Thursday, September 8, 2016

Game 229: The Realm of Angbar: Elfhelm's Bane (1986)

The Realm of Angbar: Elfhelm's Bane
United States
Green Valley Publishing (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for Apple II
Date Started: 6 September 2016
Date Ended: 8 September 2016
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 20
Ranking at Time of Posting: 60/227 (26%)

Elfhelm's Bane is one of those games that has all kinds of fan pages and tributes, with 1980s players reminiscing about how awesome it is, perhaps even the "greatest game ever," and then when you actually play it, it turns out to be an inexcusable red herring of a game that promises far, far more than it delivers.
The game pays homage to a much better series.
The author of the game, Mark Peterson, had grandiose plans worthy of the Alternate Reality series. Elfhelm, the capital of the Realm of Angbar (by the author's own account, changed from the original "Angmar" to avoid possible legal action), was to be the hub of the adventure and would occupy Side 1 of each game disk. From the city, players could visit a number of locales; these additional disks were to be called Quest of the Dragon's Run, The Mountain-Lord of Eriath, Fangwood, and The Crystal Realm. They never shipped, but that doesn't stop this game from asking for the disks when you try to leave the city at the right location.
The game is all-text and draws clear inspiration from Eamon (and, boy is there more on that in a minute), with its central hall branching out to multiple adventures. But instead of allowing flexible verb/noun inputs, Elfhelm's Bane condenses its commands to simple keyboard shortcuts: (A)ttack, (C)ast spell, (I)nventory, and so forth. This isn't necessarily unwelcome, except that the one-letter mechanics don't allow for any puzzle-solving or deeper exploration of the game's many rooms. There are plenty of times that you enter an interesting-sounding room--a room that in the typical text adventure would reveal its secrets with a little parser-prodding--and yet there's nothing to do if there isn't a monster to fight or an object to pick up.
One of many interesting-sounding locations that produces nothing. There isn't even any mechanic by which to interact with the copper image or its jeweled eyes.
Players can choose between warrior, mage, and priest characters, although since arcane and divine magic aren't distinguished, the priest is basically a warrior/mage. Healing spells are so vital to survival that I can't imagine playing as a pure warrior. Mages and priests get one new spell per level; mages start with the first three but priests only start with one. During character creation, the game rolls randomly for strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity, and magic ability.
Starting a new character.
The player is supposed to be a penniless drifter who has just arrived in Elfhelm. He has a little money but no equipment. You start in the middle of the city with no direction except vague rumors that some evil cult has recently opened a temple somewhere.

The game's lack of depth soon becomes apparent as you start to encounter NPCs--maidens, watchmen, gentlemen, clerks, musicians, artisans, even The Prince and The Emperor if you wander into the palace. There's no way to interact with these NPCs except to "examine" them. No "talk" command. No "give" command. Even worse, many of them attack you for no reason at all, and if you try to defend yourself, you get thrown in jail.

Almost immediately after starting a new game.

This just isn't my lucky day.
The city is full of twisty streets, and the developer didn't have the decency to maintain consistent distances and direction, meaning mapping it was a bit of a nightmare. I had to toss in a lot of blank squares to account for the fact that there were 4 squares along one street but only 3 along a parallel street.
The city of Elfhelm's Bane. The extra bit of cobblestone along Cabaret Street meant that I had to insert a blank square for every parallel street.
Eventually, I found my way to the equipment shop and was able to purchase a suit of armor, a weapon, and a shield. The game keeps all your money in a bank account. If you find gold after fighting an enemy, you can turn it in to the bank for equivalent experience points. A pawn shop--the only place to (H)ock looted equipment and gems--is found at the end of a "seedy" section of streets where you're likely to encounter thugs, muggers, and killers.
Buying weapons and armor. A "shestoper" turns out to be a type of mace.

Selling looted items at the pawn shop.
Combat is relatively primitive, consisting of three types of attack (regular "attack," a defensive "parry," an attempt to "bash" the enemy off his feet, and a powerful but reckless "smash"), as well as casting spells. There are a couple of problems with combat. First, I don't think that "bash" ever works. Second, I verified with save states that before you even make your selection, the game has already decided if you're going to hit the enemy, whether the enemy is going to hit you in the follow-up, and how much damage the enemy is going to do. Thus, although the selection between the four attack types is supposed to affect your chances of hitting, how much damage you do, and how much damage you receive in return, it only seems to affect the amount of damage you do. There's no reason to ever choose anything but "smash."
Combat with a "high priest."
Combat is quite deadly at the beginning of the game and remains difficult throughout, primarily because enemies have a tendency to pile into the same square. You might start facing one mugger, but in round two, an additional thug suddenly appears and you're taking damage from two enemies at once. You try to polish off one of them, but while you're in the middle of it, another one shows up, and another. There were times that I literally couldn't get out of a square because the game replaced enemies as fast as I killed them.
A green slime attacks me at a "grisly scene."
This battle didn't go so well. I don't even know what a "horast" is.
The seedy alley is a good place for grinding, but it takes about 20-30 successful combats to get enough experience points to rise to Level 2.
I play vigilante for experience points.
Even then, you also have to have 3,000 gold pieces in your bank account to train. The needed experience points and gold both rise quickly with the levels, and you basically never have enough money. I had enough experience to train for level 3 several hours before I had enough gold.
For some reason, you have to return to this fountain to "train."
Supposedly, weapon skills increase through use, much as in Eamon, but I never saw it happening with my characters.

My character sheet at Level 2. The "weapon bonuses" don't be going anywhere.
Enemies drop equipment, and higher-level enemies drop some pretty good stuff. Scrolls that heal, cure poison, and cure disease (poison and disease are fatal in 10 rounds) supposedly make up for the lack of spells for the warrior class, but there aren't very many of them.
The filth was not, in the end, very interesting.
There are several gates out of the city, each prompting you for a new disk. A number of exits are visitable from Side 2 of Elfhelm's Bane, including a forest and swamp to the west, an "iron castle" across the bay to the south, a "city of the dead" inside the walls, a small park, and the evil temple. An arena seems to have no purpose, and a "clanhouse" remains locked.
....England, The Earth, The Solar System, The Milky Way, The Universe.
Enemies increase in difficulty considerably when you leave the city, and if I hadn't been using save states, I would have reloaded dozens and dozens of times. (You can also get resurrected after death at a cost of half your bank account, but that just ensures you'll never be able to level up.) I explored as much as I could, but as I noted above, you soon realize that none of the interesting-sounding areas are going to deliver anything in the way of puzzles or even quest rewards because the interface doesn't allow it. There are no special items to find and use in other areas, no clues to piece together.
The inventory screen. The flaming axe +6 was a nice find. It was just sitting outside the arena.
The only thing interesting that might happen as you explore is that "(F)ind" might reveal a secret exit from whatever room you're in. These secret exits might open up large new areas to explore. It's just too bad there really isn't anything to do or find within these areas. The game supposedly offers keys to unlock a number of locked areas, but I never found any in the 6 hours that I played.
I never found a way to get past areas like this.
After spending 6 hours with it, I'm reasonably convinced that there's no way to "win" the scenario despite what sounds like a main quest to invade the evil temple and plunder it. I mapped the entire temple, but only one square had what seemed to be a fixed encounter--something called a "wormlord"--and there were no special items that seemed there to be retrieved. (Admittedly, I didn't get through the locked doors.) After exploring, fighting, and plundering as much as I could, and finally managing to kill the "wormlord," I returned to the surface and visited the emperor, but there's no way to actually interact with him. Oh, and the emperor attacked me for no reason. Later, I examined the game disks, and I couldn't find anything that suggested dialogue with the emperor or any winning or congratulatory text. Maybe you're just supposed to pat yourself on the back once you defeat the wormlord and imagine a victory parade.
The dungeon of the evil temple. This is where I think the main plot would happen, if it had one.
There are other fixed (non-respawning) encounters in the game, with Poseidon and Satan himself, but they don't seem to produce any winning conditions, either.
Apparently, the publisher's concerns about getting sued didn't extend past the name of the game world.
To make things even worse, the game punishes you for character development by throwing harder monsters at you (and more of them) the better your statistics are. I noticed this after I grinded a few levels, hoping to defeat Satan. Places I had encountered 1 skeleton before suddenly served up 3 wraiths. To test it further, I hex-edited my save game file. I gave my character 255 in every attribute (up from around an average of 70), 255 hit points (from 70), 99 magic points (from 13), and bonuses of 99 on attack, defense, and different weapon types. Such a herculean character would have mopped the floor in most games, but what happened here was the moment I stepped into a square, enemies began piling into it and didn't stop until I was dead. The enemies were all higher level and hit much harder. For fun, I tried lowering various statistics to try to figure out which one the game was using to scale the monsters, but I wasn't able to identify a specific variable. It seemed to have somehow been considering all of them.
In short, we have a text RPG with decent mechanics and writing but ultimately no point to either exploration or character development. I'd leave it at that, but there's one more thing that we have to consider.

Mark Peterson seems to have been more famous for a BBS game called Swords of Chaos (interestingly, the name of one of the higher-end weapons in Elfhelm's Bane), which is still available to play today. In a long article on the Swords of Chaos site, Mark Peterson talks about his game development history. He discusses how, in 1985, he got a job with the Minnesota-based Green Valley Publishing, by Peterson's own admission  a purveyor of "cheap software." If the company sounds familiar, it's because we just visited them in my review of The Adventure: Only the Fittest Shall Survive. The company wasn't just "cheap"; they blatantly plagiarized popular games and re-sold them. We saw in my review how The Adventure was plagiarized from Eamon.

As I noted in that review, one of the few things that the unnamed plagiarist had added to The Adventure was a jail cell with some goofy writing: "Gumby hath no mercy." That same phrase is in the text of Elfhelm's Bane, supposedly found in a locked cell in the palace dungeon. (I never found it in-game, but I found it through my inspection of the game files.) Thus, either the silly phrase was dropped in to both games at the insistence of some deranged Green Valley executive, or Mr. Peterson is the "author" of The Adventure as well as Elfhelm's Bane. Peterson doesn't mention Eamon or The Adventure in his account of developing the Angbar series, which is curious given how much this game owes to the Eamon lineage. I can easily imagine Peterson being given the task of "adapting" Eamon as one his first jobs at Green Valley, and getting inspired enough by the project to create his own series. I'd of course like to have Peterson's direct account, but I haven't been able to track him down. I do apologize if I've suggested anything here that turns out not to be true.
The title of the developer's next game is found in an equipment drop in this game.
Elfhelm's Bane GIMLETs at 20, almost the same as The Adventure, with 2s in just about everything. By 1986, text games were largely on their way out, and if you're going to develop an all-text series, you really need to improve upon, rather than reduce, what was done with Eamon. This game offers a much bigger world than the typical Eamon adventure but so thoroughly dumbs down the mechanics that there's just no point in playing it. On to the next one.


  1. I verified with save states that before you even make your selection, the game has already decided if you're going to hit the enemy, whether the enemy is going to hit you in the follow-up, and how much damage the enemy is going to do.

    As Homer Simpson might say, "Urge to kill..."

    To make things even worse, the game punishes you for character development by throwing harder monsters at you (and more of them) the better your statistics are.


    The predetermined combat is just offensive beyond belief -- the sort of thing that infuriates me, and no doubt most anyone else who encounters it. It's a betrayal of the whole premise of RPGs.

    One question:

    A pawn shop--the only place to (H)ock [sic] looted equipment and gems

    Why the "[sic]"? I'll probably feel foolish for asking, but I'm not sure what the flaw is, unless it's simply that you're selling and not pawning. (Or should it be (F)ence for stolen goods?)

    1. Ninja'd me regarding the hocking :)

      In High School we used 'hock' to refer to pawning stolen goods. Err, um, not that I did that. I jus' know the lingo guv'nor.

    2. Egg on my face. I thought "hawk" was the proper spelling for selling things. It is, when selling them on the street, but "hock" is the right word for pawning. "[sic]" removed.

    3. On the combat, I like to leave open the possibility that something about the emulation process just doesn't faithfully replicate the original. But repeatedly, I'd make a save state before deciding a combat action and get the following results:

      (H)it: I do 12 points of damage to the enemy; he hits me in return and does 5.

      (P)arry: I do 6 points of damage to the enemy; he hits me in return and does 5.

      (S)mash: I do 24 points of damage to the enemy; he hits me in return and does 5.

      (B)ash: I fail. He hits me in return and does 5.

    4. Regarding the outcome of the combat, I think you guys are making a mountain out of a molehill. Almost all random number generation algorithms are deterministic, so for a given state of the RNG, the next random number generated will always be the same, so for example: for a RNG that gives numbers between 0 and 100, let's say the next two numbers to come out are 65 and 30 and the PC chances to Hit is 70% and to smash is 20% while the NPC chance to hit you back is 50%, that would explain while Hit works, while Smash doesn't, and the enemy hits you back regardless. The same would go for the damage numbers if they are randomized, although if they were only generated on a successful hit instead of on every attack, that would affect the NPC attack success or failure.

    5. The problem is that (P)arry is supposed to reduce the chances of the enemy hitting the PC and reduce the subsequent damage, while (S)mash is supposed to increase the chances that the enemy will hit. But the outcome seems to always be the same no matter what I choose. The only thing that ever changes is how much I do to the enemy, which isn't how the instructions explained things.

    6. I see, then it might very well be that the combat is broken / poorly implemented.

    7. I think Seol is suggesting that in this example the monster has predeterminedly "rolled a 20", so it won't matter if you parried or not. But you would expect to find certain cases (not every attack) where the monster hits with every option except parry.

    8. Oh, sure. That would be a possibility if I was relying on a single save state, but I verified what was happening in multiple combats. I mean, it's not impossible that I had a bad sample, and ALL the times I tried it, the enemy was inevitably going to get the equivalent of a critical hit, but that seems doubtful.

    9. I believe we've seen RNG problems before on Apple II games in the emulator. I'm guessing the emulator implemented their RNG naively, and so it actually is less pseudorandom than the actual hardware. It's very easy to screw this up as the standard random functions in the standard C library are terrible.

    10. I agree, but the issue here isn't so much with the RNG as in the fact that player choice is supposed to at least MODIFY the RNG, but the game is acting as if the RNG is all that matters despite what selection the player makes.

    11. I wonder if there's some natural re-seeding of the PRNG on the platform, and the emulators aren't accounting for that. A PRNG will always result in the same sequence of values from the same seed, but if the platform was known to re-seed on floppy disk read or something, you would get a different sequence of random values on reload. If the emulators aren't correctly emulating this aspect (and the games aren't manually re-seeding occasionally), you would see what you have here, which is that even though you reload, all the random values come in the same order.

    12. It's possible, but again the issue is not that the same numbers always come up in the same order but that player interventions that are specifically supposed to modify or override the random numbers aren't being taken into consideration.

      Assume that because of a random seed, the four numbers that come up next are 6, 10, 4, and 8. Because of where I am in the game, the 6 ends up being the chance I have to hit my foe (x10), the 10 is the amount of damage I do, the 4 is his chance to hit me (x10), and the 8 is the damage he does.

      Now I understand that if the game pre-generates these numbers, simply reloading a save state won't change them. HOWEVER, before those numbers come into play, the game is asking, "what kind of attack do you want to make?" (H)it makes no modifications. (D)efend is supposed to halve my damage, halve the enemy's chance of hitting me, and halve his damage (6, 5, 2, 4). (S)mash is supposed to halve my chance of hitting the enemy, double my damage, but also double his chance of hitting me (3,20,8,4).

      The game acts as if no modifications are being made EXCEPT to the second value--the damage that I do to the enemy--no matter what choice I make. Thus, it's not so much that the RANDOM values aren't changing but that the modifiers aren't being applied.

    13. Oh, I recall that now. You've already explained that above, but I came back into this thread from a comment email notification, and failed to reacquaint myself with the history of the thread. My mistake. :/

  2. I guess for there to be hidden gems, there must be a lot of plain old quartz and granite for the gems to be hidden within. I think there's value to be had in cataloging the draff - the plagiarism (the prevalence of which is interesting for its own sake) says quite a lot about which ideas and titles moved people enough to attempt to replicate them.

    Why the 'sic' following H(ock)? Did you assume the writer meant H(awk)?

  3. Are you sure it's not the previous turn's command that affects the enemy's action outcome?

    1. I...I don't know how it makes sense otherwise, but I suppose it's possible that it affects the next turn instead. I'd have to experiment.

  4. "Elfhelm's Bane is one of those games that has all kinds of fan pages and tributes, with 1980s players reminiscing about how awesome it is, perhaps even the "greatest game ever," and then when you actually play it, it turns out to be an inexcusable red herring of a game that promises far, far more than it delivers."

    There's a term for your mind/memory filling in blanks in boring fiction/games etc., but I don't remember what it is (it's not nostalgia). This game, as well as a number of others that you've covered reminded me of that. Does anyone know what I'm talking about?

    1. I don't know that term, but it makes sense.

      I don't mean to suggest that all nostalgia-tinged memories of games, movies, books, etc., are invariably wrong. We've seen plenty of 1980s games that still hold up well today. But there's a difference between loving something that you first encountered as a kid because it was authentically good, and loving it because you were young and dumb and didn't know any better. I rarely see that distinction made on these modern tributes.

    2. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesSeptember 8, 2016 at 7:00 PM

      I do make that distinction: There are some video game companies whose work has aged perfectly, like Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, Atlus, the good ION Storm games like Deus Ex and Anachronox, Sierra, Lucasarts, Origin, Legend and Treasure; and companies whose work has aged horribly, like Sega--except Jet Set Radio, that game is a masterpiece--Bioware, Sir Tech, Cryo, S.N.K. and Hudson. I take the good with the bad.

    3. I believe the term you're thinking of is "confabulation," but I could be making that up.

    4. I think it was something more specific, but I'm not sure.

    5. Are we thinking of the term "Nostalgia Goggles"? Its essentially Beer goggles but for past items like games and such. Though confabulation would certainly qualify.

  5. Is the term "selective memory"?

  6. "....England, The Earth, The Solar System, The Milky Way, The Universe."

    Probably just a coincidence, but was this "The Men from the Ministry" reference?

    1. No. Frankly, I don't know what it was a reference to. Just something I heard somewhere. Some Nick Hornby book, maybe?

    2. Wasn't this a trope from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Or am I just missing all the sarcasm here?

    3. I thought this was going for a line from Our Town, which has a letter addressed, ending "the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God."

  7. I was surprised to see shestoper. I only encountered this word in the books on Russian history. The word means 'six feathered' in old Russian because of the six blades fixed on its head (blades were sometimes called feathers, they sort of look alike). I wonder how the developer came up with such specific term from the Eastern European history.

    1. I read that word as "she-stopper" at first. Maybe he added it for giggles? :)

  8. Hello! I'm a long time reader of your blog and you inspired me to start some old RPG's that I wouldn't even know about otherwise.

    But first, let me ask you a question (and anyone who wants to answer is welcome (And sorry if you talked about this before)):

    How many games do you play at the same time, and most important, how do you select the game you're gonna play inside of a determined year?

    I'm asking this because I look at the games you have played and there are at least 30 that I'd want to start right now. And that's the big problem: with so many options, I don't know which one to start first and in the end I don't play any of them.

    So, do you have any similar problems? How do you deal with it?

    1. I might have up to 3 games going at the same time, but that's because 2 of them feel more like work than playing. If I'm really enjoying myself, I keep it to 1.

      On the older list, I've been mostly going in alphabetical order, but on the 1991 list, I've been randomizing the order. Eventually, we'll get to a year when we know the exact release dates, not just the year, and that's what I'll use when it becomes viable.

      I really have the opposite problem from you. I have a list of over 1,000 games, most of which I DON'T really "want" to play, but I will for the sake of documenting them. If I could just focus on those that I'm really eager to play, it would be a much smaller, more manageable list. But back when I had your problem, I would just come up with a system. Organize them by release order or alphabetically and force yourself to work your way through, taking the good with the bad.

  9. It's bad enough when a game apes another so closely, but worse when it ends up enjoying greater success (or in this case, nostalgic fondness) than the source it plagiarized from. I recall that happening to the iOS games Threes (the "original") and 2048 (the "clone"), where the latter suddenly took off and the games press didn't acknowledge Threes in their effusive praise. The mobile gaming market's always been a morass of dubious copycats though.

    I'm torn on what I want to see next. On the one hand, I dimly recall Moonstone's divisiveness among the Amiga review scene and am wondering what your take will be. On the other, I'm not sure how much longer you can avoid writing about Fates.

    1. Ahh yess moonstone I hope chet has a joystick or his going to be screwed also that game absolutely hates anything but bog standard A500 anything else (such as my A1200 back in the day) and it will most definetly crash.

      I have such a fond memories of playing the game wih friends.

    2. I'm playing the DOS version, but the joystick thing is a problem. I may have to punt it for a few games until I get back home and can try my controller again. Trying to fight with the keyboard controls is definitely not working.

    3. Oh, and I've been playing quite a bit of Fate, but it takes a long time for enough stuff to happen in that game to be worthy of a blog entry.

  10. The problem with games like this as you note in your intro ("best game everrrr!"), is that these are the memories of folks who had maybe a handful of games for their computer and this was amongst them. While making the most of what you have and letting your imagination soar, you create a game in your own mind that is greater than the program ever was. How I elevated the simple VIC-20 Scott Adams "Adventureland" cart game in my own head to mythic levels only to discover decades later that it was a rather bare bones title. There is much to be said for the cable TV of 100 channels on vs. the 3 channels you'd get in UHF in the country, forced to watch reruns of Gunsmoke -- VS The situation today where you can choose to play any one of thousands of old games, while the user back then had to make the most of what was in reach then, possibly - in Apple's case - run not even on their own computers at home - but rather on the school's unit in the "computer room". Ah, distorted memories and the power of imagination. Perhaps this is why I find the poor graphics and no graphics titles the most alluring even today.

  11. Looks like TES4 Oblivion has nothing on this game in the broken player-based encounter scaling department!

    I'm currently working on Morrowind (long story) and will be using a monster scaling fix mod whenever I finally get to playing Oblivion for real.

  12. Wow... And I thought Fallout 3 & 4 was bad with their extremely hostile NPCs.

    But random musicians and religious people just up and killing people for absolutely no reason other than occupying a space near them?


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