Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Eternal Dagger: Won! (with Final Rating)

My sequel-deprived characters remain trapped eternally in a foreign landscape.
The Eternal Dagger
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for Apple II and Atari 8-bit; 1988 for Commodore 64
Date Started:  2 August 2017
Date Ended: 13 August 2017
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Hard (4/5), although adjustable on the main screen.
Final Rating: 41
Ranking at Time of Posting: 213/256 (83%)
My commenters offered good advice for the "impossible" combat I described in my last entry. It centered around prioritizing dexterity in my attribute upgrades, searching for armor that protects against life draining (the high demons' primary attacks), and making better use of spells in combat. Thanks to everyone who commented.

But when I returned to play the game, I couldn't bring myself to engage in yet more grinding. So I sighed, lowered the difficulty, and tried the battle against Sri again. I defeated him with 4 characters killed. It was a hollow victory, yes, but by this time I was just trying to get to the end.
The objective of the dungeon. Acquired but not really "achieved."
Sri's chambers held the 8 "aqua-helms" I needed to visit the sunken city of Enolho. I retrieved them, made my way back to the Dwarven city, and left the Dwarven Island for the Elven Island.

I returned to Gray Eagle, and his minions flew me to the underwater city, leaving me on top of a tower sticking out of the surf. I strapped on the helmets and entered.
You probably want to back up your save before this point.
Enolho was a large single level featuring a lot of battles with demons, mermen, and sharks. By the time I found the portal to the demon world, my health was quite low and my karma about half used-up, so I somewhat shamefully reloaded from my position outside the city and simply made directly for the portal. There wasn't much reason to explore the city since all the nice weapon and armor upgrades that it offered had to be discarded before entering the portal.
"Wish" isn't the word I'd use, no.
My characters went through the portal with nothing but the Eternal Dagger (immune because it had once been living or something). We immediately faced battle with "undead warriors" whom my priests turned quickly. On their bodies, we found some basic equipment to replenish what we'd just discarded. A couple other battles on the same level also helped restore the characters' preferred weapon types, but the quality of the items was nowhere near what we'd just abandoned.
A fairly nice magic axe among a bunch of non-magic gear.
The demon world was two levels. The first had a maze in which the walls shifted every time I stepped on piles of rubble. The goal was to get to a set of stairs in the lower-right corner, but I had to use trial and error to get the walls to shift into the right position to allow me to make it down there. It was time-consuming but not hard, as there were no combats in the area.
Navigating a small, shifting maze.
There was a further maze of diagonally-situated squares that was no trouble at all, then a couple secret doors, then a final battle with some normal demons. The game really took it easy in this last section owing to the loss of equipment, I guess.
We are the sworn foes of colorful light!
In the room following the final battle, I looked at a table with a "pulsing colorful light." I had the option to destroy it with the Eternal Dagger, and of course I took it. This produced the endgame text:
As the Eternal Dagger strikes the light, it bursts in a polychromatic explosion. Huge energies tear at the fiber of your very souls. The Eternal Dagger shatters in your hand. You feel torn into a myriad of pieces. You have destroyed the heart of the gate and your world is safe. But still you are buffeted by the forces released. Suddenly, with an awful twist, you find yourselves in a normal landscape.

You are in a clearing in a wood. It is beautiful, but it is not home. That you must still find . . . but that is another adventure . . .
But the screen froze and there was no final save, and of course we know now that there was no "other adventure."

It wasn't until I was compiling this entry that I took a look at the walkthrough by the always-reliable Andrew Schultz and saw that if I'd dithered around the room with the pulsing light, I would have been attacked by the "big bad"--the guy sending all the demons in the first place--whose name is Anawt. The name was referenced in a couple of earlier encounters.
What I would have experienced if I'd messed around instead of doing the obvious thing.
He attacks with a dozen or so high demons. I'm tempted to call the battle unwinnable, but I know from experience that if I do that, it will be 20 minutes before someone links a video of someone winning it on the hardest difficulty with a single unarmed character. So I'll just say that I couldn't see a way to win it. Not with my characters half-equipped with inferior stuff. I'm grateful the fight is optional.
The likely-impossible final battle.
In a GIMLET, I expect it to do slightly better than Wizard's Crown owing mostly to some interface improvements. I otherwise don't see many strengths or weaknesses that either game had that the other didn't have. Let's see.
  • 3 points for the game world. Storytelling was never SSI's strong suit. They improve in the Gold Box titles, but they never get great. Here, the world and backstory are mostly a set of allusions to generic fantasy tropes.
None of the business with the turtle, the eagle, the sunken city, and most other plot elements was well-fleshed out.
  • 6 points for character creation and development. By far, this is the strongest part of this little series. Even in the sequel, starting with skills and attributes already high, there remained a palpable sense of progress after every few combats. But while development was strong, there were still no good role-playing options by race or class.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. The "NPCs" in the game are more like "encounters." That one point is generous. Dagger doesn't even have the old man spinning tales.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The game has a decent menagerie of monsters with their own strengths and weaknesses and a strong sense of contextual encounters (alas, not offering much in the way of role-playing options). The puzzles of Mad Avlis's dungeon were a particular bonus.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. My opinion hasn't changed. The tactical options are great--a huge step on the way to the Gold Box--but the game errs on the side of too much complexity, which in turn makes it too easy to rely on quick combat.
I was too ashamed to mention above that I used quick combat for the last battle. Keep in mind that at the time, I didn't know it was the last battle.
  • 6 points for equipment, the best part of the game other than character development. Given 8 characters with numerous slots, almost every battle produces an upgrade. The ability to pay to add enchantments to items is also fantastic, but I rather prefer the way the first game did it, where you could pay for substantial enchantments (e.g., storm damage) instead of just higher "+" levels. That's balanced here by more potions, scrolls, and wands that give magic ability to non-magic characters.
Having to drop everything, on the other hand, was painful.
  • 5 points for the economy. It's strong, with that one major "money sink" in the way of enchantments, although lacking in complexity since that's the only thing you spend money on.
  • 3 points for the main quest, but unlike the first game, there are no side quests or side areas. There remain no choices on the main quest path, except perhaps to stick around and try to kill Anawt.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics and sound are barely adequate, though improving slightly on the first game with a title graphic (and having any sound at all). Although the game makes good use of the keyboard, too many of the commands are cumbersome to access, and the movement system still sucks, but at least dungeon movement isn't the nightmare it was in the last game.
  • 3 points for gameplay. While larger than Wizard's Crown, it's still pretty linear and thus non-replayable. At the default difficult level, it's a smidgen too hard, requires too much grinding, and lasts a bit too long.
That gives us a final score of 41, or 3 points higher than Wizard's Crown, which I guess it earns primarily for having sound (the Apple II version of Crown didn't), the slightly more interesting dungeon encounters, and easier dungeon travel.
Why does the box show them stepping through the portal with equipment?! This would have been the one time that nudity was justified.
Dragon magazine, which famously awarded 5 stars to anything that blinked and beeped, gave this one 1.5 stars--literally the worst rating I've ever seen in their pages. It seems astonishing, since the game so faithfully replicates--as well as could have been done in 1987--a tabletop RPG module with tactical combat. I couldn't imagine what they thought was missing, especially where they gave 4 stars to Wizard's Crown.

Well, it turns out the low rating has little to do with the core game and everything to do with the character creation and import process. The review doesn't mention which version of the game they tried, but either it wasn't the Apple II or they suffered issues that I didn't. "The translation program does away with all but one wizard, and the remaining characters are really knocked down in abilities," it says, which simply doesn't make any sense. At least in the Apple II version, the characters came over completely intact. Anyway, because of this problem, the reviewers recommend creating new characters in Dagger, but they had trouble there, too. "One mistake or accidental slip of the finger could cause you to exit the creation module. If that occurs, you can't return to complete your adventuring party . . . you must start the party creation sequence from scratch again." Again, I have no idea what they're talking about. Each individual character is created and saved independently on the main screen (there's no separate "module") and even a power outage preserves that character on disk. I verified this with all three platforms.

The reviewers claim they lost their self-created parties, mid-creation, three times in a row, so resigned themselves to playing with the pre-created characters. Here, they ran into problems with the difficulty. "We got no further than a few miles with these adventurers, coming at last to a temple in the south. The party turned out to be entirely inadequate in holding its own against the hostiles that abound in nearly every hex." They finally gave up after 9 hours. I guess I agree that the beginning stages are hard, but certainly no harder than Wizard's Crown. Did they notice the difficulty slider?

Scorpia offered a more accurate (though still largely negative review) in the October 1987 Computer Gaming World, noting the interface improvements but also encountering the same difficulties in tactical combat when you start right outside a door and "your whole party is stuck until some room frees up." She noted that missile weapons can help, but "too often the angles are too severe, and bows or thrown weapons can't be used, making for a great deal of frustration during dungeon combat." I couldn't have said it better. She objected to the game's treatment of dwarves as money-grubbing and arrogant. Most of all, she disliked how the balance of tactical combat was tipped towards spells, making the battles more difficult and lengthier. "Not up to the previous game," she concluded, and "for patient players only."

The bottom line is that SSI did a pretty cool thing with Wizard's Crown but didn't learn enough lessons about what did and didn't work before crafting the sequel. Those lessons would be well-applied, however, when many of the same developers went on to Pool of Radiance the following year.

Paul Murray co-designed Wizard's Crown with Keith Brors, but Brors didn't seem to have a role in the sequel; instead, SSI had him on Realms of Darkness, which we'll see later this year. For his partner on Dagger, Murray was teamed with Victor Penman, who went on to manage several of the Gold Box titles. Murray himself had created several games for SSI, but after Dagger his resume switches to programming credits on titles designed by others (including, again, many Gold Box titles). He disappeared from the scene right about the time that Ubisoft retired the SSI brand in 2001, only to resurface in 2014 with the announcement that he and fellow SSI veteran David Shelley were founding Tactical Simulations Interactive (TSI). TSI is currently working on a Gold Box-inspired title called Seven Dragon Saga, which got off to a rocky start with a failed Kickstarter campaign in 2015. I really hope they're able to finish it.

Next up for 1987 is an Ultima clone called, for reasons that I hope turn out to be interesting, Gates of Delirium.


Further reading: Don't forget to check out my coverage of this game's predecessor, Wizard's Crown (1985). You can also read about the titles directly influenced by this engine, including Shard of Spring (1986), Roadwar 2000 (1986), Pool of Radiance (1988; the first Gold Box game), and Disciples of Steel (1991).


  1. I had a message that it was impossible to post comments to this entry, but it seems to be working now. I guess if no one else comments, I'll copy the text into a new entry later today.

  2. That negative review from Dragon must have irritated the heck out of SSI, who (assuming they read it) probably thought to themselves that one phone call likely could've solved these issues.

    Next up for 1987 is an Ultima clone called, for reasons that I hope turn out to be interesting, Gates of Delirium.

    It's, um...good to have hopes!

    1. Also a Yes song... I suspect that's where they got the title from.

    2. You mean someone remembered a Yes prog song in the late 80s? Maybe it's just a coincidence.

    3. Especially interesting that TSR which published Dragon would soon give the license to SSI to produce AD&D computer games

    4. I think I assumed the Addict was referencing the Yes song with "for reasons that I hope turn out to be interesting", i.e. hoping that there'd be Yes references in the game itself. But upon reflection, maybe not.

      Either way, maybe we'll see some topographic oceans, roundabouts, or unkillable whales -- but from the negative reviews the game seems to get, I doubt it.

    5. Yes, that's what I meant. Alas, having now experienced the game, I'm afraid there is no such connection.

    6. I was about to say, I wonder if it is due to TSR and GDW being competitors, but for years there was an Ares Station section in Dragon that had lots of Traveller stuff.

  3. I'm curious why it bothers you to lower the difficulty to win that battle against Sri. Is it from a personal pride and achievement perspective where you just want to win the battle at the default difficulty, or do you view lowering the difficulty as changing the fundamentals of the game and not playing the game and getting the experience that the designer intended?

    1. I cant't provide explanation in Chet's place, but I certainly feel dirty lowering difficulty just to win a hard fight. I guess that it had something to do with feeling of being less heroic than this that did it on higher settings.

    2. Also before dismissing me as an illiterate moron for basic mistakes in my previous comment pleas consider fact that I post from my phone and dictionary does whatever it wants.

    3. For me, I'm of mixed feelings on it. I don't like lowering the difficulty, but I will if I need to and not worry too much about it. I don't get much time to play games anymore and when I do I want to make progress and not play for an hour or so without accomplishing anything. So I will usually try 2-3 times and if I'm still dying, I'll lower the difficulty and move on. I just don't have the patience or time anymore to grind or fight the same battle over and over. Ah to be young again and have no responsibilities and tons of free time. :)

    4. Except the purpose of this blog is to catalog the game as much as it is to have fun, and manipulating the difficulty is skipping content in a sense.

      Of course ambushing the player near the end of the game with a requirement that they needed to be building their party a certain way is a pretty big flaw. So it made perfect sense to advance by whatever means necessary.

    5. For gamers who play, at least in part, for a sense of 'achievement', difficulty lowering feels really bad. It's clicking the 'Deus ex Machina' button.

    6. If I, as someone who's spent the majority of my life playing videogames, have to lower the difficulty beyond the recommended "default" in order to complete a game, then it leaves me with a nagging feeling that either (a) I've missed some key content or skill that's a core part of the game, and thus haven't experienced the game properly, or (b) the designers screwed up. Either way it's frustrating. It's always better to have an easy option rather than just block player progress but the default difficulty should be fairly trivially surmountable for an experienced gamer.

    7. I really, really dislike that concept. Having it be too difficult because of bad design decisions is a problem, but the notion that games should default to being "trivially surmountable" is one of the biggest reasons I find myself gravitating more and more to older games, despite the fact that newer ones generally do have better polish on the design and mechanics.

      Difficulty levels alone don't solve this issue, as making games default to easily completable generally results in oversimplified mechanics that can't be fixed just by (for example) ramping up enemy damage and health.

      Meanwhile, a well designed game that is built to be difficult can generally function just fine with an easier difficulty that ramps up player health and damage, making more power-ups spawn, or whatever.

    8. It was a point of pride thing. I don't have any problem with setting the desired difficulty at the beginning of the game, or even changing it during the first 10-15% of the game, after you've had a chance to feel what that means. But changing it ust fort he final combats feels like subverting all of the skill-building (both yours and your characters) that you've spent hours on.

      But between hours of tedious grinding and being able to document the end of the game for the purposes of my blog, I'll probably be erring towards the latter more often.

    9. I have one problem with lowering the difficulty, and that's when some games give you access to extra content when selecting the harder levels

    10. Well, those extra content probably will be too much for you to handle.

      It's quite usual in a few fighting games back in the 90s and early 00s where the hardest AI boss will only appear if you had never lost a single round in all your fights.

      Even if you're playing at the lowest level to meet him, his difficulty level is still maxed.

    11. To be honest I am surprised that Dagger lets you change the difficulty on the fly. Given that even today you can run into games that don't allow that, it should be lauded for that alone.

      Personally I simply don't have time to grind anymore. If I play a game, I want it to be interesting, given that my time has shrunk to a few hours a week.

      From there I actually tend to go one step further and actively cheat. E. G. Recently I cheated myself to level up faster in Sudeki, a nice Xbox era action RPG, cutting all grinding out of the game. My finish time still doesn't beat what 'how long to beat' but otherwise I probably would have taken twice the 10 hours.

  4. Wow, Might and Magic 3 is coming up of the best RPGs of all time.

  5. I'm glad to see a playthrough of this game. I never got to play it, only ride shotgun as my cousin played it. I loved Wizard's Crown, though. I found it kind of ironic, though - you use Quick Combat to get through the game, but the main thing I enjoyed about these two games was the tactical combat!

    Either way, thanks for playing this and writing it up.

    1. I shouldn't have played it right after Wizard's Crown. The tactical combat is indeed a highlight, but two games in a row of it is too much.

  6. Argh, I don't understand why games do this. Why spend the whole game making item accrual and upgrading a core component of advancement only to arbitrarily take it away for the last dungeon? That really sucks. Like if the game just halved your levels for no reason at the end.

    1. Easier to balance. All of sudden the party with the best gear and the worst gear are much closer in power level. It could be a way of showing that they gave out too much loot earlier in the game, or they gave it out too unevenly, or something like that.

  7. "Why does the box show them stepping through the portal with equipment?! This would have been the one time that nudity was justified."

    Didn't you say that the eternal dagger was able to go through because it was alive at some point? Wouldn't that apply to some of the armor the people is wearing in that picture (but not the sword)? Leather was kind of alive at some point

    1. The sword was the Eternal Dagger.
      I mean, the ogres might use it as a dagger.

    2. Although I agree that's logical, the game makes it clear that nothing survives passage except for the Eternal Dagger. I'm sure if I'd equipped leather armor it wouldn't have let me through.

    3. I think it's because leather armour is still secured with iron rung and buckles and those are inorganic.

      I'm just wondering about bone spears and wooden javelins now.

    4. I didn't try with the items you mentioned but I did try without the living dagger being enchanted. It was unable to destroy the portal and finish the game.

      The whole point I think was to enhance your Strength, Life, Dexterity and to specialize certain skills to a high degree because fatigue drains from it.

  8. Having played that game when it first came out on the C64, and later on an emulator I didn't have the problems importing my characters from Wizard's Crown. It is true that the characters were weaker but the stats were unchanged, they just weren't enough.

    I always used a balanced team because clearing the game without a Wizard and a Priest would be very difficult. Only the priests can raise the dead and the best a magical item or a Wizard can do is Regeneration but it doesn't bring back the dead.

    Before getting a lift from the Grey Eagle, it's worth it to enchant your Eternal Dagger to a +7 weapon. (I think it's also possible to enchant it when it's still a living dagger). Using the Eternal Dagger against the undead will give your fighters a chance on the other side. Give it to someone that can sneak around.

    Increasing Life and Strength made a difference. The first time I played I didn't know the strength could be enhanced past the value of 18. I trained some characters by clearing the same dungeons and restoring them several times. You cannot get two copies of a special item though, I tried.


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