Saturday, October 28, 2017

Game 268: Legends (1987)

      
Legends
United States
Asgard Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for TI-99
Date Started: 19 October 2017    
      
You have gone 20 levels down and 20 levels back up in your search for the Amulet of Yendor, rising in the process from a scared serf to an invincible warlord. The quest item is tucked securely in your belt and the exit is in sight. Suddenly, a little Level 1 goblin appears in your path and growls. You're torn between annoyance and amusement. You faced hordes of these when you were a Level 1 adventurer, but you outgrew them a long time ago. Do I step around him or smack him across the room without breaking stride?, you wonder, knowing that by even considering the question, you're spending more time on this foe than he's worth.

You try to side-step him. He dives in front of your legs and trips you. You don't fall, but it takes a couple of seconds to right your balance. Now you're pissed. You're going to crush the little bastard's skull. You swing your mace at him but he dodges at the last second, chortling at you. You swing again; he jumps aside. You swear aloud. Fifteen steps from your destination, and you have to deal with this? You turn again towards the door, vowing to just ignore him, but now he runs up and jumps on your back, digging his claws into your neck. "Get off me," you bellow, twisting your body to and fro as his grubby nails pierce your flesh.
      
I'm going to be telling this analogy for a while, so here's the game's take on a giant cat.
    
Reeling backwards, you head for the nearest wall, intending to mangle your "opponent"--though you can't yet bring yourself to call him that---between its stones and your armor. Anticipating the satisfaction of the resulting crunch, you smile. But moments before you strike, he leaps away and into the shadows. With no way to check your momentum, you slam against the granite wall. The impact jars your armor and helm and you see stars. Shaking your head to clear it, you look around. The goblin is nowhere to be seen.

Well, at least he's--. Your thought is cut off as you abruptly notice a lack of weight on your belt. In panic you grab at your waist with your gauntleted hand. It comes up empty, confirming the worst. The Amulet of Yendor is gone. In the distance, you hear a goblin laughing. You have to be f&#*#@$ kidding me. You cast one last plaintive look towards the exit before heading back into the dungeon's shadows, girding yourself for a quest that's clearly going to take a lot longer than it should.

Legends is the CRPG equivalent of that goblin. That it's a TI-99 game meant that it was never going to be great, but it could have at least been fast. It didn't have to completely halt my momentum. It could have let me swat it out of the way with one entry. I would have been complimentary. I probably would have called it the "most complete RPG for the TI-99." I might not have been able to resist saying something like, "which is a little like being the best blues player in Millinocket, Maine." Adamantyr would have offered a spirited defense of the platform, and we would have been polite to him but no one would have really felt sincere about it. Then this entire entry would have gone completely unread until 2026, when Millinocket finally gets Internet access, and someone would feel it necessary to comment that old George Eastman strums a six-string down at the Blue Ox on Saturdays and is "not half bad."

But no. Legends has to be hard--and not in a satisfying, tactical way, but in the way where the dice rolls never go your way and you have to grind forever. My first foray out of the starting city, I got eaten by 5 "giant cats" without even once hitting them. Combats are so frequent and merciless that it was more than an hour before I could exit the city, win a single battle, and return to the city despite the city being only one square away from the battle.
       
An all-too-common message in the early game.
      
If you had a TI-99 in the 1980s and were interested in adventure games or RPGs at all, you probably knew about Asgard Software. The company sprang up in the years after Texas Instruments discontinued and disavowed its own machine. TI had famously discouraged third-party development for the platform during its life (1979-1984); afterwards, they didn't seem to care, but no major developer was interested in writing for a discontinued platform. The Maryland-based Asgard stepped in and satisfied the niche demand for TI-99 titles. Chief among these was the Tunnels of Doom Editor, written by Chicago Police Officer John Behnke, who spent untold hours decoding the 1982 game. The Editor allowed the creation of new modules, and Asgard published some of the best of these as Doom Games I (1987), II (1988), and III (1989). They also ported most of Infocom's text adventures to the TI-99 and offered a small portfolio of their own adventure titles.
       
This is the quality of graphic on the manual cover.
      
Legends (1987) and its sequel, Legends II (1989; subtitled The Sequel in case you're confused) are the only RPGs in Asgard's portfolio, although there's a sort of proto-action RPG called Old Dark Caves (1986?), written by Legends' author, Donn Granros. Granros is famous among TI-99 aficionados the way you'd be famous if you were the only competent RPG author for a cult platform.

Oh, there I go again. I'm trying my best to be polite about this, mostly because one of my oldest commenters, Adamantyr, is an enthusiastic TI-99 fan and he's helped me immeasurably on every TI-99 game I've ever played. (He has his own valuable summary of Legends and a bunch of TI-99 titles.) But for all its importance to this particular platform, Asgard was a low-rent company that sold minor games with no production values via catalog for a discontinued computer. We're not going to find genius here. We don't even find originality: Legends is a limited knockoff of Phantasie. That it begins with an unavoidable grind-fest is particularly unforgivable.

The backstory pioneers no new ground: The kingdom of Edonland (a portmanteau of "Ed" and "Donn," the two authors) used to be peaceful, but some wizard named Ashtar Creel (read: Nikademus) has stolen a spellbook and the Azure Amulet and used them to open a portal to the Land of the Dead, letting monsters roam freely. He has also created a group of Dark Knights (read: Black Knights) who terrorize the land. It is up to a party of four adventurers to stop them all.
    
As in Phantasie, you can encounter the Dark Knights wandering the landscape.
     
You have no choice but to play a party of four adventurers with fixed classes--a fighter, a ranger, a cleric, and a wizard--so during character creation, the only options are the characters' names and random rolls (1 to 20) for strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, charisma, hit points, and magic points. You start with a set of equipment sensible for your class.
   
A wizard's character sheet after a couple of levels.
     
Something odd happened to my characters. I originally created my own party, which you see in some of these screenshots led by "1 Stab" the fighter. But at some point, I must have accidentally restored the default party and not noticed. By the time I realized the names I was playing with weren't the ones I chose, I'd gained a couple of levels and didn't feel like starting over.

The game begins in Wizard's Rock, where the Adventurers' Guild offers various character utilities, including training, and you can sleep in the inn, visit a tavern for rumors, or buy potions in an alchemist's shop. (There's no standard equipment shop.)
      
Finally returning to the opening city after a successful expedition.
     
Whenever you leave Wizard's Rock, the game asks you to set a difficulty level between 1 and 6. The first time, I naively set it to 3 and got slaughtered. I soon learned that at the beginning, you want to leave it set at 1, maybe 2 if you want a gamble. The difficulty level does not affect the types of monsters you encounter, but it does affect their hit points, attack skill, and damage--as well as the experience and gold that you get from them.
    
A successful early combat.
     
Combat is relentless. If you don't immediately start moving (with the unintuitive ESDX cluster), you'll get attacked within a few seconds of leaving town. Running essentially never works. After combat, you have to be quick on the draw with the keyboard, because dithering around will almost certainly result in another attack within a few seconds. And the keyboard isn't very responsive, either. I don't know if this is an original problem or an emulator problem, but the game indicates that it's ready for you to start moving a second or two before it will actually register your keystrokes. So you pound away at "D," trying to move east, and nothing happens. You sit back and wonder what's wrong and within another couple of seconds, you're in combat again.

The types of enemies you encounter differ based on terrain. Relatively easy thugs, rats, "kobalds," and giant flies occupy the grassland near the city, for instance, while forests are likely to serve up more difficult foes like "mystical bears," stone golems, and dragons. The game suckered me with this, because I spent about 3 hours grinding on the grassland until my party made it to Level 3 and stopped dying all the time. I assumed they were finally ready to start exploring the larger world, headed briskly away from Wizard's Rock, and got slaughtered by three "plains dragons" the moment I entered my first forest square.
     
Compared to the grassland, the forest is full of terrors.
      
Combat begins with options to fight, threaten, greet, surrender, run, or change the party formation. Again, most of these are drawn from Phantasie. As I mentioned above, running hardly ever works. I also haven't had any success (at low levels) with threaten and greet, both of which give the monsters a free round of attacks when they fail.
      
Wouldn't regular bears have been difficult enough?
      
In combat, you have options to make a regular attack (which gets you multiple hits depending on level), put everything into a powerful but less-accurate "lunge," parry, or cast a spell. Again, these options are adapted from Phantasie, as is the little jumping animation that accompanies your attack. That's about all that the developers copied. Gone are any consideration of ranks, positions, or priority: characters can only attack one enemy at a time, everyone is in melee range, and there are no mass-damage spells.
     
Whatever kind of weapon he's holding, it doesn't look very efficient.
     
Even the spell list is mostly plagiarized from Phantasie, but greatly reduced. Wizards, rangers, and clerics each have a separate spell progression table, with selections like "Strength," "Dispel Magic," and "Turn Undead." A few spells, like "Firestorm" and "Healing" occur in multiple levels: "Firestorm1," "Firestorm2," and "Firestorm3," for instance. There are only 8 wizard spells, 8 cleric spells, and 6 ranger spells (most of them duplicated within the three lists), and you get a new one at every level. To cast them, you specify the spell number, so you have to memorize the spell reference card or have it close at hand. As in Phantasie, spell points deplete fast, and each caster might only be able to cast 5 or 6 useful spells between rests.

As for equipment, I assume I get upgrades at some point in the game. Maybe I have to find them in dungeons. None of the enemies I've fought so far have dropped weapons or armor, just gold.
       
A spell is successful against a "thug."
     
The problem with combat isn't just its difficulty. It lasts a long time. A simple fight against an easy enemy, like three "huge flies," can easily stretch to 5 minutes as both sides mostly miss and you have to sit and watch all the attack messages. Without streaming television to watch at the same time, I'd find this title horrendously boring.

Adamantyr's site indicates that the game world comprises 15 screens. You start in the far northeast and have to walk to the various dungeons, fighting untold hordes of enemies in between. Although there are scattered inns (just as in Phantasie) where you can rest and recharge, only Wizard's Rock has a temple and a full complement of services, making its far-flung location particularly annoying. Even worse is the fact that while you can save anywhere, saving outside Wizard's Rock forces you to quit after saving, and when you reload the party is back in Wizard's Rock. That means that each expedition away from town has to be made with no saving until you're ready to return.
      
This inn is located in a part of the landscape that there's no reason to visit.
     
In about 5 hours of gameplay, I haven't even been able to get to the point where I can survive a trip to a dungeon, let alone explore its interior. I suspect I'll have to grind around Wizard's Rock until everyone's Level 8 and has all their spells before I can survive an extended expedition. Complicating things is the fact that, just like Phantasie, your characters are always under-funded for training. Everyone's ready to move to Level 4 at this point, but I don't have enough money for even one of them. This discourages me from purchasing potions, including a useful "Stealth" potion that temporarily eliminates enemy encounters.
       
The first level wasn't so bad, but costs more than double between levels.
      
Training is otherwise quite useful, increasing hit points, spell points, and combat skill. The results are palpable. They just take a long time to arrive. I might have to grind for another 5 hours before I can even leave the starting area.
      
A rumor at the tavern. I never would have suspected!
     
At this point the only thing I'm really holding out hope for is that the dungeons are interesting. Judging by what Adamantyr says on his site, the game seems to have adopted Phantasie's encounter system in dungeons, by which interesting things pop up as you peek into rooms. I'll give it long enough to explore at least one dungeon. But seriously, 1987 games need to start sitting down, shutting up, and stop fouling my momentum.

Time so far: 5 hours

****

Sorry for having three active games at the same time. I'm getting some help from German readers on Die Drachen von Laas, but they need time to play, and I need time to analyze, compile, and comment on their experiences.

44 comments:

  1. I have no thoughts on the game, but as (presumably) one of your few readers who have spent any significant time in Northern Maine, I quite enjoyed the reference to Millinocket.

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  2. Regarding your lost characters, I had the same thing happen to me recently... when you return to Wizard's Rock it does not automatically save your game and characters. You have to enter the guild, then utilities, and explicitly save it.

    The ESDX keys are in fact the arrow keys on the TI keyboard. Technically you have to hold the function key (unique to the TI) down to use them, but most games ignored this and just let you press the letters.

    You aren't imagining the keyboard lag, that's some very bad design where while you're trying to move it's off trying to figure out if you're about to meet monsters or not. You are enjoying a much faster load time though; the old TI took several minutes to load the island or dungeon engines on a standard disk system.

    I'm not going to try to defend this one. I pretty much said in my review before I ever knew it was a Phantasie clone that it was too primitive to be a truly great CRPG. I'll defend Tunnels of Doom because it's an original game and it holds up as a decent dungeon crawler with repeat-ability.

    I've always wanted to write the CRPG that I would have LOVED to have had back then, rather than one like this. That's why I've been working on a TI CRPG myself. I'm planning to have it done by next year.

    On a side note, Asgard's greatest achievement (which regrettably was at least a partial cause of their demise) was in hardware. They produced the first advanced memory card system that gave the platform a true CPU RAM upgrade, based on the schematics of the (unreleased) TI-99/8. I actually bought a card recently and it's really opened things up for my CRPG work.

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    1. It would be great to see your CRPG on this site, especially given the obscure nature of the platform you're writing it for.

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    2. Thanks! Mind you now I'm a bit scared of the snarky Chet review... And he has plenty of games to play before he gets to it.

      One recent release CRPG a friend of mine wrote was Realms of Quest for the Commodore VIC-20. It's very impressive work for a platform that was very limited in graphics and memory.

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    3. Adamantyr - recently came across your blog and found it fascinating! Keep up the good writing, it brings back happy memories of my TI99/4A and late night dungeon delving expeditions in Tunnels of Doom!

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  3. with the unintuitive ESDX cluster

    I feel the need to point out that before Doom and Quake, there was no agreement that WASD should be a standard. Heck, even back then I custom set ESDF myself, because it gave you an extra set of keys WAZ to the left, instead of useless keys like caps lock and shift.

    I actually like the graphics in this one. Nice colors and I like the map tiles.

    At this point I would completely support hex editing the save file to give a ton of gold. It's what the gamer at the time would have done, it's completely in character. I am just baffled over and over again at developers who create games that they very obviously never played.

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    1. Indeed, I remember countless Spectrum -- and a few C64 -- games in which QA and OP were the directional controls.

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    2. With Legends my friend went further than that. Since its a BASIC listing it's pretty easy to modify. He changed all the equipment names and values to get "super" equipment for his characters.

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    3. Also, the graphics ARE really nice. Most contemporary TI programs would do things like solid blocks for water, so having artistic waves and forests was really neat.

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    4. WASD is even newer than you think, Harland. With Doom, Quake 1, and Duke Nukem 3D, the default mapping was still the arrow keys. WASD didn't became the de facto standard until Half Life in 1998 (although it was entirely possible to remap older games to operate this way, and it had become popular with competitive Quake players).

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    5. Heh, I actually independently came up with ESDF on my own, I am proud to say. I led a brief revolt on USENET attacking the WASD people for being shortsighted and missing the extra keys, but that went over like a lead balloon. Evidently WASD was obviously the correct way and I was an idiot. I also really didn't like reaching my pinky all the way over for CTRL. After the Windows key came out, it got even more irritating because one false keypress would take you out of the game.

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    6. Actually, Wizardry I used WAD and X to turn around, but it used S to show/hide the status display, so basically, WASD goes back to 1981 at least.

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    7. Then there's the Moria/Angband "roguelike" keyset of YUHJKLBN.

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    8. >YUHJKLBN

      Those are vi(m) keys, a common text editor favored by sysadmins and programmers. As a coder/sysadmin who works primarily in vim, it always amazes me how many programs respond to this key cluster (often without being documented) and other assorted vi keys. I always imagine that the developers on the project were vi users and wanted to be able to stay in the flow.

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    9. I didn't mean to suggest that the developers did anything wrong with ESDX, just that I personally find it difficult to remember, and time is of the essence in this particular title or you end up in an endless cycle of combats.

      Regardless of when it became a "standard," WASD goes all the way back to the PLATO Oubliette (1978).

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    10. I never meant to imply that WASD wasn't invented until 1998, just that very few games used it as the default binding before Half Life, and arrow keys had become the standard once keyboards with arrow keys became common.

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  4. Hey, Millinocket is a nice town! It has great access to Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, a couple of cute restaurants, and it's closer to Bangor than I am way up in Caribou.

    I also ate my first ostrich burger there when I was 14, which is kind of cool, right?

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  5. Your patience with these obscure clones continues to amaze me.

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  6. Sorry for being that guy, addict, but your master list seems to be missing Protostar, a 1993 game that was supposed to be Star Flight 3 before EA withdrew the license. It may not be a big classic, but at least it's not a fantasy rogue-like...

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protostar:_War_on_the_Frontier

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    1. To my knowledge, space sims with adventure/strategy/trading elements and a crew are not RPGs. Mobygames and GameFAQs does not list it as an RPG either.

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    2. Well, seeing as the addict played Starflight 1 and 2 and will probably play Star Control 2, it seems only fair to give Protostar its minutes of fame. It has, as far as I understand, much more in common with the above titles than with games such as Privateer or Freelancer.

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    3. Wow, really, Star Control 3? I never knew. Maybe I'll have to check it out. Is it worth it if Star Control was one of my favoritest games ever, or is it a lesser son of greater kings, like Star Control 2?

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    4. I mean Starflight 3, not The Game That Must Not Be Named But I Just Did By Accident.

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    5. Starflight 1 and 2 were RPGs.

      Star Control 2 is not.

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    6. Harland, haven't played it myself, but it is certainly considered a lesser son. Maybe that's why EA parted way with the developers, not wanting to tarnish the Starflight name (but also, in EA fashion, not caring enough to give it to a more proven developer).

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    7. "Star Control 2 is not"

      I'd argue things are rarely so cut and dried. And Star Control 2 is, for the moment, on Chet's master list.

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    8. For the same reason King's Bounty got played. Because it's a great game. LOL @ gatekeeping. SC2 is well worth playing even if the ship is the main character and its hit points are crew members and it levels up by buying components and the party members are other ships. It has roleplaying choices out the wazoo, a spectacularly well-written story, and it's a wide open sandbox just like Starflight.

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    9. You all understand, I compile my master list based on what Wikipedia, MobyGames, and a few other sources say are RPGs, then refine it as I get closer to the games. If it hasn't appeared on my "recent & upcoming list," there's a decent chance that I know nothing about it other than the fact that MobyGames calls it an RPG. My own assessment changes things about 5-10% of the time.

      As for Protostar, if it has character development, a flexible inventory, and combat based on probabilities, I'll add it. Does anyone know if it does?

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  7. I don’t know about the game but your post was the best in a long time. :)

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  8. I can provide a summary of both Legends and Legends II if you want them just to complete the blog entry. (And totally skip the second one. Trust me, you don't need to waste time on it.)

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    1. I appreciate the offer, but I don't want to get into the habit of over-doing that. We'll see how it goes with DDvL.

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  9. First time commenting. Been enjoying this blog for a while now.

    This game is really aesthetically pleasing to me. Good art and good layouts. Anybody know what the difference is between v1.0 and v1.1 though?

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    1. The map looks like it was knitted. I really like that.

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    2. I've tried the 1.0 version, a copy of it is up on the TI Game Shelf. The graphics are a little different and the game is (if you can believe it) actually HARDER. One of the stock characters literally has only a single hit point.

      I agree, the graphic aesthetics are really nice. It's probably one of the reasons I kept playing it even with the XP/Gold grind being so boring.

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  10. This is a game one might have outsourced. Though I guess the player needs to know Phantasie as well, to compare the two games. Otherwise, I doubt that there's much left to write about on this one.

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    1. I'm reluctant to do that, since I'm already doing it with Die Drachen von Laas. If I'm going to "outsource" playing and just comment on the result, I want to approach the process VERY carefully.

      There will be more to say about Legends when I get into dungeon exploration, especially if the encounters are interesting.

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  11. Just played a bit of Legends, and yeah, there are some ridiculously over-powered monsters. The Giant Cats for example have high armor and HP. Despite having upgraded my equipment in the nearby dungeon, one of them kept hitting my wizard until he was dead, then the rest of the combat was painfully slow and consisted of both parties mostly missing. Either way, my XP/gold gathering session was wrecked.

    Also, you can't raise characters from the dead in town, you need a quest item. Which means if you lose one you have to either make a new character to replace him or be a man (or more) down until you find the item.

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    1. Although the way the game works, your party's assets (including quest items) remain constant even if you make new characters in the guild.

      The sequel actually has a raise dead option in town, you start at level 3 automatically, and you also have whatever your HP was from the prior game, which gives you a much bigger HP pool if you'd won the prior game and maxed them out.

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    2. I was wondering what was happening there, since I can't enter the temple. I've just been reloading if anyone dies.

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    3. I played a bit today to remind myself of how I won it way back when on the actual hardware. Definitely by grinding and reloading a LOT at first level.

      The grinding gets easier fairly quick though. Every level gives you a nice bump in hit points... and you can reload and retrain if you don't like the values gained, they appear random.

      Plus, at level 2 the wizard gets dispel magic which gives you a tool to get rid of negative status effects. By level 4, your pool of hit points is sufficient for extended travel. (Levels go up to 16 maximum incidentally)

      That said, it's a pain. I was setting difficulty to 6 and then hugging Wizard's Rock on grass and hoping for easy encounters to let me get a nice chunk of money and experience. One battle and then right back inside to save and rest and repeat.

      Part of me is tempted to tweak the engine and make the controls easier, make it a turn based encounter system. But I'll just make sure my own CRPG is without grind and way less annoying.

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    4. This is exactly the sort of game where I'd allow myself to cheat with save states, just to speed up the process of grinding, but of course Classic99 doesn't support save states.

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    5. Yeah, I'll have to mention that to Mike as a good feature to add... that could come in handy for debugging purposes with development as well.

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    6. I thought that the black area behind the giant cat in the first image was a gigantic Afro hairstyle, and now I can't unsee it...

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