Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Game 210: Xyphus (1984)

The compass in the upper-left corner turns out to be somewhat ironic.

Between 1978 and 1983, computer RPGs slowly defined themselves. We saw a host of proto-RPGs plus a few landmark games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Ultima III that stood so much taller than other titles that they established the standards for the rest of the decade.

As we come to the end of 1984, it feels like a year that has keenly felt the influence of these giants but that doesn't yet understand what made them good. It is a year full of disastrous experiments that, at best, dumbed down the mechanics of the source games and that, at worst, made them almost completely unplayable. You can almost hear the developers' enthusiasm as they say, "Hey, why don't we make a game like Wizardry, but with ___________!" But whether they filled in that blank with "text commands!" (Shadowkeep), "cute portraits and the ability to remove helmets!" (The Black Onyx), "a big quiz at the end!" (The Standing Stones), or "and endgame that changes all the rules!" (Tyrann), the results were far worse than the original game. Questron is an almost-exception, making a mess of Ultima's mechanics but ultimately producing a better story. With the exception of the brief and unwelcome branch of gamebook adaptations, almost every game in 1984 has an obvious pre-1984 source game and, in all cases, under-performed those sources.

A typical Xyphus screen. My party--the people with brackets around them--is about to engage a giant slug. A hawkman awaits on a nearby peninsula. Below the slug is some kind of treasure. It's Aspida's turn to move, and the cluster of keys to the bottom-right shows her movement options.
   
Xyphus's obvious inspiration is Exodus: Ultima III, one of the first top-down RPGs to feature multiple characters and a tactical combat system in which characters move and act independently. (It may have been the first, but Galactic Adventures and Expedition Amazon came out the same year and had some of the same elements; it's hard to determine exact release order today.) As is the norm during the period, Xyphus simplifies many of its source's mechanics: three races instead of five; two classes instead of eleven; a simpler inventory system; no separate first-person dungeon system; no dialogue system; menu towns instead of explorable towns; and the combat system integrated into the same window as exploration.

But the developers had to fill in that blank somehow, and what they came up with was "hexagonal movement!" No simple NESW or arrow-key navigation for this game; instead, you get to master the venerable YHBVFT cluster, corresponding with the ability to move northeast, east, southeast, southwest, west, and northwest, but not north and south.

The party gets a hint. Crossing that bridge was a lot of messing about with individual characters.
   
Hex maps had been used for years in wargames and strategy board games and must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But five minutes with Xyphus demonstrates the superiority of the square for tile-based computer games. Hexes--and they aren't real hexes anyway, but offset rectangles--add absolutely nothing to the gameplay but to force the player to pause and think before doing something as simple as moving one square. I normally like to play a game with the same interface that the original players had, but the key cluster used for movement in this game is so non-intuitive that the camel's back broke and I installed AutoHotkey. I plan to learn it in time for my next session.

Xyphus's manual aspires to Ultima III's complexity when it comes to the backstory and the vivid descriptions of monsters and spells. Aspires but does not achieve, I should say; Penguin had nothing on Origin when it came to production values. But as a footnote that we'll explore in more detail next time, one of the co-authors of Xyphus, Dave Albert, would soon leave Penguin for Origin Systems, where among other things he would end up writing the Book of Mystic Wisdom for Ultima IV.

Decent illustrations accompany monster descriptions in the game manual.
   
Xyphus is Greek for "sword," and the game's backstory has echoes of Greek mythology. Ten thousand years ago, a demon lord named Xyphus was defeated when an archmage named Szhaalin ripped out his heart. Droplets of the demon's blood formed into various breeds of goblins and hellhounds, and pieces of his ruptured heart formed sword-shaped amulets "from whence all magic springs." The demon retreated to the caverns beneath the continent of Arroya to "languish in eternal pain." The continent became overwhelmed with beasts, poisonous creatures, and undead, and men learned to stay away.

Fast forward to the present day, and most of the world has been conquered by a warlord named Das, who has brought order and justice, "albeit with the edge of the sword and the purification of the torch." He has been unable to conquer Arroya, but prophecy holds that a band of humans, elves, and dwarves can conquer the continent and defeat the demon lord once and for all. Das has promised a kingdom to those who succeed.

You adventure with up to four characters from elf, dwarf, and human races and fighter or spellcaster classes. There are no attributes and no other options in character creation except the name. Apparently, you can go with fewer than four, but the game warns you during creation that you need at least one elf and one dwarf, so two is the minimum.

The totality of character creation.
   
Gameplay is organized into 6 "scenarios," each with an objective that you must complete before moving to the next one. The game warns you that it can take between 3 and 12 hours to complete each scenario, which I mentally halve based on improved loading speeds alone. Scenario One's goal is simply to reach a fortress on the far side of a multi-screen map.

A title card begins each scenario.
     
Characters move independently across the game map. Already difficult because of the hexagons, movement is further complicated by variable movement speeds between different races and classes, by the tendency of characters to run into each other, and by terrain (e.g., one-square bridges over water) that forces you to micromanage your characters into a particular formation. The game's one concession to ease is to allow you to move all characters in one direction at the same time by holding down the CTRL key (TAB in the VICE emulator).

Theoretically, I like the idea of allowing your party to split up and visit different corners of the map. Practically, you really need to keep the party together, at least in the first map. Combat is too hard to attempt independent exploration, and some enemies are immune to normal weapons, so you need a character with a magic weapon or spell handy.

Various artifact items, including weapons, spells, and "Xiphoid amulets," are scattered about the map, and it appears that you can always see them as long as they're on the same screen--that is, you don't have to walk over every tile. Monsters, on the other hand, are hidden until you approach their squares. There might be a bunch of them hidden within the same group of tiles, so you have to be careful about blundering about too quickly. Best to explore slowly and lure them to the party one-by-one.

The four characters surround and defeat a centaur. On a peninsula to the south, another enemy awaits next to a treasure.
  
Combat proceeds in turns, but characters don't have many options except to attack or flee. Spells are expensive and costly to endurance, so casting them is a pretty rare thing, at least in the first scenario. My attacks seem to hit about 50% of the time and do predictable damage depending on the type of weapon and type of enemy. For instance, maces always do 2 points of damage to most enemies and Xiphoid amulets (with both enable spellcasting and can be wielded like a dagger) do 1 to most enemies but 3 to hawkmen.

Characters start with 12 hit points each. Resting restores hit points quickly and costs you nothing, so it's easy to rest up between battles. Resting during battles is possible, but it takes the character out of commission for a few rounds and leaves him vulnerable to attacks. Characters have a fatigue meter in addition to hit points, and it depletes as you attack and cast spells but replenishes when you rest or walk. Death appears to be permanent, but you can save and reload the game on any square.

Time to reload!
     
Monsters are a mix of D&D standards (ghouls, hobgoblins, mimics) and original or semi-original creations (ice dragons, sand asps, toothpaws), including several different breeds of goblins and orcs. Many are immune to normal weapons. Since the first map doesn't have much in the way of magical weapons (Xiphoid amulets only do 1 hit point of damage at a time), you have to take care of some with spells. In particular, a pack of werewolves took my party apart until I found a city selling "Bendicca" spells, which kill them specifically. It appears that enemies don't re-spawn, meaning there's a fixed amount of experience and gold across all the scenarios. Successful parties probably explore each map exhaustively.
  
A party member finds an important artifact.
   
I do like the game's approach to distributing gold and experience after battles. Where most games either give them to the character who struck the killing blow (Ultima IV) or distribute them evenly among party members (the default), Xyphus adopts a hybrid: the character who actually killed the enemy gets twice what everyone else gets. Despite having amassed more than 1,200 experience points per character, I haven't leveled up yet, and I'm not even sure what leveling up does for you.

In the midst of battling a bunch of "toothpaws," Kranos kills one and gets more of the resulting experience.
   
The landscape is dotted with towns that sell weapons, armor, and spells. Armor progresses in a linear manner from shields to magic "veils" (each new item is supposed to augment, rather than supplant, the previous item). For weapons, you can have multiple in your inventory at a time and switch among them. There seems to be no way to trade items or gold among party members, so you have to be extra careful how you spend it.

A character looks over the armor selection in a shop.
   
I've barely scratched the spell system. The manual offers 6 attack spells, 3 hindrance spells, and 2 healing spells but says there might be more. Most of the spell names are simply their effects in (sometimes slightly modified) Spanish: Ciega blinds foes; piedra petrifies them; abeja ("bee") produces welts; matamosca ("fly swatter") is an attack spell.

In the first scenario, I fully explored the map, died and reloaded a lot, and killed a couple dozen pumas, centaurs, bandits, toothpaws, werefalcons, stone golems, and giant slugs. I found three Xiphoid amulets, a handful of spells not mentioned in the manual, and a long sword +2.

Reaching the end of the scenario.
    
Once I reached the outpost on the far side of the map, the scenario ended and I was taken to the second scenario, where  I received a mission to travel to a second fort and warn them about goblin raids. I haven't explored it very far yet. The first scenario took about 3 hours, so if that's average we're looking at an 18 hour game. I don't much want to do it, but it's tolerable if I have a TV show going in the background.

And on to scenario 2!
    
Xyphus isn't a bad game. It probably would have been a joy on my C64 when it was new and I only bought 3 or 4 games a year. It just doesn't stand up well in the modern era, when we have access to the entire historical catalog of RPGs and can choose from a host of titles from the same era that either are one of the best titles of the time or that, if they're clones of such games, at least clone them better.

49 comments:

  1. Rats! So you say that hexagons are not good? I'm currently writing a simple game that uses them exclusively to represent maps. On the other hand I'm targeting Android devices, so you really don't have to press buttons to move, you touch field where you want your party to move and it happens via magic (that is A* algorithm). On combat maps you control character separately.

    I did it because I believe that if I want to have nice and tactical combat, hex grid is best, mainly because of diagonal movement. On the other hand it is hard to have monsters that take a little more space than human-sized characters - they have to be at least 7 times bigger (one central hex and 6 hexes around it or something like that).

    Not that I hoped that you would play it, but I hold your opinion in high esteem and this is a little sad. But hey!, I can do it and see if others like it :)

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    1. Plenty of good games have used hexes, so don't worry too much!

      The problem with Xyphus seems to be more down to the keyboard interface, whereas modern games usually have a much better (usually mouse-based) interface, and as you indicate with your game, you don't have to move one hex at a time, the computer does the pathfinding.

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    2. Yes, I could see hexes working on a touchscreen or mouse-based interface. It's just that there's no keyboard layout in which moving around hexes is intuitive.

      I don't really understand the argument for preferring hexes even in wargames. "It keeps the distance between the centerpoints constant," Wikipedia says. That would be important if the game map--and all the game mechanics--weren't just a big abstraction in the first place. What harm does it do to use squares and just agree that, despite the actual distances on paper, all movement in eight directions uses the same distance measure?

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    3. "It's just that there's no keyboard layout in which moving around hexes is intuitive."

      ... a keyboard is a hex layout. The movement keys given are a hexagonal cluster on most keyboards. Now, I think I would also find this movement troublesome because traditional n/s/e/w movement has become so engrained, but I think calling it unintuitive only reflects how much intuition has been warped by experience.

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    4. The reason to use hexes for wargames is diagonals. If we use a square based grid where diagonals are the same cost as the orthogonals, then the unit will have a 1.4 speed boost when they use a diagonal. This gives a pretty large advantage to the point where there is little point to ever use an orthogonal except to go adjacent to an enemy unit.

      Hex grids keeps each direction at the same cost removing the diagonal cheat. Of course, you lose the ability to go in a straight line (unless you allow units to straddle hexes during movement), but you do gain higher granularity in terms of facing.

      All kinds of grids have been attempted, and basically it seems that hex grids fit in the place of giving enough granularity to keep things realistic, whilst still being simple enough for players to use. That said, nothing is set in stone.

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    5. What Gitzy said. If you don't permit diagonal movement, the game feels claustrophobic, and groups on the overland map can avoid each other indefinitely. But if you make diagonals cost the same you get tactical anomalies, particularly in exploration (think of exploring in Rogue or early Civ - you always step diagonally). Whether that's tactically interesting or breaks immersion is up to the player, I guess. It's possible to add a speed penalty, but that makes the game feel a bit clumsy and obscure.

      Indeed, hexes are fine when you use a mouse or touch, particularly when you travel several hexes in one move. (Roguelikes still generally use squares, partly because one-step keyboard movement is usually preferred.) This game also suffers extra control issues because the party members have to be moved individually. There's a reason why roguelikes have one character.

      One other issue that comes up with hexes is that they are good for wilderness but bad for buildings.

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    6. Hexes are much better for round effects such as explosions and for properly calculating the ranges of ranged weaponry. The ONLY advantage to square tiles (the building problem can be solved simply by allowing walls to bisect hexes) is that they offer a more intuitive "how do I get to point A from point B" look" and (on archaic keyboards that lack a number pad) difficulty in finding an intuitive control layout.

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    7. "One other issue that comes up with hexes is that they are good for wilderness but bad for buildings."

      Well, Fallout used hex grid for everything and I think it worked great, even better than Baldur Gate's movement unrestricted to fields.

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    8. Another thing about hex-grids versus square-grids on maps is just how organic the map based on hex-grids looks.

      If you put both game screens of Ultima 3 against that of Xyphus, you can't disagree that Ultima 3's maps look a little too artificial with jagged 90-degree bends on any terrain changes.

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    9. You can get a pretty good approximation of accurate diagonal movent by having every other square cost 2. Several D&D editions do this.

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  2. (Ancient) Greek for sword is "xiphos," but close enough.

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    1. Either way, it's a rendering of Greek into a Latin alphabet, right? How can one be right and the other wrong as long as they're pronounced the same?

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    2. Upsilons are transliterated as a "y"; iotas as an "i"; omicrons are transliterated as an "o" (and so are omegas, sometimes with a macron to show it's long). "Xyphus" is not pronounced the same as "xiphos" (even assuming that "u" has an analog in Greek).

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    3. It's a latinization. It's alright.

      I enjoy how in this game you're controlling your whole party instead of a monobeing where all pcs converge into the leader of the party like an absurd godhead. It ties in the discussion we had about libertarian rpgs, making the whole party One Man makes them... single-minded, unified and driven. Even if... zaaaaiiifuuus isn't a great game, I'm enjoying the screenshots (love the c64 fake hex art) and some of the concepts. Thank you for playing all these obscure games :)

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    4. I agree. Having to move a collection of individuals, rather than one unit does make exploring harder, but in a way more interesting.

      I like the graphics on the exploring screen. I like the combination of greens, blues and browns. It gives the impression of an atlas. I find it prettier than Ultima.

      I second the thanks for you playing these relics. I think you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that these were made for a different time, a slower time to be sure. The same thing happens in TV. My favourite show is Blake's 7, made in the 70s. It seems to go on forever compared to modern shows.

      Still I like these old dungeon, exploration crawls. The scenario system reminds me of a wargame, rather than a role playing game.

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    5. Nowadays, the standard solution is to have a designated leader. When not in combat, the leader moves and the others auto-follow.

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    6. I was thinking about it and I think it all boils down to overland map's "abstraction", or rather scale. If moving on overland map takes the same amount of time as moving in any "interior" map, for example town, castle or dungeon, then you can assume that they have the same scale. In such case having designated leader is fine, others can follow. But if moving on an overland map takes much, much longer, you can assume that even if members of your party are hundred of meters apart, they still travel as a single "body".

      So what can be done is splitting your party in two (or more) and assign characters to each group. Horrors of managing e.g. 8 characters separately is gone. But then new problem arises: if I tell one party to move here, and the other should move there, should I give orders first and move later, or move them separately (so one of your groups must move first and seconds one... second) or should you be able to order one party to go somewhere, they start their movement, then you select second one and they also start to move, so you can have for example four parties moving separately? Each design choice has it's pros and cons, for example last solution seems great in the beginning, but then you quickly realize that what you create is RTS rather than RPG, but without real-time combat and with discreet movement, so it's not an RTS, even thought it feels like one.

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    7. Is it possible that the game was designed to be played by more than one players? At least as an option? Do the characters have their separate turns? I remember playing some C64 games with my brother in a hot seat mode way back.

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    8. "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" had that mechanic too. I remember winning that game by spawning a bunch of "friends" to help out. Each moved independently and had their own turn. Basically, it was like Xyphus, but way more fun.

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  3. So you're running a hot key program with an emulator in which you run an old game? That's really meta. Kudos for your dedication.

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    1. Congratulate me when it works. AHK seems to have a bit of a learning curve.

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    2. You might also glance through the docs for your emulator. Some of them (like Dosbox) have the ability to remap keys more-or-less at will.

      Worst case, there are keyboards available where you can program macros and remappings. Although that probably isn't portable enough for you.

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  4. I mentioned awhile back that Xyphus was my first RPG on my old C64. I thought it was amazing even though some sort of bug popped up every time I went to Scenario 2, which prevented me from ever really past the first one. I remember definitely having to keep the party together throughout that first scenario, and that exploring was easier by going down via V/B (alternating), then forward a bit with H, then back up with T/Y (again, alternating). Your mileage may vary, of course. Oh, and saving took quite some time on the C64, which sort of took the ease out of saving wherever. I'm hopeful you can slog through it! I'd love to know how it turns out.

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    1. The length of saving is an interesting issue that we don't have today. I bet a lot of early developers offered a "save anywhere" option knowing that players wouldn't abuse it because it would take so long.

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    2. Also remember that with a floppy game saving was easy but with a cassette player (which most had) a hell no!

      Actually I'm not sure if for example pirates! on c64 had a save option on cassette version, can't really remember though I know floppy version had it also c64 cassette version of pirates! had no graphics or ground battles.

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    3. I remember playing Fallout 2 on my PII 200Mhz. I had this 4GB HDD which was abysmally slow. I was very careful with saving and reloading. Although saving was relatively quick (~30 seconds at most), loading was taking about 5-6 minutes if I remember correctly. But it never stopped me from save scumming during thievery and similar activities.

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  5. I love AutoHotKey - I was able to use it in an old job where I had to convert thousands of digital photos, enter them into a database and burn them to a CD. AHK did 90% of the work for me, letting me do other work for hours each day. It ended up being a few thousand lines of code (mostly for making sure things were triple checked after each step)... magic. Until I was caught installing unauthorized software. Oops!

    Not that I don't want you to get the original feeling of these games and pass them onto us, but 18 hours of just trying to move characters around with a difficult interface is too much. Though, honestly, it does look like something I would have loved back in the day.

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  6. Hey Chet, not that you care :) But I just wanted to let you know m that while I, the resident gadfly :) , haven't been commenting lately I still read your blog obsessively. But since my wife died and I lost my home through foreclosure auction I've been both very busy and not- at the same time. My channel on youtube (I do Let's Plays and reaction videos https://www.youtube.com/user/williamroeben and I am very proud and humble to say I recently got my 2,200th subscriber :) takes up all the time when I should be sleeping and then during the day I spend all my time with two friends who are very concerned about me.

    Just wanted to let you know why I haven't been commenting, like you even remember who I am let alone that you noticed my absence :) Have a great day!

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    1. Of course I care. I'm glad that you're still around. Sorry that you've had so many obstacles.

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    2. 2200 subscribers and nearly 200k views? Well done buddy!

      Life can be really tough - get as much exercise as you can, particularly outside. It helps banish the blues, or at least put them temporarily at arm's length (though I know the hard part is motivating yourself to do that when you're in a bad place).

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    3. Glad to hear you are doing ok and congrats on your youtube channel. Hope things look up for you soon.

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    4. He discovered that many, many people on the internet want to see him do reaction videos.

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  7. Hybrid experience points: sounds similar to the Uukrul system. I always appreciated that. The one who got the kill got more, but everyone got some. Of course Uukrul also worked in diminishing returns (or something like that) so it was beneficial to keep moving along instead of grinding in one place. Good design, maybe, but frustrating if you're feeling underpowered and just want to grind.

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    1. I had forgotten that Uukrul did that. Yeah, the scaling was too bad.

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  8. I love old Ultimas and Im looking forward how this will score on GIMLET. Is there any good ultima-clone other than Questron and this one?

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    1. Deathlord was one of my favorite Ultima clones. It was set in a sort of fantasy Japan. Huge game world, but the battles were initially pretty hard.

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  9. It's interesting that every class/race has the same number of hit points. That's usually a common point of differentiation It's even stranger that there aren't any visible attributes. How exactly DO the races and classes differ?

    Also, I really like the idea of resting in the middle of the battle. Sometimes you just gotta take a quick nap on the battlefield. Goblins are polite - they won't mind.

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    1. They differ in the weapons they can use. Spellcasters can't use edged weapons. I agree that the strengths and weaknesses aren't as compelling as the typical RPG.

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  10. "the venerable YHBVFT cluster" made me laugh.

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    1. Middle finger centered on G, every key one out from there, it seems fine. Hit V with your thumb and you're golden.

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    2. If only you never had to take your hand off the keys for any other purpose.

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  11. Deep thought:

    It just occurred to me that your blog is like the cRPG reviewing equivalent of lawn-mowering in a game like "Might and Magic": nothing most people would do in real life, once in a while you find a real gem, and most importantly it feels pretty damn good when you finish a row or an area and know you haven't missed anything.

    Thank you as always for patience and dedication to the cause.

    I just beat MM3 last night, so clearly I have this style of game on my brain. Time to play something else...

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    1. I agree: the metaphor definitely works.

      Now I really want to get to MM3.

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    2. Yeah, Xyphus movement and combat can be a pain at times. Its yet another polarware game I was copying the graphics to make a a tileset and creating a spreadsheet for spells, items, monsters, and the applicable stats that are allowed in each scenario.

      You'll find that not all weapons you buy in the shop or find carry over. The same with spells. The XP thing is rather funny but can actually be utilized in a way if you hate the idea of killing blow gets the xp. Here's what I was doing... mostly I'd have an elven fighter (being the fastest to move) lure the mobs to a sanctuary (the building where they can't hurt you)... I'd then have some of the players weaken the mob and then rest them or I'd have only the elven fighter kill the mob to be the main Tank of the group. The exception is the damn demon soldier near the end of the first scenario.. he's super fast and a pain in the ass.. you almost have to blast him. I'd have to check again with save states.

      There are some ok walkthroughs and maps of each scenario; I'm not sure how complete they are. I find any walkthrough can be better... I still need to finish my work on Kadash before Magdarr and this... (hell I have an unfinished questron in the works as well.... Curse Beelzub diablo for meddling my time management).

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  12. Hexes--and they aren't real hexes anyway, but offset rectangles

    LOL. Hi5 to the addict! I'm pretty sure that came up in our conversation about Sword of Aragon's hexes, or lack thereof.

    That is technically correct...the best kind of correct.

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    1. I remember that, and I remember that I got a little annoyed at the pedantry back then, since there's not much difference between a hex and an offset rectangle in a game when all dimensions and distances are abstract in the first place.

      But here we have a game that goes out of its way to say, "Look! We're so original! We don't use rectangular tiles--we use HEXES!!" when in fact it basically just uses rectangles.

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    2. Now I really want to know what the first game to use actual hexes is. The only one I can think of is very modern.

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  13. I just found this blog by googling, and didn't know there was a color version of this. Cool.

    I'm actually playing the black-and-white Mac OS version of this again, using the emulator "Mini vMac" in OS 10.6.8. It's definitely for nostalgic purposes, as it's so out-dated and limited. The Mac version also does not warn you that you need an elf and a dwarf in the party, which will block you from completing the final scenario (lvl 6). The elf also has to be a spellcaster, I think, to wield the Heart of Xyphus, so further constraints.

    Navigation is done with the mouse, which makes things easier in some respects. Keyboard command shortcuts are still available, though I haven't tried using keyboard for navigation, so I don't know if that's even possible.

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  14. Funny, I was just watching this Ancient DOS Games video on MegaMan that talks about remapping keys in DOSbox. https://youtu.be/IYyE20N9Udc?t=3m52s of course the time you finally give in isn't in a DOS game...

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