Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Game 226: The Yendor's Castle (1986)

No, that's not a typo in my post title.
The Yendor's   Castle
United States
Copy of The Wizard's Castle by Joseph Power (1980), published by Keypunch Software.
Released 1986 for DOS.
Date Started: 31 August 2016
Date Ended: 31 August 2016
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 48/224 (21%)
During my first, confused year of blogging, I didn't really care about issues of accuracy. If MobyGames said there was a 1985 roguelike game called Amulet of Yendor, I took its word for it, Googled "Amulet of Yendor DOS Download," and played what I found. But now that I regard myself more as a historian, I have to report that a) the game isn't a roguelike; b) there's no particular evidence that it's from 1985; and c) it doesn't even seem to be called Amulet of Yendor.

The "roguelike" part is easiest to dismiss, despite what practically every download site says. While the game does use ASCII characters, it has none of the other major features of a roguelike. Instead, it's a variant of The Wizard's Castle (1980), which I covered in a 2013 review. "Variant" is generous, as we'll see. The same game saw variants with more...well, variance... in Leygref's Castle (1986), Mission: Mainframe (1987), and Bones: The Game of the Haunted Mansion (1991). Each of these games features a multi-level game map divided into a number of discrete rooms, each of which may contain a monster, a treasure, or a trap.

The "roguelike" confusion might come from the name Amulet of Yendor, which of course is the name of the quest object in Rogue and NetHack, but the game lifts nothing else from these roguelikes.

Second, we have the title, which does not seem to be objectively determinable. The game compilation package, like MobyGames and several abandonware sites, calls it Amulet of Yendor, but the game's title screen seems to call it Yendor's   Castle--or, even more bizarrely, The Yendor's   Castle. (I'd chalk it up as an unfortunate typo in the worst possible place, much like Gateway to Aphsai, except that it's repeated in the next line.) The backstory makes it clear that the objective is to recover the Orb of Yendor, not an amulet, so calling the game Amulet of Yendor would make little sense. I'd blame the marketing department except that the game's file name is "amulet.exe" and later when you find the Orb, it turns out that a "precious amulet" is with it despite the backstory never mentioning the amulet. Anyway, in times of confusion, my policy is to go with the main screen, so The Yendor's   Castle it is.

Finally, there's the question of year, given as 1985 almost everywhere. But the game seems to have been published solely as part of a shovelware package released by Keypunch Software in 1986. Many of the file dates are from 1985, which probably led to the confusion.
The back of the shovelware package in which this game appeared.
A discussion of this entire Keypunch package is going to be more fun than reviewing The Yendor's   Castle specifically. The Minnesota-based company, which existed from 1984 to somewhere in the mid-1990s, was famous for making minor modifications to shareware titles and re-publishing them for profit as well as making cheap knock-offs of better commercial titles. Its first shovelware package--Arcade Bonanza--was headlined by Frog and Pac-Em; I'll let your imagination run riot on what games they copied.

Amulet of Yendor or The Yendor's   Castle appeared in a package called Swords & Sorcery, so poorly designed that the disks inside had hand corrections on the bland labels and didn't even come with sleeves. One of the other games in the package is The Golden Wombat, a breathtaking ripoff of Kevin Bales's Castle Adventure (1984, which is also weirdly listed as a "roguelike" on a lot of sites despite not even being an RPG). A third is NYC Adventure, which seems to copy the style of Infocom text adventures.

The fourth title in the package is Swords of Glass, which I reviewed in 2010 without knowing anything about its history. Most reviewers making fun of Keypunch dismiss this one as a Wizardry clone, but as we saw in my series of posts (cut short by a misunderstanding on my part), it had some amazing innovations for a game of such low pedigree, including cooperative multiplayer, the ability to make marks on walls, the ability to purchase weapon bonuses, an automap, a vault, and some truly interesting and challenging logic puzzles and cryptograms. Keypunch stripped all attributions from its games and in the 30 years since, no one seems to have come forward to claim credit for Swords of Glass. I still have a $50 Amazon gift card bounty out on that author's name. He or she deserves to be remembered.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the "author" of The Yendor's   Castle, who did nothing more than copy the freely-published code of The Wizard's Castle and change a little text, add the manual text to the opening screen shots, and add some color and formatting to it. A few errors are fixed (e.g., the game now asks "what is your sex?" instead of "what sex do you prefer?") but an equal number are introduced. Here's the background text from the originally-published Wizard's Castle in the July/August 1980 Recreational Computing:
Many cycles ago, in the kingdom of N'dic, the gnomic wizard Zot forged his great orb of power. Soon after this he vanished, leaving behind his vast subterranean castle filled with esurient monsters, fabulous treasures, and the incredible Orb of Zot. From that time hence many a bold youth has ventured into the wizard's castle. As yet, none has ever emerged victorious.
And here's the introductory text from The Yendor's   Castle:
Many cycles ago, in the kingdom of Zantu, the grey elf Yendor forged his great Orb of Power. Soon after this he vanished, leaving behind his vast subterranean castle filled with esurient monsters, fabulous treasures, and the incredible Orb of Yendor. From that time hence many a bold youth has ventured into the wizard's castle. As yet, no one has ever emerged victorious. 
Pro tip: if you're going to plagiarize someone else's work and sell it for a profit, change not only the names of the kingdom and wizard, but words like "esurient." 
The original game didn't have nice borders around the introductory text. But the original game did spell "palantir" correctly.

The plagiarism is so bad that I'm 99% sure the publisher was originally going to leave the title as The Wizard's Castle, or something similar, before a last-minute decision to do a quick find-and-replace and put Yendor's in there instead, leading to the awkward title. Every time the word "Yendor's" or "Yendor" appears in the game text, as in the opening screen above, there's a curious extra space or two after it, like it was a last-minute substitution for something else. "Wizard's" has the same number of characters, so maybe it wasn't that, but clearly some substitution happened.

Commands in the game, identical to the original.
Both games offer elf, dwarf, human, and hobbit character classes, allocation of attributes to strength, intelligence, and dexterity, and an initial purchase from three types of armor, three weapons, a lamp, and any number of flares.

Both games take place in an 8-level castle of 64 rooms each, arranged in an 8 x 8 grid. The contents of each room are randomly generated with each new game. About half of the rooms have nothing in them; the rest have exactly one thing: a monster, stairs up or down, a sinkhole, a magic pool, a chest, a book, gold, flares, a "warp" (teleporter), a vendor, a crystal orb, one of eight artifact treasures, or the Orb of Yendor itself.
The game map for Amulet of Yendor. The ???? squares are unexplored.
As you start the game, all rooms appear on the map as question marks. You reveal them by walking around or using lamps and flares to check out the contents of rooms immediately adjacent to you. The game occasionally throws atmospheric messages at you ("you sneezed"; "you stepped on a frog"; "you hear a door open and close"), but they're all randomly generated and don't necessarily give you hints as to nearby rooms.
Not gonna lie. I'd probably buy it.
Combat is pretty rote, consisting of basically attack, retreat, or bribe the monster to go away. Characters with above 15 intelligence can cast one of three spells--"Web," "Fireball," and "Deathspell"--but they're all risky and they subtract directly from strength and intelligence. Victory rewards you with gold and sometimes an amusing line suggesting that you cooked and ate your foe.
I try my luck with "Deathspell" and emerge victorious. Apparently, there's a 25% chance of it backfiring on you.
Character development comes primarily in the form of buying items and attribute-increasing potions from vendors, drinking from pools, and reading books. The latter two options are risky, as they can lower statistics or curse you with lethargy (monsters always get a first attack), blindness, forgetfulness (explored map disappears), and other conditions, including changing race or sex. The various artifact treasures, if found, generally serve to ward off the potential curses.
Take it away, Kenny.
There isn't a lot of strategy; just a roll of the dice every time you engage in one of these special encounters. There is a kind-of role-playing decision involved in whether to attack vendors. If you kill one, you get all his stuff, but every vendor in the game becomes hostile.

Late in the game, after you've acquired a bunch of artifacts, visiting the vendor becomes tedious.
A turning point in the game comes if you can find a vendor after amassing enough treasure to purchase potions that increase your strength and dexterity to around 18. At that point, it becomes very difficult for most monsters to kill you and exploration becomes a lot safer. Moreover, since 18 is the maximum for anything, you can mostly say no to anything that might put you in danger, as there's no potential reward.

Ah, so now, suddenly, we're after an amulet, too.
Finding the Orb of Yendor can be difficult. It isn't displayed as such on the map, and you can't walk directly into its room (you end up warping out). Instead, you have to teleport there with a Runestaff, found in one of the game's random combats. Crystal orbs scattered throughout the dungeon will tell you the Orb's location--but they only have a 50% chance of telling the truth, so you need a couple of confirmations. Most of the time, they just show you nonsense, like "you see a soap opera re-run," or the contents of some random square.

Whoops! The author forgot that the wizard in his version of the game isn't named "Zot."
Warps and sinkholes make it tough to explore systematically, but that's basically what you do, ameliorating misfortunes with trips to vendors to restore weapons, armor, and attributes, until you find the Runestaff and enough encounters with crystal orbs to reliably place the Orb of Yendor. When you think you have the right location, you teleport to it, acquire the Orb--and Amulet, apparently--and then make your way to the exit.
Ah, but he remembered here. He changed the original's "Great unmitigated Zot!" to...'rot.' Huh?
The only major change from The Wizard's Castle that I could identify, aside from the text edits and a little formatting, is that the contents of each room are spelled out instead of annotated with a letter (although the introductory text, copying the original game manual, says that the map is annotated only with single letters). The only sound is in the form of an error beep when you type something wrong.

The Wizard's Castle calls your win "an incredibly glorious victory!" instead of just "a glorious victory," but otherwise the two winning screens are the same.
For a GIMLET, therefore, I have to give it an identical score to The Wizard's Castle except to subtract one point for so many of the text edits creating typos and inconsistencies. The final score is 18. This entire branch of games aren't really RPGs in a classic sense, but they have a Solitaire-like satisfaction in their brevity and mindlessness. They'd make good smartphone games.

If I'd known how blatant this copy was before I started this entry, I would have declined to play the game entirely, but I got pretty far before the extent of the plagiarism became clear, and I promised I'd get started again before the end of the month, so here we are. The Keypunch stuff was interesting, anyway. Moving on, it's long-past time to check in with Fate: Gates of Dawn.

Until this afternoon, I had an entire post written about Wizard's Crown, discussing in detail its tactical combat system and tracing the development of that system from the earliest RPGs through Galactic Adventures and SSI wargaming in general, and from there to Gold Box games and Disciples of Steel. It was going to be a comeback worth waiting for. Then I lost the entire thing--the same thing that happened to me before with a recent post on The Magic Candle II.
After some experimentation, I figured out how it happened, and here's a warning for other Blogger users. Your key enemy is Blogger's auto-save feature, which cheerfully runs every few seconds and updates your post-in-progress with the latest variant of it, even if 3 seconds ago you had 6 pages of text and currently you have none. At that point, as far as I can tell, the post is completely irrecoverable.
How does your post go from 6 pages of text to none in the first place? It's happened to me a few times now, mostly from reasons that were entirely my fault, like accidentally hitting CTRL-A before typing something or by accidentally having the same post open in two edit windows. But a third reason is more insidious, and I don't know if it's Blogger's fault or Firefox's: in certain circumstances (I haven't nailed down all of them yet), hitting CTRL-Z for "undo" deletes the entire post instead of just undoing whatever you did last. It seems to always happen when you're at the beginning of your post, for instance. I recommend never hitting that keyboard combination while in Blogger.

So this afternoon, I had finished the text of my post and went to insert the lead image. I chose the wrong one, so after it appeared, I hit CTRL-Z to undo it. The entire text of my post vanished. Before I could react by closing the window without saving, auto-save happily replaced my previous draft with my now-empty draft.

Lesson learned: I need to take periodic backups outside of Blogger, even though I've yet to find a text editor that preserves my text formatting without introducing a bunch of garbage coding that messes up the layout of the post. (I guess if I just copied the HTML, I'd be okay.)
But I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate re-writing things I've already written, which means I probably won't revisit Wizard's Crown after all. It's for the best. I wasn't really enjoying it anyway, and despite its importance in the development of SSI's tactical combat approach, I was probably right to quit the game back in 2010. Maybe I'll try again ahead of The Eternal Dagger in 1987.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Summer Update

I'm sorry it's been so unforgivably long since my last update, and particularly since I've made any substantive progress on a game. The bottom line--which I didn't fully realize until a few days ago--is that I just needed a vacation. It's been a trying 2016, for several reasons, and I needed to spend the summer doing things away from my computer, including making my new house in Maine livable.

This isn't the end of my blog, and I promise I'll be back with gusto at some point during August. I'm just as dedicated as I've always been to making progress on my list. I just needed a longer break than I thought.