Sunday, July 23, 2017

Game 255: Quest for Tanda (1991)

There is no title screen for the game.
     
Quest for Tanda
United States
Independently developed and published
Released in 1991 for Atari ST
Date Started:  17 July 2017
Date Ended: 17 July 2017
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 22/255 (9%)
 
The unlikely story of Quest for Tanda's survival is more interesting than the game itself. I originally drafted a relatively scathing posting on the brief adventure and its horrible sense of spelling, but then I heard from the author, Jonah Schwartz, who said he was only 13 when he wrote it on his school's Atari ST. It was just an exercise to teach himself GFA BASIC, uploaded as a lark to several San Francisco Bay-area BBS sites. He never received a single envelope with the requested $5.00 shareware fee. And yet, somehow, 17 years later, a programmer in Sweden decided it was worth cataloging on MobyGames. I wish I could fill in the blanks in between, but I wrote to the contributor and he doesn't even remember listing the game.
     
A ransom note puts the brief plot in motion.
      
The setup is that you are the lover of Princess Tanda of Khlad. One day, Tanda is kidnapped by the evil Istvan. He leaves a ransom note promising to torture and kill Tanda, but he frankly acknowledges that the requested ransom (1 million gold pieces) exceeds the total wealth of the kingdom. King Aahz, Tanda's father, promises her hand in marriage if you can rescue her from Istvan.
     
The proper names are drawn from Robert Lynn Asprin's MythAdventures novels (1978-2002), which I've never read but gather are humorous, almost satirical fantasies in the same vein as Terry Pratchett. The game doesn't go beyond the names themselves, as in the novels Aahz is a reptilian magician and not a king, and Tanda is an assassin and not Aahz's daughter.

The castle graphic that leads this entry is shown during the backstory and when the player visits either of the other two castles in the game. The image is not original to the game, but Schwartz doesn't remember where he got it. A reverse image search finds it on a few web sites (and one jigsaw puzzle box) without conclusively answering the question of its origin.
      
The extent of character creation.
       
Character creation consists of choosing from three names. The player does not know until after making the choice that "Skeeve" is a Level 2 fighter/Level 4 wizard; "Garkin" is a Level 0 fighter/Level 5 wizard; and "Frumple" is a Level 3 fighter/Level 2 wizard. Each character begins with 40 or 50 hit points, water and food, 20 or 40 magic points, and some basic weapons and armor. I don't think there's a mechanism for the characters to gain levels during gameplay (I suppose making it not an RPG under my rules), but it's hard to tell since you only fight a handful of combats.
     
The "character screen."
       
The only other choice during character creation is whether to play on easy or hard mode. Easy-mode characters start with a boat and can go anywhere. ("I know that it is not possible to carry a boat around," Schwartz apologies in the "readme" file.) Hard-mode characters have to visit the towns and learn where they can obtain a boat. The more important difference, though, is that easy characters start with 200 gold and hard characters start with only 10. It's nearly impossible for those latter characters to make enough money from the game's few random combats to remain healed, watered, and fed and pay for the NPC clues and items necessary to win the game.
    
This master screen appears between every move.
    
Gameplay takes place on a small 8 x 7 map. After every move, the screen reverts to a kind of "master control panel" where the player can eat, drink, cast a spell, view statistics, sleep, or refresh himself as to the nature of the main quest. You click an image of a directional pad to move, but the master screen appears again after the move is completed.
      
The entirety of the game world.
      
Each of the five towns is laid out the same, consisting of a weapon shop, an armor shop, a food shop, and two houses with NPCs who will give you hints for a price.
     
One of the NPCs gives you a summary of the entire game world.
      
Three of the houses in the game are locked and require you to find a sequence of keys to open them. None of that is necessary on "easy" mode, as the game simply tells you where to go for instructions on how to defeat Istvan. 
      
Visiting the "wepons shop" in a town.
   
It makes little sense to spend money at the weapon and armor shops. The game's best weapon is available from winning a battle (see below), and it's tough to buy armor because the game warns you that you'll be replacing the armor you already own, but it never bothers to tell you what armor the character starts with.    
     
Options in the weapons shop.
     
Each of the empty grass squares has a chance of an encounter with a ghost, a wizard, or a spider. These three enemies, plus a zombie who only seems to attack while you're sleeping, and a couple of enemies you fight at fixed encounters, seem to be the extent of the game's menagerie.

In combat, you specify whether to attack or cast a spell. If you attack, you then specify your weapon and watch the results. That's it. If you cast a spell, you choose between wizard spells ("Fireball," "Disrupt," "Turn Undead") and cleric spells (heal, create food or water) and put a designated number of points into them. I never found that the offensive spells worked even once. "Turn Undead" explicitly doesn't work on ghosts, the only undead that you regularly encounter.

"Combat options." You can't even use the 1-3 keys. You have to click on the answer.
     
There is one optional side area in the game: Badaxe's castle, where you can fight an ogre and get Badaxe's axe as a reward.
      
I'm always down for a tryst.
         
By now, you will have noted the numerous spelling mistakes that populate every screen. I originally wrote that the game featured "spelling that would appall you even if you discovered the developer was a toddler," along with unnecessary capitalization and frequent but inconsistent use of pseudo-"olde English." Schwartz actually apologized in the "readme" file for "mixing medieval and modern language" and for being "a bad speler." Knowing that he was 13 dilutes my venom a bit, although I'm not sure why he didn't just grab a dictionary or a playtester.
     
As small and short as the game is, it's a struggle to get to the end before your pools of money, food, water, and hit points deplete, leaving you with no way to regain them. "Easy" mode characters really just need to visit two towns--one to get the instructions from an NPC, and one to buy the missile spell that she recommends. "Hard" mode characters have to find the boat first and earn enough money to pay the NPCs.
       
Explicit instructions on how to win. This costs 40 gold pieces.
   
For both characters, the quest path is the same. You go to the square with the bridge and fight the "Halk" guarding it; he is vulnerable only to a bow and arrows or the "Magic Missile" spell (which, confusingly, appears as a weapon instead of a spell). Once you kill him, you loot the key to Istvan's castle.
    
Once you make it to Istvan's island, the plot resolves itself on three text screens with no player input. And the game is over. It takes about 15 minutes on "easy" mode and perhaps 2-3 times as long on "hard" mode, if indeed you're able to survive the latter. There's no way to save the game, so the brief play time is an advantage.
       
 
         
The game earns a 13 on my GIMLET, which is close to the minimum a game could possibly earn and still be considered an RPG. In doing so, it has spawned a new rule in my sidebar: If the game is independent or shareware but won no awards, garnered no positive reviews, has no fan pages--and if I fire it up, play a few minutes, and find nothing charming or original about it--I have the option to reject it. I mean no offense to Mr. Schwartz, who accomplished something relatively remarkable at a young age, but there's no reason other than pure luck that this game found its way to MobyGames and thousands of similar efforts from young students of computer programming did not.

Mr. Schwartz was understandably startled when I wrote to him about this 26-year-old project and said I was going to blog about it: "It's a bit like finding out your 8th grade science project is being reviewed by a scientific journal." While it leaves something wanting as an RPG, it did accomplish its purpose. Schwartz went on to a long and prosperous career as a software developer and entrepreneur. Among many others, was the co-founder and CTO of Rumpus, a San Francisco-based company that made games for iOS and Android, including Mo' Monsters, a Pokémon-inspired game that is, ironically, not cataloged on MobyGames.

41 comments:

  1. I admit that I love reading about these strange nuggets of RPG history and while this was not particularly worthwhile to play, I'm glad you got to check in with the author. The thought that some BBS kids would have downloaded and played this game is astounding.

    Actually, if I had seen it, I would have been one of those kids. I was heavy into the BBS scene around 92-93 and I loved the Myth books. "Quest for Tanda" would have been a title that I jumped on. Incidentally, it seems they are still producing "Myth" books even though the original author passed away. The most recent was in 1996.

    (Jody Lynn Nye, the current author, is someone that has always fascinated me. She has collaborated with every one of my younger self's favorite authors from Robert Asprin, to Piers Anthony, and Anne McCaffrey. I also loved her solo books.)

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    1. Er, I mean the most recent was 2016. I stopped reading them in the mid-90s and haven't actually looked at any of the ones after 1993. Weird brain crossed-wires thing... I need to sleep.

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    2. A nice reminder about Asprin. I found and devoured everything the library had of his in maybe 1990, which included 7-8 Myth books and the first Phule. My high school and college years coincided with his hiatus, and I never went back. It's been long enough I should give them another shot.

      About the only thing I can remember a this point is Skeeve was supposed to be a wizard, but for some reason Aahz only had time to teach him two or three tricks. As a teen I think I was most frustrated by his never becoming an all-powerful sorcerer, but it gradually dawned on me that it's much more interesting to consider a puzzle with solutions built from combinations of seemingly simple steps, than it is to be all-powerful and just blast your way through. A truth that holds not only for literature (how many books did Asimov milk his three laws of robotics for?) but also game design (either of starting with simple moves and building, or with the lower-level struggle versus what it takes to entertainingly play a god.)

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  2. Don't know why anyone would want to rescue Tanda anyway...I hear she was a Trollop. And Aahz was a Perver...*OW* fine...he was far from Pervect.

    +20 points for the people who get that without checking!

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    1. I hadn't realized he'd started writing those in 1978... in 1977, I entered High School... When I was 20 or so in the USAF (1982 :) I started reading these books. Man. The fact that Asprin died of a heart attack at 61 makes my being 54 very... bothersome.

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  3. For a thirteen-year old this is quite the accomplishment, especially given that he seems to have been working on a "learn as you go" method of self-instruction. Hell, I can't even remember what I was doing when I was 13, but it certainly wasn't anything I'd like to rediscover.

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    1. When I were 13 I were quite probably writing one of those infinite loops printing "a**" over and over again. So yeah, quite impressive.

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    2. Programming-wise, yes. Frankly, even for 13 this spelling is atrocious. I'll give a little for a 13-year-old from that era being fumbly on a keyboard, too, but that still doesn't explain half of it.

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    3. A lot of teenagers haven't yet figured out that spelling is anything other than a waste of time that adults care about... i mean, we can all understand what it says, so who cares?

      (Having seen a number of teenage coding projects, the text quality is often the last thing they bother to think about.)

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    4. Could be dyslexic- have a college buddy who is a perfectly smart dude, creative thinker/writer, but his mind just can't help but jumble up the letters.

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    5. ^This (dyslexia) crossed my mind too. I've known some very smart, literate people who couldn't pass a 6th-grade spelling test.

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    6. I am a three-time elementary school spelling champion. I am also someone who had to cheat to pass my introductory college Pascal programming class. Random distribution of natural ability.

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  4. Heh. Interesting choice for the villain's name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istv%C3%A1n

    Aahz could be an anagram of "haza", which means homeland in Hungarian.

    He certainly fared a lot better than my feeble attempts at writing an RPG in C64 BASIC, at around the same age. That endgame picture looks quite nice, even though it's probably just a stock image.

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    1. Nah Aahz was simply a pun.(Though it IS interesting that it can be rearranged to homeland since Aahz spent much of the Myth-Adventures series not wanting to go back home). Yasee Aahz was a wizard originally and he kept having to tell people he was no relation to that "other" wizard named Oz of Emerald City fame.

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    2. It was also, it was eventually revealed, short for Aahzmandius.

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  5. A kindly review this one. Sure any programmer has to have a beginning. I´m glad they improve later. I wonder if the addict has seen adventure game studio, the website. It´s not rpg, but well, adventure gaming point n click style. It´s inspirational and entertaining in its own way.

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  6. Ah, so that's what this was. As someone who also read those books in my early teens and filled a game development coursework project with usernames from the forums I used to haunt, I can empathize with this guy. Sometimes you just need a bunch of fantasy names in a hurry, and maybe leave a neat homage.

    I just hope that whatever game ends up being #256, it's an 8-bit one.

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  7. You punch him in the face!

    Somehow that cracks me up.

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    1. I enjoyed the ending. Istvan thinks the noble hero will agree to duel him, despite his abduction and torture of princesses and his excessive ransom demands. But the hero just punches him in the face and brusquely stabs him with his own sword. Proper order!

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    2. Doesn't an episode of "Firefly" end that way?

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    3. Either that or Indiana Jones in that swordfight scene.

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  8. I’m sad at your new rule as you’re likely the only one that will ever play these games in the modern era. I hope you’ll write up a short post on why it was boring and maybe a screen shot are two for future people who may not have access to those programs anymore.

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    1. I dunno. I don't think anything would be gained from cataloguing Quest for Andy, written by Jonah's classmate.

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    2. Call me crazy, but "Quest for Andy" sounds kinda fun.

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    3. I won't apply it liberally, CG, but it's going to get loony otherwise.

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    4. This new rule will allow for the vast majority of Maker games to be discarded without preventing the small number of decent ones from being examined, and also kill off an enormous amount of shareware shovelware clones. It is a good rule.

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    5. I'm a bit curious about what "independent" is meant to mean in this context. Don't get me wrong, I understand that the intent is to weed out Tanda-like games, but I'm not sure how to meaningfully define "independent" in the freewheeling era we're talking about, when many milestone games were still the product of a one-person operation, and the Zzyzx Company was just someone in a basement.

      I would think that if a game needed to be bought to be played (whether by mail order or at retail), that would pretty much get you where you're looking to go with this...?

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    6. Oh, hell, there actually is a Zzyzx Company -- several, in fact. All right, make it Irkm Desmet Daem, Inc. (which will probably turn out to be a Turkish firm that makes coffee grinders).

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  9. I know why he didn't at least grab a playtester: Because this was 1991, and I guarantee this kid was HELLA nerdy - and back then, bullying his type was almost encouraged.

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    1. Maybe, but I think a better explanation is that he just didn't think of it. You'd be surprised at the degree to which people fail to consider that someone might see their work differently than they do---speaking from experience, even 20-something grad students surrounded by their intellectual peers often seem to write as if only they themselves will read the result.

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  10. I was 13 in 1991 too! I was programming games in BASIC also, but they were more arcade-y. I was also doing programming in online MUDs---thanks to my dad's job, I was probably one of the few 13-year-olds in the US that had full internet access.

    In retrospect I'm not sure why it never occurred to me to try to make an RPG. Maybe it's partially because I was more into Sierra adventure games at the time.

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  11. What happened to Deathlord? It doesn't show up on the Recent & Upcoming list anymore, nor on the index of games played.

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    1. What's a Death Lord...?



      Chet mentioned in the last post on it that he felt the need to start the game over from the beginning, and punted it further down the list.

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    2. I would be nice for once if I could just quietly get away with something. Couple weeks go by, no one's said anything, I subtly remove "Deathlord" from the list, trusting most people not to notice and the rest to understand. A few days pass. "Whew," I say, "Looks like I got---"

      Then: "WHAT HAPPENED TO DEATHLORD?!?!"

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    3. So glad you made this decision.

      If anybody on Earth has the context to do it, you do. Finding this blog has been an amazing treat, and posts are way more fun when you're having fun . . . or at least not torturing yourself.

      And Might and Magic III is almost upon us!!!

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    4. Ah, my apologies, I missed that. Since I'm already being a pest I hope you revisit Wizardry IV at some point again also. :) Wiz IV and Deathlord were two games I played as a kid that I really, really wanted to like, but I just couldn't get anywhere with other than cursing in frustration.

      Love the blog by the way, thanks for the effort you put into it.

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    5. Really selling the revisit. ;)

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    6. Yeah,both of those games have a special place in my heart, and not in a good way. I remember as a teenager spending my hard earned money on both and getting completely frustrated that I couldn't get anywhere with them. Spending $45 or so on a game was a lot of money to me when I was making minimum wage of $3.35/hr and only working a few hours after school. At the time I thought I was doing something wrong and I just wasn't skilled enough, it's not until later I realized that they're both very flawed and unfair games so I was enjoying that part of the analysis and discussion.

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    7. Anon, there is a finished playthrough of Wizardry IV on the Lets Play Archive. You might want to check that out if you're looking for closure on that game.

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    8. Chet should have known not to mess up with four meddling kids and a dog.

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  12. Schwarz: It's not possible to carry a boat around.
    Dupre: *Ahem*
    Avatar: What?!

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