Monday, March 21, 2016

Game 216: City of Death (1985)

I'm not a huge fan of this game, but I have to admit this isn't a bad graphic.

City of Death
United Kingdom
Independently developed; published by Red Shift Ltd.
Released 1985 for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 16 March 2016
Date Ended: 16 March 2016
Total Hours: 1
Reload Count: 2
Difficulty: Adjustable between very easy (1/5) and moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 21/213 (10%)
Ranking at Game #452: 57/452 (13%)

City of Death is a silly, inconsequential pseudo-RPG. It was written for the ZX Spectrum. But I repeat myself. I could reject it as an RPG on technical grounds, but I won it in less than an hour, so I guess I might as well say something about it.

As a tape game with no save ability, I knew it wasn't destined to last long. There's no character creation process, just a difficulty setting from "easy" (which is very easy) to "moderate" (which is easy) to "hard" (which is moderate). The setting affects the character's starting attributes: skill, stamina, and coin.
You play a warrior named Swordbane who has come by boat to the City of Death hoping to find the wizard Bellatrix (oddly given as a male), the only person who can save Swordbane's village from "the dark sorcery of the evil Druids." The setup is that Bellatrix is living in one of the several dozen houses in the city--his position is randomized at the start of the game--and you have to find him. It doesn't take that long even if you visit the houses randomly. After you find him, you have to kill a skeleton. Then the game is over.

[Edit: As commenters pointed out below, the game's "plot" and main screen art are clearly drawn from the Fighting Fantasy gamebook City of Thieves (1983). No acknowledgement to the source material is provided in the game or in the one bit of documentation I found online. I'm guessing it wasn't an official collaboration.]
Just off the boat. What is it about the ZX Spectrum that encouraged games with tiny stick figure icons?
The map shows various boats, parks, and other interesting features, but the character has to stay on the gridded roads. He moves with the uncomfortable AZXC cluster. All options are always on the screen, even though you have to be in particular places to do them.

Your only hope in finding Bellatrix, other than systematically exploring every house in town, is to purchase hints from the townsfolk. The key mechanic of the game is barging into each house and either ransacking it for gold or paying the occupants for intelligence. You can only visit each house one time.
You basically play a sociopath in this game.
Searching and stealing has a chance of producing an angry homeowner, whom you then have to fight to the death--more on that below. Offering to pay for help produces a 5 gold piece option and a 10 gold piece option. The 5 gold piece option always produces the same thing: "a skeleton rules this town." The 10 gold piece option gives you some information about Bellatrix, such as "Bellatrix lives close to the palace" or "Bellatrix lives near the tower." The information might be a lie, but lies only come up once, whereas true statements will appear at least twice. Once you have double-confirmation of Bellatrix's whereabouts, there's no reason to keep paying for information; it makes more sense just to loot the houses at that point.
Combat can occur with residents, as above, or with the guards (blue icons) or "soul-looters" (red or green icons) that patrol key intersections. If you surrender to them, you'll be taken to jail, where you lose a ton of stamina, so that's a bad option. But all combats are to the death, so it's best to avoid guards and soul-looters early in the game.
An early character fails to take my advice.
In combat, you have various options to strike individual body parts or an option to strike randomly, which has a better chance of hitting but does less damage. You and the enemy exchange blows until one of you is dead. Your success in combat depends on your skill, and the results are really pre-determined. At a skill of 20 or above, house residents never even scratch you. At 50 and above, you're immune to guards and soul-looters.
Fighting a soul-looter.
Increasing skill and stamina is a matter of finding the game's various shops. You don't actually buy "things" in these shops, you just pay varying amounts of money to increase your skill (weapon shop), stamina (tavern), or both simultaneously (magic shop). 
Improving my skill in the armory.
When you finally find Bellatrix, either through luck or clues, he significantly boosts your statistics and tells you to go kill the ruler of the city--the skeleton from the hints.
The skeleton is just wandering around the city, but before you bump into him, you need to get your skill to 75 or above. Below that, it's impossible to win the combat; above it, it's impossible to lose.

I was doomed to fail this one.
Killing the skeleton gives you a congratulations screen with the number of moves it took to win. I guess the goal is to try to beat the game in the smallest number of moves possible. This becomes easier when you know the layout of the city and where places like the tower, palace, dungeon, and estuary are.
As I said, a silly game, barely an RPG, to occupy only the briefest section of time. It earns virtually nothing on the GIMLET:

  • 1 point for the game world for a bare-bones framing story.
  • 1 point for character creation and development--no creation, minimal development.
  • 2 points for NPCs, who are relatively vital to the game.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes.
  • 1 point for combat, which not only lacks tactics but lacks even random luck.
  • 0 points for no equipment.
  • 2 points for an economy that's reasonably important.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for minimal graphics and sound and an iffy interface.
  • 1 point for gameplay, awarded for being somewhat replayable.

The final score of 13 seems a little high, but at least the game was short.
The developers are given as Peter Carmpouloni and George Carmpouloni, and the only thing that comes up in my Google searches of the brothers are their games. In addition to City of Death, they seem to have been responsible for two adventure games in 1986: Missione Sabotage and Time Sanctuary. The publisher, Red Shift Ltd. in the London Borough of Hackney, had a history of publishing minor titles from independent developers during its brief (1983-1985) existence.

I'm sure that, as a kid, this would have been an adequate time-waster, but....1985? Come on. The ZX Spectrum wasn't a great machine, but it was capable of better than this. I'm still waiting for a 1980s U.K. game that shows that some developer in the country actually understood RPGs. Maybe we'll see it with Fairlight or Runestone or one of the other games coming up this year.


  1. The Speccy had many good games (like Fairlight), but the only one I would call an RPG, of those I've played, is Heavy on the Magic, and maybe Mindstone (good (but short) game, but I can't recall if it qualifies as an RPG).
    I never heard about City of Death, and it doesn't sound like I missed anything

    1. Well, other than Swords & Sorcery (that I mentioned in a comment below), there was always the (very good) port of The Bard's Tale 1...

    2. Petrus said what I was about to say. It just wasn't a genre the Speccy did. There was fantastic stuff in other genres, but never an RPG. Sometimes there were RPG hybrids. And certainly, there were some ports.

      That said, the first screenshot is pretty cool. If I'd seen it at the time, I would have remembered it.

    3. I enjoyed Heavy on the Majick too, but I considered it more of an 'adventure' game.

  2. What a strange game!

    I've just peeked ahead at Dragon Slayer 2: Xanadu and that one looks quite interesting as an action/RPG hybrid. I have never heard of it before, but it seems to have quite good graphics for 1985. It's sequel, "Xanadu: Scenario 2" is on your spreadsheet for 1986 but not marked in the playlist. Is that an oversight or are you waiting to see if this one counts as a proper RPG before deciding on the next one?

    1. No, I just forgot to put it on the playlist when I found out that the main game was in English. I fixed it. I still haven't decided if I should play S2 as part of the main game or not. I haven't come up with a consistent rule on that.

    2. It came out in a different year, so... maybe a separate play?

      Wizardry 2 has a tiny bit of precedent perhaps because that also required the first game's disks to play. (But of course that was worse because you had to BEAT the first game to play.)

  3. This looks like a rip-off of the Fighting Fantasy book City of Thieves. At least judging from the title screen and story:

    And seriously, the speccy wasn't a great machine? The only way you could make me more angry was if you said that about the Amiga:)

    1. Just popped in here to say much the same: "that title screen is bad fan-art of Zanbar Bone, the antagonist of the 1983 Fighting Fantasy gamebook City of Thieves".

    2. I actually got my titles mixed up, and thought initially that this was going to be of a computerrized version of the gamebook. Apparently, the designers of the game thought that too.

    3. I'm really glad you clued me in to this gamebook. The game clearly is based on the book's story and art. Edits made above.

  4. About Spectrum RPGs, there's Swords & Sorcery, also from 1985:

    It's real time, first person, and you can talk to NPCs (by choosing options from a menu). I also thought the graphics were pretty good. It's also a lot more complex than most games at the time.

    On the other hand, I remember it being a bit buggy (so it's better to use emulator save states), and also, well, a bit hard to learn, needing a lot of deaths before you start to go anywhere. I *was* a kid back then, though, and I didn't have a manual (only pirated copies of games were sold in Portugal until much later).

    1. Indeed, that looks like a genuine RPG. I'm surprised I don't remember it - it seems like a game I'd have bought at the time.

  5. I feel like this game was built to give the illusion of being a complete RPG. Every feature it has sounds like something they put in to make the proverbial "back of the box" look good by being -just- vague enough to not be false advertising.






    Stuff like that. It's not -technically- lying. Plus, the UI looks like it was made just so the screenshots would look more like a complete RPG with a lot of choices and options. Why do buying spells, buying weapons, and buying food all have their own dedicated keys when you're never in a position where you can do more than one at a time? Who knows, but it certainly makes the game look more complex at a glance!

    Really, this game is brilliant. Maybe I'm cynical, but I'd definitely hire these guys if I were in marketing. Also, "Swordbane" is the best name for an RPG main character I've ever heard in my entire life.

    1. It would have been better if the avatar was holding a mace.

    2. Does the back of the box actually say that? Or did you just make that up? I'm confused.

      They had separate buttons for everything because there was a whole keyboard sitting right there with nothing else going on. It was also much simpler to program things like "IF KEYPRESS=H THEN HEAL" or whatnot, instead of coding in an entire way of making one button do everything.

      I also think that one-button controls are a modern obsession to make everything simple and dumb down games so that they are accessible to a casual audience. In the 80s people actually *liked* complicated games. People would enjoy reading paper manuals, an activity utterly foreign today. "A book?! I bought a damn game, not a novel! Plug it in and go, don't do anything nerdy like read!"

    3. The back of the box doesn't say that, as far as I know. I meant that it seems like they designed the game so they -could- say stuff like that. I probably should have been more clear.

      I don't think having one purchase button would really be that much more difficult to program. As it is, once the button is pressed, the game has to check if you are standing at the correct store, and then give you the purchase options. If there's just one button, it would just have to give a different option based on what store you are on, which is something the game has to check anyway. I've never programmed on the ZX Spectrum, though, so I'm just going based on my modern experience. I might be completely wrong.

      I understand wanting to avoid simplifying things too much, but there are extremes. Having a different buy button for each store is like having different options for "talk to wizard", "talk to knight", and "talk to townsperson". People like reading manuals for old games because you have a lot of options and control, not because they just split up a couple of choices into smaller and smaller chunks.

    4. Such overcomplicated UIs were so common back in the day (the vast bulk of the commands from the early Ultima games, which use nearly the entire keyboard, could be condensed into a single button, for example) that I strongly suspect that there was some underlying reason for it. Given the lack of abstraction layers in those days, portability was probably a big reason.

  6. I read that Fairlight comment as that it was a game that was coming up and whilst thinking not quite an RPG I checked the master list and saw that it had been rejected (great game BTW). Re read the comment and see it was just in relation to it being a good speccy game.

    Then seeing that LOM avatar thought I would check the status of that as I had the master list up as well and would have been interested to see Chets thoughts/review - rejected as well :(

    Thought LOM might have quasi qualified given then recruiting mechanic as it is role playing...

    Anyway, as always enjoy reading the blog - and Googlng Fairlight has lead me to grab that 1001 video games you must play before you die book so will have a flick through that at some stage :)

    1. I don't think Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge are RPGs, fantastic games that they are.

      Hmm, we have the CRPG Addict, the Adventure Gamer... someone should create a similar blog for playing strategy games in chronological order. :)

    2. BTW, Fairlight isn't an RPG either (or else Knight Lore would also be one).

    3. I once though of playing all Amiga games by chronological order. But then I realized that would be insane.

      Now I just play and blog what Amiga games I want.

    4. @Dehumanizer - We did have that debate previously for a Strategy Blog to cover the Koei games, the HoMM series, SSI's fantastic wargames and even RTSes.

      No one had taken up the burden as yet, even though strategy games can be beaten a lot faster than RPGs (as long as you don't get trapped by their enticement for you to try out different configurations-which, to me, is part of a strategy game's charm anyway).

    5. To clarify, I wrote the post above before investigating Farlight and determining it wasn't an RPG.

    6. Hey Dehumanizer - yeah I would never have considered Fairlight as an RPG which was why I went to check that master list when I misinterpreted the initial comment (that it was coming up). When I reread the comment it was then that I realised the title was provided just as an example of a good Speccy game (I played it on the Amstrad - never finished as a kid but did within the last few years as I did with Head Over Heels which was another game I never completed as a kid - good times).

      As for LOM - would have been interesting to hear/read Chets views but I knew it wouldn't have been considered thus the quasi comment. Looking at Chets comment below about his criteria you could sort of make a case in that character development or levelling exists in the form of firstly recruiting characters and then of course you need to build army numbers by recruiting warriors/riders from keeps/citadels. Falls down for inventory of course (but it does let you equip a couple of items in the swords wolfslayer and dragonslayer). Last criteria being combat based on character stats and probabilities I would have said meets that in that characters strength and energy is used in the battle algorithm as well as warrior/rider numbers (which player controls via recruiting).

      Like I said quasi - close but yeah, not an RPG in the traditional sense but a great game and one I still fire up every now an again (and can happily say I bet it plenty of times as a kid LOL)

    7. Hey, don't get me wrong, I'd love to see Chet play at least a bit through Lords of Midnight. I don't know whether he'd enjoy it; it's a bit like War in Middle Earth (LOM's author Mike Singleton also worked on that, I think, though he wasn't the designer / programmer, he's just credited for "game concept" in Mobygames), but without the "Tolkienness" (though the story is still inspired by Lord of the Rings, even having two ways to beat the game: military victory, or destroying the Ice Crown deep in enemy territory -- which still probably requires you to play the strategic part at least a bit well, in order to "distract" Doomdark's forces), and with a first-person view.

      It is one of my favorite games of all time (I'm 41, been gaming since I was 6), as could probably be guessed from my avatar. But I'd say it's even less of an RPG than War in Middle Earth was -- it's more of a mix of strategy and adventure. If Chet wants to try it out anyway, I'd love to read his posts...

  7. It is good and satisfying to see an early game like this being shot down fast. There are too many cash-grabbers coming out during the early to mid 80s and I can't wait for it to go whizzing by.

  8. I'm eagerly waiting for a review of Master of Magic (1985) which i bought on cassette for the c64 back in the day :)

    1. Hmm... I've always thought that it was a strategy game like Warlords.

    2. Simtex re-used the name for their 1994 fantasy wargame. The 1985 title is an RPG.

      By the way, if anyone likes Master of Magic, there is currently a fan hacking through the .EXE with an assembler making a v1.5 patch, fixing tons of bugs and restoring functionality that was disabled by the original developers. He is also making his own mod, Caster of Magic, that uses the MoM engine to implement a different game. Follow along or contribute bug reports at the official forums.

  9. a bare-bones framing story

    (rim shot)

  10. I think your list is missing Journey's End, 1985, for the ZX Spectrum.

    1. I appreciate the notice, but I ask anyone suggesting new games to provide a personal testament that it meets my three criteria for an RPG: character development or leveling; an inventory of equipment; and combat based at least partly on character-based statistics and probabilities. If this game has those features, I'll add it.

    2. It is either just barely or not quite an RPG according to your rules. The only character development or leveling is an "strength" (really max hit points) which can be raised. Inventory is limited to four spell or scroll slots and one magical weapon slot per character. Spells can be used in combat, and weapons increase hit probability. See the manual at for a decent idea.

      Really I am only trying to inflict this on you as punishment for making fun of the speccy :^).

    3. Chet: if I may, then, suggest Swords & Sorcery (as mentioned in a previous comment of mine), it certainly meets your three requirements. I'd argue that it's the most "RPGish" of all Spectrum RPGs, except maybe for the port of the first Bard's Tale.

      PDF manual here, by the way. Just a look at its index will show that it's very far from games like the one in this post. :)

    4. Yes, it's already on my list. Coming up later in 1985.

  11. City of Death is a silly, inconsequential pseudo-RPG. It was written for the ZX Spectrum. But I repeat myself.

    "Shots fired," as the kids say nowadays! You'd better watch out or the Speccy fans will come after you; you'll know they're getting close when huge squarish chunks of the local environment start changing color for no apparent reason...

    1. The Speccy was the perfect computer for a colour blind person.

    2. The Speccy also made it possible for nerds to burn rubber.

    3. And it's like fashion, everything comes around after a few years. My current work HP laptop has such a cheap bad keyboard that I long for a Speccy, can't be worse...

    4. The 'dead flesh' rubber keys were actually pretty good for games!

    5. Anything that uses tape... *shudder*

    6. I have nothing against the ZX Spectrum, which I've never seen or experienced directly, just every RPG (so far) written for it.

  12. I'm amazed that in five years no-one ever soul-looted you for playing through this one...


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