Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Xyphus: Won! (with Final Rating)

Robert "Skip" Waller and Dave Albert (developers); Penguin Software (publisher)
Released 1984 for Apple II; 1985 for Commodore 64 and Macintosh
Date Started: 2 February 2016
Date Ended: 8 February 2016
Total Hours: 20
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 73/207 (35%)

Winning Xyphus in two postings took a lot of effort, but I didn't want to linger on this one.

As covered in my first post, the game is organized into six "scenarios," each with its own map and selection of items and foes. All of them except the last begin with the party in one fortress and end with the party in another fortress on the opposite side of the map. In between, the party usually has to find a particular item or kill a particular creature or both. The party also has generic side missions to slay as many foes as possible, find useful magic items, find useful spells, and replace Xiphoid amulets, which shatter after you've cast enough spells. Each scenario took me about 3 hours.

A title card lays out the key elements for Scenario 5.
And I solve the quest.

I started leveling up on the second map--it requires you to visit one of the towns after accumulating about 1,500 experience points--but leveling isn't rapid. On the last map, I was only Level 5. Leveling conveys extra hit points and allows you to do an extra point of damage in combat.

On each map, there was a wide range of monster difficulty. Some of them were only damageable by magic weapons, and a small number were only damageable by spells. At least one creature, a vampire, I couldn't damage no matter what I did; I suspect the key to slaying him was in a weapon in the middle of a lake that I was never able to figure out how to get. Fortunately, I was able to sneak past him to finish my mission.
Three of my characters keep the vampire occupied while the fourth goes past him to get the quest item.
An awful lot of creatures are capable of inflicting poison, and most of my spellcasting went into curing spells.

Overall, gameplay is quite hard. Even using save states and reloading liberally, I found myself in a number of perilous situations. Someone playing the game more honestly would have to take a lot of care to stay near garrisons and lure enemies one-by-one.

I wouldn't have been able to stomach the amount of time necessary to do this one for real. Even save-scumming and using "warp" mode in the VICE emulator, the extremely slow hexagonal movement continually tried my patience. The movement system is this game's most egregious mistake, combining four mechanics that would have been annoying enough on their own: hexes instead of rectangles, the necessity to move each party member in turn, an unpredictable order of movement among characters (since some get more moves than others), and the need to coax the party through tight terrain. If you've played Ultima IV and can remember how annoying it was to move the party through dungeon rooms, one character at a time, with some characters getting more moves than others, just imagine playing that for an entire game and a weird keyboard cluster.

Mincing through these corridors, one character at a time, in an unpredictable order, was nearly intolerable.
Xyphus piles on to this horrible design mistake by including invisible barriers all over the maps. Testing for passages in invisible barriers is annoying enough when you only have to worry about one character's movement at a time. By the time I reached the final scenario--a large, twisty dungeon with many passages one-character wide, and many blocked by invisible walls--I wanted to throw my laptop out the window. The ability to set an active character would have made a world of difference. It still wouldn't have been a great game, but it at least would have been tolerable.
Running into absolutely nothing to my west.
The emulator introduced a lot of bugs, too. For a while, it crashed every time I moved west. I had to alternate between northwest and southwest. Then it started crashing every time I tried to change weapons. Generally, saving the game properly in-game (i.e., not a save state) and restarting the emulator cleared up these issues, so I assume they weren't the game's fault.

The final scenario moved the party underground and commanded us to slay Xyphus. As I explored the dungeon, I found a couple of messages indicating I would need the Heart of Xyphus and a Crystal Key. I found the heart in the lower-left corner, guarded by demons, and the key in the upper-left, guarded by a dragon. Only an elf could pick up the heart and only a dwarf could pick up the key; the game had warned me at the beginning that I would need at least one of these.
Xyphus was in the lower-right corner, blocked by two doors. I was able to get through the first door with the key (since there's no "unlock" mechanic, the game had me wield the key like a weapon "attack" the door with the key). For a while, I couldn't get through the second door with either the key or the heart, and I started writing up this posting as a "final rating" without the "won!" Then, I thought to try all of the other weapons in my inventory, and it turns out that I just needed to attack it with a Xiphoid amulet.

The game very nearly ended here.
There was a final battle with three demon guards--my two fighters took care of them with "demon lances" that only work on demons.

Xyphus himself was immobile in the southeast corner. He was capable of killing my characters in a single blow, so I had to reload a couple of times, but he died in a single hit from his own heart.

I'm not really sure how I'm wielding a heart as a weapon. No matter what, it feels a bit cruel.
After this, the game unforgivably forced me to walk back to the garrison in the middle of the dungeon, where I was "rewarded" with an image of a castle, crown, and treasure chest with no accompanying text. I guess this is the game's way of saying that I got the kingdom that was promised.


  • 3 points for the game world. The framing story is pretty good, and the game ties into it with the title cards between scenarios. Not much of it is represented in actual gameplay, though.

The Macintosh version has a really nice world map.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Creation is just name, race, and class, and development isn't frequent enough to be truly rewarding.
"Character development."
  • 1 point for NPC interaction, which I allot to the witches who show up on some screens and give you clues. This is generous. Those are more like found messages than NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are mostly D&D boilerplate, but they are well-described in the manual and do have a variety of strengths and weaknesses you have to figure out. There are no other puzzles in the game, unfortunately, and no way to grind characters because all the enemies are fixed.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Fairly primitive, with most of the tactics associated with how many monsters you engage at a time, not how you engage them. A selection of spells whose uses you have to determine through experimentation makes things interesting, but for the most part, you're afraid to cast too many spells because you don't want to shatter your Xiphod amulets since each spelllcaster can only carry one at a time.
  • 2 points for equipment--a small selection of weapons to switch between and an incrementally-improved suit of armor.

Finding items like this was always fun.
  • 3 points for economy. I never had enough to buy all the spells.
  • 3 points for a main quest and some optional encounters and items that could be considered quasi-side-quests.
A title card gives me the quest for the last scenario.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound are primitive but adequate, but nothing excuses the movement interface.
  • 1 point for gameplay. Xyphus is mostly linear, non-replayable, a bit too hard, and a bit too long.

That gives us a final score of 23. I'm going to resist the temptation to take off more points for the interface since I have a special category for that. 

Xyphus was part of Penguin Software's growing catalogue of RPGs in the early 1980s; others included Expedition Amazon and Sword of Kadash. Each of these titles tries to do something different with the RPG experience--generally making it worse in the process, I should add, but at least they try.

"Featuring." Yes, that's the word I would have used.
I haven't been able to track down authors Robert "Skip" Waller or Dave Albert or find full bios on them, so I'm about to do some raw speculating. I'll come back and correct this if I get better information later. We've seen previously that it was Penguin's modus operandi to publish games developed by independent creators, but we've also seen them credit the independent creator along with their own staff, who presumably did some polishing to the final product. For instance, the title screen of Expedition Amazon credits the game to Willard Phillips, Greg Malone, and David Shapiro. From my own discussions with Phillips, it turns out that he wrote most of the game himself and Malone and Shapiro got the credits for additional programming and graphics. They never worked together and Phillips never even met his "co-authors."
Since Albert has a producer credit on Penguin's previous The Quest (1983), I'm going to guess that he was on Penguin's staff. I suspect that the original version of Xyphus was created independently by Waller, but after it was submitted to Penguin, Albert did enough polishing on the final version that he got co-credit.

Whatever the case, I can't find any evidence that Waller worked on anything else in the gaming world, whereas Albert went on to a long and distinguished career, with credits on games by Origin, Interplay, and Electronic Arts among others. I'm sure Albert was behind the detailed and evocative monster descriptions in the Xyphus manual. I don't know whether he already had a relationship with Origin at the time, but I suspect he was inspired by the quality of Ultima III's text, and it thus makes sense that Origin tapped him to write The Book of Wisdom for Ultima IV (1985). We've crossed Albert's path several times already: he was on the design team for Autoduel (1985) and served as a producer for various editions of Ultima (1986), Wasteland (1988), Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic (1988), The Bard's Tale III (1988), Fountain of Dreams (1990), and Escape from Hell (1990). His RPG credentials dry up after that.

It would be fun to track down Waller and confirm my take on the events, as well as my suspicion that he was heavily influenced by Ultima III, but the most likely candidate I could find died in 2010.

Finally, I should note that Wikipedia claims that Xyphus was the first RPG released on the Macintosh. I suppose it's possible, but MobyGames shows four other Mac releases in 1985: Rogue, The Temple of Apshai Trilogy, Ultima II, and Wizardry, and it's hard to tell the specific months in which they appeared.

And that finishes 1984! (If you're wondering what happened to Zyll, I played it for a while, and while I thought it was an interesting adventure game with some decent ideas, it lacked the character development of an RPG. It is closer to Zork than Beyond Zork.) We'll have a transition posting before moving on to 1985.


  1. Will you finally be selecting a Game of the Year for 1984?

  2. There is a second page of the advertisement above that has a small bio of the developers:

    1. Amazing. I don't know how you guys always manage to dig up these things when they're just images and not cataloged in search terms.

      Although it doesn't confirm my suspicions about the developers, it does strongly hint that I was right. Waller's bio suggests that he was the original mind behind the game.

      The wargame background is interesting, too. It's possible that I was mistaken about connections to U3.

    2. Of course, hexes, it had to be a wargamer.

      Wargaming was hugely influential in the 80s. It has largely disappeared today. Nobody is interested in counting rivets in a T-34 vs. Panzer Mark IV battle any more. Ancients battles have gone right out of fashion, they have. Pike and musket? Who even knows what those are any more?

    3. You should check out a blog called Wargaming Miscellany. It's my tabletop go-to blog. The third is . Not in the least, Chet is my other, other favorite.

    4. Dang it, I hit post before I wanted to. Yes, Xyphus does seem like a wargame with a plot more than a story with tactical decisions to make. I may have said it before, but if you enjoy good tactical combat with character development then many console games come o mind. Crystal Warriors on the Game Gear, Final Fantasy Tactics on the PS1, and Shining Force on the Genesis.

    5. Since I am a librarian, I thought I would see what I can find for Dr. Waller in the indices to academic and scientific literature.

      Between 1977 and 1982, a Robert L. Waller co-authored several articles about organic chemistry. I do not know what his institutional affiliation was.

    6. If anyone wants I can plug him into some chemistry databases. That said, I'm wait behind and people might not care anymore.

      Wargaming is still around I think, as is that desire to count rivits. Warhammer 40k is still quite big. Also we are seeing a resurgence of incredibly detailed strategy computer games: Stellaris, Endless Legend, even Cities: Skylines.

      Even that rivits desire is around- check out some of the Warhammer hobby blogs. Some of the detail they put into their armies is crazy. I think it is more a result of changing interests with less interest in WWII and Napoleon and more in science fiction.

  3. Some people here might be interested to know that Usborne made their 1980s children's microcomputer books available for free download. These are some wonderfully illustrated books. Check out "Write Your Own Fantasy Games For Your Microcomputer" if you want to know what goes into programming a small CRPG.

    1. Awesome, thanks for the link! I remember borrowing "Write Your Own Fantasy Games" from the library when I was a kid, but it was a bit much for me. I probably just enjoyed looking at the illustrations.

    2. Speaking of older resources coming to light, just released a bunch of Windows 3.1 software. Not sure if there are any RPGs in the list, but there are definitely other genres of older games. The headline said something like 1,500 pieces of software, but the link I followed only seems to have about 50. Not sure if I'm missing something, or it's still in progress.

    3. I think that was the landing page. Here's one filtering primarily for games or things more fun than productive, with much closer to 1,000 of them. Mostly shareware, it seems, but there might be some good nostalgic items in there.

  4. I see Albert's Autoduel coming up and so close to both Xyphus and Alternate Reality. I have been re-reading your old posts on these games and look forward to your comments on them. I used to play both of these years and years ago, but never knew about Xyphus. The world map looks like the eastern Mediterranean, but I do not see how is reflects what the computer is showing. Thank you again for digging up these relics.

  5. Wow...a one screen ending, without text even. Perhaps I should be grateful that my C64 copy was bugged to the point of never even seeing the second scenario. I wonder what 12 year old me would have thought of the genre overall if I'd have seen such an ending. Oh well, the manual was enough to grab my imagination, and once I got some friends who knew about proper CRPGs post-high school, I was genuinely hooked.

    Thanks so much for slogging through it! That at least one personal mystery solved. I'll tip a glass to you once this miserable cold is gone.

    1. Well, some games just give some lame text and no graphical ending. Eh.... I'd honestly forgot the ending. Wonder what the end game for the other versions looks like?

    2. Ha, I'm reminded of hanging out at a friends place and watching him play Boy and His Blob on the original NES. He finally beat it and it didn't even go to a different screen. It just put something like 'You've won the game, congratulations!' across the top of the screen. I thought he was going to go insane.

  6. I played and won Xyphus so many years ago on real Apple // but I don't remember anything about the game except that you need the heart of Xyphus to defeat him. But I don't remember the game was too hard. Maybe we have been very generous to tedious games in those days.

  7. The final rating is lower than i expected. I think i will skip this one eventhough i'd like to check some Ultima clone after I finish Martian Dreams. Maybe The Magic Candle? But damn, thats a long game...

    1. It's not if you don't know how to play. Short and extremely brutal.

  8. To be honest I don't see much of a difference (RPG wise) between these -84-85 titles and space crusade aside from the usual differences between fantasy and scifi and of c. the fact that space crusade is actually fun to play but YMMV.

  9. That box art is far more interesting than the game deserves. I would totally play a game about a tribe of penguins finding a knight and two homeless warriors trapped in a crystal.

    1. Generally, Penguin Software games had pretty good cover art, well-written manuals, and were decently competent adventure games/RPGs.

      Except for Talisman: Challenging the Sands of Time. I don't know why, but that cover just pisses me off.

    2. If there's real live camels involved, some skank giving YOU a giant diamond pendant and flying carpets for sale, I think the art is pretty "rich", actually.

  10. I remember playing this as a kid. I loved this game, it was one of those games I finished entirely on my own with no help whatsoever and was very proud of doing so at the time. This post reminds me of fond memories. Thanks.

    Those were fond days of minimalist gaming where imagination supplied most of a game's shortcomings.


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