Saturday, April 22, 2017

Alternate Reality: The Dungeon: Fantastic Underworld


An "artistic" take on the dungeon from the game materials.
      
Alternate Reality: The Dungeon does a good job as a representative of a sub-genre that is rarer than it seems: a large, sprawling dungeon to explore and map, with multiple encounters and treasures, both fixed and random, some in the service of a larger plot, some just for fun. Most dungeon-crawlers--even good ones like Wizardry and Dungeon Master--though they try hard in their advertising to evoke such a setting, end up being too cramped, too linear, too empty except for main-quest-related encounters. There's little enjoyment in exploration for its own sake; all encounters are predestined rather than serendipitous. Here, exploring and mapping are their own rewards, and the game strikes a good balance between empty squares and those with something interesting happening.

I've still only explored the first level (and not yet all of it), which is 64 x 64, roughly the same size as The City. The level is divided into four equal 32 x 32 quadrants that are only accessible to each other via teleportation. Even the "sewer" corridor that rings the entire map has teleporters at the transitions between quadrants.
    
Frequent optional encounters are a key characteristic of this kind of game.
    
Within the space is a lot of interesting geography, including enclaves for tribes of goblins and trolls, physical mazes, teleporter mazes, and a couple of large inaccessible areas meant to support the never-created Arena and Palace expansions.
    
My own map of the first level so far.
      
An artistic map of the dungeon accompanies the game manual and demonstrates that the developers thought of it not as a bunch of featureless corridors but a more interesting, dynamic under-city, with buildings of different heights and purposes. The buildings and corridors on the map really do correspond with the in-game dungeon. A 3 x 2 room isn't just a featureless block but rather the antechamber to the palace. A 12-square corridor with exits only at the ends is actually a bridge between two buildings. The corridor that rings the entire map really is a round sewer pipe. In-game, the developers only had the technical resources to show some of this with colors and textures, but in concept and intent, The Dungeon is an important stop on the road to Ultima Underworld, probably the first game to give us a true three-dimensional dungeon experience, and everything that followed, where atmosphere and a strong sense of place play an equal role to game mechanics.
     
The game occasionally changes wall textures for effect, such as in this mausoleum.
     
The game got quite a bit easier in my second session, not because I got more powerful--leveling slowed to a near-stop after Level 6--but because I found more items capable of defending and healing myself. It turns out that gold horns actually do heal the character; it's just that occasionally one of them is cursed and summons berserkers. Silver horns do mass damage to all enemies, as do several other magic items like fire wands, cold wands, red eyes, and emerald eyes. I also found a number of healing wands. The problem with wands is that they require crystals for each use, which are rarely found, but between all the various options, I rarely found myself in a situation in which I didn't have some healing readily available. Before long, my only deaths occurred when I encountered parties of multiple enemies and they surprised me, decimating my hit points before I could act.
   
Groan.
     
Of the game's many, many items of equipment, "trump cards" are perhaps the most original and oddest. They act somewhat like a Deck of Many Things in Dungeons and Dragons. Each card has a single use and offers a specific boon. There are some that provide resources, such as "The Star" (20 crystals) and "Ace of Pentacles" (100 gold); others provide one-time boosts to attributes; and still others cure conditions, such as "Temperance" (removes drunkenness) and "Ace of Wands" (removes fatigue). "Death" will immediately kill any monster--definitely a useful trump card to hold in reserve. "The Hierophant" summons a healer to your current location. The manual is completely up-front about what each item does, which is rare. I think some of the cards have to be found at specific locations in the dungeon first, but once you find and use them, they have a subsequent chance to show up in the inventory of a slain enemy.
   
Blasting a group of trolls with a silver horn.
      
Weapon and armor upgrades have also been relatively steady. As in many games, there are generic items that you can buy or find randomly, as well as unique "artifact" items found in specific dungeon squares, or after fixed combats. My excellent Razor Ice sword eventually broke--only a short time before I found a magical whetstone that repairs weapons and armor--but I found suitable replacements in a Staff of Amber and a Sword of the Adept. A crossbow that I looted from some area is particularly deadly, but I'm constantly running out of ammo.

Foes have included liches, vampires, and various sorts of demons. Perhaps the most annoying enemy--who is definitely going on my list if I ever get around to updating it--is something called a "devourer," who has a chance every round of sucking up a random item from your inventory, or perhaps some of your food, water, or gold. He always surprises and gets a free move, too. The items he devours are not found on his body when you finally defeat him. I've been reloading when they devour something I really want to keep, although a recent comment suggested that lost artifact items have a way of showing up later in random treasure drops.
   
I didn't encounter this guy until I'd been playing for 8 hours, and now he seems to be around every corner.
    
I'm running from combat a lot more than I did in the first session, sometimes because I'm authentically scared of dying, but more often because I'm in the middle of trying to map something and I don't want to bother to fight. Fleeing usually works, and leaves you in the same square. 
   
Combat options with a small dragon. I haven't encountered any large dragons yet.
    
Most of the conditions that I covered in the first posting have ceased to be much of an issue. Hunger and thirst come along so rarely, and food and water are so cheap, that they're basically a non-issue. There are magic items to help cure poison and disease, and random healers come along frequently anyway. Perhaps the most difficult condition to deal with is simple fatigue, as there is only one place to rest in the game--the inn in the starting area--and that's often far away. But since it's a decent idea to head back there occasionally anyway, it's not so bad. It amuses me how often that I, myself, have been "weary," and should probably go to bed, at the same time that the condition popped up for my character.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of exploration has involved doors. There are plenty of secret and one-way doors, but I'm not talking about those. Every once in a while, you'll find a "locked" door, and it can be locked in three ways: a simple lock, a bar, or an enchantment. These are opened with keys, force, and dispelling, respectively. When you first encounter the door, you don't know why it's locked, so you either have to successfully "examine the door" (it works about 33% of the time) or try one of the options at random.

Keys are one-use items. I started the game with none of them and then got a bunch--maybe 12--over a short period of time. But once those were depleted, I had trouble finding any more, so I had to mark keyed doors as unopenable on my map and return later. Barred doors, meanwhile, open with "force," which only has a small chance of success every round and causes damage to your character. Enchanted doors open by "breaking an enchantment," which you have to try over and over again until it works. Since forcing and breaking fail so often, it was comparably late in the game before I realized that I just had to keep trying. By then, I had marked a bunch of doors as impassable for later return.
      
Options when facing a locked door.
      
Your door woes are completely obviated with an "amethyst rod," which causes instant success for any of the door-opening options, but I found it late in the session. I have a lot of doors to return to.

Some interesting encounters and artifacts since the first posting include:

  • The "Taurean Maze"--a roughly 16 x 30 area in the southwest quadrant. A true maze with dead-ends, one-way doors and walls, and a few teleporters, it ultimately funnels the character into a room with "Saurian Brandy," which raises your stamina 1 point for every quaff but leaves you hopelessly drunk, and a fountain of healing. It wasn't quite worth the effort mapping it.
    
The description of finding the brandy, on the other hand, was pretty cool.
    
  • 3 different stairways to the next level.
  • A dead Australian clutching a six-pack of beer. (Foster's, I assume, as that's what I've been led to believe that Australians drink.) As far as I can tell, unlike the brandy above, the beer just makes me drunk.
  • An "enchantress." (After seeing Suicide Squad, every time I see that word, I now hear it in a dramatic whisper.) She offers to add enchantments to your weapons and armor, including some unusual ones like reducing its weight or extending its life. The kicker: she requires crystals. So far, these have been too precious to spend; I need them for my wands. Why couldn't she just take money? I have plenty of that now. In any event, she also assesses the type and level of damage done by your weapons, for free.
    
Assessing my weapons.
    
  • A "Helm of Light" removes the need for torches--but it doesn't identify secret doors. So I have to use "Wizard's Eye" (plentifully found in scrolls and actual eyes), which also casts light, anyway.
  • A golden apple found on a pillow. Eating it raised my maximum hit points.
    
I thought this was going to have something to do with charisma.
     
  • "Gram's Gold Exchange vault." I had the opportunity to loot it, but as I was trying to play a good character (and had plenty of gold by now anyway), I declined.
     
Stealing is evil. Stealing from a grandmother is especially evil.
      
I had started this session with the intent to find the Oracle, said to reside roughly in the middle of the dungeon. Note how it appears in the "artistic map" at the top of this post as an eye atop a tower. Owing to the vagaries of the dungeon layout, it's impossible to simply beat a path there; you have to find the right combination of rooms and doors. It was in doing so that I hit most of the encounters in the list above. Finally, a southern door brought me to the right square.
    
Hmm...a flaming eye wants a ring. I'm not sure this is going to end well.
    
The Oracle was a floating eye that demanded a tribute. I tossed it a few gold pieces, and it demanded that I bring to it "the ring that the goblins and trolls war over." Apparently, each of the parties had half of the ring, and the Oracle wanted me to take it to a smithy on the second level (which I haven't even explored yet) to reforge the two halves into a solid ring.

I eventually found the two tribes in their respective places in the dungeon. Both areas offered multiple random combats with groups of 8 trolls and goblins, but I mostly ran from them, heading right to the "boss" encounter in rooms in the middles of the areas. Ultimately, I defeated both the goblin and troll kings and received their halves of the rings.
    
Facing the goblin king. I wonder what would have happened if I'd given him the ring.
     
I also made some progress in what I think is another aspect of the main quest. I had previously been transported to a portal maze after freeing Ozob from the palace dungeons, but I escaped without actually solving the maze. This time, I fully mapped and finished it, and I was taken to the tomb of a mage named Acrinimiril, Ozob's master. His ghost spoke to me and said that the "masters of this world" (who, remember, are aliens) destroyed his body because they feared his sorcery. He promised to help me if I would return the pieces of his broken staff. Somehow--I don't remember where I got it--I already had one, and he boosted my intelligence as a reward.
   
I really picked a stupid character name.
     
There are two major areas of the game I have yet to explore: guilds and spells. They're interrelated, I think, because I imagine that you get spells from the guilds. For a while, none of the good guilds would let me join them because my alignment wasn't good enough, but this seems to have turned around since I stopped attempting any of the pre-combat "surprise" options (like "waylay"). The chapel tells me I'm on the right path.
   
That's good to hear.
    
The manual indicates that there are 8 total guilds in the game, 4 good and 4 evil. I haven't re-attempted to join the good guilds I already found--the Wizards of Law and the Light Wizard--because I've been holding out for the Paladins' Guild. I just can't find it. I assume it's in the bit of the southwest quadrant that I've yet to map. 
     
Sob.
   
Lacking guild membership, I've only encountered a single spell in the game so far: the "Fugue" spell that Ozob gave to me when I rescued him. It's actually quite helpful, when it works (about 45% of the time). It acts like a kind of "time stop" in combat that gives me a few free rounds, and I often use it when an enemy disarms me and I need a couple actions to pick up the weapon and re-equip it.

Thus, as I close this session, I have a couple of options: finish mapping the first level or head right down to the second level and finish the Oracle's quest. Or, perhaps, give up on the Paladins' Guild and join one of the wizards instead.
   
The next level beckons.
     
The pseudo-continuous movement remains torturous. I say "pseudo" because you still move in discrete increments; it's just that each tile is divided into about 5 x 5 of them. This means that movement from one tile to the next takes 5 times as long as it should, with no upside except that it looks cool for the first 3 minutes of gameplay. Other than that, I'm really enjoying the game. When I started it, I was hoping it would be a one-shot in the middle of my Magic Candle II postings; now, I'm rather hoping that The Dungeon outlasts The Magic Candle II.

Time so far: 18 hours


57 comments:

  1. "The "Taurean Maze""

    This is probably a convoluted Star Trek reference. Saurian Brandy is a recurring item in the ST universe, and an episode of the animated series took place on the "second planet of the Taurean system".

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    1. I thought it would be a reference to the Minotaur Maze of Greek Mythology, though the name Taurean might come from there.

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    2. Either way, I knew I'd heard the term "Saurian brandy" before. I meant to Google it but forgot.

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    3. Taurus = bull in Greek. A reference to the Minotaur in my opinion, too.

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    4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtsf0vtOAWY

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  2. Are there evil guilds? Thieves' Guilds for example?

    The cards of the "Hierophant" and the "Ace of Wands" remind me of Steve Hackett's first solo album, just before he left Genesis. I think the Hierophant comes from ancient Greek religion.

    I am glad to see that Alternate Reality did fulfill some of its promise here and it seems better than "Fate", which was a bridge too far.

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    1. Yes there are evil guilds including the Thieves Guild.

      I always wondered if the trump cards were inspired by Roger Zelazny's Amber series.

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    2. To me the Deck of Many Things source seems more probable, effects in Amber are different whereas they pretty well match AD&D's. Except that you have to fight death and not use it on your enemies :)

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    3. I see what you mean - looks like there are a few with the same names as well :)

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    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    5. The D&D deck was a classic campaign-killer - there are so many irreversible, horrible things that can happen when you use it that it often left adventuring parties in a state where it was just easier to create new characters and start over.

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    6. I had a monk character get poison touch. We were playing the second of the Giant series - Frost Giant Yarl or something. Combat became me touching someone and they getting one hit back. Dull.

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    7. So your monk became One Punch Man?

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  3. Some of the guilds can be found on the second level. You can also become an associate member in other guilds so you're not limited to joining a single guild.

    In terms of the Devourer it helps to try and keep the number of different types of objects in your inventory to a minimum. Special objects should reappear later.

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    1. Really? His appearance is tied to my inventory size? That's both interesting and mildly infuriating.

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    2. It's worth reading the walk-through that exists on gamesfaq about this, search for "WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT THE DEVOURER" and read just that bit to get no spoilers. Apparently it was an attempt to solve memory issues.

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    3. There are at least two versions of this FAQ available on the net. Of the two I found, this is the more recent one and has slightly more info on the Devourer: http://www.eobet.com/alternate-reality/alt-reality_FAQ.txt.

      If Chet uses save states of the emulator, depending on how the game is implemented, running the game for a long time may increase memory pressure and hence make the Devourer show up more frequently compared to saving, quitting, and restarting.

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    4. I hated the Devourer when I played this originally on my Commodore 64 and assumed I would need to find its lair. Many years later I read about its true purpose (as others have commented).

      On the positive side I suppose it encourages you not to hoard items and experiment with their uses. Whilst no one wants to lose their favourite weapons or items there are nearly always good alternatives available to buy or find after encounters.

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  4. I have to say, looking at these screenshots, this is the first time I've ever been impressed by an Apple II game's graphics (that Enchantress scene is especially lovely). Hell, it's the first time I've seen an Apple II game whose graphics didn't make my eyes bleed.

    The use of color, the composition, damn near everything is the best it could possibly be here.

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    1. Also, that golden apple is a reference to the Golden Apple of Discord. http://www.uexpress.com/tell-me-a-story/2014/12/7/the-golden-apple-of-discord-a

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    2. I was thinking perhaps a reference to Beneath Apple Manor, but yours seems more likely.

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    3. Well...you seem to be a "glass half full" sort of guy. But even if the graphics aren't great, I always appreciate when the developers take time to create little "scenes" and populate them with details. They break up the otherwise-featureless corridors.

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    4. I agree with the above comment. The devs paid a lot of attention to graphics in this. Very good looking for the Apple II, and the Atari 8-bit version looked even better.

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  5. What you're describing is known in the tabletop old-school-renaissance as a 'megadungeon', and seems to have been more suggested by early tabletop gamers (Gygax's Castle Greyhawk was one) than actually carried out by CRPGers. (In the modern era you can find ambitious tabletop megadungeons such as Dwimmermount.) I suspect early on computers were too weak for a big dungeon and after that (VGA era and after) people got more into fancy graphics and weren't going to be happy looking at stone corridors over and over again.

    Eye of the Beholder was arguably a megadungeon--you start in the sewers and only move down. Dungeon Master, which it ripped off, was as well.

    At the risk of being blatantly self-promoting, when you get to FRUA, my own Vanilla Dungeon is a megadungeon, and requires no hacks. ;)

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    1. EotB's dungeon is famously the Undermountain, the immense dungeon underneath Waterdeep. It's thought that Ed Greenwood built the entire Forgotten Realms setting around it in the 70s. Not to dismiss your point that Dungeon Master clearly inspired EotB, mind.

      The Addict will be exploring it several times throughout his journeys, I suppose. Unless I'm mistaken (maybe it appears in a Gold Box game?) the next visit will be 1997's Descent to Undermountain, a CRPG which is... an acquired taste, let's diplomatically say.

      Personally, I like the idea of a game that's built entirely around one enormous dungeon, maybe one that shifts thematically the deeper you go. There's something extremely unsettling about getting further and further away from the surface; I thought the recent Pillars of Eternity did a good job with that and the enormous dungeon beneath your home base.

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    2. There's a great mod for the Temple of Elemental Evil published that manages to faithfully capture the old D&D module "Keep on the Borderlands." http://www.moddb.com/mods/the-keep-on-the-borderlands

      It's pretty sweet, particularly if you're a fan of turn-based combat (and 3rd edition D&D).

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    3. I think EotB lacks two things that would make it a proper megadungeon - size, and an element of randomness. Undermountain had both, of course. Alternate Reality's dungeon looks quite sprawling as well, and seems to have a good mix of randomness and special encounters. It looks like a game I'm going to love if I ever get to it. (That map is rad as hell, by the way.)

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    4. The Troika Temple of Elemental Evil from the early 2000's was a surprisingly faithful rendering of 3rd Edition rules. Pity it was released in an almost-finished state, it would have made an excellent platform for further games, like the Gold Box. There are also versions of EotB and ToEE in the Neverwinter Nights engine from the same period. I actually wrote and ran a PnP campaign based on EotB years ago. A good megadungeon is essentially a sandbox game with a roof, and I can honestly say that I would as eagerly fire up EotB or ToEE as Baldur's Gate or Fallout 3 were I in a retro mood.

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    5. You aught to head over to the circle of eight website... toee is quite playable (and amazing) when you install there mods.

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    6. Yes, "megadungeon" seems to be what I was going for. It disappoints me how often a game promises this but doesn't deliver. Take the "Deep Roads" of dragon age--tunnels and halls that are supposed to span an entire continent--yet every time you get to enter them, you get to explore about 6 rooms with essentially no atmosphere.

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    7. I was thinking about Arx Fatalis, the 2 Ultima Underworld games, and even Dark Souls games that can be considered mega dungeons. And Dragon's Dogma too has at least one dungeon of impressive size.

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    8. Cave Story, the Dead Rising series, the Castlevania games at least through Symphony of the Night, the Metroid games aside from Prime 3 and Bubble Bobble are all great games set more or less within one dungeon each.

      I am replaying Arx Fatalis now, and it holds up quite--very good R.P.G. and characters with a lot depth. I am considering following IT-HE's walkthrough after I finish it.

      Dragon's Dogma may have simple dungeons, but it has an interesting world, creative monsters and a very good plot where not everything is spelled out for the players. It was a great game.

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  6. Regarding Australian beer, Fosters is swill and we don't drink it - we just export it to get it as far away from us as possible.

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    1. I spent two years in Australia and I think I saw Fosters being sold in only one place during that entire time. Didn't seem at all popular (or available even) there in spite of being 'Australian for beer' if their marketing is to be believed. Aussies did seem to love their practical jokes...

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    2. I think it might have been a bit more common in the 80s, when Australia became a brief international fad. I've had it maybe once or twice, reasoning that bad beer is better than no beer.

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    3. I put in that line to test whether I had any Australian readers. I had forgotten about you, Nathan. Your reaction was a lot more...contained...than I expected.

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    4. Was going to post to the same effect but Nathan beat me too it. From Australia also.

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    5. What I'm gonna get mad about Fosters? Nah, it' s cool. Make a crack about Vegemite or the Collingwood Football Club though, and you might see some fireworks.

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    6. A Collingwood supporter? And here I was thinking that the commenters on this blog were respectable individuals.

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    7. Look out Chester there's a flamewar a-brewin'

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    8. 9 outta 10 Aussie drinkers will claim Fosters is swill, but wouldn't know it if you switched it for their VB. The tenth will shrug and say 'One pale lager isn't gonna be drastically different from another'.

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    9. I think that's how he died, he was given a six pack of Foster's and decided that death by dehydration was a far better outcome.

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    10. Pfft, we know how to tell them apart Tristan. The cans are different colours.

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    11. Tristan, you can't tell the difference between Fosters and VB as they're both bloody awful

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    12. Well, I'd agree because I don't like beer, but when myself and others in the skeptics club on campus tested students at the university bar, the ability of drinkers to tell beers from one another was only fractionally better than chance.

      Granted, students aren't necessarily connoisseurs, but they are very vocal about preferences!

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    13. That is like asking an engineering student to explain the differences between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They don't have the experience to really tell.

      College students drink to get hammered, not for taste, and they usually vocally prefer one brand or another based only on advertising. The differences between beers of the same style are fairly subtle, and it takes a great deal of care (and acclimation to the beer overtaste) to tell them apart.

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    14. @Tristan: Man, that's one test I'd really enjoy taking. Shame I never walked in on one of those.

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    15. I recall my Dad writing about how to do a proper blind beer test when he was in his Brewmaster training, and how to ensure people can tell them apart is part of the standard setup, as people often can't.

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  7. Ozob sounds like a real clown, eh? eh? ... I'll see myself out.

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    1. Believe it or not, I totally missed that.

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    2. Really? After Dragon Wars, of "Lanac'Toor" fame?
      :D

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  8. I want to say that the map at the top is quite good. It reminds me of the cover of Caravan's third album, "Land of Grey and Pink". It evokes in the same way as Garriot's maps of Ultima, particularly for IV.

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  9. I thought Magic Candle II was pretty long, all things considered, but I played it through twice immediately after one a other.

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    1. Also, Fosters is swill fit only for the foreign markets!

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  10. I tried a Foster's recently as an experiment. It reminded me a lot of Budweiser - inoffensive, but not tasty.

    I assume the fella with the bush hat and the "G'day" knife is supposed to be a Crocodile Dundee reference. The game's publish date should be about right for that to be a pop culture reference, yes?

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  11. You were talking about games inspired by Starflight, and I am in the middle of a very good one: Cyber Knight. An enjoyable unofficially-translated R.P.G. about exploring the universe and searching for hidden ruins and databases, with a complex character development system; and one which definitely has more than enough of its own ideas to be distinct. It is a bit slow, the interface is kind of awkward, there are some annoying parts like one stage where you are told not to use heat-based weapons and then face a boss only vulnerable to them, but a very good game.

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