Friday, March 30, 2018

Game 284: Ranadinn (1988)

The primary and secondary colors are customizable. This worked for me.
       
Ranadinn
United Kingdom
Independently developed; published as shareware by PC-SIG
Released in 1988 for DOS
Date Started: 25 February 2018
Date Ended: 25 March 2018
Total hours: 8
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 22
Ranking at Time of Posting: 93/290 (32%)

If when I started this blog, you had asked me if I had a "perspective preference" when it comes to RPGs, I would have said no. I would have pointed out that there are excellent games in just about all perspectives. Even Neverwinter Nights' (2002) Aurora engine, which tried to have it all ways, has its advantages. My only bias is an irrational disdain for players who play games clearly meant for first-person views in the optional third-person, "over the shoulder" perspective. Judging by YouTube videos, that's a decent majority. I don't want to imagine how such people were raised.

But over the last year or so, as more and more Ultima clones have aspired to epic status, I've developed a new opinion: if you use a top-down perspective, you damned well better offer a complete set of game maps or an in-game automap, or limit your indoor maps to something small, like 36 tiles squared. Otherwise, I hate you a little.

It's virtually impossible to map a top-down game. There are too many tiles to do it on graph paper in a reasonable amount of time, and if you just try to hand draw it, you end up with a mess. Good games like Ultima IV and Ultima V understood this. Thus, they provided a "frame" for the large outdoor areas in the form of the cloth map, which the player could use as a reference and make his own annotations. For the indoor maps, they kept to 36 x 36, ensuring that a player couldn't get lost while exploring a castle or town. It worked fine.

A small top-down continent doesn't need to be mapped. A large top-down continent can't efficiently be mapped.

But in the late 1980s, we're seeing a whole slew of games like Deathlord and Nippon that want to use a top-down perspective but want to use the improvements in storage media to make their areas enormous, ensuring that the player either continually misses key areas and NPCs or has to play for dozens of hours petrified that he has. Nippon thankfully offers in-game maps for each town and makes finding them a kind-of sub-quest. Deathlord and now Ranadinn offer no such considerations.

Ranadinn is an Ultima III/IV-inspired shareware game from Jeff Mather (then) of Tucson, Arizona. We saw his work previously with Silmar (1991). Ranadinn has some innovations but lacks the polish of commercial titles, and it starts with an insane difficulty level, include one game-breaking omission.

The backstory is unoriginal but at least competently told. The character is a polymath--fighter, cleric, and magician--raised and trained by a mysterious ex-king named Osnenemus. ("Ranadinn" is the character's name for his "class," a portmanteau of "ranger" and "paladin." In-game, everyone calls him "battlemage.") Once a mercenary, the character has fallen on hard times because the land is at peace. He thus eagerly accepts a commission to investigate the emergence of a threat to the four islands that make up the kingdom of Aregentan, ruled by King Gregory. It seems that some wizard from the east has gotten hold of the Hand of Mordanneus, an ancient necromancer who channeled his life force and power into his hand before he died. With the hand, the sorcerer is leveling cities and raising an army of monsters. He has put his essence into a black crown and scepter, has broken the crown, and has distributed its pieces to his various lieutenants.
          
The king laments.
       
There is no character creation--not even a name. Every character starts at Level 3 with 400 experience, 21 hit points, 200 gold, 20 food, 5 torches, and 13 points each in six attributes: strength, intelligence, wisdom, endurance, coordination, and personality. Gems that you find in the dungeons can raise individual attributes. I'm guessing that the row of icons at the top of the screen, which starts with the middle one selected, changes depending on what skills you favor during the course of the game.

You start outside Gregory's castle with no armor or weapons. Commands are limited; aside from the arrow keys to move, you only have (C)hange screen color, (I)gnite torch, (R)anged attack, (U)se possession, and (Q)uit. You talk to NPCs, open doors, and attack with melee weapons by just bashing into those things. ENTER serves as an all purpose "read," "get," and "open" for whatever you happen to be standing on.

Your equipment is limited to swords, bows, and plate mail, the manual's excuse for this being that you weren't taught anything else. Even after you have armor, ranged attacks--which you aim with a targeting cursor--are essential to avoid losing too many hit points too fast.
         
Anything else is "unusable." Couldn't I at least take them to sell them?
         
Spells have to be purchased individually in the form of scrolls. Perhaps later in the game, you have so much gold that the cost becomes trivial, but at the beginning these scrolls are prohibitively expensive even though some of them--"Nullify Traps," "Flame Light," "Cancel Poison," "Unlock"--are effectively necessary.
            
These spells are way out of my reach.
          
The indoor areas feature swarms of NPCs, but unlike the Ultima games, they're unnamed and mostly useless, imparting only platitudes instead of authentic hints or bits of lore. "Good day, sir!"; "I wish you well on your journey, sir!"; "I welcome you, Battlemage. May you win your battles for our little kingdom." There are a lot of facilities within the town--e.g., inns, pubs, stables--that are labeled but not functional: there's no way to rent a room or buy a drink or horse.
          
That seems logical.
          
The game's difficulty becomes apparent quickly. The cheapest armor costs 400 gold pieces, and the only reliable source of gold is inside dungeons, where an armorless character dies within three or four hits of the lowliest enemy. Explore too long in the outdoors, meanwhile, and you eventually run into enemies capable of flinging poison from afar, or undead enemies capable of  damaging the character's maximum hit points, rather than just his current hit points.
            
Wandering through this dungeon without armor is asking for trouble, but I need the loot.
          
As for your own hit points, they regenerate at the sluggish pace of 1 every 50 moves. You really need spells to do any serious healing, but again you're almost always under-funded. Poison is essentially a death sentence because scrolls to cure it are enormously expensive and rarely found.

The worst part is that you start the game with only 5 torches, and none of the shops in any town seem to sell torches! (At least, I can't find any. In an e-mail conversation I had with him, Jeff insists they exist, but at least agrees they're not in the towns near the game's beginning.) Once the 5 are gone, your only recourse is to purchase "Flame Light" spells, but you don't find nearly enough gold to keep up with the cost of that spell.

There are a few strengths to the game. First, combat occurs by targeting cursor, which enables ranged attacks and doesn't force the player to artificially target an enemy in his column or row. Ultima V would do the same, but Mather wouldn't have known that when designing this game. Given the preciousness of hit points, ranged attacks become a vital part of combat tactics.

Second, Mather does a good job using the limited icons to set up little scenarios throughout his towns and dungeons. There are clear dining rooms, worship areas, and so forth.
          
The denizens of this dungeon clearly worship this statue.
          
He also copies from Ultima IV the use of minute differences in wall textures to denote secret doors.
           
There's one right next to me.
          
I started and restarted the game several times. My best character reached Level 3 (you get a new level with every 200 experience points, but enemies offer only a few per kill), but eventually I played to a standstill. I ran out of torches, cannot afford any more spells, and instant-death foes face me whenever I wander too far in the outer game world.
            
My character's destiny.
           
I could hex-edit myself some more torches, but I wanted to get the developer's perspective, so I wrote to Jeff at his workplace, a company that makes custom software applications. He was aghast that I was trying to play Ranadinn 30 years later and apologized for what he felt were numerous bugs, but I motivated him to download DOSBox and re-investigate it himself. After a few days, he wrote back that he's working on a rewrite, hoping to fix bugs and playability issues. "Who knows when I'll finish," he says, "but the end product (if I do finish) will certainly be superior."

If he'd demonstrated the surprising enthusiasm of RĂ¼diger and Thorsten (cf. Nippon), I might have stuck with it. As it is, especially given Jeff's own comments, I think I'll let it go . . . for a few games. Ranadinn was re-released in 1989 under a slightly different title (only one n at the end) and with a different graphic set. In about 20 games, I'll see how the remake differs and whether it's worth playing to the end.

37 comments:

  1. Hey, can there be more enthusiasm than to start a rewrite? I always love to read about the reactions of the game's authors; this may well be the best part of this blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Was he talking about rewriting the remake, or the original?

      Did you mean to say reached level 4? You said above that every character starts at level 3.

      Delete
    2. That's a riot. In between the time I first started the game and the time I gave it up (with almost a month in between), I forgot that the character started at Level 3. I looked at my sheet and said, "Wow! I made it to Level 3 at some point!

      Delete
    3. General Error! Long time no see. Greetings from Pseudo_Intellectual of Mobygames!

      Delete
  2. Well that was quick, off to Quest for Glory 3 then!

    ReplyDelete
  3. No developer is safe from....THE ADDICT.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ugh, there was no option for grayscale coloring? Green on white is painful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't unsee a dollar bill instead of the title screen.

      Delete
    2. I thought it was for some more obscure platform like the TI-99 or less known when I first saw it. Even DOS CGA is better than this. Even just going with black/white would have improved the look tremendously.

      Delete
    3. Ti-99, definitely obscure. But even we had 15 colors to work with, and less color limitations!

      Mind you, I would love the 80 column text this one has...

      Delete
    4. This is CGA 640x200 resolution that allows one foreground and one background color.

      The game allows you to cycle through the colors.

      Delete
  5. The title sounded way cooler before you explained it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I will not be sad when we finally leave the age of Ultima clones behind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amen brother!

      Delete
    2. It'll be a while! My most anticipated games, the Exile series, came out 1995-1997, and they're essentially Ultima clones.

      Delete
    3. I wouldn't call Exile games Ultima clones. The only thing they have in common is top-down perspective (and then again, it's not something exclusive to Ultima clones), gameplay-wise they're much closer to Goldbox games and other SSI titles.

      Delete
    4. They're on the original branch of the Ultima lineage (along with goldbox as VK mentioned, and which includes modern titles such as D:OS).

      If I could get Chet to play a game out of chronological order, it'd probably be Avernum 1 or Geneforge 2. :)

      Delete
  7. Hey, this has nothing to do with your game post, but just thought I'd mention that four years after the death of my wife, my mother died suddenly just yesterday, the 29th. I'm... clinging to the familiar rather tightly at this moment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I lost a family member recently as well. Hang in there my friend. Feel free to message me on my blog if you need to talk to someone.

      Delete
  8. As for Ultima clones, I'm kinda looking forward to Ultizurk. DrDungeon, the guy who made the Ultizurk series, appeared over on RPG Codex some time back, in a thread about his games. The Codex essentially encouraged him to continue with his other planned RPGs and he released a new game on Steam last year, titled Madman. It's always cool when devs of old games appear again because somewhere on the internet, someone has expressed interest in their old games!

    ReplyDelete
  9. That's what I always hated about these kinds of games - they view "bigness" as a merit without questioning its utility. Thus, bigger is always better. It means the game is more sophisticated. Gotta fill up those disks! And if it was hard to write, it should be hard to map.

    The problem with this approach is that by the time the author is halfway through the game, he is out of ideas and starts just backfilling crap. He forgets about the principles he started the game with and just makes bigger and harder areas that lack any kind of character or goal. Interesting areas are pared down to a minimum in favor of harder and more frequent combats.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree with you, but there are some things to consider, though.

      Very often in that area of game development, some people started out with something that grew into the game we see in the end. Those games were very often developed by one, maybe two or three people. If you think about it, it is quite a massive undertaking.
      You need the talent to code the thing, then you need the artistic talent for the graphics. Then comes game design and usability and in the end sound, testing, marketing and all the rest.

      It is rare for one person to combine all those skills in one, not to talk about the rest. I'm still amazed at what people actually accomplished and have big respect for everybody that actually managed to get a game finished. More if they actually invented something new, most of the time the game was evolving a bit on something already present. Those developers had been very young, too, doing it in their spare time.

      If you look at the beginning of more sophisticated games, you'll realize most of them were developed by then small companies that had some sort of funding already, willing to spend it for their dream. Bioware comes to mind, Valve too, and ID is also a good example. That funding helps getting the right people to do it.

      From my own experience we've been just two dudes that each knew their area (coding and graphics), and we went with it. And it shows. And then ego comes in, where you want to push the limits just for the limits sake, because you can.

      In the end, those games were often made just for the developers fun and maybe less for the actual audience.

      You realize this later on while looking back at your product, but then life get's in the way. Oh so many things could have been improved.

      I have to be honest here, I've never played my own game start to finish, Thorsten did once. We also didn't took the time to have it thoroughly play tested by others (distributing was not as easy as now). And, after two years of work, we wanted to get done with it.

      Delete
    2. I wish this comment would get more attention. There's so much truth in there. Even nowadays it is hard to create such a game like Nippon. The coding part is easier, but you want to support more platforms (Windows, iOS, Android). The graphics and sound are as difficult as 30 years ago. Sure, you have better tools and fewer limitations, but the audience also expects better graphics and sound. Two years is even little for such a project.

      Delete
    3. Mysterious StrangerApril 1, 2018 at 3:08 PM

      I must congratulate the two of you for actually finishing the game as hobby developers. There are so many stub projects out there... I speak from my own experience... alas... there are several disks with half finished games from my youth ... there was even a CRPG called "Legend of Nighthawk" with Gold box mechanics for the C64 ... sad

      Delete
  10. "Every character starts at Level 3..."

    "My best character reached Level 3..."

    Does this mean you didn't even go up one level? Or did you mean you raised 3 levels?

    ReplyDelete
  11. "My only bias is an irrational disdain for players who play games clearly meant for first-person views in the optional third-person, "over the shoulder" perspective. Judging by YouTube videos, that's a decent majority. I don't want to imagine how such people were raised."

    This is pure gold! Thanks, Addict!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't tested it empirically, but I suspect that third-person views in 3D games are somewhat less likely to trigger my motion sickness (actually simulation sickness, since I don't get it in real-life travel). The farther the camera is zoomed out, the less likely it is to whip around violently/constantly, and that seems to be the main trigger. Of course -- and for that reason -- I don't play 3D games often enough to formulate a strong preference/habit.

      Delete
    2. I do this when the game has melee combat because depth and reach sucks bollocks in 1st Person.

      Delete
    3. Also, vanity.
      Because no NPCs gonna remark how awesome your Daedric armor looks and the only way you can flaunt it is by taking screenshots in 3rd person then posting it online.

      Delete
    4. That's what I think, too, but I still don't get it. It's not like they designed the Daedric armor themselves. It's the same Daedric armor that every player eventually gets. It doesn't make YOUR character look any cooler.

      Delete
    5. Sure but I wouldn't have known that it's homogeneous until someone starts posting it. XD

      Delete
    6. I grew up on Doom and Quake, but for whatever reason 1st person perspective now feels a little weird to me. So I rarely play 1st-person games. But when I started playing Skyrim and my wife walked in, she was like "are you just a walking axe?"

      Delete
  12. "I don't want to imagine how such people were raised."

    By parents who always said "it's just a game, have fun" ;)

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Aww man, for a while I though I might get to see a game with a high rating in economy - I never understood why the addict places such big a focus on this part in the first place.
    But alas...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's pretty important for a game that stretches beyond 15+ hours.

      Having a robust economy, I daresay, is as important as having a good character advancement scale where the level cap is just about reachable with little grinding.

      It's an art form in patience as it takes a few *actual* runs to get right. You cannot half-ass game balancing by playtesting it with debug mode only.

      Delete
  15. Did the programmer Jeff ever redo it? I like the look of this one. The graphics remind me of gameboy.

    ReplyDelete

I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) THIS ALSO INCLUDES USER NAMES THAT LINK TO ADVERTISING.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters.

3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

NOTE: I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.