Sunday, June 10, 2018

Game 293: Sword Quest 1: The Search (1992)

Sword Quest 1: The Search
United States
NGS Software (developer); GT Interactive (publisher)
Version 3 released in 1992 for DOS; unknown if there were earlier versions
Date Started: 9 June 2018
Date Ended: 10 June 2018
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at time of posting: 86/299 (29%)

Sword Quest 1 is an afternoon RPG that lingers into the early evening. If, when I was poor and 19, I had found this in a shovelware compilation, I don't know, I might have liked it enough. It satisfies the most primitive RPG urge to explore a fantasy setting, fight monsters, and level up, but it doesn't do much more than that.

You play a court jester in the kingdom of Ferd. An Evil Warlock has flooded the land with monsters, and all the king's knights have failed to stop him. Desperate, the king sends forth his only remaining employee, the fool, hoping that he can succeed where everyone else has failed. It's a somewhat original background, I grant, but other than a few lines of NPC dialogue, your jester status doesn't really play a role in the game and is easily forgotten.
Late in the game, an NPC refers to my profession.
Character creation consists of a random roll for strength, skill, and dexterity, and then a name. The name doesn't appear on the screen and is never used by NPCs, and is really only referenced when you reload a saved game. The attributes can't be improved during gameplay, and they make quite a difference, so it's worth waiting for a generous roll, which doesn't take too long.
The brief character creation process.
Gameplay begins outside the king's castle, on a small island to the southwest of the mainland. The game ultimately consists of about 200 x 200 tiles holding the king's castle, the Evil Warlock's castle, 6 or 7 towns, and 6 dungeons. It seems a lot bigger than that because you have to stop for combat every half a dozen steps. The ultimate goal is to slay the Evil Warlock in his castle, but to do so you have to assemble several artifacts, including a magic armor/sword/shield set, plus boots that let you levitate across pits, plus a magic key that opens doors. The lack of the last two items until late in the game causes a lot of backtracking, since towns and dungeons cannot be fully explored without them.
The hopeless king assigns the quest.
The game offers a stunning difficulty curve during the opening hour and remains pretty deadly throughout. You start with no gold, no weapons, and no armor. You can get a few hundred gold pieces in chests in the castle, but you still have to make your way to a town to buy equipment, and the closest one (an NPC offers this hint) is a few dozen steps to the northwest. Surviving that initial journey is nearly impossible. The game has no compunction about putting you face-to-face, mere steps from the starting point, with Level 10 dragons, Level 15 vampires, and other foes that will remain difficult hours later. They kill you easily in one round. Running hardly ever works.
Not what you want to see when you have no weapons and 0 experience points.
The only saving grace is that it doesn't take that long to save and reload. During this initial stage, you basically have to save every step or two, slowly mincing your way to the first town, where you can buy a staff and leather armor. That hardly makes you Hercules, however, and well into the first half of the game, you're gratefully saving after every combat and ruefully reloading at least once every few minutes. You have to spend quite a bit of the first hour grinding near a town with an inn where you can rest and heal.
This happens a lot in the first hour.
Towns all offer armories selling weapons, armor, and shields, inns, and stores where you can buy magic potions. There are only a few levels of progression with equipment. For weapons, it's staff, dagger, short sword, long sword, and great sword; for armor, it's leather, chain, half plate, and full plate. There are only three levels of shield. Not all towns sell all items, either.
Purchasing armor.
Every town has about eight NPCs who offer hints, sometimes quite explicit, as to the locations of the quest items as well as the other things you need to do to get to the endgame. Many of them are behind locked doors and cannot be consulted until you find the magic key.
A helpful NPC.
And one who isn't happy with my magic key.
Outside and in dungeons, you get attacked by the same selection of seven enemies: globlins, jellies, griffons, wizards, vampires, warlocks, and dragons. These creatures can be any level from 1 to 60, and of course the level makes more of a difference in difficulty than the type of creature. In combat, you can fight, cast a spell, use an item, or try to flee. Whether you live or die, most combats don't last more than a few rounds and take mere seconds to resolve. This is good, because you can't so much as cross the street without fighting 5 enemies along the way. It got so bad that if I accidentally wandered 20 steps in the wrong direction, I'd reload rather than turn around and walk back.
Dragons are capable of devastating damage.
Easily the most annoying part of the game is the way it introduces combat. You don't see enemies in the environment. You just suddenly enter combat while you're walking along. Once the combat screen appears, which only takes a blink of an eye, the game reads any errant keystroke as "passing" and gives the enemy a free hit. You can imagine what happens. Eager to get somewhere, you hold down one of the arrow keys. Then suddenly you're in combat and the game reads a few extra arrow presses as "passes" and the enemy has pounded half your hit points away before you know it. Yes, you can avoid this problem by being patient and pausing between movements, but it gets a bit boring.

The good news is that leveling up is rapid. You max out at 9,999 experience points at Level 80, which for me occurred just before the final battle, so throughout the game I leveled up every 4-5 minutes on average. Leveling increases your hit points and spell points. You acquire new spells every few levels and have them all by Level 15. The spells are "Heal," "Injure," "Cure," "Kill," and "Return Home." "Heal" heals a random number of hit points between 1 and 2 times your level, roughly. "Cure" heals them all, and once you're capable of casting a few of them, it really extends the range you can explore away from towns. "Kill" does a great job killing any one enemy, but it costs so much that it's generally a better idea to save the spellcasting for "Cure." "Return Home" warps you back to the starting castle, which is rarely useful because most of the action takes place on the main continent.

The main continent is accessible through a dungeon in the starting island. Once you arrive, you go through the difficulty curve all over again because enemies on the main continent have a much higher average level than the ones on the starting island. But you keep leveling and improving. Once you've bought the best equipment, you can spend your excess funds on potions, which basically duplicate spells. There are potions that heal, cure, and poison (kill) as well as "wings" that perform the same as "Return Home." You're capped at 8 heal potions, 15 poisons, 5 cures, and 5 wings, so after that money is just wasted. I spent most of my second half of the game with my gold at 9,999, unable to earn any more.
Finding the magic shield late in the game.
You explore the main continent slowly--all the combats ensure that it's slow--assembling your items. The magic armor and shield are found in outdoor locations; NPCs give you specific coordinates, which you check with the (L)ocate command. The magic key is with a sage in one dungeon; the magic boots in a chest in the other. Dungeons are just linear mazes with plenty of combats, treasure chests (which you don't need), pits, and doors.
Fighting a vampire in the dungeon.
Once you have everything but the sword, a southern dungeon takes you to a small island with the final town. That town has a teleporter that takes you to the Evil Warlock's castle. The magic sword is in the dungeon of the castle.
Finding the sword.
Shortly after you find the sword, the Evil Warlock appears as a random encounter in the dungeon. He's pretty tough, but as long as you have enough magic points for about 7 "Cure" spells (or 2 plus 5 analogous potions) during combat, you'll outlast him.
The adorable Evil Warlock.
Once you strike the killing blow, you get a single text screen that indicates that the Warlock mysteriously disappeared. The text says that you make your way back to the castle, where the king knights you Sir Jester. Kick to DOS prompt. Presumably, we find out what happened in the sequel, Sword Quest 2: Tail of the Talisman (1993), which seems to offer new monsters and an automap but (groan) also includes a food system.
I was going to complain that the king should have knighted me with my real name, but then I realized it's basically indistinguishable.
On the GIMLET, the game gets 2s across the board plus a 3 in "economy," ending with a final score of 21. I should mention that in addition to the graphics, which as you can see are adequate, there are some basic sound effects plus a couple of background tunes that play in town and during combat. The combat tune sounds like a modified version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Except for the issue above, the commands work well, but the space wasted in the game interface by the title and company logo is a crime against nature.

Sword Quest is a product of Sequim, Washington-based NGS software, which seems to be a sole proprietorship of the game's author, Erik Badger. (Sequim, incidentally, is pronounced "Skwim." It is in one of the most beautiful parts of the United States. I got to spend three days there a couple years ago, and I nearly tried to convince Irene to move there. My trip was marred only by my striking an elk on the final evening and causing $1,700 damage to my rental car. I think the elk was all right.) A lot of sites list it as a 1986 game, which makes some sense as the version I played is explicitly labeled "version 3." On the other hand, I can't find direct evidence of a 1986 version--even sites that claim to have it turn out to have the 1992 version once you download it. Badger was only 17 in 1992; it seems a stretch to imagine he originally released a game when he was 11 in 1986.
Cute tag line.
There is some evidence that Badger distributed the game and its sequel as shareware, probably on BBSes. At least one download package for the second game has a text file requesting $12.00. But at some point in 1993, the pair of games was picked up for publication--and given a slick box--by none other than GT Interactive, founded that year in New York City. If anyone ever bought or played it, I can't find any evidence, but I'm sure GT didn't care, as they were about to make $10 million for publishing DOOM. Badger, meanwhile, seems to have gone on to a career as a dentist and never published another game.

As I say, Sword Quest gets the job done in a basic way. I'm certainly not going to complain about single-entry games in such a voluminous year.


  1. Looking at the screenshots, I can't help but suspect that he was influenced at least a bit by NES Dragon Quest (or possibly by NES Ultima 4, which ripped off the former heavily for its port). The color scheme and tileset sort of seems like a low-effort spin on the same idea, including the two-tile wide castle, the ring of mountains around a town, etc. (Although the 3d view of dungeons is very Ultima 3.)

    Shame this didn't turn out to be more. Onward and upward!

    1. Good call. I watched some video of DQ gameplay, and there does seem to be a lot of similarities in the graphics, the combat options, and some of the monsters that pop up. This is one pairing, however, in which the console version clearly offers a greater depth of gameplay.

    2. Considering that the early Dragon Quest/Warrior games are justifiably remembered for their comparative shallowness, that is a pretty damning statement toward this game.

    3. Ha. Well, judging from the video, the PC at least has a few yes/no responses to NPCs, and it looks like maybe a few more spell options. But certainly SQ1 is on the low end of the "depth" curve so it doesn't take much to improve upon it.

    4. I did not intend to imply that SQ1 borrowed much of DQ1 at all, except to say that it seems to have used a similar color pallet and tile set, although this is warped into the relatively small screen size because of the split. It LOOKS a lot more like DQ1 in the thumbnails than when you look closely, so I could be misled.

      I would say more generally that a number of NES RPGs used a similar pallet and tileset (such as DQ1/2/3, FF1, and U4) and this seems to feel like the author was familiar with those conventions.

      (In fact, Ultima 4 NES seems like it ripped off Dragon Quest's interface wholesale. Does anyone know the story behind that? The game looks so different for the PC. Did they hire some company to do it and they vigorously reverse-engineered the DQ engine?)

    5. Ultima III and IV for the Famicom were both ported by a Japanese company, FCI/Pony Canyon. The UI was the same in III. It's fairly common for American games to be modified significantly to appeal to a Japanese audience (Google "Japanese Crash Bandicoot" for a good example), and the changes can mostly be traced to that and the interface and hardware differences between PCs and consoles. So the Ultima IV NES is actually a translated version of a Japanese port of an American game.

      As for the UI similarities to Dragon Quest, they're certainly there, but Ultima III/IV aren't the only ones. Capcom's Destiny of an Emperor has a similar interface, as do many of the other Western RPGs Pony Canyon ported, as does Nintendo's Mother/EarthBound series. The UI element of overlappable black windows with rounded white borders originated in Wizardry, which was wildly popular in Japan and a huge influence on the entire JRPG genre. Here's what it looked like on the MSX:

      Take this UI and convert it to use a controller and you've pretty much got the Dragon Quest UI.

      As for the palette, the NES had 54 colors, and you can only draw with 13 of them at a time (1 palette per tile, 4 colors per palette, 4 palettes, but the first color of every palette has to be the same). So the number of attractive color schemes was pretty limited.

    6. Agreed, I immediately saw a dragon warrior influence in this. Even the spell list sounds similar.

    7. The item "wing" to return to town is pulled wholesale from DW.

    8. I've only played SQ2, but the most blatant DQ/DW influence for me in that one was the shrinking torch radius in dungeons.

  2. I actually did buy and play this one back in the day; the original box is probably still buried in a closet somewhere. I don't remember much about it, other than that the screenshots for the sequel had graphical icons for items in your inventory, which I found impressive at the time.

    It's probably been pointed out elsewhere, but the way this game presents random encounters was already pretty ubiquitous in console RPGs by this time. You'll probably be seeing a lot more of it around this point in your queue, as kids who grow up with console RPGs start incorporating those design elements into their PC programming projects.

    1. While console RPGs did have the "battle out of nowhere" system, they did not have the "reads movement commands as passing, causing you to easily skip many turns" issue.

      "Combat out of nowhere" isn't even new in the CRPG world, as several earlier games had it.

    2. Encounters popping up randomly are pretty common in PC RPGs, too. What's NOT common is structuring the interface so that if you don't notice the encounter right away, you end up giving a few free rounds to the enemy.

  3. As somebody who didn't visited the States yet, pics of Washington, Oregon and Northern California seems always to be the most stunning

    1. As a native of Washington state, thank you! Interestingly enough, the developers of Dwarf Fortress are also on the peninsula near Silverdale.

    2. I'm a partisan of the New England coast because I grew up there, but even I have to admit that the Pacific northwest has the best scenery. If I could start my life over again, I'd go to college in Seattle rather than Boston. People in my field get paid more out there, too.

    3. Yeah, as long as you don't try to live in King county it's not too bad price wise. I've known guys in my field (software engineer) who take the ferry every day from the peninsula to work in Seattle.

  4. What do you estimate your play time on this one at? The "afternoon RPG" and "one-post" descriptions make it sound short but the rest of your description makes it sound excruciatingly long.

    1. He said he leveled up every 6 minutes and got level 80 just before the end of the game.... so about 8 hours should be the time it took him.

    2. My play time was about 6 hours. I originally thought it was 8, resulting in my incorrect "every 6 minutes" calculation (it should have been every 4-5), but just before I posted, I checked the times again and realized I was over-estimating.

      That's why I said it's an "afternoon RPG that lingers into the early evening." In depth of content, it really should't have lasted more than 4 hours, but it padded itself a bit.

    3. Chet's play times are also a bit inflated as he takes notes and screenshots for the blog. The flip side of that is the extra notes to reference limits backtracking to find out exactly what an NPC said. Maybe it balances out a bit.

  5. Hmmm... I was fearful that this was going to be Atari's Sword quest. This seems much better. The lack of bells and whistles notwithstanding, the graphics look good too.

  6. I live in Shelton, WA, in Mason Country and I LOVE this area. Mountains, trees (on the Western side- on the Eastern side it's all desert). I've lived in Texas and Florida and neither of them hold a candle to the Pacific Northwest. And I didn't know the Dwarf Fortress guys were WA residents too! Way coolio :)

  7. So many cool RPGs released in 1992. This was not one of them.

    *ahem* Trying to be patient.......

    1. I have to space out the cool ones. I started too quickly with Ultima Underworld and QFG3.

    2. Well, you know that it's a fool who plays it cool.

      (BTW, the tag line on the front of the box basically insults the player, doesn't it?)

    3. A quick glance over the list for 1992, and there are only about 10 games I recognize as fairly popularly accepted as classics. That leaves a lot of room for gems like this one. ;)

    4. I'm curious about his take on the Realms of Arcania series.

      I liked the setting of the first the most, but the second had so many quality of life improves of the engine

    5. I've got 19 games on the 1992 list that I was looking forward to (a lot of which I didn't know much about) and one of them, Legend, turned out to be a dud, but I'm hoping there will still be some absolute classics in there. Of course outside those 19 there are still another 40 games... The entire up and coming list I've never heard of, will Stone Mist or Bandor be a lost classic?

      Of course they won't, but we can hope, right?

    6. This blog has piqued my interest in Amiga games and stuff I've never heard of before, like Magic Candle. So that's cool too.

  8. This red, plastic bag that happens a lot in the first hour is horrifying.

    1. It's strange that he's red when he wins, but when you face him in combat he's blue.

    2. Funny since the dragon started red and was blue later too, seems like a programming error of some kind to me.

    3. Actually, the red one is probably meant to be Death, and the blue one the Evil Warlord. They just recycled the graphics and gave the boss one some horns. The second dragon being blue is probably meant to be a different type of dragon, probably a harder one. Lots of games do it where differently colored versions of enemies count as new enemies. Heck, some even do it for bosses.

  9. How did this game find a professional distributor in 1992? It seems vastly inferior to many titles from 1988, even some that were bbs titles and shareware.

    1. That's one of the things that will have to remain a mystery unless some of the original parties happen along.

  10. Gotta love the way the game uses one-fourth of the entire screen to continously display the developer's name... :)

  11. The game reminds me of Castle of the Winds, the basic rpg in the days of Windows 3.x
    So the programmer was a young fellow, working alone and perhaps without a lot of time to commit, when the internet was still much less developed with free resources to tap into. I´d probably say graphically the game tries very hard but deserved more development. I´d give the developer´s game a bonus of 5 personally, for his effort starting out.

    1. The gimlet represents how much a game scratches Chet's RPG itch. This means historical significance and effort and other such things aren't relevant to the scoring.

    2. This is one of the things i love about thegimlet it is suchan independent and highl personaliezed view of the games he plays, it islike reading a good reveiewer of wine, you know that it is onlyone persons special taste and voice that is heard but the person is well endowered in the subject so the opinion still matters


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