Thursday, November 23, 2017

Game 270: The Bard's Tale Construction Set (1991)

     
The Bard's Tale Construction Set
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga
Date Started: 20 November 2017

Of all the game engines that existed by 1991, The Bard's Tale seems like an odd one for a construction set. The last Bard's Tale game was three years old at this point, and the engine--which had been based on Wizardry--was showing its age even then. Interplay had released several titles is in the intervening years with more complex mechanics, including Waste Land (1988), Dragon Wars (1989), and Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990). Then again, the only other major commercial RPG construction kit so far--Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set (1984)--had been roundly criticized as being too complicated.

The Bard's Tale kit is odd for a couple other reasons. We learned a long time ago that Interplay's Dragon Wars (1989) was originally going to be The Bard's Tale IV, but Electronic Arts, the publisher for the first three games, held the rights to the name and wouldn't let Interplay use it unless EA was the publisher. (Honestly, has EA never not had a rubbish reputation?) I'm curious what changed in the intervening two years, as here we are with a Bard's Tale title with no EA involvement.
      
Games made with the construction kit look and play like a combination of the three games in the series.
     
Nor, I should add, is there any involvement from the creators of The Bard's Tale and its two sequels. The names showing up on this title are names that we'll remember--names that will appear on titles like Fallout and the Infinity Engine games--but we're mostly seeing them for the first time.

I don't know if I would have been excited about a construction set using the Bard's Tale engine in 1991. It was adequate for its era but only adequate. It offers nothing on Wizardry except for graphics. More than any other series, I think The Bard's Tale benefits from a nostalgia factor that overpowers the reality of average games with minimal lore, goofy plots, and far too much grinding.

The first one is the best of the lot. The second and third, by starting characters at extremely high levels, basically negate any sense of accomplishment that come with character development. Thus, I've had a reasonable amount of fun with the sample scenario, titled Star Light Festival, and the difficult opening stages that it offers. There's something about a game that makes you play for a couple of hours before rewarding you with a pair of leather gloves. Minus 1 AC for one character, baby!
    
Building a dungeon level with the map editor.
     
I don't know how much time I'll spend messing around with the construction set itself. It has too many limitations. There's no way to abandon a high fantasy setting. The races, classes, and attributes are hard-coded. All maps have to be 22 x 22 (though of course you can wall-in some of the space). You can't adjust the pace of leveling or the advancement of rogue skills. You can't tie the effectiveness of spells to the level of the caster. You can make your own items and spells, but you have a list of effects more limited than the original three games. Stores will only sell the first nine items on your equipment list. You cannot rename shops; the equipment shop is always Garth's. Perhaps most annoying given the title of the game, you can't define your own list of bard songs.
      
The shop never has more than one small page of merchandise.
     
The list of special encounter options is reasonably long. When you tag a map square with a special encounter, you write a script to go with it, which can consist of various conditional tests or even user prompts (e.g., for riddles) and can result in text, bestowal or removal of items, bestowal of experience, and modification of attributes. Still, the potential for navigation puzzles is fairly weak, as it is in the original series, and while you can include spinners and darkness squares and such, you can't construct puzzles involving pits and pressure plates a la Dungeon Master. That would be a cool construction set.

Worst of all, you can't even give a name to your compiled game or create a title screen with your name. Every completed game, including the sample one, just starts with the main Construction Set screen. On the plus side, once you compile the game, it runs directly from an executable with no need for the original disks or engine. A BTCS game can be shared with anyone regardless of whether they own the Construction Set. I gather that isn't true of most kit games.
       
Defining a monster with the monster editor.
    
Anyway, the CRPG Addict is addicted to playing RPGs, not building them. Thus, I've been spending most of my time with the sample scenario. I figured it would be short and inconsequential, but it's shaping up to be as long as the original Bard's Tale. The setup is that your amateur party has come to the village of Isil Thania for an annual "Star Light Festival," but something ominous seems to be happening in town. At a bar, the party hears a rumor to ask the bartender for wine, thus opening the way to the first dungeon.
    
The game mostly uses the updated engine from The Bard's Tale III. Enemies can start at range and there are ranged weapons, neither of which was possible in the first Bard's Tale. Graphics have been updated to VGA. Sound is weird. They went through the trouble of recording advanced effects that you need a proper sound card to hear, but there are only about five of them. Every enemy has the same Wilhelm-esque death scream. Every spell sounds like a magic missile thwapping someone, including healing spells and the bard's restoration of his vocal cords when he buys a drink. Sound slows down combat so much that it's better to play with it off.
    
The party lights up the wine cellar.
    
Although all five spellcasting classes from the original game are here--conjurer, magician, sorcerer, wizard, and archmage--there are far, far fewer spells, basically two per level through level 3, and then one per level after that. To cast spells, you need to know their four-letter code, so you have to have the documentation.
Gone is the ability from the second two Bard's Tale games to save the game independent of the characters. You have to return to the adventurer's guild to save. I like the difficulty associated with this, but not the limited gameplay, as basically the dungeons never "clear" and the only way to measure progress through the game is via inventory.
Characters start at Level 1. There's a default party, but I scrapped it to make my own. Races are human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, half-elf, half-orc, and gnome. Classes are warrior, paladin, rogue, bard, hunter, monk, and the five spellcasting classes, although you can only start as a magician or conjurer (you have to switch to the others later). Attributes are strength, IQ, dexterity, constitution, and luck, and the attribute rolls during character creation are not generous. There is no explicit option for sex, and all portraits show male characters. You can make up to 7 characters, but as with the previous games, you generally want to leave a slot open for NPCs.
   
Rolling a new character.
     
Isil Thania is a 22 x 22 city full mostly of empty houses, although it does have more going on than the original game's Skara Brae. In addition to the guild and equipment shop, there's a separate archery shop, Roscoe's Energy Emporium (which recharges spell points), the Review Board (increases levels and confers spells), four bars, and three temples. There's an odd building where you can get random rumors. 
     
This is new to this game.
      
The streets are far less deadly than Skara Brae, thankfully. Most enemy parties are easily defeated at the first level. The downside is that they don't offer much in the way of gold or experience. It costs 2,000 experience points to get to Level 2, and the average town party might award you 5 or 7. So unlike the first game, you don't want to spend a lot of time grinding in town; you want to go right for the dungeons.
      
This is sure going to take a while.
      
There are signs that there will be several. The first is the wine cellar of the first bar; just like in The Bard's Tale, you enter by ordering wine. The first level even uses the same map as the wine cellar in Skara Brae. Elsewhere in the city, denizens of a tower demand to know who sent me, a giant slab appears to want some kind of code, and one entire quadrant is blocked by locked gates. I assume these will all have dungeons behind them.
     
I guess I'll be back later with the key.
     
The default monsters in the kit, and the ones used by Star Light Festival, are standard D&D-style creatures like goblins, orcs, giant rats, and skeletons. This is unusual for the series, which until now has reveled in creating hundreds of bizarrely-named creatures like "muck-yuckers" and "hell minks" whose strengths and weaknesses you must learn through extensive trial and error. 
     
I don't think this is anyone's understanding of what a "goblin" looks like.
    
Combat is unchanged from the second two Bard's Tale games (or Waste Land or Dragon Wars for that matter). Initial encounter options are to attack in melee range, attack with a ranged weapon (if you have one), advance closer (if the enemy starts at range), or flee. Once in melee combat, you have options to attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, play a bard song (for bards), or hide in shadows (for rogues). You line up your action for each character and watch them carry them out, interspersed with the enemies' actions, in sequence. (FYI for those considering playing, it's an undocumented feature that the + and - keys speed up and slow down the speed of the message scroll; you'll definitely want to speed it up.)
       
Combat actions scroll by in a bout against some wolves.
     
The magician in Star Light Festival gets a healing spell at Level 1, which is nice, but you can only cast it about three times before you're out of spell points, and spell points restore slowly: one every five minutes in real time, double that if the bard is playing the "Rhyme of Duotime," but only outside during the day. There's no "rest" mechanic to restore health or magic. Thus, most of your gold goes to the temples and Roscoe's.
   
Roscoe has gotten a bit weird.
      
Even in the first level of the dungeon, experience rewards are paltry enough that for a long time your only mechanisms for development are inventory acquisitions. It's a real treat to find that first pair of gauntlets, or to swap out your starting broadsword for a magic sword.
The first level of the Wine Cellar.
    
I mapped the first level of the wine cellar while only getting about one-quarter of the way to the second character level. There were some fixed treasures and combats but no special encounters or messages. I haven't quite hit the six hours yet, so I guess I'll give it a little longer while I research a bit more about the reception of the Construction Kit and what kinds of games were made with it.

Time so far: 4 hours

Monday, November 20, 2017

Twilight: 2000: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

But what did Paragon do if two people got the same winning number?
    
Twilight: 2000
United States
Paragon Software (developer); MicroProse (publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 26 October 2017
Date Ended: 19 November 2017
Total Hours: 42
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
  
I had around another 8 hours and maybe 20 missions to go after the last entry. After a few missions, my intelligence officer told me that "Czarny's regime is crumbling" and "General Andrekov has been called back to Checiny for emergency strategy meetings with Baron Czarny."

I couldn't remember if Czarny's home city had been named before. I decided to ignore the next mission and see what happened if I just assaulted Checiny. I took a tank to the city and didn't see any enemy vehicles. The moment I got out of the tank, the game told me that I was ambushed and captured by Czarny's forces, and that he subsequently captured Krakow. A graphic seen showed my 20 characters being marched somewhere and then shot on a firing line.
    

This ending, unlike the "good" one, has graphics.
      
Returning to doing it the hard way, I had about 10 more missions before my intelligence officer said that "General Andrekov is out of the picture . . . apparently, there's been some kind of fallout [with] Czarny."

The missions towards the end of the game almost all involved combat. I think among the last dozen, I had one supply mission but everything else was ground or tank battles.

Finally, I finished a mission, checked in with the intel officer, and got a message that Czarny was attacking Krakow itself with a force of 2 vehicles and 27 troops. I went to bed at this point without saving. Reloading the next day, I got the same mission but with 2 vehicles and 11 troops. That was much easier.
      
The final mission begins.
     
I drove my M1A1 Abrams outside the garage, blasted the two tanks, got out, and took out the 11 soldiers in a regular ground combat. It was perhaps a little harder than normal; more of the enemies had grenade launchers and rocket launchers.
      
My last kill of the game.
      
The endgame text tells of the execution of Baron Czarny and a bright future for free Poland--but under the cloud of General Andrekov's escape. Despite rumors that he had been executed or fled to the U.S., my party wonders if he was the true source of the trouble and Czarny was just his puppet. The game ends with the question unresolved. In the final line, you're encouraged to send a 30-character alphanumeric to Paragon.
    
Part of the endgame text.
    
In my first entry for Twilight: 2000, I noted that about 20% of the manual consisted of errata. The game then shipped with a readme file that had errata on the errata. To excuse this sorry state of affairs, the developers noted in the errata that the manuals "are always written and printed long before the project is actually completed." I don't know if this is really true; even if it is true, I suspect that Paragon perhaps still printed its manuals a bit too early.
       
This is not the kind of note that instills a lot of confidence in the game you're about to play.
     
In their final paragraph, the developers say: "We believe the changes have improved the playability of the game and we've tried to create a game that is fun, challenging, and convenient to learn and use." I might be reading too deeply between the lines, but these sentences suggest to me a certain desperation. "We tried," it says, almost plaintively. This is the desperation of a company that got the license to make computer versions of several popular tabletop games but, lacking any real RPG experience, managed not to get any of them right. It's the desperation of a company that had similarly bungled a series of action games based on Marvel characters, a company that would be out of business within a year. I haven't been able to find a solid history of Paragon, but my impression is that they had some good fortune in getting the Marvel and GDW licenses, but ultimately bit off more than they could chew.

Twilight: 2000 is much like MegaTraveller 2 in its essential failure despite promising elements. Both have some of the best character-creation processes that we've seen in RPG history. Both offer relatively open worlds. Both attempt to use at least some of the skills offered by their tabletop parents. Both offer a variety of different quest types. But in the end, both are fundamentally boring. They had to cut too many corners in adapting the game from tabletop to computer.

I'll discuss some of the other things I like about Twilight: 2000 as we go through the GIMLET:

  • 6 points for the game world. Liberating post-apocalyptic Poland may not be an original plot if you're familiar with the tabletop modules, but it is highly original among CRPGs. The plot and backstory are well-told and the party's place is clear. The world even responds slightly to the party's actions.
  • 4 points for character creation and development, all of this going to an excellent creation process that allows you to develop a variety of skills via education, civilian careers, and numerous types of military careers. It also gets some credit for its "find-the-right-person-for-the-job" approach to quests.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. These interaction are minimal and offer no role-playing options. NPCs are rarely named and do not contribute to the game's lore.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. There are two types of enemies: tanks and soldiers. Soldiers are differentiated somewhat by the types of weapons they wield.
      
Until he fires, I don't know what he has for a weapon.
     
  • 4 points for combat, which includes the action tank combat and the tactical ground combat. It's a little weird how separated these are, and it makes little sense that you can avoid a tank blast by diving out of your own vehicle, or avoid damage from ground troops by diving back in. Aside from distance and a few terrain considerations, ground combat doesn't have enough tactics, but I suppose it benefits from some gritty realism.
       
Sneaking up behind enemy tanks and blasting them to smithereens was the best part of the game.
       
  • 6 points for equipment. This game is a military fetishist's dream, offering numerous types of handguns, rifles, heavy weapons, and explosives, all carefully detailed and described for various factors, including damage and weight. The ability to modify weapons with scopes is a plus, and the game does some original things with rarely-seen (in RPGs) equipment like goggles, snow shoes, medicines, binoculars, tools, and radios. That you have to purchase most of your equipment during character creation is kind of stupid. I was also disappointed at how many items were never used, including flashlights and Geiger counters.
  • 1 point for the economy. There is no in-game economy, just during character creation, and it's generous enough that you don't really need to worry about it at all.
  • 3 points for the quest. There is only one main quest and no side-quests, but the variability of the main quest missions are a slight bonus.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound effects both get the job done. I was not fond of the interface, and I will never rate a game high that refuses to use the keyboard in the most obvious of ways. There were too many times that the interface was inconsistent or required too much time to accomplish a common task (opening and closing the map being the prime exhibit).
       
The interiors of the buildings were well-designed and almost entirely wasted.
      
  • 2 points for gameplay. This is where it really suffers. The open world is wasted in a linear set of missions. There are far too many of them, and they get too repetitive. Since you can't reject missions or choose a path that you want to specialize in (e.g., combat or non-combat), there's no reason to replay the game.
             
This gives us a subtotal of 33. I'm going to give a couple of extra points for the vehicle-driving mechanic, which is reasonably well-done and fairly unusual to RPGs of the period. The final score of 35 is still quite a bit below the 41 I gave to MegaTraveller 2. Both games offer somewhat bipolar GIMLETs: several high scores balanced by several abysmal ones. That's the Paragon experience in a nutshell.
       
Here's another cool image where I've just blown up two tanks in a row.
       
J. D. Lambright reviewed the game in the June 1992 Computer Gaming World. I believe I'm encountering this reviewer for the first time, and I have to say I'm impressed with how well he understood the game. He covers considerations for skills, equipment, vehicles, and overall mission success, and he clearly put a Scorpia-level of effort into it.

He agrees that the character creation system was "possibly the most outstanding system ever introduced in a computer game." If nothing else, Paragon made a great character-generator for tabletop players. Alas, he got sucked in by the fantasy that even if "all the available skills are needed in this game, they may be used in subsequent games." There's only one game--Wizard's Crown--in which that kind of investment has ever paid off. He notes many of the gameplay frustrations that I did, including finding the right NPCs to talk with and dealing with the whole language issue, and like me he found the missions "repetitious." Overall, however, he concludes much more positively than I did. His penultimate sentence is one that I absolutely cannot sanction: "Paragon Software is listening to their customers and learning what role-playing is all about." I don't think the company ever understood what role-playing was all about.
      
This got old fast.
     
For justification for that opinion, I turn to the tabletop Twilight: 2000 materials, provided to me by two awesome readers, Antti and Dariel. Between them, they sent the play manual and several modules. From the play manual, I was primarily interested in whether the tabletop RPG allowed for continual character development or whether a character's skills were presumed to be fixed after creation. As I suspected, the idea of no character development lies solely with the CRPG and its developers. The manual has this to say:
       
As a person grows older and more experienced, it is natural that he will polish his existing skills and learn new ones. In a sense, Twilight: 2000 picks up the threads of the lives of the characters in mid-course. Thus, they already have considerable knowledge of the world, but as time passes they will learn more.
         
The manual gives several ways by which a character can increase a skill, including successful use, observing another character, training, and literature. The rules behind these increases are not strict, however, and a lot is left to the discretion of the "referee." I suspect the lack of hard rules has something to do with Paragon's failure to include any kind of development.
     
The play manual cover.
     
The tabletop materials also make it clear that the party's assemblage of skills is supposed to provide various alternatives to completing the missions. The CRPG's primary problem is that the player has no choices. If the next mission is a spy mission, he needs "Interrogate." If it's a vehicle retrieval mission, he needs "Mechanics." He can't use "Stealth" as an alternative, following potential spies and observing their behavior, or "Persuasion" to convince someone else to fix the vehicle. Twilight: 2000 should have been a bit more like Wasteland, where different combinations of skills can all lead to a successful outcome.

The modules, all from 1985, show the game's sources, beginning with The Free City of Krakow, which establishes the home base of the party. Pirates of the Vistula introduces Baron Czarny as one of several regional warlords, and The Ruins of Warsaw deals primarily with Czarny. (The CRPG doesn't go as far north as Warsaw, instead relocating Czarny's headquarters to Checiny.) Reading these, I can't help but be a little heartbroken at what could have been. A full CRPG based on these modules would have offered air and river travel (and combat) options, dozens of interesting NPCs with backstories and even romance options, a much more subtle and complex plot, half a dozen intriguing factions to role-play, more detailed maps, and cities and towns with shops and bars and individual character.

The game's one addition to the plot seems to have been General Andrekov, who appears nowhere in the modules. I guess they were setting him up for a possible sequel.

Of course, there was no sequel. In finishing this game, we are done with adaptations of Game Designers' Workshop properties, done with Paragon Software, and mostly done with the lead developers who worked on this or MegaTraveller. After the company was bought by MicroProse in July 1992, some of the Paragon principals founded Take-Two Interactive, but I guess by then they had learned that RPGs weren't their strong suit, as Take-Two has never made one.

I said "mostly done" with the developers. The major exception is going to be Challenge of the Five Realms (1992), a MicroProse title conceived by Marc Miller, the GDW co-founder who contributed the scenarios to the computer versions of MegaTraveller 2 and Twilight: 2000. Paragon programmers F. J. Lennon (design) and Paul M. Conklin (sound) also appear in the credits. Summaries of the game suggest that it heavily involves the use of skills and includes the "PAL" system that was featured in both MegaTraveller 2 and Twilight: 2000, in which characters with an appropriate skill will pipe up at the right moment. In short, it sounds like Challenge of the Five Realms is a Paragon title developed without the constraints of a GDW tabletop rulebook. Will that make it a better or worse game? I guess we'll soon see.

Lennon has one other RPG in his future: MicroProse's BloodNet (1993). Finally, another Twilight: 2000 programmer, Don Wuenschell, found post-Paragon work at DreamForge, and we'll see his work on Veil of Darkness (1993), Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession (1994), Menzoberranzan (1994), and Ravenloft: Stone Prophet (1995).

It's been a strange ride, Paragon. Whether I was trying to map the crazy corridors of Alien Fires, looking for the right artifact in Wizard Wars, or going through the detailed character creation processes in Space 1889, MegaTraveller, and Twilight: 2000, I always thought you had some intriguing ideas. I don't know if you never bothered to check out titles like Ultima, Wizardry, Might and Magic, or the Gold Box series, or if you did check them out and just didn't understand them. Either way, you never did really figure out what CRPGs were about. I'm not sorry to see you go, but part of me will always be sorry that you never reached your potential.

*****

The bizarre French Oméga: Planète Invisible was supposed to be next, but I found plenty of evidence that its release was not in 1987, as most sites report, but in late 1985 or early 1986. I'm using this flimsy excuse to kick it backwards on the list and relegate it to a final "sweep up" that I'll have to do when I get to the end of 1989.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Game 269: Ancients 1: Death Watch (1991)

          
Ancients 1: Death Watch
Canada
Farr-Ware (developer); distributed as shareware
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 14 November 2017
Date Ended: 17 November 2017
Total Hours: 17
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)  
      
Ancients--which seems to be the word-of-the-year for 1991--is a prosaic but playable little Wizardry clone. It doesn't offer anything we haven't seen a hundred times, but it surpasses the quality of the other shovelware with which it was distributed. The graphics are cute.

The by-the-numbers nature of the game puts me in the mood to simply structure this entry like a record in a database.

Backstory: Unnecessarily vague. The central character (the game is not clear which of the four characters this represents) is exploring the hills one day near his home city of Locklaven. He comes upon a beautiful fairy playing an instrument and falls asleep, awakening later in his own bed. The experience inspires him to be an adventurer, and he sets out. Years later, he returns to Locklaven and finds it transformed. The population is fearful and mistrustful, and some kind of evil seems to have gripped the city. The "main character" thinks it has something to do with the fairy being captured.
       
Part of the unhelpful backstory.
      
Party members: 4. Only two can fight in melee range; the other two can cast or use missile weapons from the back. 

Races: Human, dwarf, elf.

Classes: Warrior, rogue, priest, mage.
      
Choosing the class during character creation.
      
Attributes: Strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity. Life points and  money ("dracos") are also rolled randomly during character creation. Attributes are theoretically between 3 and 18, but the rolls are generous and it wasn't hard to get characters with 15 and above in everything.
            
During character creation, you choose from a variety of portraits for the characters. There is only one female portrait. Sex is otherwise not explicitly given.

Game world: Town level and seven underground dungeon levels, generally 18 x 18. Town level has an armory, inn, temple, training hall, and casino with miserable odds.
     
Arriving in the game from the main screen.
     
Encounters: Both fixed and random, including some in the town level. Monsters are typical Dungeons and Dragons fare. Some have mass-damage attacks, but none have special attacks like poison, paralysis, curse, sleep, or level drain.

Combat: Standard Wizardry style, with options to attack, defend, cast spells, use items, and flee.
      
Mid-combat with a troll and a mis-named "black elf."
      
Magic: Both priests and mages have 24 spells, arranged in 6 levels of 4 each. They gain new spells every other character level. They're relatively standard for CRPGs, some single-enemy offensive, some multi-enemy offensive, some protection, some healing. Only one, "Enchanted Flame," is necessary for exploration. Unfortunately, there are no "buffing" spells; all protection spells are cast in combat.
       
A protection spell helps in an early-game combat.
      
The game is slow-going to start. The random combats on the first dungeon level are of extremely variable difficulty, just like in Wizardry. You might face 2 goblins in one fight and then 3 orcs, 4 giant rats, and 4 goblins in the next. The winnable battles deliver an average of 15 experience points, and it takes 500 experience points just to reach Level 2. I had explored and mapped the level (except for its final encounter) long before I was ready to level up. Combat is somewhat annoying throughout the game because the characters' accuracy, even with high dexterity, is abysmal. Even towards the end, your attacks connect maybe one-third of the time.

One thing I rather like is the tight economy.  A wildly successful combat might net 12 gold pieces. You're deep into the game before everyone has their best "regular" weapons and armor. Eventually, gold is only useful for healing (the shop doesn't sell any advanced gear), but it takes a long time to get there.
       
Late-game equipment for my warrior. I never did find anything for the belt slot.
      
Ancients does reasonably well with its equipment, too. You have a paper doll image with slots for left and right hands, helms, armor, gauntlets, boots, and belts, plus 12 backpack slots. There are the usual class-based restrictions on what you can wield, but there don't seem to be any armor restrictions. Since only two characters (the two "middle" characters in the party order, oddly) can engage in melee combat, the other two end up being missile characters and spell casters.
      
Purchasing equipment in the town's shop.
      
Only warriors can use bows, but I can't imagine wasting a warrior in a backup slot unless you were trying to do something unusual, like field an all-warrior party. In my party, the priest and mage both used slings. You have to buy sling bullets to go with the slings, but one bullet apparently lasts a lifetime. There's also a weird bug by which slings occasionally do ridiculous damage.
      
Maggar somehow ended up with the Sling of David.
    
That bug is representative of an unpolished feeling to the game in general. Spelling errors abound; for instance, the equipment shop has an option to "sell and item" and a main menu option advertises the game's "sequal." The interface works poorly. There are theoretically redundant mouse and keyboard commands, but in practice you have to use the mouse for almost everything. There are times the game outright lies: when casting spells, for instance, it offers function keys for each selection, but the function keys don't do anything. Often, it's unclear how to back out or exit a menu option.
    
Despite the labels to the left, the function keys do not in fact serve as shortcuts. I have to click with the mouse if I want to cure "serius" wounds or "casue" wounds to the enemy.
        
Anyway, as you penetrate the dungeon, you find the occasional magic equipment upgrade, like elven boots and dwarven helms. Platemail is also only available from looted enemies, not the shop.

The world is small, as it uses the "wormhole" convention by which corridors always have 10 feet of dead space around them. The town is particularly void of anything interesting except a few hints in the tavern. A large number of "private residences" plus the use of the term "review board" when you level up suggests a Bard's Tale influence, but you can't actually enter the residences and encounters on the town level are few and far between. It would have been better as a menu town.
      
Level 6 of the game.
      
Among the dungeon levels, there are fewer than 1,200 mappable squares, and among those squares fewer than 20 fixed encounters. Thus, you'd coast through the game pretty quickly except for the difficulty of the monsters. Because of that, about 16 of the 17 hours I spent playing the game, I spent grinding. I might not have done it, but the game came along right as Netflix released The Punisher, so it was easy enough to go through the motions of fighting combats while I binged the episodes. Plus, grinding in Ancients 1 is authentically rewarding. Attributes, spell points, magic points, accuracy bonuses, damage bonuses, and resistances all increase notably between levels. The spell rewards are particularly palpable, as characters go from single-enemy damage spells to single-group damage spells, to all-enemies damage spells.
       
A late-game character sheet.
  
The plot unfolds as you progress through the dungeon. As with Wizardry, there a couple of special encounters on each level, and a number of wall messages. Level 1, the sewers beneath the town, has a light puzzle in which a well asks you to drop in "a ball of force that can crush bone," a fancy description for a mace.
      
The game's first puzzle.
      
Beyond the well is a fixed encounter with some priests and skeletons. Winning provides a key for a lower level. Miscellaneous encounters on the level include orcs, goblins, "kobalds," giant rats, and "riff-raff."
      
Messages--some helpful, some not--are scattered about the levels.
     
On Level 2, labeled as "access tunnels," you fight barbarians, black ogres, evil priests, skeletons, and giant snakes to the Tomb of Relnor, an ancient knight. Sleeping in the tomb rewards you with a vision and both the Sword and Mace of Relnor. These are powerful artifact weapons, but oddly they show up as random treasure in later combats.
     
     
Level 2 also has a key encounter with some yellow mold. Killing the mold allows you to take some of it back to the bartender in town for a key.
       
       
Level 3 brings an encounter with a "golum" holding a key in a chunk of ice. You have to cast "Enchanted Flame" to melt the ice, then kill the golem.
       
      
The three keys obtained so far open the way down to the next level. There's a bug in the game, though, by which other found equipment can accidentally replace one of the keys. I didn't find this out until I had lost the key and saved the game (there's only one save slot). I had to start over with a new party. I hex-edited them to where my old party was in terms of experience so I didn't have to do all the early-level grinding again. I also took the opportunity to replace my rogue, who has absolutely nothing roguelike to do in the game, with another warrior.

Level 4 is an odd one. It hardly uses any of its allocated space. It consists only of two long corridors, one through a secret door off the other. The secret door is cued with a message that it's windy (plus a message on the previous level about a hidden area), and as far as I can tell it's the only secret door in the game.

The corridors culminate in a battle with Kilrah, a red dragon. Killing her gets you a fireball wand which only has a few uses.

A lot more undead enemies--wraiths, ghouls, zombies, and such--start to appear on Level 5. There otherwise isn't much on this level, but I did most of my late-game grinding here.
  
Some vague warning accompanies my arrival on Level 6.
      
Level 6 brings gargoyles, dragons, vampires, and hell hounds. As you enter the level, there's a message suggesting that you've entered a keep on the outskirts of town; a tavern tale mentions the keep as being inaccessible from the outside. This doesn't quite fit with the geography of the dungeon in which all the staircases go down from level to level, but whatever.
The monsters become particularly difficult on this level because a lot of them have a way of shrugging off spells. I learned through experience that there's not much point in conserving magical energy, since you can rest anywhere, resting has only a small chance of interruption, and it only takes a few rest periods to restore all spell points. Thus, you might as well bring out the big guns every combat. This means mass damage spells called "Disfiguration," "Mar Enemies" and "Vision of Pain" for the priest, at Levels 4, 5, and 6 respectively. At the same levels, the mage gets "Lightning Storm," "Fire Burst," and "Disintegrate." At Level 6, both the mage and priest get a "Death" spell that kills a single enemy.
     
A typical late-game enemy party.
     
Warriors with their single attacks become somewhat useless towards the end of the game, particularly since their accuracy never really improves. If I had to play it again, I'd probably do two priests and two mages. For the most part, I let the warriors use the magic wands and scrolls that I found.

Things become a lot easier after a fixed encounter on Level 6 with a "Lord Vernon," apparently a lich, who attacks with a group of vampires.
    
"Vernon" might be the least-intimidating name in RPG history.
   
It's a tough combat, but it rewards you with a magic amulet that, when used in combat, negates enemies' magical protections. After that, the game becomes almost too easy. No single enemy resists the "Death" spells.
      
Of course, it took me a while to figure out what "negation" meant.
     
Level 7 pounds the party with dragons, death knights, more golems, and so forth. The goal is to make your way to a magic portal. It took me a while to figure out how the portal works. There are two levers on either side of it, and you have to click them to change where the portal goes. Nowhere else in the game do you interact with elements on the screen this way.

One lever takes you back to town. This is the only shortcut back to town in the game. Towards the end, I neglected to raise myself a couple of earned levels simply because I didn't want to trek up and down all the levels again. The second portal presumes to take you to the "sequal" of the game. Until I discovered the third option, I thought this was the end of the game. I was pretty angry.
      
Cue enraged entry.
     
Pulling both levers takes you to a throne room. After a battle against three red dragons, you face two demons named Binatuus and Arulus. As far as I can tell, they're named for the first time when you encounter them, and their story is never really explained. They attack without allies and thus die extraordinarily fast to a combination of the magic amulet and two "Death" spells.
    
The two final foes.
    
Upon their death, the game says that their "black, ghost like" forms "dissipate into the air, returning to the evil dimension from which they came." Pressing forward through a door, you encounter the beautiful harp-playing fairy that at least one of the characters remembers from his childhood.
   
Let's hope it's not the priest.
      
She smiles and whisks the party from the castle to the wilderness area where the character first encountered her. Game over.
      
One character is happy; the other three would rather be in a pub.
    
Aside from the rampant spelling errors, interface issues, occasional bugs, and a lack of any sound, Ancients 1 offers a reasonably solid, classic RPG experience--the kind of experience I describe as "fight orcs, level up, fight stronger orcs." It wouldn't compete with more polished classics for anyone's attention today, but if I was a poor teenager in 1991, I would have been happy enough to find this game on a shovelware disk.
It earns a 30 in the GIMLET, boosted by decent character development, combat (particularly magic), equipment, economy, and overall gameplay length and difficulty. It does worst in the area of NPCs (there are none) and the nonsensical story. I thought the graphics were fine, but the lack of sound and a good keyboard interface hurt the game in that category.
      
Even if it's unpolished, I always appreciate a game with rewarding character development.
     
Ancients 1 was apparently released as shareware in 1991, then picked up by Epic MegaGames for re-release in 1993, when a sequel had been prepared. I guess it's technically "freeware," not shareware, as the documentation makes it clear that the shareware fee is for the sequel and not the present game. After its 1993 release, the title found its way onto about half a dozen shovelware disks.

The sequel, Ancients II: Approaching Evil, is on my 1994 list. It seems to use the same interface, but with slightly more refined graphics, and it promises additional character options and a larger game world. It does not appear that the Ontario-based Farr-Ware is known for any other games. I've had trouble discovering if lead programmer Mark Lewis ever worked on other titles; his name is simply too common.

Frill-less though it was, Ancients 1 offered a better classic RPG experience than its concurrent title, Twilight: 2000. Some intelligence from commenters in my last entry gave me reason to hope that it will be over soon.