parents, but clumsily, and where it departed from the PLATO titles, it did so in ways that did not deserve to endure.

Kicked back to where it belongs in the timeline, it appears that The Standing Stones was the first RPG published by Electronic Arts. The company had only been founded the year before, and its first titles didn't see publication until 1983. Eager to grow its catalog, EA must have been willing to take a chance on a game that wouldn't meet its later standards. It's next RPG was Interplay's The Bard's Tale.

I exchanged a few e-mails with author Peter Schmuckal last week, although I need to talk to him again to get some explanation for the bizarre endgame. The youth of the authors is clearly part of the issue: Schmuckal said he was 16 when he started working on the game after his brother, a student at the University of Illinois, introduced him to the PLATO titles. It took Schmuckal and co-author Dan Sommers 5 years to write the game in between high school and college classes; lacking their own personal computers, they wrote most of it on display PCs at a Langrange, Illinois computer store called Byte Shop. Schmuckal admits that neither he nor Sommers were "big gamers" and had little exposure to RPGs other than the PLATO titles. He admits they spent "little effort trying to create a cohesive universe." Neither of the authors went into gaming after The Standing Stones.

We're still not quite finished with the early era. After thinking I was all done with 1979-1983, I belatedly found out about Doom Cavern (1981), Dungeons of Death (1983), and Wizard's Tower (1983), which we'll have to deal with before we can finally wrap up 1984. In the meantime, I'm really trying to make some progress in Disciples of Steel (1991), which should be the subject of my next post.