Thursday, April 14, 2016

Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II: Summary and Rating

Here I am in front of a castle with a scorpion or something.
  
Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II
Nihon Falcom (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for PC-88, PC-98, and Sharp X1; 1986 for FM-7; 1987 for MSX
Date Started: 27 March 2016
Date Ended: 11 April 2016
Total Hours: 9
Reload Count: Many. Didn't keep track.
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 26
Ranking at Time of Posting: 94/215 (44%)
    
It's been a long time since I felt this pathetic about my attempt to play a game. The late summer of 2015 brought a spate of games in a row--Antares, Out of the Shadows, The Ormus Saga, and Dungeons of Avalon--that I didn't or couldn't finish, but I at least played them long enough to get a full sense of what they offered. The last time I bailed on a title without feeling like I had at least experienced the totality of the gameplay was back in 2011.

But I just can't bring myself to continue with Xanadu. My sessions with the game have been the living definition of "ennui." Its approach is miles different from what I like about the role-playing genre. I have no interest in watching a GCLM run around, climb ladders, and bump into enemies in a setting that lacks NPCs or a story. I tolerated it for short games like Hydlide and the first Dragon Slayer, but this one is just way too long and exhausting. And as we talked about last time, its closed economy and experience system leave me constantly anxious that I'm doing everything wrong. My game periods keep coasting to a stop with nothing having been achieved. I keep saying, "What have I really accomplished in the last half hour?," coming up short with the answer, and killing the session without saving. I keep getting stuck because I run out of keys and money to buy new keys. I'm sick of Level 2 but the doorways to Level 3 won't open and I don't know why. In 9 hours of play, I don't feel like I did much more than dither around.

The weird thing is, I fundamentally realize that Xanadu isn't that hard--there are paths to explore that I haven't explored and enemies that I haven't slain--but I just get filled with distaste when I think of playing any more. Don't ask me to explain it. I think we can all agree that, despite it being a role-playing game, Xanadu is vastly different in its approach than the types of games I rate highly. Having agreed that it's different, you'll just have to accept that I don't like this kind of game. I promise I won't judge you for liking it. It would be a boring world if we all had the same tastes.
    
I guess this would have been the final boss. Screenshot courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101.
   
I feel particularly bad because even though Xanadu seems quite popular, there isn't much about it online. I couldn't find any endgame videos, for instance. From descriptions, I gather that the game ends when you find a "dragon slayer" sword and kill a dragon named Galsis. But all I can rate is what I experienced, which is:

  • 0 points for the game world. The land has a king is all I can tell you. Even the documentation doesn't seem to have offered anything.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. There's a reasonably complex RPG character sheet here, with a full set of attributes and separate experience for fighting and magic. How you spend your initial funds on attributes and how you fight enemies throughout the game helps you define your character as a fighter, wizard, or hybrid. This is all great. But let's not have any more of this individual-experience-per-weapon-and-armor-type thing again. Not unless daggers and short swords can somehow remain relevant the whole game. Also, the "karma" system is pretty nonsensical.
   
Some of my statistics.
    
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The enemies have some strengths and weaknesses depending on type, and there are boss-level enemies that require special tactics.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. I will never like the "bump" combat system. Magic is a little more advanced here, requiring the player to select from a variety of spells. But too much boils down to action and manual dexterity.
     
These guys were really hard.
    
  • 4 points for equipment. I really like the variety of special magic items that you can find and use.
  • 6 points for economy. A major part of the game, and a major resource to manage, it never stops being relevant. I just wish it wasn't a closed system.
  • 1 point for the quest. I assume there is one, but the game gives you no information about it.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I didn't have any major complaints with any of them, but they're only good enough for the period. The interface did have a few snags and was clearly optimized for a joystick.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It feels both linear and nonlinear, as in many paths are open but you have to complete them in a particular order to have a chance. I guess it has some replayability with different a different approach to class and character development.

That's a final score of 26, a number high enough to describe some games that I enjoyed. I didn't enoy this one at all, but I can't put my finger on the "why" well enough to deliberately subtract any points.

I recognize that I'm in the minority on this one. It was hugely popular. According to Wikipedia, its 1985 sales total of 400,000 in Japan alone has yet to be broken (that seems low to me, but that's what Wikipedia says). The soundtrack was so popular that a Japanese band released a best-selling album based on it. The game influenced later series like Ys and Zelda and perhaps even Final Fantasy. It launched its own sub-series of the Dragon Slayer line, with Scenario II (an expansion pack) coming out in 1986, followed by Faxanadu (1987), The Legend of Xanadu (1994), Revival Xanadu (1995;   this one a remake rather than a sequel), The Legend of Xanadu II (1995), and Xanadu Next (2005).
       
A screenshot from the "Revival" remake doesn't look much different than the original.
   
I gave decent ratings to Zeliard and The Ancient Land of Ys, both clearly influenced by Xanadu, so it's possible for me to enjoy this style of game (at least somewhat) with some additional features. But I didn't enjoy this one. Sorry. I really do feel bad about ending this soon and writing such a truncated final posting. I won't make you wait the usual 3 days for the next entry; I want to forget this one as soon as possible.
    
******
    
After a very frustrating experience trying to start Shadow Keep, I kicked it down the list a little ways. I've lost patience with Mac emulation for now. It took me several hours to get the Basilisk II emulator working properly. I first tried to set up a newer version but got some common "black screen" error so I had to start over with an older version. That worked, but then I couldn't extract the .sit files that the game came in. I downloaded two different versions of StuffIt Expander for Windows, but both just crashed on loading (and messed up my .zip file associations at the same time).

Finally, some readers helped out with extracted versions of the game. I got it started only to find that Shadow Keep runs way too fast in Bailisk II and there's no way to slow down the emulator. Also, it kept crashing during the game. So now if I'm going to run the game, I have to start all over and try to set up a different emulator, like Mini vMac.

Setting up KEGS, the Apple IIGS emulator, was no picnic either, but I seem to have it running. I'll try Dark Designs III next.


47 comments:

  1. Oh, I see Fate: Gates of Dawn incoming. I wonder how many postings will it take - the only game that beats Fate in sheer size is Daggerfall, but Daggerfall has fast travel and Fate doesn't (IIRC). You probably won't love it too.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. It does have the cavetrain. Not as convenient as clicking on a map from anywhere, but it helps.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, but it's broken in the beginning, isn't it?

      Delete
    3. There's always the possibility he'll hate the game and bounce back, since it's a mix of very, very convoluted mechanics + Amiga emulator + hugest game ever.

      Hopefully he'll use the emulator I packaged him a while ago. That one should work quite smoothly and without many problems.

      Delete
  2. I'd highly recommend using Mini vMac instead of Basilisk II. It's limited to the black & white Macintosh Plus, but it's simpler to use, more stable, and has better tutorials and support.

    You'll still need to set up a system disk image and get the vital utilities onto it, but the website provides a number of illustrated guides and "Recipes" to walk you through this.

    You shouldn't need to get StuffIt for Windows either. Better to get the Mac version of it installed on Mini vMac, then upload the SIT files to your Mini vMac VM and extract them there. Expanding SIT/SEA files on Windows isn't ideal for a number of reasons, one of them being that you can actually destroy the data this way, since old school Mac files may expose metadata that Windows doesn't support.

    Here's a Stuffit "Recipe" for Mini vMac. But you'll need a working System disk image before this recipe makes any sense.
    http://gryphel.com/c/sw/archive/stuffexp/

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  3. That's too bad, but entirely understandable given your travails. I find it hard enough to return to some antiquated CRPG systems, let alone the ones that were very experimental and didn't really pan out.

    Far as I know, there aren't many JRPGs that would follow with Xanadu's "each weapon has its own XP attached to it" system, though a few that did something similar: Final Fantasy IX (which came out today on PC! But I already know your rule on console-to-computer ports) has you use weapons until you permanently acquire the special skills attached to them, and Grandia has you earn skill experience from using certain types of weapon over and over which can unlock special moves dependent on hitting a mix of skill level targets - say, Sword Lv 6 and Mace Lv 4.

    Barring the Xanadu Scenario II expansion, your next Dragon Slayer game seems to be 1989's Legend of Heroes... unless its sequel shows up earlier when you hit 1992, but I imagine you'll tweak the order if that happens. Those games are far closer to the turn-based mold of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest: not exactly your wheelhouse, but way more straightforward at least.

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    1. I don't think any of the Legend of Heroes' computer versions can be played in English. Not until LoH6: Trails in the Sky anyways, and we are ways away from 2004 xD

      Romancia and Drasle Family are the next two Dragon Slayers, and those might only have text for the menues that's already in English, though.

      Delete
    2. A dodgy, unofficial English release of the original Legend of Heroes does exist for the MSX2. It's pretty easy to find through the usual channels.

      As for Romancia and Drasle Family/Legacy of the Wizard, they both have fan translations for their MSX incarnations, but they also have extremely flimsy RPG credentials. LotW in particular has more in common with Metroid than anything else, with no real RPG elements beyond some light inventory management.

      Delete
    3. Ah, I figured that because they were on the Addict's master list that he must know of some translated versions. That list would be filled with PC-88/PC-98/MSX RPGs otherwise.

      Funny, I swore I saw the first Legend of Heroes in English once, but I was thinking of the TurboGrafx-CD version. Out of bounds, obviously. Still, anything could get translated between now and whenever 1989 games show up on Chet's "upcoming" sidebar again.

      Delete
    4. If the Famicom versions are any indicator, Romancia and Drasle Family definitely don't make the CRPG cut. Maybe Romancia is closer, but Drasle Family is an action/puzzle platformer with no real RPG credentials.

      Delete
  4. > But let's not have any more of this individual-experience-per-weapon-and-armor-type thing again. Not unless daggers and short swords can somehow remain relevant the whole game.

    Well, to be fair I think the problem is not with weapon leveling, which I generally like in a game, but with weapon leveling when you have finite resources to level those weapons, and little to indicate if there is a cap per-weapon, much less how soon it can be reached.

    If you know each weapon has a certain number of levels, and you are able to ascertain that you can probably level up 3-4 weapons to max in a playthrough (or that you can grind a weapon if you really want), that's an entirely different feeling than investing a bunch into a dagger and not knowing whether you are making a terrible mistake ever picking up another weapon, or whether you need to jump to the end weapon ASAP to level it, etc.

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  5. "But let's not have any more of this individual-experience-per-weapon-and-armor-type thing again." I think that kind of thing tends to be more common in console games, especially strategy RPGs. Fire Emblem, Shining Force, Disgaea, etc, all have variations on this, although usually the proficiency level is for a category of weapons rather than specific weapons, so it isn't as much of a problem. Once a game becomes complex enough to have more than a handful of different weapons, then there's no point in having individual proficiencies for them all. On the other hand, sometimes the weapons themselves will level up with use, but in that case they'll be leveled regardless of who uses them later.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Vagrant Story had several stats per weapon that changed slowly, depending on which enemies you attacked with it.
      It's not that levelling weapons is bad in itself, but the way Xanadu does it, with the next weapon always more powerful than the one before and limited experience to go around, is immensly frustrating.
      I get easily paranoid about decisions even in good RPGs. But when a game can put you into a walking dead situation so easily, it's extremely annoying. I don't blame Chet for giving up on this one. Especially since the 6 hour rule is still, technically, in effect. He's just frequently ignored it and finished most games anyway.

      Delete
    2. "It's not that levelling weapons is bad in itself, but the way Xanadu does it, with the next weapon always more powerful than the one before and limited experience to go around, is immensely frustrating." Yes, exactly. This is exactly what I was trying to convey. I wouldn't mind if the dagger or short sword was a viable weapon for the entire game--maybe upgrading to daggers +5 or short swords of fire. This is how skill systems with specific weapons work in modern games. What bothers me is that all that experience is worthless with the next weapon upgrade.

      Delete
  6. Faxanadu war part of this game series?

    I renember playing and beating it as child, it isn't that hard like Xanadu 2 sounds.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Faxanadu had totally different gameplay than any of the other games in the series. It was a Zelda II clone.

      Delete
  7. As for the ultimate goals and quests of the game, your main goal is to get the four crows, the Dragon Slayer sword and corresponding equipment, and find and kill the dragon. So there definitely is a main quest.

    As for the door from Level 2 to Level 3 opening- I just remember horticultor exploring Level 2 and finding that it had opened. Don't remember if it had to do with gaining levels or what- but eventually the doors to lower levels do open. (Plus there are items you can use to move up/down levels regardless.) I believe they were Black Onyx and Fire Crystal- probably a homage to The Black Onyx and its expansion.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Also, if anyone's interested, Megamarsvin posted a complete informative Let's Play of MSX Xanadu some years ago, and it's clear he knows the game very well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HWgriHrQWE&list=PL7B93D017D24824E1

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  9. Your tastes are your tastes. They don't have to make sense. It's nice to be able to justify things, but sometimes you don't like what you don't like. It's just a subjective opinion after all.

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  10. On Xanadu did Bolingbroke
    A generous GIMLET decree

    It seems like this game was mildly popular, at best. 400,000 copies is nothing; hundreds of NES titles moved more than that. Xanadu only set a sales record on a platform that relatively few people adopted in the first place. I'm reminded of Dungeon Master, whose designers bragged that almost half of Atari ST owners bought. I really doubt Xanadu was an influence on Zelda, either.

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    Replies
    1. It's really all relative in context of time. Per Wikipedia, both Ultima IV and The Bard's Tale sold roughly 300,000 copies each, and in its time was almost certainly within the top five best-selling computer games in the world (the 1M figure for Hydlide likely includes the Famicom port, which supposedly outsold all of the computer versions combined.) There's definitely a lineage of Japanese games that traces elements back to Xanadu (Minealveton Saga comes to mind- the battle layout is a dead ringer for Xanadu's), especially through Ys (a tremendous number of Japanese games took elements from Ys, and while most stayed on computers, a few came to consoles- the most popular exampled probably being Crystalis.)

      Delete
    2. NEC's PC-80 series had 80% of the PC market. This wasn't an obscure platform at all, and I feel like Xanadu and Zelda share too many elements to ignore the possible influence. The obfuscated level design, the inventory-based adventure elements, etc. I doubted it too until I played through it.

      Delete
    3. What you're overlooking is that there was no PC boom in Japan in the 1980s the way there was here. The Famicom sold more units in the first year than every model of home PC combined did until laptops hit in the mid 90s.

      Despite similarities, there is not a single statement from the Zelda developers claiming to have played, or even heard of, Xanadu. Officially, Zelda was designed alongside the original SMB and was built out of gameplay concepts rejected for that game.

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    4. Not sure about the sales figures for the 88 but the 98 sold 22 million units in its lifespan. PC gaming still was a thing, language barrier and lack of information has really limited our knowledge of the early Japanese pc game industry as a whole. Also, it's just my opinion, but I'm sure the donkey Kong developers would say they never played space panic or the pac man guys never touched heiankyo alien, but I'd think they were just fibbing.

      Delete
    5. Keep in mind a lot of those 22 million units were for businesses and such, but there supposedly was a huge amount of people who had them at home.

      Delete
  11. In your last post, you cited Xanadu as an example of how JRPGs (among RPGs more widely) are failing to impress you in terms of narrative. I just wanted to point out that Japanese RPGs are more influenced by Dragon Quest and its immediate cousins (Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, etc.), and that this lineage is where the narrative stuff comes into play. Even there, it's not until Final Fantasy IV (originally released as Final Fantasy II here) and the 16-bit Era that you really see somewhat competently handled JRPG narratives.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. There's fairly competent jRPG narratives in the Famicom era, they just never made it over here for various reasons.

      Some, like Sweet Home or the game that the Addict is sick of people talking about, would have never passed NOA's draconian censorship standards, while others (Final Fantasy II, for example) didn't get translated because the SNES was due on American shores before the game would have been ready for the American market, and nobody'd want to drop the equivalent of $120 (cartridge RPGs were incredibly expensive because they had so much more hardware in them, plus the very high cost of translation in that era) on a game for a last-gen console.

      The Addict won't be playing nearly any of the good jRPGs, as the only ones that made it to PC were the very early ones (most of which didn't get translated versions for the obvious reason that the necessary hardware was never on the US market) or the mildly (and not so mildly) pornographic. This is because the PC was always a niche market in Japan, and the rise of the Famicom pretty much shot the home computer industry dead over there.

      Delete
    2. And Dragon Quest 4! That was published in the U.S.

      Delete
    3. Well, Dragon Slayer isn't influenced by Dragon Quest because it came out beforehand. It's more proper to say they take more from Wizardry on the whole, or Black Onyx if you're trying to get into nitty gritty.

      Delete
    4. @Gnoman and UncertaintyLich:
      I considered adding late Famicom games, but even a lot of that stuff is merely "okay" by the standards of just a few years later. Dragon Quest 4 and FF2 are probably standouts (I've only played the latter myself), but I'm not sure either really manages what FF4/FF6/Chrono Trigger/Phantasy Star 4 would manage not long after. But you're certainly right that we're basically on a ramp upward in terms of narrative quality.

      @AguyinaRPG:
      I wasn't saying Dragon Slayer was influenced by Dragon Quest. I was saying that, as a whole, RPGs from Japan tend to be more descended from DQ than from Dragon Slayer/Xanadu, etc. Of course, there are certainly exceptions, but the narrative heavy stereotype of the JRPG comes from DQ/FF/PS.

      And, no, I don't think you're correct with your latter discussion. Dragon Quest was a particularly important moment. While it fused together Wizardry and Ultima, it added its own sensibilities as well, which were basically copied wholesale by the first wave of imitators (including, among others, Phantasy Star 1 and Final Fantasy 1). Black Onyx had its role in JRPG history, and Wizardry was obviously huge for Dragon Quest (and its various descendants). But Dragon Quest is the moment that created the JRPG as we really know it (well.. at least by Final Fantasy 1 and Dragon Quest 2).

      Delete
  12. My own personal opinion is that Xanadu needs to be taken in the larger context of Japanese game design of the mid '80s, rather than strictly as a CRPG experience. The whole "running around in labyrinthine levels" thing was probably more influenced by Thexder than anything else, and the difficulty level, mysterious atmosphere and general inscrutability were all part and parcel of the whole post-Druaga, pre-Super Famicom era of Japanese gaming, especially in the platformer and action RPG categories.

    You mentioned the interface, but funnily enough, most people would have also played this with just a keyboard at the time (at least until the MSX conversion came out later). The first version was released for the Sharp X1, which had a typical Atari-style joystick port, but platforms like the PC-88/98 and FM-7 were not so simple to connect to, and almost everyone just used the keyboard, even for straight action games.

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    1. Were there many English translations of rpgs released on the MSX, do you know?

      Delete
  13. Oh, and by the way... I hope you can get the whole classic Mac emulation thing sorted out by the time "Quarterstaff" rolls around on your non-DOS schedule. That was one of my favorites as a teenager back when it was originally released, and I'm pretty curious to see what you'd make of it.

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    1. Clearly I have to solve it somehow. I just wish it was as easy as emulating an Apple II.

      Delete
    2. Regarding Mac emulation, I'd recommend you have a look at the macintosh garden (http://macintoshgarden.org/guides) and emaculation (http://emaculation.com/doku.php/basilisk_ii_setup) guides if you haven't already. You should treat (to a certain extent) your emulated mac environment like you treat a modern computer, having to install an OS and supporting apps so you can install and play games. You should install Stuffit Expander (the Mac version) from within the emulated environment, and decompress your games inside the emulator. As for the emulated CPU speed, you can control it somewhat by selecting the emulated CPU (with the 68000 being the slowest, and the 68040 the fastest).

      Delete
  14. I found that the doors to the next level only open after you have levelled up sufficiently. Also, it might have been easier to go with a spell-caster rather than a warrior. The Deg-??? spells affect all monsters in the vicinity without the need to aim. This means that combat just involves pressing the space bar a lot of times, rather than actively running your character into each monster. It's a lot quicker. Still, I couldn't bring myself to go further than level 2 this time either (on a previous attempt, I got to Level 4).

    Another quirk that I didn't see mentioned anywhere else... on the MSX version, if you kill the last creature in combat with a weapon instead of a spell, then the last treasure chest will be red and contain an item (usually). Otherwise, it just contains gold like the other boxes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That treasure chest thing is true here, too.

      I'm sure there are a number of things I could do to make the game easier, but the difficulty wasn't the problem. It was the immediate loss of energy every time I started the emulator to play it. The game honestly had a physically-draining effect on me that I'm at a loss to explain.

      Delete
    2. It's a subjective experience- much of our media experience is subjective, and we may not even be aware of everything that causes us to like and dislike certain games. And that's okay. I believe there was a discussion on another post about how certain games just don't click with certain people, no matter what.

      Although, in a certain sense, wouldn't the hero of Ultima 1 (which you enjoyed significantly more) be a GCLM?

      Delete
    3. No, the protagonist of Ultima is just an icon. An "LM," I grant you, but definitely not goofy or cartoonish. A GCLM is like the guy here: animated and deliberately designed to look non-stereotypically heroic (in this case, squat and childlike, with a Moe haircut).

      Delete
    4. If memory serves, the characters in the Apple II originals of every Ultima through V were basically stick figures- a GCLM, then, would be a step in artistic complexity, and the characters in the graphically richer versions of Ultima IV and V a step up in artistic complexity in a very different style.

      Obviously, GCLM-style characters were popular in Japan- I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone here how much more popular the anime aesthetic is there, so it seems like it's a way to express that with such limited graphics.

      Delete
    5. I bet the physical energy loss is due to it being part of a dark ritual to summon Azathoth. Probably a good thing you didn't finish it- who knows, it might be close to having enough energy- one more plathrough might be enough to push it over.

      Delete
  15. Faxanadu on the nes was one of my favourite games as a kid. Not sure it would hold up well today, I guess I'll have to give it a go soon. Interesting to see it had a predecessor, even if it wasn't too your liking. Thanks for your posts on it anyway!

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  16. Now if any of you guys do have experience in MAC emulation, what would prevent you from taking a MAC emulator and the images of any game Chester is planning to play on it, and preparing it for him in a way that he just has to follow simple directions to start and play it?
    I wonder because people point in directions, but wouldn't that be the easiest way to help him?

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    1. Ok, I went ahead and got Basilisk II with Shadow Keep up and running (System 7.5.5 universal install, 200MB HD and StuffIt installed, although it didn't register as helper app for .sit extensions, so you have to drag and drop them onto the desktop stuffit icon to unpack them). The game tends to crash the emulator unless you run it shortly after booting up the emu. The problem Chet was having with the game running too fast was solved by clicking in the game "Speed button" and selecting a slower one (it defaults to fastest). So Chet, I can upload it somewhere for you, if you want, although I imagine that what you got working is similar enough to my setup.

      Delete
    2. I'll give it another shot in Basilisk. I didn't know about that speed button. But if the crashing problem doesn't stop, I'll have to explore a different emulator.

      Delete
  17. I derive perverse sadistic pleasure in knowing that this is just the first of many that Chet will have to go through...

    ReplyDelete

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