Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mandragore: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

  
Mandragore
France
Infogrames (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II, 1986 for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX, and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 26 April 2016
Date Ended: 16 May 2016
Total Hours: 15
Reload Count: 11
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 90/220 (41%)

Mandragore is a rare case of an RPG that got better as it progressed. When I first started playing, seeing it as something of an Ultima clone and wanting in traditional Ultima-style mechanics, it took a lot of effort to get me to play. Later, as I tried to appreciate it for what it was trying to do...well, I still didn't like it. But I was almost able to role-play the kind of person who would like it. Someone more interested in originality than in getting a traditional RPG fix. Such a person would appreciate the sheer weirdness of its visuals, which are almost outré enough to call it the first psychedelic RPG (although you could make a strong case for Empire on that one).
   
The outdoor area looks similar to Ultima III, but the similarities end there.
  
The framing story that wraps the game is almost bland in comparison. As I discussed in the first posting, the accompanying 22-page novella describes how the default party gets together, embarks on a quest to defeat the evil usurper Yarod-Nor, and is ultimately defeated and dispersed over the course of their adventures. But if you start the game with the default party, everyone is hale and together, so that's a bit of an unsolved mystery. After I defeated the game, I re-read the story to see if there were any hints. Although the party encounters some of the same monsters as the player does in-game, the manual doesn't give any explicit hints.

The basic goal of the game is to explore 9 castles reachable by land, solve their individual puzzles, and get a "stanza" as a reward. In each case, solving the castle's puzzle involves finding the right item and then dropping it in the right room. Once you're done with the first nine castles, you buy a boat, journey to Yarad-Nor's castle on an island, and defeat him using a passcode picked up from the stanzas.
   
Yarad-Nor's subjects are suitably bleak.
   
The beginning and end of the game are standard high-fantasy stuff, but the first nine castles all have quirky, comical, or just plain screwy themes. They're not even really "castles," although that's what they look like from the outside: many feature outdoor areas and caves. In the order I found them, they are:

  • A "zodiac" castle with NPCs representing each of the signs. Together, they provide a clue to look behind a bookcase, where you find an object called "Master." Dropping it on the top of the tower solves the quest.
  • A "beehive" castle in which a bunch of giant bees and wasps had been driven mad because the queen's "fluid" was leaking. Solving the castle means dropping a bowl, found in one of the other castles, in front of her.
   
My "reward" fort he beehive castle.
   
  • The "number" castle, described in my last post, where I had to solve a magic square by dropping a "4" in the right place. Enemies included mathematical symbols.
  • The "Lost World," where I met a bunch of dinosaurs, dragons, and devils. In one of its caves was a hermit, and the solution to the castle was to drop a flame (picked up, somehow, from a different screen) on his pedestal. Given the stanza that followed, the hermit seems to be Syrella's father, mentioned in the backstory, but nothing particular came of our meeting with him.
  
There was no acknowledgement of paternity here.
   
  • A forested castle where I was attacked by different plant-based monsters. I had to find a plant called "Vital" and place it in the middle of a crown for some reason.
  • "Heaven," where platforms circled through the clouds, and angels greeted me as NPCs. I wasn't able to solve this one--more on the consequences of that in a bit. Apparently, I was supposed to find a compass rose somewhere but I never did.
   
    
  • An underwater castle of Nereids and sirens. I couldn't solve this one, either. I gather I was supposed to drop a "prow" in the siren king's chamber as an offering, but I visited the chamber too early and had to kill the king to escape.
   
Just before I killed him. I think his line refers to my party's curiosity in following the sirens to his chamber.
   
  • A castle full of undead. I had to find a barrier deep in the castle and place it in front of the front doors.
   
   
  • A "chess" castle full of NPCs named things like "red queen" and "green king." Solving it meant picking up the green king and dropping him somewhere else. I figured it out through trial and error.
   
   
Last time, I questioned whether it was possible to kill necessary NPCs without realizing it. Given the rest of my experience, I'm not sure there are any absolutely necessary NPCs, with the possible exception of King Triton, as above, but even that could have been something else I missed instead. In any event, it turns out that non-hostile creatures don't deliver experience points, so that's another way to tell.

Each of the castles held a set of monsters that, while bizarre in general, was specific to their themes. As I killed them, my characters increased in levels every 1,000 experience points, but I was never sure what the leveling did for me. I suppose it might have made combat easier, but with harder enemies coming along at the same time, it was tough to tell.
     
This is not the devil; only a devil.
    
Castles also held selections of treasure, weapons, and armor. As I mentioned last time, I never noticed that the weapons or armor were helping me in combat. To get to the endgame, you pretty much have to sell everything anyway, and I explored the final dungeon unarmed with no apparent drawbacks. Fortunately, I'd been stealing medicines throughout the game, because if I'd been purchasing them as often as I needed them, there's no way I would have had the 3,000 gold pieces necessary to buy the boat.

The last castle wasn't very hard until the end. There were some NPCs who alternately begged for assistance and commented on the futility of taking on Yarad-Nor. There were a couple monks I had to kill.  Eventually, I found a patch of the titular Mandragore (French for "mandrake"), which fittingly looked like a person. Each character took and ate a piece, which turned them invisible.
  
Okay, mandrake root looks kind-of like a person, but not in this way, right?
   
Soon we wandered into the chamber of the fearsome Yarad-Nor himself, labeled only "Monster." I couldn't figure out what to do here. Attacks did nothing. Talking with him did nothing. None of the commands usually applied to monsters did anything. I also couldn't leave the room.
  
To me, an evil overlord ought to have more contrasting colors.
  
Having played Ultima IV and plenty of other games in which the text found during the quest played a role in the endgame, I consulted the stanzas. I was missing two of them, as I hadn't finished those castles, but I was able to cheat and extract them from the game file just by opening it in Notepad. But each stanza basically just recapped the quest for that castle; none of them said anything about defeating Yarad-Nor. I tried to find some code among the words and letters and came up short.

I thus turned to a hint page in desperation. It took me a while to find one, and it was in French. Nonetheless, it told me what I needed to know by confirming my supposition that the code was in the stanzas. In the original French, the first letters of each stanza spell out IN DEMONEM, which is (fairly recent) Ecclesiastical Latin for "in the demon." The term actually makes sense, as we'll see in a second.
  
Anyway, stringing together the first letters of the English version spells out...TNSADWOAT. I'll save you a trip to Google: it doesn't mean anything in Latin or any other language, and in fact this page will be the only one that has it. As I typed it into the game parser, I thought, "there's no way this is going to work." But of course it did. That's some lazy translating there. It would have taken hardly any effort to translate the stanzas in such a way as to spell out the same phrase in English as it did in French; instead, the developers insured that English players would never figure out the endgame password on their own.
 
Mandragore is the first game to feature a battle inside the enemy's body. It's not the only one because Pools of Darkness (1991) does the same thing.
   
Speaking the phrase took me inside Yarad-Nor's body. The images were freaky, but I think I was supposed to be inside his bloodstream, fighting fat globules or white blood cells or something. At last, I came to a chamber where I fought something called a "Filanta." Killing it--it wasn't very hard for the endgame boss--produced the winning message at the top of the screen.

The final battle of the game.
   
The endgame text thus had an interesting twist: Yarad-Nor, who the manual said had "appeared from nowhere" at the same time good King Jorian disappeared, was actual Jorian himself. The "Filanta" was some malevolent being that had ridden to the land in a meteor shower and possessed Jorian's body. By entering his body and killing it, I freed his mind and spirit. Groovy.

We thus start the GIMLET strong:

  • 4 points for the game world. There's not much thematic consistency among the castles, but the framing story is well-told and Mandragore certain meets my first bullet point: "The game world has unique features that distinguish it from other CRPGs."
  • 3 points for character creation and development. I like that the game awards experience for non-combat actions, and I like that only certain classes can access certain commands, making the choice of characters important. I don't like that the effects of leveling up aren't really palpable in the game.
   
A character sheet towards the end of the game.
   
  • 2 points for a series of NPCs that deliver one-line phrases and hints.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are uniquely named and drawn, but they don't really act any differently in combat, nor have any particular strengths or weaknesses.
   
I'm not quite sure how my party is breathing underwater here.
   
  • 1 point for magic and combat. A terrible system. I didn't notice that the SPELL, PARALYZE, or HYPNOTIZE commands succeeded any more or less than simple ATTACKS, nor even much difference among the characters. There are essentially no tactics at all.
  • 1 point for equipment. There's plenty of it; it just doesn't seem to do anything. My unarmed and unarmored characters at the end were just as effective as when they had weapons. There are items sold in the towns like torches and keys that never do anything in-game. The only purpose to inventory is to find things to sell and carry quest items long enough to use them.
  • 4 points for the economy. Food, medicine, and the boat must be purchased within a tight, closed economic system.
  • 3 points for a main quest, 2 for having one, and 1 for making it a little more interesting than most games of the era.
   
The stanza I received after defeating the haunted castle.
   
  • 2 points for graphics, which are bad but interesting. None for sound, as the only sound in the game is an awful music track. None for the parser interface, which might be one of the worst I've encountered. Every errant keypress causes it to freeze up. There's an option to separate the party that is never needed.
   
And I never understood why the game insisted on listing objects you can't interact with.
   
  • 4 points for gameplay. I like the nonlinearity of the first 9 castles, the moderate difficulty (I suppose I should regard it as hard since I couldn't finish 2 castles, but for some reason I don't), and the length. 15 hours is just about right for a game of this era.

Add 'em up and we get a subtotal of 26, but I'm going to subtract a point for the poor English adaptation to leave the final score at 25. It's not the best game of the era, but certainly far better than I thought when I fired it up. French developers have a way of making games that you remember even if you don't always like them, and I think Mandragore will be one of the most memorable games of 1985.

It would have been interesting to see what the author of Mandragore did as the genre evolved, but Marc Cecchi seems to have gotten out of video games shortly after it was published. The only other game I can find attributed to him is Inforgrames's Oméga: Planète Invisible (1985), which seems to use the same engine. Both games would have been developed when he was in his early 20s. Since then, he appears to have gone into business consulting and is currently a senior vice president with Atos, a French IT services company.

Mandragore was the first RPG released by Infogrames--it might even have been their first game (there are three others in 1985, the company's first release year). We next saw them with Drakkhen, perhaps the best exemplar of my "memorably weird" thesis, but I don't think we'll run into the company again until 1999's Silver. They're almost entirely about action, adventure, and strategy games.

But we will have plenty of more French RPGs in the near future. As I mentioned in my 1984/1985 transition posting, this is the brief "golden age" of RPGs in France, and we have three of them in a row coming up in 1986: Faial, Fer & Flamme, and Le Fer d'Amnukor. I'm sure they'll all be suitably inscrutable.

*****

Tell me if  you agree with this line of thinking: While the Macintosh is definitely a personal computer, of all the platforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is least like the others. Thus, RPGs designed specifically for the Mac make a kind-of subset of the genre and have to be studied as a unique evolutionary branch. For this reason, it would probably be a mistake to jump right to Shadow Keep (1991) without first investigating the Mac-only games that preceded it, like OrbQuest (1986) and Quarterstaff (1987), to see how this sub-genre evolved.

If this is true, I should probably move Shadow Keep off the active list and play it much later in the 1991 list, after I've played a least a couple of those earlier games.

41 comments:

  1. Oméga Planète Invisible is basically Mandragore in space, only with 7 planets isntead of 10 dungeons and impassable force-waves instead of impassable mountains. IIRC there was no necessity to buy a ship equivalent though, you could land blithely on the invisible planet if you happened on it.
    Also, the graphics were by the character's race instead of by its class - there were humans, not-kangaroos, floating plasma things and I think robots.

    I think the point in listing landscape features etc as objects is to prevent you from dropping objects you carry on this screen…

    ReplyDelete
  2. Based on absolutely nothing, I would guess the Green King had to be placed on a square where he's not attacked by any of the Red pieces according to chess rules?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Probably. I'm not sure because I killed most of the other chess pieces.

      Delete
  3. "Mandragore is the first game to feature a battle inside the enemy's body. It's not the only one because Pools of Darkness (1991) does the same thing."
    Arent there Roguelikes were certain monsters swallow you whole and you have to fight your way out?
    Later Wasteland also features a battle inside Finsters head (although different).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's possible. I wasn't aware of them. I know that at LEAST PoD has that feature, is what I meant.

      Delete
    2. In Hack v. 1.03, you can get swallowed by a purple worm, and you have to fight your way out. Or maybe that feature wasn't introduced until later versions...

      Delete
    3. "Mandragore is the first game to feature a battle inside the enemy's body. It's not the only one because Pools of Darkness (1991) does the same thing."

      That was an ending spoiler for those of us that haven't played PoD it yet. I wouldn't mind it in the comments, but suddenly in the middle of the main post is unavoidable :(

      Delete
    4. @Shankao 1st: He didnt say that it was an ending, just that PoR does "something similiar" which could mean everything.
      2nd: Are you serious? After 30 years there is no such thing as "spolier" anymore. Just knowing the history or not.
      BTW: Juliet dies at the End. As does Romeo.

      Delete
    5. Because I haven't played the game, I don't have any idea on how much that's a plot twist too in PoD.

      Yes, I am serious. I'm playing the games at the same pace than Chet, he's in 1991 and PoD hasn't been seen in the blog (yet).

      Chet always asks for us to not spoil him games that he hasn't played yet, so I was expecting the same, at least on the main post.

      Ah, I knew about Romeo and Juliet, but I would leave anyone that hasn't read it to enjoy that ending for the first time.
      Also, because of this: https://xkcd.com/1053/

      Delete
    6. If it makes you feel better, without wanting to say too much, Chet's comment is not really a plot twist in PoD.

      Delete
    7. There were at least 2 Japanese RPGs in the 90s in which you had to go inside an NPC and fight off their immune systems to kill off the things making them sick. One of them had the doors represented by undulating sphincters, which was a bit unsettling to say the least.

      Delete
    8. There's also that weird ol' Disgaea where you enter a goddamn ITEM instead. WTF?

      Delete
    9. Not *an* item, as that would imply a singular plot event. You can go into *every* item, fighting monsters to level it up, then tame the spirits within so you can transfer them to a different item to power that one up. Particularly handy if you get a low-level healing gum with a powerful spirit that you can tame and move to a sword or something.

      As an aside, Disgaea is a (properly ported) PC game now, so the Addict will play it if he gets to BY2003.

      Delete
  4. I suspect you wrote that last bit just as an excuse to get out of figuring out Mac emulator, so my comment won't change anything, but there isn't much evolution happening between Quarterstaff and Shadow Keep. The former is an interactive fiction game with some very light RPG elements, the latter - a full-blown open-world RPG. Aside from monochrome graphics they have literally nothing in common.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, I actually got the emulator working okay. I just noticed the the interface was so different for SK, using features unique to the Mac, that I began to think that jumping right to that game would be like deciding to include console games on my blog but jumping right to 1991 instead of building to it.

      Delete
    2. So for you, it's as if you would start rating console RPG with an SNES game instead of a Atari 2600 or similar console? If that's how you feel about then by all means hold Shadw Keep back for a later date.

      I'm curious if there really is much evolution specifically for Mac RPG though. I don't think it will differ much from the evolution of the genre it has on the other personal computers, at least not substantially.

      Speaking of the Games List, 3 things I remarked:

      1. Vengeance of Excalibur stays as Game number 221 (the same as Mandragore) instead of 211 on the Master game list.
      2. Zyll, while rejected, didn't got a Number 0 on the list.
      3. Why is Princess Maker 2 on the Master game list, but not on your playlist?

      Delete
    3. More like I decided to include NES games but started with Tombs & Treasure (1991), skipping Final Fantasy and a bunch of other 1980s games.

      Thanks for the corrections on the game list. As for Princess Maker 2, I'm not sure what you mean. I've listed it as "N" on the playlist just because I assume that none of the PC versions are in English. But every RPG I could identify--console or computer--is on the master game list.

      Delete
    4. Princess Maker 2 would make for an interesting blog. Its aborted US localization has a notorious and sordid history, and not because the game itself is particularly salacious. It has a complete beta English translation (which is around on the internet somewhere) created by a small localization team that could not sell it to a US publisher for the life of them. It's the sort of problem that doesn't exist now with digital distribution.

      The game itself is odd - a child-raising sim that operates mostly on routine stat development management - but I think it has just enough RPG elements to qualify.

      Delete
    5. Princess Maker 2 was officially and completely translated into English (although the translation has quite a few rough spots), but the English version was never released.

      The player is tasked with raising a child several years after he defeated the Lord of Hell in single combat. The vast majority of the game is taken up by setting a schedule for your adopted daughter by assigning her to various duties (schools, jobs, vacations, free time, etc.) each of which affects her stats in some way and either costs you (schools) or gains you (jobs) money. When she turns 18, her stats (and NPC interaction throughout the game) that is also determined by stats) determine the course of her future life, with bad endings such as entering a sordid trade or good endings such as her marrying a prince.

      It is a strange, but very unique game, even if the closest it gets to a traditional RPG is when you choose to equip your daughter with weapons and armor and send her on an adventure.

      Delete
    6. Isn't Quarterstaff already two games published a year apart, but nearly identical? Or am I misremembering?

      Delete
    7. I mentioned Princess Maker 2 because I played that game years ago and still do from time to time. And yes, it's completly translated into english, so you won't have to worry about japanese. Basically you have to raise a child from a 10 year old to adulthood, and whatever you do in that period defines her stats and what will become of her. From prostitute over warrior to the princess in the title, anything is possible. It has combat too, but it's entirely optional

      Delete
    8. That really doesn't sound much like an RPG from my perspective. Is there an inventory?

      Delete
    9. Sort of. You can purchase various weapons and armor to equip your daughter with (for the adventuring segments), different clothes that affect her stat developments, and various accessories that give boosts.

      It *is* borderline as an RPG, no doubt about that, although that has something to do with the fact that there's only three game series (the Princess Maker games (of which only 2 is in English), Cute Knight (directly inspired by the PM games) and Monster Rancher) that have anything close to the same mechanics.

      Delete
    10. Oh, very well. It sounds excruciating, but I just put it in the "Y" column.

      Delete
    11. If Princess Maker 2 counts as an RPG, then you'll have to add Alter Ego ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alter_Ego_(1986_video_game) ) and its sequels. Alter Ego is pretty much the same concept as PM2, but first-person, and better-backed by actual developmental psychology (which was a Big Deal at the time of the game's original release).

      Delete
    12. Having played both, I see very little similarity, and I don't think Alter Ego qualifies as an RPG.

      Alter Ego is essentially a choose-your-own adventure book with delusions of grandeur. The pretentious claim to being backed by psychology is pretty weak, the exact path you take barely matters as each "experience" is wholly independent of what went before, and your stats are not very important.

      Delete
  5. I think it's a perfectly reasonable idea to defer Shadow Keep until you've played other CRPGs on the Mac, or until you finish 1991. Playing games like Dungeon of Doom/The Dungeon Revealed and TaskMaker might provide context, or they might not.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "In demonem" is clever because it has a double meaning. "In" plus the accusative means "into" ("in the demon" would use the ablative and be "in demone"), but it can also be used for attacks against something (e.g., Cicero's In Pisonem or In Verrem). So you are both going into the demon and attacking him by the phrase "in demonem" - which is pretty much exactly what happens in the game.

    ReplyDelete
  7. What an odd game. The puzzle mechanic reminds me of the Swordquest series for the Atari 2600, where you similarly had to drop items in the right rooms to get clues. Since the series came out in the early 80s, I wonder if it might have influenced Mandragore's creator.

    ReplyDelete
  8. A lot of Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story takes place inside with them inside Bowser, but my favorite "from the inside" fight is probably in Chrono Trigger.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Breath of Fire 2 had many "inside" Quests, the sleeping whale, the sick queen, inside of the nightmare infsasted tree inside of a dream.

      Delete
    2. I remember the sick queen quest! Mostly, I remember walking around for ages waiting for that one last fight to trigger.

      Breath of Fire may be my favorite B-level (or, TBH, lower) JRPG series. Peco, the sentient onion in BoF III, clinches it.

      Delete
    3. Breath of Fire 2 is definitely in interesting game. This post also reminded me of going inside the queen to fight off the evil fat cells so she could be skinny again. :/ BoF2 was pretty fun, though something about the portrayal of the evil religion near the end of the game seriously creeped me out when I got there. The game did a good job of setting them up expectations of them as a harmless Christianity-analog, and then pulled the rug out.

      Delete
  9. "...senior vice president with Atos, a French IT services company."

    As someone who regularly works with Atos, I can assure you the French approach to IT Services mirrors their approach to RPG games: unique, bizarre, and not something you can stomach dealing with for more than a few hours a day.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Marc Cecchi's gonna find it extremely surreal to Google his company's name and find this blog post here about him.

      Delete
  10. While trawling the Internet for info on this game last week, I stumbled upon am English combination map/walkthrough here (apparently for the Spectrum version):

    http://www.worldofspectrum.org/pub/sinclair/games-maps/m/Mandragore_2.png

    It mentions TNSADWOAT as the "password" used to "walk over MONSTER" and that it's the first letters of the stanzas, but no further explanation of why a player would think to try that. The French translation issue makes much more sense. I suppose this is Mandragore's equivalent of a puzzle from Ultima IV.

    Looking at castle (chateau) C9, the "heaven" one, apparently the compass is accessed by not actually going through the bars at the castle entrance, but rather moving east-then-south from there.

    As for the underwater castle (Chateau C8), the map claims that the prow should not be taken to the king's room, but instead you should "put it back to the ship (exit screen)." I guess drop the prow in the exit screen? Even though there's apparently no ship to be seen there? Odd.

    Also, the full map confirms that the solution to the chess castle is to move the green king to the one room ("square") from which none of the red pieces can "attack" him (using standard chess rules).

    How well (if at all) are these puzzle solutions clued by talking to the game's NPCs? Also, was that key for sale in the village shop ever useful/needed for anything?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow. THAT would have been helpful.

      I'm 100% sure I stood at the entrance to the "heaven" castle and tried east, west, and south, but whatever. Thanks for clearing up some of the mysteries.

      The PCs mostly mouthed obscure lines that rarely helped. And no, the key never went to anything.

      Delete
  11. Replies
    1. It's close to TILTOWAIT. Maybe we can all pretend it's a subtle Wizardry reference?

      Delete
  12. I can't believe you figured out that password. I would've probably quit at any one of the steps you mentioned going through. I guess you're in that old RPG mindset that often had you solving puzzles like that though!

    Does the French version even contain any hints that would make you consider looking at the first letter of each stanza? I question whether most people would even have tried that, considering without a knowledge of Latin it looks like near-nonsense.

    ReplyDelete

I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) THIS ALSO INCLUDES USER NAMES THAT LINK TO ADVERTISING.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters.

3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

NOTE: Spam has gotten so bad lately that I've had to turn on comment moderation for posts older than 10 days. I apologize if it takes a little while for your comment to appear.