Saturday, December 5, 2015

Shadowkeep: Won! (with Final Rating)


Shadowkeep
Trillium Corp (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for Apple II
Date Started: 21 November 2015
Date Ended:
5 December 2015
Total Hours: 14
Reload Count: Lost count. Probably around 50-70.
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 28
Ranking at Time of Posting: 99/202 (49%)

Shadowkeep came to an end after about 14 hours of play, not enough time to sustain my interest in 2015, although I can see enjoying it in the early days of RPGs, especially before more plot- and NPC-heavy titles came out in 1995. Its basic problem, as with some of the 1990s titles we're seeing, is not that it's derivative but rather the opposite: it diverges too much from the usual RPG mechanics, leaving an RPG addict somewhat unsatisfied. The developers seem extremely proud of the command interface, but in truth the game would have worked better as a Wizardry scenario.

I seem to be the only one online to have won the game, and there aren't even the barest of walkthroughs anywhere else (at least, not that I can find), so I'm going to try to provide enough hints in the next couple of paragraphs to help future Googlers avoid some of the frustrations that I experienced.

The ideal level exploration order seems to be something like 1, 2, 3, 7, 4, 6, 9, 5, 8--although as far as I can tell, only Levels 5, 6, 7, 8 are absolutely necessary, as they have the key magic items needed to win. You need a silver helm from Level 5 and Rogarth's Staff from Level 7 to free the wizard on Level 8. But to get to Level 8, you need the Gem of Change from Level 6. The wizard provides the item necessary to defeat Dal'Brad.

Technically, I guess you should visit the other levels to get the words of power to pass the doors on Levels 5, 6, 7, and 9, but the manual (oddly) provides these.

These would be major discoveries if the manual didn't spoil them for you.
   
Everything else is just magic items and a couple of books that fill in bits of the plot, but there is a grand total of exactly one fixed combat in the entire game, so you can win without loading up on equipment and spells.

The following were the major steps before the endgame: 

Level 6 brought me to a massive vault door that I couldn't open. In a room nearby, I found a chessboard with a single rook, and simply sliding the rook caused the door to open. In addition to some Silver Armor (the best in the game) and the Gem of Change, the vault held a Book of Notes written by the wizard. It was fairly revealing.
         
I have found on this day a rare script--the Book of Darkness. This book contains all that is known to magick makers about the Dark Plane and its demons.

I have all the material I need to free the greatest demon--Dal'brad. It is trapped within a crystal pillar which I have obtained. With the Staff of Rogarth and the Silver Helm I can free whatever is trapped there. I am ready to begin now.
         
The manual said only that Dal'Brad had imprisoned the wizard; it didn't say where he came from in the first place. It turns out that it was the wizard's own fault! Unfortunately, the game gives no hint as to what the wizard was trying to accomplish in freeing the demon in the first place. Foster's book doesn't solve this mystery, either: the wizard says only that Dal'Brad "tricked" him but nothing about his own role in freeing the demon.

This puzzle could have been a little harder.
    
Moving on, Level 7 held yet another vault door--this one burned any character who tried to open it. The solution was to wear the Gloves of Cold, and I'm glad I reloaded after they "ran out" on an earlier level and took them off. This vault contained 32,000 goldens--enough to buy every magic item in the shop several times, if I could carry them all--but by this point in the game, I really didn't need to buy anything. Anyway, "Perceive" warned me to search further, and after a couple of tries, I found the Book of Darkness mentioned previously. This suggested only that Dal'Brad's habit was to "imprison all captured souls in the same manner used to conceal his own"--that is, in the crystal pillar.


Level 7 also brought me to a square containing Rogarth's Staff, guarded by some kind of demon frog. He was the only fixed combat in the game, and since he was by himself, he wasn't too hard.

"I choose you!"
   
The Silver Helm mentioned in the Book of Notes was found behind a wall panel on Level 5 (the puzzle was solved literally by PUSH PANEL). Nearby, a throne permanently increased a single character's spell points by 10 if he or she sat in the throne wearing the helm. Attempts to sit in the throne otherwise resulted in grief.

Okay, then.
  
At this point, the game stumped me for a little while. I had mapped every level but Level 8 and collected most of the magic items. I still had a few mysteries I couldn't solve (see below), but my biggest problem was that the door to Level 8 wouldn't open. I tried all the passwords I'd found in the dungeon and even tried every random word in the manual (which has all the other passwords) to no avail.

As an aside, during this process it occurred to me that the anvil on Level 1 might improve more than just weapons. I returned to it, and sure enough, it added a magic * to all my metal armor, too, effectively doubling its protective value.
    
    
Finally, I decided to start messing with the pedestals again. In an earlier post, I said that the pedestal on Level 1 takes you to Level 4. Well, when I messed with it again, using a "funny rock" I'd found somewhere, I found myself unexpectedly on Level 7. After some experimentation, I realized that the destination isn't dependent on the origin point but on the object placed on the pedestal. The Gem of Change, found in a vault on Level 6, brought me to Level 8.

After quite a while mapping and fighting random encounters on Level 8, I wandered into a room with a shining pillar. Based on what I'd learned from the Book of Darkness and the Book of Notes, I put on the Silver Helm and touched the pillar with Rogarth's Staff. The wizard came bounding out.
        
             
The wizard staggers out of his rigid stance and exclaims, "At last! Freedom!" Quickly, he takes notice of you. "So, I have allies. Dal'Brad the Demon shall now feel MY wrath. There is one final step in the cleansing of my tower. The evil that stalks these halls can be broken with one final blow. The most fearsome of the hell-spawn must now be faced. Are you prepared?"
    
Answering YES (I forgot to reload and try NO) had him continue:
   
"Good, some still have the true spirit. Now I must be quick, for my strength wanes." He thrusts a strange Gem into your hands and continues: "This will aid you in banishing the Demon Dal'Brad." While he speaks, the old wizard slowly fades from sight.
     
The book has a longer speech and has the wizard crawling around for a while, looking for the gem, but basically proceeds the same way. Apparently, Dal'Brad is on another plane, and his presence in the dungeon is only an image.
         
Either I captured this mid-animation, or the wizard sprouted a third hand.
     
A few rooms away, I found Dal'Brad:
        
The game can't make up its mind whether the "brad" part is capitalized.
      
He was a little disappointing. He wouldn't attack me, and attempts to ATTACK him only returned the comment that "an attack is unwarranted." He wouldn't talk. And my party couldn't move: everything I tried to do just returned a message saying I was overcome with awe for the demon. I don't know what happens if you wander on Dal'Brad first. Perhaps the Chalice of Awe frees you.
    
This is just humiliating.
  
In any event, I had the Devil's Gem from the wizard. SMASHING it brought me to the endgame, no final battle necessary.
        
As a New England resident, I can tell you that pyrotechnics are hardly "harmless."
      
After that, I just had the screen at the top of the post.

A few mysteries remain:

  • I did ultimately find three "tiny swords" throughout the dungeon, but I never figured out what to do with any of them. Hints in the manual suggested I was supposed to do something with them on Level 2, and in the sword case on Level 3, but nothing happened there.
     
I found several of these but never figured out what to do with them.
        
  • Hints in the manual mention a "model," a "gas case," a "guarding troll," and a painting, none of which I ever found. One hint suggests the Book of Notes is behind a panel, but I found it in a vault. Perhaps these are all red herrings intended to punish players who read the hints before they needed them.
  • I tried the Souleater Sword on a wide variety of enemy types, but it never hit anybody. 
  • On Level 6, a statue sits in an alcove above a glyph of a silver rose. The dungeon is lousy with silver roses, and giving any or all of them to the statue produces a message of gratitude followed by a sad, "I'm sorry, but I can not help you now." I never found out what I was supposed to do here, but I suspect that the function of the statue is to resurrect slain characters, based on what happens in the book (see below).

If you can't help because we're all alive, that's hardly sad.
  
The nature of combat is perhaps the most disappointing part of the game. Every encounter except the giant frog guarding Rogarth's Staff is random in both location and composition of enemies. If you're willing to do a lot of reloading, you can mince your way through the levels without much trouble even if you never cast a spell or find an enchanted piece of armor. I guess reloading would have had more consequence in the days of long disk access times, but it still removes a lot of the challenge.

Character development is also a little disappointing. A few magic items adjust your attributes, hit points, and spell points, but in general the characters never feel like they get stronger after you create them. Yes, attack, parrying, and spellcasting skills increase as you use them (maxing out at 100% well before the end of the game), but even starting characters succeed often enough that it's not a huge issue. 

I'm not sure why the party roster couldn't have stayed on the screen all the time, except when other text had to take its place. It got old having to constantly type LOOK PARTY.

Inventory improvements are also a bit disappointing. It's neat that there are so many artifact items to find, and nice of the developers to describe them all in the manual, but I rather like games where after a few hours of combat, you find a sword +1, and after a few more, a sword +2. The problem with Shadowkeep's items is not that they're not powerful but that they last only for a limited duration. Every item you find becomes an equivalent of that Potion of Magic Protection or Mini-Nuke that you're saving until you really need it, and you end the game with it still in your possession. This is doubly true when, again, there are no fixed combats. A careful player, taking all of the random combats seriously, could be very tactical about the use of items and protection spells, but even though I like to carefully manage such tactics, I don't bother when the game doesn't force me.

Even a player determined to take all combats seriously and avoid reloading would be flummoxed by the game's "surprise" mechanic. About 1 in every 8-12 combats has you surprised by your opponents, which jumbles your party and gives the enemies a free round. On higher levels, this means several volleys of fireballs that wipe out your party before you can retaliate. Unless you want to wander around with protection spells on all the time (having to frequently rest to replenish spell points, thus risking more surprise encounters), you're going to reload a lot no matter what you do.

The "Perceive" spell tells me exactly what to do.
    
Most of the game's special encounters or puzzles are pretty easy, especially if you use the "Perceive" spell or decipher the hints contained in the manual. Except for those special puzzles, you wouldn't really need any of the verbs and nouns in the command interface. An awful lot weren't used anyway. Looking at the list of supported words, I don't think I used more than a third of them. Granted, a lot of them are synonyms. (Our discussion about podiums and pedestals was a bit moot since apparently the game would have allowed either, plus DAIS.) Even accounting for that, though, I don't see anywhere in the game where I would have used APPROACH, CLIMB, DOUSE, DRINK, EXTINGUISH, KICK, LISTEN, SHOUT, SLIDE, STRAIGHTEN, SWALLOW, SWIM, or WAVE. Similarly, some nouns remain a mystery, like CLAY, BONES, CARVING, SPLINTERS, NICHE, and KEYHOLE. Multiple adventures were planned using the engine, so perhaps all those extra words were meant for different scenarios. Similarly, the "Open" skill, set at 5% for every character, didn't seem to come into play during the game. There were lots of doors to open, but none required any skill.

And finally, while I'm on a long list of complaints, let me voice one about the dungeon design. It is perhaps the worst of any grid-based game I've ever played. Dungeons that wrap on each other never make any logical sense anyway, but it's compounded in Shadowkeep by an utterly senseless arrangement of corridors and rooms. Only Level 5, with a central hallway leading to a throne room, seemed to be going anywhere. The one-way doors and walls got old fast--it was the game's only trick (none of Wizardry's teleporters, dark squares, or spinners), and it just bludgeons the player repeatedly with it.
    
Level 5 was the only one that looked like it had some kind of "plan," and even that was just the center part.
 
A single square on Level 1 was the only inaccessible square in the game. It still bothers me.

Okay. Let's see how she fares in the GIMLET:

  • 4 points for the game world: a decent, if boilerplate, framing story. 
  • 3 points for character creation and development, mostly for the creation process. Development, as we've seen, is a bit unsatisfying, and once the game starts, there's really not much difference between the races or even classes. Although the spellcasters have different magic books, scrolls littered throughout the dungeon allow casters to learn each other's spells, and by Level 3 they have pretty much the same library.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction, and that's generous. Only the wizard and the innkeeper qualify, and the former is more of an encounter and the latter more of a shop.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are mostly just annoying. There is some variation on type and difficulty, and the manual does a decent job describing the enemies in lurid prose. The puzzles aspire to adventure-game quality but are mostly brief and easy.
           
"Stoor worms" are described in the manual as "large, slow, python-like creatures with dragons' heads" that often guard treasures.
          
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The Wizardry approach simply doesn't work as well in a game with these mechanics. And as we've seen, combat is barely necessary to the game. The spell system is functional but unimaginative.
  • 3 points for equipment. A decent selection of standard and special items, but I talked about most of the weaknesses here. While you get special items frequently, you rarely feel truly "upgraded" because you're afraid to use them. Some wands and salves had some utility I didn't cover.
              
A character checks her gear before picking up a Rod of Power.
              
  • 2 points for the economy. As with many games, the rewards are too great and there isn't that much that's interesting to buy. By the end of the first level, I had more than enough money and mostly dumped my goldens on the central staircase. The Level 7 treasure vault just adds more absurdity.
  • 3 points for a main quest, and I suppose a couple of side-quests to find optional artifacts.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. They at least tried on the graphics. I'm sure they were awe-inspiring for 1984, but in 2015 they fall uncomfortably in between "just use your imagination" and "good enough." Sound is so rare that you forget it exists. The command interface is perhaps the most torturous thing ever invented despite the pride the developers clearly have for it, but I'll give it a point for allowing complex commands. At era-authentic speeds, the game is abysmally slow. 
                
                  
  • 3 points for gameplay. It's rare to find a multi-level dungeon crawler with this level of non-linearity, so I appreciate that. The challenge level is about right, and it's only a hair too long.
          
That gives us a final score of 28, average or even above for a 1984 game. As we often do, we must praise its originality while noting that the normal approach is normal for a reason. In creating such an unusual interface, the developers produced an interesting misfire, notably primarily for the novel tie-in.

Speaking of the novel, the characters' final confrontation with Dal'Brad is a lot more interesting. The party enters his chamber to find a demon who trades quips, barbs, and threats with the party before ordering his guardians to attack. In the ensuing battle--unlike the game, the book actually has one--the roo character is killed. The party's weapons pass harmlessly through the demon until the Zhis'ta pins him with Rogarth's Staff, allowing the human character, Practor, to achieve a killing sword blow.

Then, it turns out the slain demon was only an underling. The real Dal'Brad reveals himself as a giant that the characters had first taken for a statue. Just as he's about to attack, Practor hurls the Devil's Gem down his throat and he explodes. The heroes haul the dead roo to the female statue, who resurrects him in exchange for a silver rose. The book ends as the heroes return to the treasure vault and start making plans to buy kingdoms.

In my earlier post, I noted that Shadowkeep was an odd game to spark the first RPG novelization, but in fact the game was the first of a line (first called Trillium, then changed to Telarium for legal reasons) created specifically to partner games and novels. Other games in the line include Amazon (1984), Rendezvous with Rama (1984), Dragonworld (1984), Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder (1985), and The Scoop (1986). All of the other games in the line are pure adventure games, but almost all of them were developed with the cooperation of the associated novels' authors, including Michael Crichton (Amazon was based on Congo), Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke.
     
A screenshot from Perry Mason.
    
More information about the Telarium line, the development of Shadowkeep, and the novelization can be found in an excellent 2013 article on Jimmy "The Digital Antiquarian" Maher's blog. He contacted and interviewed Alan Dean Foster for the article, and Foster's comments echo what I suspected: he was given a bunch of programming code and a bare sketch of a plot and expected to develop it into a novel. Maher also wrote extensively about Telarium in a 2006 thesis (link to the relevant chapter).

Shadowkeep was an oddity no matter how you look at it. Its predecessors and followers using the Ultra engine were all adventure games. It's the only game in the line in which the novel followed the game rather than vice versa. It seems to be the only RPG developed by Telarium's parent company, Spinnaker Software.

It was not, however, the only RPG for its director, Alan B. Clark, or its credited author, Michael Ormsby. The two of them seem to have found work with Robert Clardy's Synergistic Software, and we've seen their work on War in Middle Earth (1989) and Spirit of Excalibur (1990) and will again in Warriors of Legend (1993) and Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance (1996). This, however, was their first RPG, which perhaps explains some of its less polished elements.

Speaking of Clardy, we recently had a discovery of another game in his early line--Doom Cavern (1981), apparently published after the three "campaign" titles but before Apventure to Atlantis. I look forward to giving it a try. Next up, as I try to make progress with Disciples of Steel, we'll also try to wrap up 1984 starting with The Standing Stones.

28 comments:

  1. Well done!

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  2. Kudos. Looked like a tough one, especially without any external walkthroughs as a safety net.

    Can't wait for you to check out Birthright - a maligned mess of a game that I still have some affection for - but as a 1996 game that's going to be a ways off.

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    1. Yeah. I love just how everything is explained with a tooltip for every button and their detailed tutorial that walks you through gently to ease you in with a very gradual learning curve. HAH!

      Delete
  3. "... especially before more plot- and NPC-heavy titles came out in 1995."

    I presume you mean 1985?

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  4. Congrats on finishing another game that probably isn't well documented anywhere else.

    Oh, and I just stumbled over an RPG from 1988 on Mobygames that isn't on your list yet:

    http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/ranadinn

    Made by the same guy who also made "Silmar" which is already on the masterlist. "Ranadinn" has a sequel too, but the mobygames entry says it's stripped down quite a bit and also categorizes it as an action game (as well as a turnbased game), so I don't know if it's still an Rpg under your rules.

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  5. Congratulations! I guess the game is not bad for 1984 and I like the setup with the hint of non-lineraity. At least, one can tell that an effort was made in the creation of this game. And good for you to win another one.

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  6. Congratulations! While I'd imagine that part of you might wish you were done with the 1980s, I really enjoy posts about these kinds of games (early, optimistic, experimental -- kind of like pre-Hays Code movies, in a way).

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  7. Congrats on yet another completion!

    I didn't realize that The Standing Stones was on your list. That was one of my first CRPGs, although I played the Commodore 64 version. I was too young to get too far as I hadn't realized yet that you should be mapping as you went. I'm excited to see you beat another game that I never got through!

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    1. I'm looking forward to The Standing Stones as well. I got quite far playing the Apple II version until my save game file got corrupted when I accidentally pressed a random key on the keyboard.

      My first RPG was the first Wizardry, on the Apple II. I also didn't realize I should be mapping the game. Somehow I managed to finish it without doing any mapping at all.

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    2. You're a better man than I then... I never beat Wizardry either back then!

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  8. Maher's book on the Commodore Amiga is one of the better videogame-related books out there that combine really detailed technology discussion with broader cultural trends--and it inspired a twenty-paged section in my own dissertation on the Amiga-originated game giant ant sci-fi game, It Came From the Desert. He really knows his stuff.

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  9. I read Dragonworld ages ago. It's a descriptive doorstopper of a high fantasy novel, and I would recommend it to fans of the genre, or of dragons.

    I remember reading some promotional material for an associated Dragonworld game at the end, but never actually played the game. I don't think it's an RPG (I've seen it described as "interactive fiction" with a couple arcade-like minigames).

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    1. We had Dragonworld. I was too young to understand how to get anywhere with it, but I remember the packaging very vividly - high production value, nice, thick fold-out sort of box. From the very little I remember, I feel comfortable saying it's an adventure game, in that genre of "text adventure, but a still image illustrates each scene." I'm sure I would have come back to it later on, but the disk got corrupted or water-damaged or something. Funny the things one remembers. Anyway, it shouldn't trouble Chester.

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    2. I tried to search for more information about the Dragonworld game and keep getting results about a completely unrelated movie with the same title. Is there anyeone out there who tried this one and blogged about it? Or is there any reasonably simple way to obtain and play it today?

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    3. Blogspot might feel the need to chew this up and spit it out. Anyway...
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnRvuXiNMag
      https://www.mobygames.com/game/dragonworld
      http://www.myabandonware.com/game/dragonworld-3u

      Delete
  10. I'm confused. Are we talking about books inspired by games, vice versa, or simultaneous creations?

    Rendezvous with Rama in particular was published in 1973, so any related video game would have been inspired by the novel.

    I should also mention that Betrayal at Krondor is noted for being a collaboration with fantasy novelist Raymond E. Feist and is set in his universe. Additionally, he later wrote novels inspired by the story from the games, so Krondor probably wins the game-book crossover contest by going both ways (books->games->books)!

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    1. "I'm confused. Are we talking about books inspired by games, vice versa, or simultaneous creations?"

      All of those. Telarium is special in that they sometimes involved the authors in designing the games (to varying degrees), though I don't know if there were other companies that did the same. Dragonworld is interesting because the author of the novel wasn't primarily a writer, but also a publisher who did some early multimedia stuff. He used the game to continue the story.

      There were various games in the early 80s that came with novels specifically written for them. Most of them were probably text adventures, but there are other examples too. http://www.mobygames.com/game/zx-spectrum/shadow-of-the-unicorn comes to mind (you can read the novel at the museum of computer adventure game history).

      Delete
  11. Not entirely relevant, but Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance is a personal favorite of mine and like many of my personally favorite games, it is not very well thought of by anyone else. I still play it on an older computer and I remember my teenage angst at realizing none of the screenshots on the back of the box were from the actual game.

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    1. It's one of my personal favorite too. It combines war tactics, empire building and dungeon crawling. What's not to like? Oh, yeah... the freaking bugs.

      After I lost my copy over a decade ago, I downloaded it from an abandonware site. Hot damn, it was unplayable without a manual. The controls are so damn archaic that it probably didn't need copy protection to ensure that people can't play it without supporting docs.

      Hope someone remakes it with today's technology. That'd be freaking awesome.

      Delete
  12. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesDecember 9, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    I never played the 1984 version of Rendezvous with Rama, but there was a great Sierra game in the '90s based on the series called Rama. It captured the spirit of the series quite well and had a detailed and imaginative take on the world. It has a few annoying parts, like having to run through the whole world in a short time limit with an awkward movement system at the end, but it is a great game overall. I think it bears less resemblance to the original series than Mission to Mars.

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  13. Regarding the large amount of unused words allowable with the game's parser engine, one must remember that Telarium is, 1st & foremost, a company specialized in crafting Adventure Games.

    It could quite possibly be that the parser engine may be used on other games that DO use those commands.

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    1. Yes, that is undoubtedly the case, but it was still silly to list every potential command in the manual for THIS game when most of them don't apply.

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  14. Critic, I owe you my thanks. I've wondered about the ending to this game off and on for many years. Your posts brought back a lot of memories. I'm pretty sure now that I made it all the way to the end but didn't know to "SMASH" the gem. I even thought the game was broken because he didn't attack me. But somehow I never got back to it when I was a kid. Now I know!!!

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    1. I didn't put this in the post, but the only way I knew to SMASH the gem is that it was a hint in the manual. Glad I was able to scratch that itch for you.

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  15. Also, if you tell the wizard you aren't ready, I think you get teleported back to a lower level.

    I wonder if you don't have the staff to open the pillar, will you still run into Dal'Brad? And so get stuck since you cant move and no devil gem?

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  16. I was given this game for Xmas 1984 by an odd relative, I have spent a couple hundred hours as an eleven year old battling goblins and sheep! I never made much progress as I didn't understand the concept of mapping, but I did read the book soon after it was published and still struggled. I have had the game on a simulator for years and every once in a while look to make some progress. I am excited to try again! Thanks

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  17. I wonder if anything happens if you put the green in the pedestal instead of smashing it.

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  18. Oddly enough... I read this book after finding it in a used book store, probably around 1984-5. I remember thinking it was above average but strange for it to be a standalone novel. I vaguely recall realizing that there was an associated computer game to go along with it (althought I thought the game was based on the book!)... but it occurred in my personal interregnum when our TI99/4A was pretty much done, but we hadn't acquired our Tandy 1000 that led to my personal golden age of computing for fun and never tried to find the game. Still loving the blog!

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