Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Game 274: Skariten: Origin of the Adventure (1987)

Skariten: Origin of the Adventure
United States
Balistic Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 24 December 2017
Date Ended: 26 December 2017
Total hours: 7
Difficulty: 3.5/5 (Moderate-Hard)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 17/274 (6%)

It's not Skariten's fault that I'm playing it the same year that I played Hera, Gates of Delirium, Quest for Tanda, The Wrath of Denethor, The Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron, and Legend of Lothian, with Deathlord still to stare down. But that's what happened, and my patience for yet another Ultima clone was already pretty low. It went down another notch when I fired up the game and found that the developer couldn't properly spell its own name (there's no confusion about what they intended; the icon is a ballistic missile).

The manual suggests a group of enthusiastic young developers who tried their best to make a good game (and convinced themselves they had), but honestly the whole game borders on being a scam, and it's not impossible that the guilelessness of the manual is part of the scam. Whatever I say about this game, it had some slick marketing. No shareware BBSes for these kids: Skariten was advertised using full-page ads like this one from Compute!'s Gazette in December 1987. The image, which also appears on the game box, is credited to a "Mark Mitchell" in the manual.
This ad is the most competent thing about the game.
Some other things stand out about the ad. First, the game price: the developers asked $29.95 for it. That's a lot for a freeware-quality game, but not a lot for a freeware-quality game that you're trying to convince people is a commercial-quality game. Then you've got the ordering information. Balistic's official address is a residential property in Delaware, Ohio, but the little bastards somehow got an 800 number and the ability to take credit cards, neither a trivial process in 1987. Look at the line "visit your retailer." If this game ever saw a store shelf, I'll eat the floppy.
Imagine you were intrigued by the ad (you would be forgiven for thinking it was called Skarlten) and you ordered the game. When it arrived, you might have been put off immediately by the manual (shout out to the awesome Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History, may it never close). It was designed by someone with a basic understanding of an early Mac word processor and a particular love for variety in fonts.
The manual simply does everything wrong. It makes the amateur's mistake of confusing informality with humor. It ruins the professionalism of the ad and the box art with an immediate opening anecdote describe how half-assed the production was. It lists the lead developer's dad among the credits as "technical assistant." It make copious in-jokes. (Fire up the link, read the paragraph on page 20, and try not to cringe.) It varies fonts practically every page, including one that's only half-readable. Most important--as we'll see--it excludes crucial information about how to actually play the game.
I'll summarize the relevant back story: "Skariten" is a dragon. For two centuries, he's rampaged unchecked across the land called Dvantiae, Avantiac, or some similar name depending on how you interpret the manual's font. No spell will fell him, no weapon will pierce his hide. Finally, the King of Averon tasks his son with the destruction of the beast. He recommends that the prince assemble magic weapons created by each of the races independently (but never used together): the humans' Spear of Slaying, the dwarves' Helm of Lion's Courage, the elves' Boots of Striding, and some rumored magical armor.
Character creation consists only of a name and the choice of class between fighter and mage. Fighters can use no magic or magic items except dragon-slaying artifacts. The manual claims the mage can wield no weapons at all but then the game belies this by starting the mage with a staff. The game automatically rolls totals for strength, intelligence, constitution, and dexterity. Hit points are derived from constitution (x10) and magic points (for mages) from intelligence (x1).
"Character creation."
The game begins outside Averon, on a clearly-Ultima inspired background of forests, grassland, towns, and bridges. In addition to the attributes discussed above, the character also has to worry about food, morale, and fatigue. Morale is good when it's high, fatigue when it's low, and both are restored by resting so it seems silly to have both.
Starting out.
The moment I started to play, the final blow to any chance that I would enjoy the game was struck. For the game interface, the developers opted to go with joystick-only. If you want to try one of the few game commands beyond simple movement, you have to hit the "fire" button and then select it from the menu that pops up, the only options being search, camp, exchange weapons, save, and quit.

What makes this interface choice particularly unforgivable is that the developers implemented keyword-based NPC dialogues in the towns. When in town, the fire button is contextual. You wander up to a building and hit "fire" to enter it. You wander up to an NPC and hit "fire" to talk to him. (Both are accompanied by loading pauses of about 4 seconds at era-accurate speeds.) But having done the latter, you now have to use the keyboard to type your keywords. Here's an idea: since the player is going to have to be at the keyboard no matter what, why not map the "camp" option to the "C" key? And directional movement to the arrows?
Wandering around town. There are more structures on the screen than you can enter, so you have to watch for the "Press Button" message to indicate where you can enter.
Let's talk about the towns. "Over thirty separate buildings you can enter," the ad promises. Yay? The buildings are simple areas where you can buy food or weapons or maybe talk to an NPC. Some of them do indeed have two floors. Most games would have handled them as part of the main town screens, not as places you have to enter separately and wait for loading.

More on those discussions. I like keyword-based dialogues with NPCs, and I'm impressed that these developers implemented them. That raises my estimation of the game. But the developers immediately squander that good will. First, NPC responses scroll across the screen, making it difficult to read them. Second, the developers don't bother to tell you what keywords prompt responses. They offer in the manual that NAME works but then say that if they told the player all the keywords, "then there would be no adventure." I get the sentiment, but you know what might have been useful? Telling the player that BYE exits the conversation, especially since it's the only way to do so without shutting down the computer. JOB also works, incidentally. So the player basically needed to play Ultima IV to navigate this one.
Inside a building, talking with an NPC.
Beyond that, there's simply no depth to the discussions. Averon has about eight guards who all say "I guard the city" in response to JOB. You say "CITY" and they reply, "the city of Averon." And that's it. There's no lore, no dialogue trees, no dialogue options. A few NPCs do respond to the names of the quest items, so you have to try them all with every NPC. A typical conversation thus goes like this:

NAME: I'm Phillip
JOB: I farm the land.
FARM: Beg your pardon!?!
LAND: Beg your pardon!?!
SPEAR: Beg your pardon!?!
HELM: Beg your pardon!?!
BOOTS: Beg your pardon!?!
ARMOR: Beg your pardon!?!
KEY: Beg your pardon!?!

Let's move on to combat, which the ad describes as "in real-time, which is extremely rare, and a lot of fun." Fun to figure out, in particular, since the manual doesn't bother to give you any instructions about how to fight. Monsters don't appear in the wilderness, so you'll be walking along and suddenly realize that your character is no longer walking, which is a sign that the battle screen is loading. Five seconds later, it appears. The enemies immediately start swarming the character and converge on top of him within a couple of seconds.
Fighting takes place on a blank black screen. Here, I contend with some foxes or something.
At first, the only thing I could figure out to do was hold down the "fire" button, which causes the character to wave his sword at the enemies. But I died repeatedly, without killing any of the enemies. After some experimentation, it became clear that the game's approach to combat is to force you to run away from the enemies, then turn and strike just as the get into striking distance. You only have time for one blow before they're on top of you and thus immune to your attacks. You thus spend combat frantically running back and forth across the screen, periodically stopping, turning and waving your sword, then running away again. You get no feedback on how much damage you're doing or taking, or how many hit points you have left. "Extremely rare," I'll give them. "A lot of fun," no.
To be fair, this accurately depicts how I would handle giant bees in real life.
The mage, meanwhile, supposedly has four combat spells: "Magic Bolt," "Paralysis," "Lightning Bolt," and "Mind Blast." But in between goofy descriptions of what the spells do, the manual author forgot to tell the player how to actually employ them. No key that I press during combat seems to activate them.

Creatures are almost all animals. They're not named, but the icons look like giant bats, bees, dogs, alligators, snakes, and such. One exception is that you occasionally encounter a single ghost. Except for the ghost, they never attack in parties smaller than two or greater than three. Fortunately, even the animal enemies give you gold. You also get experience, which causes you to occasionally "level up." When I quit the game, I was Level 4. Leveling, as far as I can tell, does absolutely nothing for you. It doesn't increase your hit points or any of your attributes, nor does it seem to make combat any faster or easier.
The few weapons and items of armor sold in the game make up the only "character development."
A single combat could easily bleed 80% of your hit points. To restore hit points, reduce fatigue, and increase morale, you periodically stop to camp. (There are healers who will restore you for 100 gold pieces, but I found that gold was too precious to waste on healing.) Camping takes about 20 seconds real-time, but it has no cost, not even in food, so there's no reason not to just do it repeatedly until your hit points are restored.
Camping from the main menu.
I gave the game my six hour minimum plus an additional hour. I dutifully circled the land, visiting towns, fighting enemies, spending most of my accumulated gold on food. I asked everyone about SPEAR, HELM, BOOTS, ARMOR, KEY, and DRAGON. The ad had promised "over 30 separate buildings," so I kept count of them so I'd know when I'd visited every city. When I knew I was missing a city or two, I used screenshots to make a crude map of the land.
The game world, or at least most of it.
I didn't get very far. On the Boots of Striding, there were three clues that when pieced together told me to search for them in the mountains "past the desert, at the edge of Avantia." The problem is, there's no place on the map where you encounter a desert and then mountains. Desert squares are all at the tips of peninsulas.

I got the Key of Opening, the most useless artifact, as I never found anything locked to open.

For the Mystical Armor, I had a clue to "ask Joshua about God," but I never encountered an NPC named Joshua. On the Spear of Slaying, an NPC told me that it had been carried by someone named Paul, who fell in battle, and that I should now seek the Spear "on a hill." That's it.
You couldn't narrow that down?
At one point, I happened to notice that the screen was saying "Press button," which it usually does only when on top of a city, when I was standing next to a mountain square. It took me to a "hidden" cloister of priests where I got one of the spear clues. I assume there must be other hidden cities, but looking at the map, I despaired at the idea of searching around long enough to find them. I equally despaired of searching every potential "hill" square for the Sword of Slaying.
Does that look like a town to you?
I give the game a 13 on my GIMLET. I didn't even think it deserved a 1 in character creation and development. It otherwise managed to tick most of the RPG boxes with 1 or 2 points. It did best in "economy," which is tightly programmed and offers rewards begrudgingly. I took off 2 points at the end for the horrid documentation.

The manual did warn me that "this game designer has a twisted mind." You win, twisted game designer. You're probably pushing 50 by now, and you don't appear to have done anything else in game design, so it's too late for me to impart any life lessons. But if I could go back to 1987, I'd sit you down and explain that you have to earn the right to screw players around with invisible cities and undocumented keywords. And it's wrong to take something that your friends developed in your basement, slap commercial-quality artwork on the box, and sell it like a real game--regardless of how often EA does it.


Good news when it comes to getting to the end of 1991 faster: I'm dumping Twin Morg Valley. I don't even know how to characterize it. It exists in some online game databases, but no one seems to be able to assign it a year. I think I put it in 1991 randomly. I can't tell which of the many companies going by that name its developer, "Eclipse," is. I can't find anything that looks like a manual or advertisement.
I downloaded several versions and tried them. All of them go directly from the crack screen to a game in progress, with a monk character named "Kyksi Kaksi," which seems to be a play on the Finnish words for "one" (yksi) and "two" (kaksi). The game seems to take place in an arcade-like maze, with all control via the joystick. Pressing the "fire" button allows you to cycle among actions like "open door" and "get object" and "search for traps." There's no clear "save" function.

I can run around the dungeon area picking up gold, food, keys, potions, and crossbow bolts. Picking up certain items adds to your offensive and defensive scores. There are a lot of secret doors in the walls. In any event, whatever I do, I can't seem to leave a somewhat limited area, nor have I found anything that looks like an enemy.

I think we''ll have to call this one unplayable until we can get some more information about it. Even if something turns up, this clearly isn't a 1991 game.


  1. In addition to not spelling their name right, that's not even a ballistic missile in their logo. It's clearly an AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground guided missile:

    I quite like that the rooms are in perspective view. I don't recall ever seeing that before or since. But that seems to be the only likeable thing about this game.

    Joystick control is excusable, since everyone on a C64 would've expected a joystick interface. C64 has only two arrow keys, "down" and "right". To move up or left you have to press shift-down or shift-right.

    C64 also has a peculiarity where the joysticks don't actually have dedicated pins in the CIA interface chips. They're wired through the keyboard matrix, so if you try to read the keyboard while the player is using the joystick, it generates phantom keypresses. Joystick #1 is especially bad, which is why most games use joystick in port #2.

    Those are reasons why C64 is very joystick oriented machine, for better or worse.

    1. Optional joystick controls are always excusable. Mandatory, non-redundant joystick controls are never excusable. Questron found a way around those phantom keypresses.

      Viila, I wanted to thank you for your previous comment on languages. It embarrassed me a bit that I didn't know anything about Finnish (especially with SpurguX coming up), so I spent this morning learning a lot that I didn't know about the Uralic language family. Kiitos!

    2. The missile in the logo looks more like an AIM-54 Phoenix than a Maverick. The forward fins go only to the halfway point on the missile body in both the logo and the Phoenix, but reach the three-quarters mark on the Maverick.

      This is to the designers' benefit, because the Phoenix is technically a ballistic missile - the motor burns out soon after launch, and it coasts to the target.

      I'm not sure why we're discussing this, unless it is that this game is so overwhelmingly bland that there is little to discuss.

      There is one rather nice feature in the context-sensitive commands. As the Addict describes it "When in town, the fire button is contextual. You wander up to a building and hit "fire" to enter it. You wander up to an NPC and hit "fire" to talk to him." While executed quite poorly in this game, it shows how unnecessary the alphabet-soup commands used in the Ultima games really were, as most of them could easily be replaced with such a button.

    3. Ole hyvä vaan. I know you have one volunteer already for SpurguX, but if you need more help with the translations, I can also help. I would also like to apologize in advance for that game on behalf of Finland...

      At least you'll get to enjoy Unreal World in the not too distant future.

    4. "I quite like that the rooms are in perspective view. I don't recall ever seeing that before or since."

      Try "Rings of Zilfin"

  2. Starting off 1992 with a massive bang I see!

    1. I'm glad you liked the idea of bookending 1992 with Ultima games. For what ever else hapoens in between, you'll love how the year starts and ends.

    2. I saw UU pointing its nose on the list and jumped with joy! Especially so soon after EOB2, we're in for some quality games coming up. You'd almost think it's Christmas or something.

    3. I don't know if I'll "bookened" the year with Ultima, since I'll probably end 1992 and begin 1993 with Might and Magic IV/V. But I definitely wanted to start the year with something awesome.

    4. Well 1992 is full of great games, unlike ‘91. I hope you enjoy working through it. In fact, going through your master list ‘92 has more games I’m looking forwards to (18) than any other year. Just gotta clear ‘91 first, it’s been a slog!!

    5. Alternatively you could end '92 with Ultima VII and start '93 with Ultima VIIB :)

    6. I'm not sure I have the stamina to go right from U7P1 to U7P2. P2 itself probably needs to be split into six games.

  3. Do we get to start making bets on game of the year for 1991?

    1. Potentially, Eye of the Beholder II could very well be a contender. Not much point to speculating until that's been played.

    2. It's slim pickings, Chet hasn't in the past considered gold box games as they don't expand enough on PoR. Unless he relaxes this rule it's Disciples of Steel, Might and Magic 3, Eye of the Beholder, and I guess Conan as contenders? I could see him writing up a case for Fate too.

    3. As much as I'm looking forward to it, I'd be surprised if EOB II took it. It's a good game, but it doesn't really improve over EOB I in any way that Chester relishes. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if EOB II scored lower on the GIMLET than EOB I. It's punishingly hard in places, and character development starts off as slow and incremental since you start with a high level party in the first place.

    4. I also think that he won't like EOB2 "that" much, since he is less into real-time blobbers in general, and EOB2, while excellent, doesn't improve that much on EOB1 or Dungeon Master for that matter.

      As other contenders, tas Mikrakov said, the gold box games are again repetitive in terms of engine, and Disciples of Steel had many flaws and wasn't history-making either.

      Even if Chet had issues with it, my personal bet would be Might and Magic III, not because I have a personal nostalgia about it, but since it is the game that made the franchise "big", and helped define what we would expect of an "open-world" game with more side-quests that you know what to do with. I feel it stands out more than the rest to define the year.

      But we'll see, I'm looking forward to the reasoning no matter who wins.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I coukd see it being M&M3 mostly because of the bugs with Disciples of Steel if it wasn't for those I think it'd win.

  5. "On the Spear of Slaying, an NPC told me that it had been carried by someone named Paul, who fell in battle, and that I should now seek the Spear "on a hill." "

    It seems the creators were Beatles fans. I'd take this as a clue to find Strawberry Fields or The Fool On the Hill.

  6. I'd have been so mad if I paid $30 and received that manual. You read a manual that bad, you know the game isn't any better.

  7. "And directional movement to the arrows?" ;P

    You were saying ?

    1. Those things down in the lower right corner?

      You don't eve need to take me that literally. The @:;/ cluster would have been fine.

    2. I just fired up Questron to see how it handled things, and it uses the @:;/ cluster officially. But oddly, in the emulator, the numberpad works, too. What I can't figure out is WHY it works. Did the developer account for users who might have an external pad? Or does the emulator map the numberpad to @:;/ by default?

    3. By default, VICE maps the numpad to the joystick.

    4. Yeah, okay, that was pretty obvious. Now I feel stupid.

  8. Funny thing is hat I had complitely forgotten that c64 had @ as default though it's been used in financing and other fields before internet was even heard of.

    Speaking of c64 and Finnish games:

    What I can't remember was that did C64 had Ä Ö Å (I know my Amiga had) mainly because those are not German umlauts so your going to have a field day with Google translate and Finnish to guess which Ä Ö and which is A O though natives easily see it from context.

    1. If you're talking about SpurguX, it's DOS, not C64, and the platform didn't seem to have any problem with umlauts. Even when they're not represented, Google Translate usually only gets tripped up if there's a valid word in the same language that lacks the diacritic.

    2. In case you need to double-check a word, is a pretty decent Finnish-English online dictionary.

  9. You missed the "n" in "economy" in the rating.

  10. Will you be returning to Deathlord?

  11. Yes! Skariten finally gets its day!
    WhenI saw Skariten appear on your list I got pretty excited.

    I'm the guy that originally emailed the idea of doing a review on Skariten to you, Chet. I bought this when I was a kid (14 years old) and I was soooo disappointed. My disappointment stuck with me and the day I found your blog I excitedly looked over your spreadsheet O' CRPG's to see if the games from my past were there - the good ones and the bad one. Thank you for roasting the bejeezus out out this tripe.

    As a kid I was addicted to the Ultima series and had recently finished Ultima 3 on my Commodore 64. I remember the full page ads for Skariten in some magazine my father subscribed to. i remember the perspective screenshots from the ad and the idea of real time combat blew my 14 year old mind.

    I mowed lawns like crazy to save up for that game and bought it through some mail order catalog. I figured the real time combat would be like EA's Archon and everything else would be fantastic. (Gentle reminder to readers that I was 14 and your average American Indoor Kid.)

    When I finally got the game I couldn't kill a single thing. NPC dialogue was atrocious. I got nowhere in this game. They spent more time on the manual than on the actual game, and in the immortal words of my sarcastic AP English teacher-
    "they said less than they wrote."

    Obviously, this stuck with me over all these years (I'm 44 now).

    Thank you for giving this steaming pile of poo it's day.
    I have a certain semblance of peace now.

    1. You're my fellow New Englander? I have a lot of readers who recommend games that they remember fondly but you might be the first to recommend a game for purposes of vengeance.

      I'm glad I was able to give you some closure.

    2. $30 in the 80s is huge! It's like... a billion dollars in 2017!

    3. It's about $65 today. So someone thought Skariten was worth as much as Shadow of War.

    4. People would have to be really desperate for a CRPG fix to shell out that kind of money for crap like this. XD


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