Friday, March 11, 2016

AutoDuel: Won! (with Final Rating)

Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit; 1987 for DOS and Atari ST; 1988 for Amiga and Macintosh
Date Started: 12 March 2010
Date Ended: 11 March 2016
Total Hours: 15
Reload Count: 21
Difficulty: Hard (4/5) if played honestly; moderate (3/5) if backing up save file
Final Rating: 37
Ranking at Time of Posting: 163/210 (78%)
AutoDuel is a compact, original, and fun game, but it's also a fairly unbalanced game. As I noted in the last posting, I found the beginning extremely difficult, when I hardly had any money, my marksmanship and driving statistics were low, and I was struggling to learn the controls. Neither arena matches nor courier jobs paid more than it cost to fix my car and replenish ammunition in between. If it wasn't for gambling in Atlantic City, I'm not sure how I would have survived. In the mid-game, the pendulum swings to the "easy" side but it goes back to "hard" just in time for the final mission.

In my opinion, including the option to gamble--with apparently no limit on the amount you can bet or win--was a huge mistake. If you removed gambling from the game, made the courier jobs pay a little more, and made repairs and ammo cost a little less, you'd have an authentically challenging game--but not overly so--in which the character is always struggling to make incremental improvements; to save up enough for his next car, to buy a new weapon, to take another mechanic's lesson, to upgrade his brain scan. But when regular money comes so hard and goes so fast, and gambling money comes so easy (the odds are so favorable to the player that you don't even have to cheat, although there might be platform differences here), there's a strong temptation to just win enough money that you can buy everything you'd ever want or need. After that, the only reason to do courier jobs or compete in tournaments is to build prestige towards the endgame.
The game isn't even really trying.
I've already described the opening stages. The mid-game is a process of improving your character's statistics and reputation so you can survive the endgame. This is done primarily by fighting in the arena and making successful courier runs along the eastern seaboard. There are several levels of arena tournaments--all of which I accidentally excluded myself from by buying too-expensive a car--plus "city championships" every 12 weeks. The first time I entered one of these, I got beat down hard. You have to defeat around 10 foes--they never fight each other, just you--and some of them strip away your armor with a few laser cannon shots.

Screen shots don't really convey how fast the combat is. From the moment an enemy appears on screen, you only have about a second to react effectively before he's upon you. Once an enemy crashes into you, it becomes difficult to turn and fire, so you need to use that second to either whip the car around and head in the other direction, blasting him with rear weapons, or to line up the front of your car with his and use forward weapons. Once the shooting starts, one of you is usually dead within 3 seconds. So while there are some tactics associated with outfitting the vehicle, when combat actually begins, controller dexterity matters more than anything.
Treating trees like an obstacle course helped me master the controls.
After my first death in a city championship, my clone decided to gain experience on the road before entering any more. Building my character's skill in marksmanship and driving (both go up automatically as you fight and drive) was less important than building my own skills at the controls. I had to get to a point where maneuvering and switching between weapons became second-nature rather than the floundering chaos that had characterized them up to that point.
Traveling in reverse and shooting at the enemy while he tries to ram me. Note that my front armor is gone. One shot from him would have killed me.
It worked reasonably well. I discovered a couple of tactics that worked reliably, including letting the enemy chase me and bathing him in flames (a couple of commenters talked about the utility of this approach) and backing away from the enemy while blasting him with lasers or machine guns. Ammunition goes fast in both scenarios. When I outfitted my new car, I put multiple weapons on the front and back (you'd have to be much more skilled than I am to effectively use weapons on the sides), including one laser cannon each. The laser cannons, which use no ammunition (but slowly drain the battery) are useful backups for when ammo in the stronger weapons runs out.
Some little mine-dropping bastard chases me while I broil him alive.
I experimented with other weapons but I never got very good with them. I found that rockets miss too often to be of much use. Enemies seemed to avoid spikes and mines too easily. I discovered that I could accomplish almost everything I needed with machine guns, lasers, and a flame thrower. But my experimentation was worth it because it taught me the utility of the "oil slick," which generally confounds enemies long enough that you can drive away from them. It's useless in arena duels but a lifesaver in courier missions when you need to make a fast getaway.
My dropped spikes fail to stop an arena opponent.
I fought these battles in the context of running courier missions between cities. There's a science to courier missions. To fully recover after a combat, you have to be able to a) repair your car in a garage; b) recharge the battery in a garage or truck stop; c) replenish ammunition in a weapons shop; and d) sell any salvage at a salvage yard (this one is admittedly the least important). But not all cities offer all amenities; in particular, weapons stores and garages are absent from many of them. You want to avoid these on your runs. You also want to avoid having to go too far for too little reward, or taking missions that are too time-sensitive (there's an option to "sell" courier jobs in bars, but you lose prestige doing so). Finally, to save time, you want an "AAA" building in your destination city so you can immediately get another job. I settled into a process of going between Philadelphia, New York, Albany, and Boston for most of this middle section.
One awful courier job and a couple of really good ones.
I stuck to a single car at a time throughout the game, mostly so I wouldn't confuse myself about what weapons I had at any given time, but I could see the utility of keeping separate cars for courier missions and arena battles. You might create a fast car with a couple of rear oil slicks to dart quickly between cities, for instance, then get your heavy-chassis pickup out of the garage for the arena duels.
My third and final car. I had just enough space left for cargo.
I stopped playing honestly at some point. I could usually afford a clone and a brain scan, but I didn't like losing my car every time I died, so I started backing up my driver file between cities. I "reloaded" about 20 times during the game, with about a third of those reloads in the final section. A couple of the reloads happened when I got lost on the roads in between two cities and didn't feel like figuring it out. Two or three times, I reloaded when my car got so damaged in combat that I couldn't drive it; trying to walk between cities is almost certainly fatal and takes forever besides. Several of the other deaths were occasioned by trying to take screen shots in the midst of combat. In a game with combat this fast, removing your hands (and attention) from the mouse to hit CTRL-F5 can be deadly.
Eventually, I got good enough that I was able to win the city championships, which pays $9,500 and increases your reputation by 3. I didn't win every city--the calendar didn't always work in my favor--but I won 5 or 6, including New York's twice in a row.
Winning an arena championship.
My "marksmanship" statistic rocketed to 99 very quickly, and I paid enough in lessons to get "mechanical" ability up to around 75. (All it affects, I think, is the likelihood of looting parts and ammo from enemy cars.) My "driving" skill steadfastly refused to improve quickly, and even at the end of the game, it was only around 50.
Once I was strong enough to win most combats on the road, I felt more comfortable leaving the comfort of New York with its full slate of services. More out of curiosity than anything else, I decided to visit every city on the map and took courier missions accordingly. Manchester, New Hampshire has the Origin Systems headquarters (they were located there at the time); entering the building gives you a little advertisement about upcoming games.
This is the only time I've ever seen the company abbreviated "OSI."
A few cities, like Albany, Watertown, and Syracuse, have abandoned buildings where I got mugged every time I entered. Philadelphia has a pet store, but I was never able to do anything productive there. Syracuse has a sign that says "Ultima" for some reason. Baltimore has a hotel where it costs $200 to spend the night versus $10 at truck stops, and there doesn't seem to be any additional benefit. Washington, DC oddly has nothing of note.

Is that supposed to be a billboard?
I often ran across rumors of lucrative jobs in other cities. For a few months, I might hear repeatedly that they need a courier at Joe's Bar in Baltimore or I should say "Rose" at the weapon shop in Scranton. But these rumors were always in remote cities, or inconvenient to my current location, so I never got any of these special missions.
A hint about a gig I never explored.
In between the cities, the roads are full of trees, cows, cemeteries, and little buildings, some of which look like service stations. The manual suggests that you can stop at some of them and perhaps get some of the same services that you get in the cities, but I was never able to enter any building on the road. Does anyone know if this feature really exists?
Am I supposed to be able to interact with these things?
My prestige rose quickly through regular combat, arena victories, and courier missions. When it hit 99, I got a rumor that the FBI wanted to see me. I visited their headquarters in New York and got this mission:
We have an important assignment for you. Mr. Big has gotten one of his men into Gold Cross and wants to set up a bootleg brain tape operation. If he succeeds, he'll own the whole East Coast before long. But if we can act now, we can foil him, and get the evidence to put him behind bars. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to go to the Outlaw HQ, which we know is in Watertown, and pose as their courier. Take the brain tape they will give you, and bring it here. It is vital evidence. The password they will want is "Rumplestiltskin."
Let's pause for a moment to consider the absurdity of a society that has collapsed to such a degree that drivers openly kill each other on the road, and yet the FBI--which still somehow exists--is keen to collect "evidence" on a criminal so they can "put him behind bars." It's nice that due process survived the apocalypse.

The mission required me to travel a route from New York to Albany to Syracuse to Watertown and back again. Syrcause has no garage (for repairs to the car) and Watertown has no weapon shop, but Albany has both, so it wasn't a terribly hard mission resource-wise. What made it difficult was the sheer number of cars on the road. In a typical trip between cities, I might face anywhere from 2-6 cars, but this mission offered more like 6-10 on the way out and 10-15 on the way back.

When I got to the garage in Watertown and gave the password, Mr. Big's goons loaded the tapes into my car, then informed me that they had killed my clone, making the return trip extra risky. As I left the building, someone yelled, "Get that guy! He's with the FBI!" which I guess was supposed to explain the number of vehicles I faced on the way back, but it didn't really have any other consequences.
I feel like these screens could have made a better use of space.
I briefly wondered if I could just take buses back to New York, but no, as long as you have cargo--even if it weighs nothing--you have to keep your car. It took me about 6 reloads to successfully make it back, and 4 of them were on the last stretch from Albany to New York, where multiple enemies attacked me simultaneously on the narrow road. The mission would have been cripplingly difficult if I was playing in 1985, particularly since without the clone, any death is permanent and requires starting over with a new character. The difficultly seems designed to artificially pad the length of the game, since by allowing myself to backup and restore the save file, I was able to win in about 6 hours.
One of my several deaths on the way back to New York.
Incidentally, I didn't know until the last seconds of the game that I was, in fact, on the final mission. I thought the FBI might have several missions for me, culminating in the demise of Mr. Big. I wasn't looking forward to more of these difficult runs. But when I returned to the FBI in New York, I got a quick message that "With this evidence, we can finally put Mr. Big behind bars for a very long time" followed by a mock-up of a newspaper article and the ability to keep playing if I wanted. I was a little surprised there was no "boss battle" in the game, against a tank or something. You don't even really have to kill anyone in AutoDuel. You could win by racing past your opponents, leaving them mired in oil slicks and smoke screens.
Color photographs in newspapers: one of the many wonders of the future.
I like the game better at the end of this posting than I did at the ends of my previous two. The mid-game--the process of building the character through missions and duels--was fun enough for a few hours. The setting and mechanics are wholly original for a CRPG, which is something that Origin of course specialized in. But the backstory and game setting are inconsistent and absurd, and I wish the Origin team had made some more tweaks so that combat was slower and more tactical and the economy wasn't so unbalanced.

I'm surprised to see that I gave it a GIMLET as high as 36 the first time through. That's an awfully high score for a game I abandoned after a few hours, but then again that abandonment was motivated more by my (mistaken) belief that there was no main quest than actual dislike for the game. Going through it again, I think I might rank it lower despite feeling better about it. Let's see:

  • 4 points for the game world. Original, yes. Good, no. The setting doesn't make any sense (humanity somehow developed clones and fusion reactors after the apocalypse) and the backstory serves only as a thin excuse for the mechanics, much like we see in franchises like BattleTech.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There are a few creation options and a few statistics that increase in different ways.
My stats at the end of the game.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction, awarded for the random rumors and notices in some of the buildings.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. There are a variety of different enemy vehicles, with different weapons and weaknesses, and of course the nature of the enemies is different than in most other RPGs. The game is a little odd in that there are no fixed encounters or boss battles. There are also no puzzles or role-playing choices.
  • 2 points for combat. Sorry, but I didn't like it. It's too fast, too action-oriented, too dependent on the controller instead of tactics.
Combat is over too soon to be tactical.
  • 6 points for equipment. The car and its various armors, upgrades, weapons, and accessories goes into this category. I like that you can name vehicles and create multiple vehicles per character for different purposes. You don't find equipment as in a traditional RPG, but it's still an interesting part of the game, and it seems to me that the vehicle creation screen is the defining moment in AutoDuel.
  • 5 points for the economy. I already talked about how imbalanced it is, but it is nonetheless a key part of the game. You have to keep making money to afford repairs and restocking. A few tweaks would have made it authentically good.
You need money primarily for this.
  • 4 points for quests. There is a main quest and I guess an infinite number of side-quests in the form of courier jobs and autodueling championships.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are fine, the sound tolerable enough, but I think they could have done a better job with the interface. I don't understand why choosing the mouse as the controller in the DOS version had to disable the keyboard controls for movement, which would have been easier in the cities. I generally prefer to play RPGs on the keyboard, but there was no configuration in which movement made sense to me in any version.
  • 5 points for gameplay. I have to give it credit for being nonlinear. Until the final mission, the player can go wherever he wants and build is prestige in whatever way that he wants. It's replayable in the sense of trying different vehicles, and although I thought it was challenging--especially for someone playing honestly--it's also brief enough that the heavy challenge makes sense.
That gives us a final score of 37. I was wrong! I scored it one point higher than in 2010, when I retroactively applied the rating scale. (I didn't come up with it until the next game.) I gave much higher scores in 2010 to the "game world" and "combat" categories, but lower scores to "quests" and "gameplay." The latter two can be explained by not understanding the totality of the game back then; the former two were me being overly-generous during the early parts of my blog.
Bill Oxnar's May 1986 review in Computer Gaming World agrees with me in almost everything. He discusses the fast and frenetic combat and the need for manual dexterity, the utter lethality of the game for new players, the steep learning curve, and the lack of bugs. He explicitly recommends backing up the data disk to avoid permadeath. He concludes "highly recommended" where I conclude "kind of recommended" mostly because I have the benefit of knowing how the game plays 30 years later. CGW itself had a less rosy opinion of the game when they took a look in a November 1992 retrospective and concluded that "graphics and game play now appear very dated."

Another very positive review in the October 1986 Compute! highlights something that never occurred to me: the similarity between this game and the popular arcade game Spy Hunter. I put a lot of quarters into that one in the early 1980s and if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still hear the game's memorable score. (Come to think of it, that was the Peter Gunn theme, wasn't it?) Anyway, the games share many of the same weapons and the basic premise of vehicle combat on the road, though Spy Hunter occurs on a linear path and involves an additional difficulty in that you have to avoid shooting civilian cars--something that would have been an interesting addition here.
Blasting enemies on the road in Spy Hunter.
AutoDuel was created by Chuck "Chuckles" Bueche, high school and college friend of Richard Garriott and co-founder of Origin Systems. While Garriott's projects remained steeped in fantasy role-playing, Bueche's have always favored action; his pre-Origin titles like Lunar Leeper (1981) and Brainteaser Boulevard! (1982) are essentially arcade games. Both of Bueche's projects at Origin--AutoDuel and 2400 A.D. (1987)--are fundamentally action games, but with Garriott's influence felt in some underlying RPG mechanics.

Matt Barton at "Armchair Arcade" interviewed Bueche back in 2007 and talked about AutoDuel. Bueche indicates that Steve Jackson games was unhappy about the action approach--they wanted something turn-based and strategic, much like Car Wars itself--but they were happy with the money that the game made. Bueche calls it the most successful of his titles.
For its tagline, the advertisement lazily adopts New Jersey's official motto.
I'm not usually sympathetic to fans' desires to remake old classics. Usually, in such circumstances, either one of three things is true: 1) the game actually sucks, and people are being deluded by their childhood memories; 2) the game was okay, but it has since been surpassed by much better games, leaving no need to remake it; or 3) the game is just fine in its original form, so there's no point in not playing it that way.

In the case of AutoDuel, I'm glad to make an exception. The idea is interesting enough that I'd actually enjoy seeing it attempted with better combat mechanics and a more interesting plot. I'm not sure why it hasn't happened yet, particularly given the cult status of the game among its many fans, but I suspect it has to do with Steve Jackson Games still existing and holding the trademark. It appears that late last year, Brian Fargo's inXile Entertainment filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to acquire the trademark, an application that is currently being contested by Steve Jackson Games. I'm sure there's more to this story that hasn't made its way to the Web yet.

Tomorrow marks six years to the day that I fired up AutoDuel in the early stages of my blog, and I hope that even though my updated review isn't exactly "glowing," fans of the game will agree that I at least gave it a fair chance. It's always nice to turn a "No" into a "Yes" in the "Won?" column. Now that we've revisited a couple of 1985 titles that I originally covered too soon and too quick, it's time to delve into a brand new one: Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity.


  1. Haha @ the color in newspapers caption.

    Totally agree regarding remakes of games (and films).

    If there was a kernel of something interesting that wasn't adequately given the chance to shine - sure, give it a remake. It feels like this is almost never the rationale though.

  2. Yes, that is the Peter Gunn theme in Spy Hunter. They wanted to use the James Bond theme but couldn't afford the asking price.

    1. Well they later made live and let die as a spy hunter clone so that kind of evens up. :p

  3. Autoduel is a great candidate for a remake--agreed. This is one of my favorites from the Apple ][ glory days. I'm looking forward to your Bronze Dragon play thru, as I recall picking that up near the end of my Apple ][ days and never played it much. But I remember it having some cool innovative Eamon-like details... tempted to to give it a go via emulation. Thanks for the site!

  4. Hurray, Bronze Dragon! The only game I know of that combines randomly generated dungeons(castles) with definite need for mapping. Really curious about how Addict will feel about this wizardry-like.

  5. Nice job finishing this game, you have given it the attention it deserved after your first pass. The only other game I feel you haven't given justice to now is sword of glass, and possibly those French games you bailed on.

  6. There is a game what can be considered a spiritual successor / loose remake of AutoDuel.
    Car Battler Joe for GBA.
    Most likely you won't be playing it, but it's a moderately fun game.

    1. I endorse Car Battler Joe.

      The difficulty starts out very balanced although it gets too easy once you build your car up enough. If I ever replay I'm going to self-impose a restriction to the number of weapons my vehicle can have.

  7. Interstate '76 isn't related to Autoduel in any way, but it's the closest we have to a sequel. Now if there ever was a game that deserved a remake...

  8. Well done. It's great that you were able to put this one to rest, and it does sound like the prime candidate for a remake (inXile would seem to concur if that trademark kerfuffle is anything to go by - I'm eagerly awaiting their Bard's Tale reboot/sequel, though I've still got their Wasteland 2 to play first).

    Stoked to see Dragon Slayer II coming up on the docket. I'm more familiar with its semi-sequel Faxanadu, but I'm curious to see what you think about it. It's regarded as a big cornerstone for "JRPGs", for as nebulous as that term is these days. I have a lot of affection for Falcom games; I just recently completed my second Ys Origin playthrough, and will be playing the second chapter of Trails in the Sky sometime later this year. Great stuff.

  9. "It's always nice to turn a "No" into a "Yes" in the "Won?" column." It's good you give some games second chances. I hope this will continue and you will win as many as possible. Please, whatever happens, continue this blog, because it's getting better and better and Im seriously addicted ;) This is your life's work. I really hope you will publish a book about a history of cRPGs someday. But take your time. You need to map it carefully. To understand all influences and connections. I'm sure your book will be a masterpiece and one day, when videogames will be accepted in our culture on the same level as books and movies, kids in schools will be learning a history from it ;)

    1. This is easily the best comment I've ever received from an anonymous commenter.

    2. Although I mostly agree with the anonymous, I do hope
      that thou dost not stray far away from the virtue of

    3. I lost that eighth a long time ago.

    4. At least you're Honest.


  10. After seeing upcoming game list; and browsing about Dragoun Slayer II; I noticed some games that are absent from master list.

    1. Xanadu: Scenario II is expansion for Xanadu:Dragon Slayer II released in 1986. Platforms: FM-7, PC-88, PC-98, Sharp X1. This expansion was released only in Japan, but language is english.

    2. Revival Xanadu is Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II remake. Released for PC-98 in 1995. Intro text and final text are in japanese; but game is in english.

    3. Revival Xanadu II Remix is 1995 remake of Xanadu: Scenario II released for PC-98. Intro text and final text are in japanese; but game is in english.

    1. The extension requires the original game, I assume? If so, I should play it as part of the primary game rather than listing it separately.

    2. According to wikipedia, mobygames and hardcoregaming101 Xanadu: Scenario II require original game, but adds a significant amount of new features that it almost feels like a sequel.

      From mobygames: The game requires the original Xanadu to play; character creation must be done with the original game discs inserted, after which the player can directly access this scenario.

      Hm; from descriptions its also harder than main game. Maybe is better for listing the game separately?

  11. Congratulations on passing this milestone. Your attention to detail is a good corrective to nostalgic double-vision. For it's time, it was an innovative game, but not without flaw and time passing has only increased the flaws. Then again I am prejudiced. I do not like computer role playing games with real time or arcade style combat. There is a wall for me between say Ultima, or Gold Box and Atari Adventure or Mattel's Dungeon and Dragons. Mix the two and you get a mess.

  12. I loved this game as a kid and even finished it. The controls were horrible, but the sense of freedom you had in exploring the roads was unmatched. It's hard to remember a day when one did not have the Internet to fall back on, but in the 80's, this game as as open world as it got. I would play just to find all the towns. Thanks for your work. Also, I've been looking for a little known rpg that I played briefly around the same time. I think it's name was "wrath of denthor" or something similar on the apple II. I've not been able to find out much about it- does it ring any bells for you?

    1. I kind-of know what you mean. Back then, without the Internet and before I really understood things like programming limitations, my mind could nurture the possibility that I might find the right set of roads to go all the way to Los Angeles or something. Often, what excites us about a game are the possibilities (real or hallucinated) rather than the realities.

      I suppose it's the same when I used to gaze westward from some Pacific Beach and think about all the exotic cultures that must exist where the ocean ended. Now, I can pull out my iPhone, zoom over there, and check out what the next piece of land looks like on Google street view.

    2. I believe the correct name of the game is "Wrath of Denethenor" by Sierra.

  13. I too played this one as a kid in my mid teens. I had it for both the C64 as well as the Amiga 500. I recall cheating to get money on the C64 version. A friend of mine also had the game and told me you could go into the car garage and build a car that was oversight and over my available funds, just max everything out... I can't remember what to do after that, but I recall I followed his instructions and I ended up with basically unlimited cash. Yeah, I won the game on the C64 but cheated to do it. On the Amiga version I didn't use the cash cheat, I think I tried, but it didn't work. I won the game on the Amiga as well, but had to earn it, and found it much like you said above; spending money as soon as I got it for upkeep. I had to get very good in the arena and developed a system for each enemy location to take them out. I also gambled my butt off.

  14. Thank-you for another excellent and detailed review!

    I was interested in playing this title, but the emphasis on fast reflexes in combat makes it unappealing to me.

  15. Spot on review that triggers a lot of old memories. The difficulty curve was incredible without gambling exploit and save scumming. I never managed to complete it but had good fun with the rear mounted flame throwers. And yes, I also never found a way to do anything at the cross-country fuel stations and other features.

    A remake (turn based!) would be highly appreciated.

    1. I could almost see it being done well with an engine like Fallout 3-4, with the ability to engage in action combat or target the enemy carefully using a system like VATS.

    2. ActionVestAdventureMarch 19, 2016 at 12:06 AM

      That would be pretty interesting to see.

  16. ActionVestAdventureMarch 19, 2016 at 12:04 AM

    I have vague memories of this game, or maybe my brain was intentionally blocking it out. I do remember getting frustrated and hex editing the save data heh.

  17. Just wanted to offer this piece of useless information:
    Origin was frequently referred to as "OSI" by the Ultima Online community both in the game and websites/forums, at least when I was actively playing (1997 to 2005).
    I completely forgot about it until I saw the AutoDuel screenshot.

  18. New Jersey drivers sound like the one I encountered in Montreal.


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