Sunday, June 17, 2018

Game 294: Bones (1991), and a stymied attempt at Stone Mist (1992)

A bare-Bones title screen.
United States
Independently developed and published as freeware
Released in 1991 for DOS based on several earlier versions going back to 1981
Date Started: 16 June 2018
Date Ended: 16 June 2018
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2/5), except that I can't figure out how to win
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

What a depressing few days. I've done nothing but waste time. After some failed starts (recounted below) with a few games, I ended up settling my efforts on Bones, which upon investigation is neither a 1989 (backtracking list) or 1992 (current list) game. It's hard to place it in a specific year. The author, Bruce N. Baker, originally wrote it on the DEC system at Eastern Montana College in 1981, with contributions from an Arron Barnhart. In 1987, Baker "revived" the game and produced several versions in several languages between 1987 and 1991. I decided to tag it as a 1991 game because Baker's notes indicate he didn't develop the mapping system until then, and I think it's a key part of the gameplay.

Left unstated in Baker's notes is that Bones is another adaptation of Joseph Power's The Wizard's Castle (1980; link to my review). This curiously long-lived line of quasi-RPGs takes inspiration from Mike Mayfield's Star Trek (1971) and includes titles such as The Yendor's  Castle (1986), Leygref's Castle (1986), and Mission: Mainframe (1987). Bones is subtitled The Game of the Haunted Mansion on most online catalogs, but the subtitle appears nowhere in the game, only in one of the documentation files.

What these games all have in common is an organization of the "game world" into multiple levels consisting of square grids of cells, the contents of each cell--monsters, treasure, items, special encounters--randomized for each new game. You move cautiously from room to room, with the ultimate goal to find a particular artifact and then escape the dungeon. In the case of Bones, the game consists of 4 levels of 49 cells in 7 x 7 arrangements. The goal is to find a Transportal Globe and get out of the haunted mansion.
I fail to get out alive.
As is de rigeur for these titles, graphics are minimal and the game is controlled through a text interface. It works pretty well here. You can arrow through the options and hit ENTER to select, or you can hit the first letter of the option you want. Most of the screen is wasted except in combat.

Bones's opponents are all skeletons, but of various types--closet, flying, fire, dancing, mystic, etc.--some of whom are immune to regular weapons and some of whom are immune to magic weapons. Thief skeletons steal your things. To fight these monsters, you find a magic sword, a magic bone, a magic mace, spellbooks, a laser, and an Uzi (with numerous clips) scattered through the maze. (The Uzi's popularity in juvenile film and literature throughout the 1980s continues to baffle me.) Other treasures include gold, jewels, healing potions, and a "warlock's shield" that provides extra defense. (I guess maybe you can encounter the warlock, who steals back his shield, but I never did.) One of the game's shticks is that it's not always clear what item is in the room with you; you must intuit it from the description; for instance a "box full of metal pieces" is almost certainly gold and something that "looks like a bug" is probably a RAM chip. As you find treasures, your score increases, which improves your effectiveness in combat.
Fighting a group of skeletons.
In a strange twist, you can also try to "Communicate" with the skeletons, offering to be their friends, threatening them, or asking them for help, with your effectiveness based on your relative strength and how much you've already damaged them. Whether you kill, charm, or cow them, you get points added to your score.
The skeletons aren't buying it.
There are no "special encounters" in Bones the way there are in The Wizard's Castle, but there are a few special rooms. "Transfer rooms" teleport you somewhere else in the maze, "mist rooms" deplete your hit points, and "smoke rooms" deplete your hit points and cut off your exits; you must blow up the walls with explosives or attack them to escape. There's at least one room full of laughing gas in each dungeon, where you can't accomplish anything.

Like most of its predecessors and followers, Bones can be arbitrarily deadly. Sometimes a potion kills you instantly, for instance, or you may wander into a smoke room from the starting square. That's a consequence of the randomization. You don't really mind because a winning game only takes an hour or so. (There isn't even a save feature.) I found it relatively easy as long as I could survive long enough to find a couple of potions and weapons.
My mid-game character stats and inventory.
All of the games in this line offer an auto-mapping feature. Bones's take on it is that the map is computerized, and you need to find RAM chips to store the maps and V-RAM chips to display them. Each kilobyte of RAM stores or displays one room, so if you run out, the game stops auto-mapping. This isn't a huge deal because you can theoretically just keep paper maps.
I have plenty of RAM and V-RAM, so the automap is working well for me here.
To keep things interesting, the game randomizes descriptions of each room: "A picture on the wall seems to be watching you"; "A room full of burning candles"; "Just a black cat on a Persian rug"; "You see an old rocking chair and it's moving." Unlike most games, Bones doesn't re-use many of these descriptions. They're part of the initial randomization and then permanently attached to each room.

Eventually, you find the Transportal Globe, and what's currently infurating me is that I can't figure out how to use it to win the game. Using it on one of the upper floors simply transports you up and down. If you use it on the first floor, your options are "Up" and "Door," and if you choose the latter, it says that you "struggle furiously with the mansion door," but you can't get out. Use it more than twice, and the globe overheats, causing you to drop and break it. No amount of waiting between the second and third use causes the globe to cool down.
Finding the Transportal Globe.
I tried using it in every room on the first level. I explored every room in the dungeon looking for a key or some other object that I might have to use with the globe. There are a couple of rooms that the game says are cold, or contain water, and I tried bringing, dropping, and using the globe there, thinking something might cool it off. I can't get anything to work. So now I have to carry this game as a loss until someone comes along with a hint. I should have rejected it as an RPG and preserved my statistics.

The game only earns a 15 on my GIMLET. It has no backstory, no NPCs, and only minimal character development. Its best category is "gameplay" for at least being short and replayable. The rating sounds bad, but none of the games in this line are really intended to be taken seriously as RPGs; they're more like computerized board games or enhanced versions of something like Solitaire. You play them as lark for a few hours a few times a year and enjoy them for what they are. Let's hope whatever comes up next on the list has some more meat on it, though.


My experience with Bones came after a depressing couple of days in which I couldn't get my Apple IIgs emulator to run 2088; it crashes shortly after loading, complaining of some corruption with one of the disks. I suspect it's an emulator problem and I confess I didn't try that hard to solve it yet, so don't kill yourself trying to give me help. I'm leaving it on the list until I exhaust more options.

Advanced Xoru turned out to be an interesting text adventure, but not even an RPG hybrid. I keep seeing it compared to Beyond Zork, but that game had attributes, experience, and combats that drew upon them. Thus, I put it in the rejection pile.
All of Bit Brothers' 1992 title screens look pretty much the same.
I spent about four hours with Stone Mist (a lot of sites put a 1 after it, but the game itself doesn't, although it does call it "version 1"), the first of several games that we may see from "Bit Brother Software" of Littleton, Colorado--basically a sole proprietorship of (then) 21-year-old Michael Ramsey. He's not a famous developer but neither is he an unimportant one. After cranking out Stone Mist (1992), Dragon's Shard (1992), Teradyne (1992), and Stone Mist 2 (1993), he went on to specialize in 3D graphics engines for companies such as Trillium Software, Devil's Thumb Entertainment, Idol Minds, and Blue Fang Games. He's still in the field, working on virtual reality games at San Francisco's Linden Lab. Thus, I wanted to give Stone Mist a fair shot.
Combat with a giant spider.
The title was intended as an engine for any number of modules, and thus supports a huge number of classes (fighter, knight, priest, druid, bard, cutpurse, wizard, thief, barbarian, ranger, shaman, monk, rogue, sage, and hedge wizard), races (human, dwarf, mountain dwarf, hill dwarf, elf, wood elf, dark elf, gnome, halfling, and half-elf), and attributes (strength, dexterity, constitution, body, intelligence, ego, presence, and comeliness).
My first character. He turned out to be too ugly to get very far.
The game, or at least the module that comes with it, was never going to be epic. It plays like a thousand other games we've already seen. Shreland is in trouble from an evil wizard named Yesmar (sigh), and King Telisx gives a staged series of quests leading up to defeating him. There are NPCs who offer one-line bits of advice, enemies to fight, dungeons to search and loot. There are a handful of spells and a variety of weapons so you can pick the most effective one in combat.
The king sends me on the first quest.
The monsters are mostly from the standard D&D bestiary, though often with an adjective in front of them (fury dragons, crazy trolls, rogue orcs, etc.). Some of them are capable of spells or special attacks that can easily wipe out a first-level character, and you find them almost right away. But the game doesn't have permadeath and running from combat seems to be 100% effective. These facts plus the fact that you can rest and heal at any time makes the game a bit easy, at least in the outdoor areas.
Taking on a tough enemy--someone didn't know how to spell "otyugh"--too early in the game.

However, the game seems to have a couple of bugs, one of them fatal. First, a lot of the items that you can buy from shops, including herbs and potions, don't seem to do their intended thing. When you use them, the game asks you "Allright?!" and does nothing to your statistics. This is fatal if you start the game with too low a "comeliness" score, because NPCs won't talk with you (they just say "Hmpf!") if the score isn't high enough, and only a potion can raise it.

Even if your score is high enough, the game doesn't load some of the dialogues for some NPCs; talking to them just produces a blank screen and then "Leave me Alone!" if you try again. One helpful bug is that the game somehow thought I had completed the king's first quest when I hadn't done anything at all.
That was a freebie.
The fatal bug has to do with the game's many keys, which you need to enter certain areas of dungeons. They simply don't work. You're supposed to walk up to the dungeon door and press (U)se, which should then bring up a menu of keys, but 9/10 times, nothing happens, and the 10th time, the game crashes to the desktop with a runtime error.
Unable to do anything at a door.
I might not have been able to get very far anyway. The unpaid shareware version of the game caps the player at Level 5. For registration, Ramsey offered packages ranging from $5.00 to $35.00, the higher ones offering a larger game world with more side quests, extra campaigns, the ability to build your own dungeons, and exhaustive documentation including a treatise on designing RPGs. Alas, these features are not part of the versions I've been able to find for download. Barring the discovery of a registered version--or at least a demo version that works--we'll have to render this one "not playable" despite my having spent more hours on it than Bones. I'll try Ramsey's other titles later in the year and see if I have better luck.


  1. Seems like a constant peril with these old obscure games is that you keep running into unwinnable states with little documentation out there to help out. Hopefully someone else in the comments will come through to amend either of these stalemates; I'm mostly just here for moral support and the occasional pun.

    Still, looks like Wiz7's coming up. Should keep you occupied for most of the summer if these other '89/'92 games don't work out.

    1. That does seem to keep happening repeatedly. It's getting annoying.

    2. It's also true that Videogame design was in his infancy but I think that maybe it was caused by the tabletop origins of crpgs where unwinnable situations, death, total party-wipe and starting over and over again with new characters (Just like Wizardry) are still common, a good master/company of friends to play with can and will ease that but when playing with/against an overtly "fair/objective" computer those angles only get rougher. It can be part of the fun but mostly only if the player is well aware of it.

    3. OMG Crusaders of the Dark Savant incoming.

    4. The lack readily available documentation of these games suggests what Chet is doing here is of some value.

      Bugs that create unwinnable scenarios are the most depressing. Have you tried reaching out? Maybe he still has one of the full versions.

  2. Looking at the title screen, perhaps you are playing a beta version?

    I keep hoping that an unknown gem will show up that I'll want to go back and play...maybe I'll just do Wiz7 one more time.

    1. Which one do you think might be Beta and why?

    2. Sorry, just a joking reference to the betas in the title screenshot.

    3. Ah. Whoosh, as they say. That was a pretty good joke, too.

  3. Greetings from Albania

  4. Sounds frustrating as hell. Thanks, though, for trying. At least now this post is a highly-visible beacon if there's someone out there who knows how to get past these showstoppers, especially the bugs in Stone Mist.

  5. Finding more entries in mostly forgotten lineages is one of the things that makes this blog so interesting. It's like finding evidence of a small neanderthal population that persisted well into the cro-magnon era.

    1. I'd suggest a full blooded member of Ramapithecus!

      But cool to see such off shoots...

    2. My general agreement with Tristan is the only reason I don't purge my list of most independent titles.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Yay! I can see Die Dunkle Dimension on your upcoming list. I Expected it in one or two years. Don't worry. It's still playable and winnable. And you don't even need a joystick like in Nippon. Just a little keyboard tweaking in the emulator.
    Looking forward to it.

  7. re: the Uzi's popularity in the 80s

    It all seems to stem from the Uzi having been mass produced, some say easy to make dummy prop copies of it, its use in the hands of Israeli and other commando units, and ease of one-handed firing.
    And just look at the thing, it's was so futuristic looking for the time.

    1. Growing up in Germany in the 90s, among my pals "Uzi" was pretty much synonymous with "small rapid-fire SMG that can be used one handed or dual wielded". If any character in a movie, game, or comic used such a type of SMG we called it Uzi by default.

    2. I imagine the Schwarzenegger Effect helped too.

    3. Uzi also rolls off the tongue and has a bit of onomatopoeia going for it. It sounds like it sprays bullets with that buzzing "z" sound.
      Mac-10 sounds like a McDonald's value meal and H&K name is a mouthful.
      @JarlFrank, We had the same thing in the USA. Kids in grade school attributed all kinds of amazing powers to the Uzi, its greatest asset being that it could blow up armored vehicles.

    4. I've never been into shooting games at all, but nevertheless, Uzi will for me always be connected with the original Tomb Raider, which dates exactly from mid-90s.

  8. It will be a sad year ... But what a celebration, when you return in Summer 2019 ;-)

    1. I was worried for a second! It wouldn't be unknown for a chronogaming project to go on planned hiatus for that long. Jeremy Parish of Game Boy Works just announced that he won't be doing any more Game Boy videos until 2020, which is a real disappointment as he does a great job documenting Japanese releases unknown in the West.

    2. Glad I missed that one, reading your blog is one of the highlights of my week.


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