Monday, May 29, 2017

Revisiting: Braminar (1987)

    
Braminar
United States
Independently developed; distributed via mail order by PC-SIG
Released in 1987 for DOS
Date Started:  8 November 2010
Date Ended: 28 May 2017
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
    
Braminar is a game that invites us to consider the nature of choice in an RPG. At first look, we are tempted to call it "primitive" because most of its options are simple "Yes/No"--a style that its manual calls "Boolean Interactive Fiction." But then you consider a game like Ultima in which you, say, exit a king's castle, walk a bit to the east and then to the north, and enter a dungeon. During that trip, you have the ability to go north, east, south, or west, but you don't, because other than the dungeon there really isn't any place to go. Braminar would cut out the middle man by having an option to "Enter the dungeon? (Y/N)" immediately upon exiting the castle. Do we really lose anything with such greater efficiency? Are all of the other options offered by Ultima truly "options" if they wouldn't have resulted in anything productive?
    
Braminar's title screen.
     
We could say the same about combat. I claim to like "tactics," and I do, but in this era, all combats occur in a closed system, and despite the myriad combat actions and spells that the games give you, there's usually one clear "best" path that still involves a fair amount of random luck. Is a game truly more "tactical" because you can "power attack," "regular attack," or "defend" instead of just "attack"? Until we enter the era in which game physics allow possibilities that even the developer couldn't anticipate, aren't "tactics" really just an illusion? Why not just let the computer slug it out and get it over with?
     
Reading combat results is almost as fun as participating!
     
There are good counters to these points, largely having to do with enjoying the journey rather than jumping to the destination, but Braminar at least effectively raises the questions. It doesn't do much else because the game really sucks and getting me to replay it was the greatest prank the commenters on my original Braminar post ever pulled. But it did make me think about these issues for about 20 seconds.
      
A Braminar character towards the end of the game.
     
Braminar takes place in a kingdom of the same name, where an "evil overlord" has "raised taxes, enslaved villages, and outlawed hamburgers." The player "plays" a warrior who sets out to raise an army and overthrow the overlord. To do this, he has to raise his own character level to 20, find the Staff of Aviatar, learn the staff's "prime command," and amass enough resources in gold, slaves, and weapons that his army poses a serious challenge to the overlord.
     
"Character creation."
    
The player chooses a name and sex during character creation, but everything else is random, including starting gold and hit points, starting "mecidine," the cost of male and female slaves, hair color, and whether the player has "good looks." From there, the random encounters start coming.

  • You come up to a hollow tree with a door. Enter? (Y/N) 
  • You come upon an enchanted forest. Enter? (Y/N)
  • You find a statue of Pan. Approach the statue? (Y/N)
  • You come upon a grass hut. You hear sounds from within. Will you enter? (Y/N)
  • While you are walking along, the weather suddenly changes. A tornado comes. Will you take shelter? (Y/N)
  • You come upon a city. Do you want to enter? (Y/N)
  • Do you want to go to the slave market? (Y/N)
  • Sell slaves? (Y/N)
  • Things seem strangely quite [sic] when out of no where [sic] jumps A [sic] band of orcs. They look grumpy. They say they will let you pass if you give them 7 male slaves, 6 female slaves, and 4 gold pieces. Or you may fight their champ, and win their horde [sic]. Do you wish to (F)ight, (G)ive, or (R)un?

In between these turns, the game keeps you constantly updated with your current statistics and status. You can't save the game; it's meant to be played and won within an hour or so.
    
While there are no tactics during these options, experience does teach you which options lead to what sorts of encounters. You always want to seek shelter during weather events, or you lose slaves and food. Hollow trees with doors might be occupied by friendly gnomes or vacant. If vacant, they tempt you to steal food or a chest, but about 1/3 of the time, your god is watching and punishes you by lowering you a level if you steal and rewards you with something if you just leave.
     
For doing a good deed, my diety [sic] gives me a box of Duncin' [sic] Doughnuts [sic].
      
Gazing into a river leads you to find an item or fight an encounter with monsters. The "winding mountain path" always leads to a guru who asks if you "seek powers of good." If so, he zaps away both your enchanted ring and staff (more below). The gypsy camp is a waste of time that at best lets you win a knife game with 50/50 odds. Grass huts usually have a helpless puppy or a sick man inside, allowing you to please your god by tending to them. Thickets almost always lead to combats and a nice haul of slaves and gold if you win. The Dark Castle of the Mad King always leads to three options: a dungeon where you can find a few gold pieces, a throne room where you can try to steal gold, and a "gallery" where you might find an artifact item and always find some food. The throne room option offers a kind of "quick time event" where you have to enter a combination of unfamiliar keys to simulate stealing gold.

Once you have a little experience, the game becomes relatively easy, and I can't believe I didn't at least pursue it to the finish line in 2010. Combats, though entirely random, almost always end in the player's victory and the accumulation of levels. Exceptions occur with dragons and demons. For them, you want to have found some poison; if you have poison, the game always offers it as a pre-combat option for an instant win.
     
Killing Cerberus with poison. My god is impressed.
      
You gather slaves from victories and (if you want) from buying them in the slave market. They're nearly impossible to keep fed, so if you have more than a couple of dozen, you almost inevitably get a message every round saying that some of your slaves have died from hunger. They also die from diseases unless you keep a stock of expensive medicine to cure them. There are no in-game consequences to letting your slaves die, but it's generally best to just sell them all every time you enter a town or village, at least until you near the endgame.
     
"Enchanted forest" visits rarely go badly.
    
Every time you stumble upon a city or town, you want to visit the bar and have a drink, which has a chance of increasing your hit points, and also rest in the inn in the finest bed, which restores some of the hit points you may have lost in combats. (I never once had any success socializing in the bar despite my "good looks.") You have the option to purchase swords, daggers, bows, arrows, horses, and carts in towns, but as the options are always (Y/N), you can only buy one each per visit. Encounters with rust monsters destroy your accumulated swords and daggers, and encounters with dark elves warp your accumulated arrows and bows. I'm not sure if any of these things really make a difference in combat anyway. 
    
Buying things one-at-a-time in town.
   
Finding the artifacts necessary for the endgame isn't very hard; you almost always encounter them in the gallery of the Dark Castle of the Mad King or by gazing into a river. A little harder is getting the word of activation for the Staff of the Aviatar. You have to successfully answer a riddle from a Statue of Pan, but the riddles are always nonsense and the "correct" answer is simply randomized. 
    
Neither the riddle nor any of its answers make any sense.
   
None of this sounds horrible, and I would agree that perhaps a compelling game could be made with this approach. Unfortunately, Braminar isn't it. It's humor is just groan-worthy, not actually funny. The game is riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes. The encounter types are too few, too repetitive, and too predictable. What happens in the game is mostly random, not a product of intelligence, strategy, or role-playing.
    
This is supposed to be funny, I guess. I just don't know how.
    
But it was pretty pathetic that I didn't win it the first time. To win, you simply have to find the Overlord's Keep after achieving Level 20 and finding at least the Staff of the Aviatar. Two optional artifacts are the Talisman of Braminar and a magic ring. You're almost certain to find the Talisman during the game, and there's no way to drop it, so it would be tough to reach the end without it. The ring--which during the game automatically destroys the evil wizard Anthrax--can't be dropped, but it can be removed from you via the "mountain path" encounter. Unfortunately, that same encounter also removes the staff. So if you want to reach the endgame without the ring, and get the "best" ending, you have to find or re-find the staff and then find the Overlord's Keep before finding or re-finding the ring.
   
The ring is useful in an encounter with Anthrax.
    
Once you reach the keep and invoke the Staff of the Aviatar, all of your resources--slaves, gold, weapons--are converted to a generic "army strength" and then pitted against the overlord's. You then sit there for a few minutes and watch the two armies battle, with occasional messages like "the enemy uses a magical weapon against you" or "your soldiers are high on moral!" [sic] flashing at the top of the screen.
     
This author Has an interesting relationship With capitalization.
      
Assuming that your party wins, you then find yourself in one-on-one combat with the overlord, but he dies immediately if you have the Talisman. I'm not sure what happens if you don't have the Talisman as I was unable to make it to the end without finding it.

Braminar is famous for sending the winning screen to the printer at this point, but that only happens if you lack the magic ring and thus get the "good" ending. If you have the ring, the "bad" ending is displayed on screen: the Ring of Doom takes over your mind, bends it to cruelty, and causes you to become the very overlord that you just defeated.
     
The "bad" ending of the game, although with this game, no ending is truly "bad."
    
But yes, if you managed to get rid of the Ring of Doom, you'd better hope that you configured LPT1 correctly, because that's the only way that you see your final statistics and learn that you are now the new King of Braminar and that someone has passive-voice gifted you with the Wand of Wonder, whatever that is.
    
    
The game inoffensively passes an afternoon, but when someone writes to me that "this is actually one of my favorite PC games of all time; I played it daily for about two years when I was six or seven, and still play it every now and then today...It's an amazing game and I expect to play it for a long time still to come," I have to believe he's trolling because otherwise my heart would break. Meeting the bare minimum requirements to even be considered an RPG, it earns only 13 points on my GIMLET.

The name of Braminar's author seems to have been lost to the ages, although the documentation that comes with the game mentions previous Boolean Interactive Fiction games called Fantasia, Universe, and Astroman; whether these are from the same author is uncertain.

I'm not sure if Braminar was ever distributed by itself. The only distribution I can find for sure was via shovelware disk called Adventure Addiction offered in the PC-SIG catalog (a company that published independent or "shareware" titles), where it was packaged with titles like Under the Ice (a text adventure on a submarine), Quest of Kukulcan ("an Indiana Jones-type adventure"), Gymnasium Adventure, and Palace Adventure. Braminar is marketed here as a "Fantasia-type adventure," so its predecessor must have been better known at some point. I'm afraid the phrase "Boolean Interactive Fiction" never took off, either; Googling it returns only results for Braminar.

Thus we see that not every game I abandoned in 2010 was a gem that deserves to be revisited. Let's take a look at what else 1987 was offering with Deathlord.


53 comments:

  1. The apparent punchline for that one riddle ("Do Lake:=1 to 5") looks like the author is trying to make a joke about loop syntax in some programming language, but I'm not aware of any real programming language that would actually contain that syntax.

    Pascal uses the ":=" operator for assignment, and it sometimes gets used in pseudocode, but a loop that iterates over a range of values like this would generally be a "for" loop rather than a "do" loop.

    Maybe it's just that the author's grasp of Pascal grammar was as spotty as their grasp of English grammar?

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    1. Given it says to and has spaces, it could be some psudocode they learned?

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  2. Sort the Court is a modern "boolean interactive fiction". Not an RPG but RPG-themed. It's surprisingly entertaining. https://graebor.itch.io/sort-the-court

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    1. There is also the mobile game "Reigns" which has a similar game mechanic (and was probably the inspiration for Sort the Court. Reigns is really good, the yes/no choices develop into surprisingly motivating small story lines.

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  3. The capitalisation issues almost certainly come about because the game is choosing from a set of random options, which themselves begin with capitals ("A magic user", "A warrior"), et cetera, and the code necessary to work out from context if they're being used at the start of a sentence or in the middle of one is (at least in the language this would have been coded in) an order of magnitude trickier than anything else this game seems to do.

    I mean, I probably could have written this game at the age of 12-ish, but wouldn't have known at that point how to solve contextual capitalization in BASIC or C.

    The typos are all on the writer, though.

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  4. Your character must be quite the butcher. In addition to all the baddies he slaughtered, he was able to measure the weight of a roast by eye while being threatened by an evil wizard.

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    1. I thought it was hilarious that the author felt that detail was important.

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  5. It's weird to see slavery used as a core mechanic of a game, doubly so in one where your deity rewards you for morally upright behaviour. Even games like Pirates!, which have the framework to use slaves in an historical context tend to shy away from it.

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    1. Took the words out of my mouth. It's more than a little unnerving that we are playing a protagonist (and ostensible good guy, minus the Ring of Doom) who is an active and enthusiastic participant in slavery.

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    2. Not only that, they are being used to fight as warriors with training. The game world basically replaces one tyrannical overlord with another.

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    3. I *think* the idea is that you are *freeing* the slaves and they then join you in overthrowing the regime that enslaved them, but yeah, the ambiguity on that point raises an eyebrow.

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    4. Yeah, that's what I think also, yet there is not a one place (I played it for a very short time) where act of obtaining them is referred to as "freeing" them. So, well.

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    5. Except as Chet points out, the best strategy is to just sell all your slaves for gold until you reach endgame.

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    6. Yeah you can sell them or just hand them over to orcs to do with as they please. It seems the game went out of its way to make sure you know these guys are being used as property

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    7. Agreed, this is a bizarre and very ill-chosen element... I'm surprised not to see it discussed more. If it weren't for that, I'd find the game kind of charming in that it's very very obviously the work of a 13-year-old learning Turbo Pascal, with earlier and more primitive efforts fantasia.pas, universe.pas, and astroman.pas shared only with friends and immediate family.

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    8. It does give it a feel of how a society in the eras were slavery were common would have written it, though I forget which of the Mesopotamian valley civilizations would have kept slaves.

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    9. I can't think of a single ancient Mesopotamian or Near Eastern civilization that did not have slaves. They are mentioned in Sumerian, Hebrew, Hittite, Egyptian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Persian records.

      Frankly, I find it odd that games do not make more mention of slaves and slavery considering its near ubiquity during human history. I ascribe it to modern squeamishness with dealing with the unsavory aspects of history (cf., the way prostitution is portrayed in games).

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    10. Harder to engage in 'fantasy' when there's a realistic representation of open defecation levels I imagine.

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    11. Really? Think of all the fantasy games that make use of sewer levels. Can't have sewers without poop and pee.

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    12. You're definitely not freeing the slaves. You can sell them, starve them, and deny them medicine when they get sick.

      I agree that it's an unusual gameplay element for a CRPG "hero," but really in this game they're just numbers in a ledger.

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    13. To be fair, this is probably for the best. When I was younger I was looking for free RPGs and if you delve deep enough into that realm you get to...strange....disturbing places.

      Lets just say there are some RPGs I won't be trying to get you to play.

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  6. Typed in a long comment and was about to hit "submit" when Chrome crashed, so I'll pare it down: what on earth is the beef with Helen Reddy? If it's a "feminists are ugly" riff, then why pick someone who (a) was traditionally attractive, at least reasonably so, and (b) had been out of the spotlight for a decade?

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    1. Maybe he fell out of his tree from excitement.

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    2. I would expect a woman causing a monkey to fall out of a tree would be stunningly beautiful. Awe causes shock and obliviousness, revulsion causes a hyper awareness of surroundings (to find an escape route, usually). Although it could also be interpreted as the monkey becoming sick and so losing his balance.

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    3. You guys will really analyze anything, won't you?

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    4. If you grew up watching Looney Tunes (or, I suppose, The Simpsons et al.) and subsequently realized how many jokes had gone over your head -- or even if you just spent a lot of time around witty adults who made offbeat references you didn't quite get -- well, then, you too might inherit a lifelong tendency toward heightened attention whenever you think you might be hearing that "whoosh" sound!

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    5. Apparently, the income tax rates changed a lot for 1987 too, perhaps enough to shock a monkey out of a tree.

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    6. I blame Peter Gabriel.</lowhangingfruit>

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  7. Chet, you must have been sic (sic) of writing so many "sic".

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    1. Of course, in at least one case he shouldn't have written it - "Doughnut" is a perfectly valid (although regional in the US)spelling of the word.

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    2. I assumed "Duncin' Doughnuts" to be some combination of an attempted (and very weak) joke and a deliberately parodistic sidestep away from trademark infringement (probably unnecessary caution, but it can't hurt to avoid it).

      Now, if the do(ugh)nuts made your character stupid, the joke might have legs, but...

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    3. Based on the other writings, I'm more inclined to think Duncin' was genuinely attempted, and just gotten wrong. But I do agree, if it was an intellect-reducing magical item, the pun would have been good.

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    4. I [sic'd] "doughnut" because Dunkin' Donuts doesn't spell it that way.

      It occurs to me that this silly reference might help nail down the origin of the author. I'm not sure DD's was out of New England in 1987.

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    5. That's a great point. It certainly makes California less likely -- I was able to find a reference indicating that CA only had a dozen stores that were closed by the end of the 1990s. It looks like they've been practically unknown in Texas until recently. The "time to make the donuts" ad campaign seemed ubiquitous in the 1980s, but who knows how much it was showing up on screens outside the Northeast.

      Too bad Swords of Glass doesn't have a major secondary theme involving donuts -- or that cliché of crime shows, an object that's only manufactured in one place and sold in three.

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  8. This reminds me of the "games" that my brother and I would make in GW-BASIC when we were kids. We didn't have the programming ability to do anything complicated, so it was basically Y/N or choosing from a menu in a town, and a dead simple battle system that was just a straight copy of 2nd edition D&D.

    I remember that at one point I did start making a game that had dungeons laid out on a grid, but there were no graphics. The game displayed your coordinates, but you had to try to move in a direction to figure out if there was a wall there. I think in a later game I at least showed the directions you could move from your current square, but you still couldn't see anything beyond that.

    Eventually I started making games that were top-down Ultima-style, but using only ASCII graphics. I never got very far in them, but I do remember learning basic assembler to get around the slowness of the screen printing commands in Turbo Pascal. On the 10 mhz 8088, I could get things to go at an acceptable speed by directly writing the video memory via assembly rather than using Pascal's built in commands.

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    1. I did the same thing as a kid, though I leaned towards science-fiction.

      "You found plasma cannons, do you want to refit your ship? Y/N"

      Y

      "They don't work right, your ship explodes and you die!"

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  9. "I played it daily for about two years when I was six or seven"

    For a little context, if you didn't have a modem back in the late '80s and no nearby friends with which to conduct sneakernet software exchange, you would play the games you had into the ground because... there were no alternatives.

    This doesn't excuse the writer's further pathology, except inasmuch as any experience, however underwhelming, intensely repeated in early childhood will carve out a nostalgic niche in one's brain.

    Being the vector responsible for contaminating your blog with Braminar, I'm hugely gratified to see the printout of successful completion for the first time... now you should reward yourself with something you'll enjoy 8)

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    1. Playing the games one had into the ground only applies to a certain degree. I've spent a lot of time with games that I remember much, much better than they are on my father's Amiga but I can't see somebody spending much time with this game even as a child.
      You'd explore everything the game has to offer in a day and kicking a ball against a wall seems much more appealing.

      Why modems, though? If you were a kid in the 80s it's unlikely you had friends living far away and you'd be more likely to play a game locally, even a single player game taking turns. At least that's how I played Dino Wars with a friend (chess with dinosaurs, basically).

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    2. Rowan, since you contributed the game to MG, how did you hear about it in the first place?

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    3. For a time I voluntarily took over administration of a fundamentally wrong-headed Wikipedia page listing "text-mode games", which of course yielded up an unhelpful melange of text adventures, roguelikes and MUDs, among others. While I couldn't address the more fundamental issues the page had, I at least could clean it up, putting things in order and providing proper date and company attribution. Like any Wikipedia page it was subject to drive-by edits and one of the little twists some rando introduced was to throw this dead cat on the table. A middling games scholar, I knew of every popular game but still saw references to games yet unknown as challenges to be overcome; when I found and played a copy, I rated the experience as sufficiently unique (with its dubious adolescent charms) to be worth documenting... and now, thanks to you, the rest is history!

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    4. exo, you would use the modem to get different games 8)

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    5. Ah, now that makes sense. Having too few games was never really a problem with an Amiga since pirating was wide-spread and laughably easy.
      Finding a game that six year old me could comprehend and didn't need any knowledge of English was a bit harder. I loved Wings of Fury and up until last year didn't even knew it was banned here. Somehow, I haven't become a mass murderer despite that.

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  10. Fight, Give, Run is no longer boolean. The game developer should be ashamed.

    Menu based games are a good way to start development in order to abstract the design from the interactive mechanics. I probably would have enjoyed this for some time as a kid, at least as much as I enjoyed Star Saga and Alter Ego (Male and Female versions). Those are the only other titles that come to mind that are close to this style.

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    1. One could argue that Fight, Give, Run is just shortcut for: Fight (Y/N), if N, Give (Y/N), if N, Run. But yeah, this can be said about anything, mouse coordinates can be given this way, buttonPressed (Y/N), first bit lit (Y/N), second bit lit (Y/N)....

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  11. "Hit Points: 2.1000000000E+02"

    Now that's a strange way of displaying hit points. Valid, but strange.

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    1. The author didn't proof the printing. IIRC that's the way that Pascal would display variables if you failed to specify how you wanted them to look.

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  12. I played it online (online emulators 4tw) and, well, it IS the greatest prank played on you by "us" (I never took part in it) to make you play it again. Well, sorry. That's the least I can do.

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  13. I have to say, this game sounds a little dumb.

    The mechanic, though, of a boolean choice RPG, is VERY intriguing to me, and I'd love to play a fully fleshed out adaptation of a game like, say, Barbarian Prince using this mechanic.

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  14. Everything else aside if I beat a game and it printed me out a certificate I would've thought it was amazing as a kid.

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    1. Whenever I see such a thing I always remember my juvenile bafflement at the old stock-market game Corporate Raider, which gave you the option of sending the stock ticker output to your printer. I could never understand why somebody would do that, given the cost of ink and the special paper you used to need in printers.

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  15. It's giggly nerd humor. I never really understood it until I started reading boardgamegeek.com regularly. Those people go nuts for these kind of repetitive jokes. It's all about 'creating a good feeling' and not any kind of Seinfeld humor. "87 income taxes" LOLLOLOLOLOL!!!! Giggle! You're not laughing because you don't get it!

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  16. Your reward for your piety is...a box of donuts. Whaaaaaaat?

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    1. A god who randomly gave me doughnuts when I did a good deed is a god I would follow.

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