Saturday, June 23, 2018

Wizard's Lair: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The party passes "the Trial."
Wizard's Lair I: The Trial
United States
Independently developed; distributed by Microstar
Released in 1988 for DOS as shareware
Date Started: 2 June 2018
Date Ended: 24 June 2018
Total Hours: 20
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 38
Ranking at time of posting: 239/299 (80%)

Wizard's Lair ended in a satisfying manner after a reasonable amount of game time, providing a moderate challenge all the way through. That sentence hardly sounds like high praise, but compared to a lot of the dreck I'd had to suffer in this era, it's practically a rave. The author didn't take a lot of bold chances, but neither did he screw anything up. The result might be a bit staid, but I'll take that over an author who can't spell "experience."

When I last wrote, I had explored the main continent and all its cities and was just beginning to explore the first dungeon. To get from there to the end, I had to explore three more outdoor areas, two dungeons, three castles, and a bunch of caves. I probably could have squeezed two or three entries during the process, but for some reason--probably a desire to get to the end of 1988--I just kept pushing myself forward. In determining the order to explore, I was aided by a hint file that comes with the game. It does a good job suggesting a rough plan without offering any major spoilers.
Exploring a dungeon room. The sigmas are statues. Note the secret door in the upper-right.
The basic order was:
  • Grey Dungeon. Four levels with bestial monsters and giant insects. You find a bunch of keys to open doors on subsequent levels. One large tiled area with traps must be carefully navigated with a message you find on Level 1. A hermit in a jail cell explains how to use the teleporters and provides a necessary key.
  • Back outside, enjoy zipping around with the teleporters. Every city and dungeon in the wilderness has one, labeled A-I. "0" takes you to the Wasteland.
Using the portals.
  • White Dungeon. Another four levels with the same sorts of enemies. Learn from messages about the Pool of Enchantment and the Circle of Six. Learn the items needed to survive in the Wasteland and the password necessary to get from the Wasteland to the Hidden Valley. Find the Ring of Stef, which helps protect against undead. 
  • The Pool of Enchantment is found past an NPC in the eastern part of the wilderness. He wants to know who created it (MYLOGG THE WHITE). Step into the pool and speak the holy words (UHLECK GRATIS NON SEMTAR) to get its power. I honestly didn't note what this did for me.
Wasn't UHLECK the name of a race in Starflight?
  • The Circle of Six is a group of stones in the south coast. If you stand in the middle, and recite the holy word, you receive a "blessing" that protects you against demons.
Speaking the holy word in the Circle of Six.
  • Ruins. A small wilderness area off the main wilderness map near the south coast. It contains the small Crypt of Callus and the Decrepit Castle.
  • Decrepit Castle. Four levels full of undead and demons. Find the Wings of Izemuth (protects against cracking ice in the Wasteland) and the Lamp of Oerling (protects against hidden crevasses in the Wasteland). Learn how to use the Amulet of Callus to banish the Demonking.
  • Crypt of Callus. Find the Amulet of Callus in the northeast corner. (I was supposed to say some words at the entrance, but I didn't and I found the amulet anyway.)
  • Demon Castle. Enter via the shallow shoals on the southern coast east of Oceanview. Various demonic entities--demon cats, lesser demons, demon lords, young dragons--are introduced. The lesser demons' poison spit should only do 1 hit point damage most of the time. It's annoying but survivable. (I assume it's more deadly without the Blessing of the Elders.) The lesser dragons spit much more dangerous "acid fire" and need to be killed quickly. Find the iron, brass, silver, and gold rings among the four levels.
Approaching the Demon Castle.
  • Wasteland. Hit "0" on a teleporter to enter, but make sure everyone has furs and you have the Wings of Izemuth and the Lamp of Oerling first. The teleporter starts the player right next to the final castle, but you need some other stuff first.
"No one is harmed" when the ice gives way because I have the Wings of Izemuth.
  • Wasteland Cave #1. Wind around until you reach a dead-end, then speak CAXIIS MAJORIS to warp to the Hidden Valley. The caves introduce cave trolls, ogres, and cave bears, which are some of the deadliest creatures in the game. Don't let hit points fall below 50.
  • Hidden Valley. Unnecessarily large. Find the towns of Lush and Filmore (technically not necessary) and the cave west of Lush. 
The only clue in Filmore is useless if you've already been to Lush.
  • Lush. Disappointingly little to do. Get clue about the cave to the west and buy food if you need it.
  • Cave west of Lush. Entrance can only be seen during the day. Find the Charm of Idio (protects against poison gases in Ice Castle) northwest of the river. Return to Wasteland.
This took me a while because the bridge (to the northeast of the party) uses the same shading as the walls.
  • Wasteland Cave #2. Find the Power Amulet, which more than doubles spell points. I gave it to my conjurer so I wouldn't have to worry about running out of points for REVEAL anymore.
Finding the remains of a wizard and his amulet.
  • Wasteland Cave #3. Get password to first door in Ice Castle.
  • Ice Castle. Eight levels with multiple up and down staircases. Speak EXCELLGYC to get past first door. Put rings in order and pull correct lever at ring puzzle. Fight upward through demons and dragons. When the game tells you you're feeling depressed, speak HLYRXXM. Proceed to endgame (covered below).
I had to leave and return to the early dungeons several times, mostly because my conjurer didn't have a lot of spell points, and I needed him to cast REVEAL frequently (the only way to see secret doors), which costs 10 points per casting, while still preserving at least 12 points for OUT. I rested whenever night rolled around in the dungeon, but that only restores 10 spell points per night, and you need 2-3 castings of REVEAL to get through a day.

In my summary above, I omitted a lot of the dungeons' puzzles because they were mostly too easy. You typically find a message indicating how to solve a puzzle before the puzzle itself. For instance, a wizard in the White Dungeon gave me this riddle: "A creature lives with head of man, body of lion, tail of scorpion, wings of bat. Name it."

I would have probably figured out the answer (MANTICORE), but just in case, the dungeon spoiled it for me a few corridors ahead of the riddle:
In the Decrepit castle, there were riddles that wanted me to "pick the swiftest of the air dwellers" and "choose the greatest of the water breathers." The first set of options had eagle, roc, sparrow, and pelican. Do you know which is fastest without Wikipedia? The second set was guppy, bluefish, shark, and goldfish, which was a little easier.

Using the four rings in the Ice Castle involved a very light logic puzzle in which you had to figure out their order from a couple of clues.
There were three clues, but this one alone basically establishes the order.
Character development wasn't as fast during this process as I'd hoped. The game significantly increases the number of experience points required between levels while not significantly increasing the experience rewards from new foes. In fact, there was a poor correlation in general between the difficulty of an enemy and the experience for killing him. The result was that levels increased rapidly through about Level 8, then very slowly to Level 12, which is the game's cap. You really aren't strong enough to attempt a dungeon at all until about Level 6-7, but after that, the hardest dungeon isn't that much harder than the easiest. Nor does the difficulty of monsters significantly increase based on dungeon level. The only real threat is from the accumulation of multiple combats and the inability to save indoors.

In some ways, the mild slope of this difficulty ramp is good. You're unlikely to get into a situation you absolutely cannot escape from. As long as the druid saves enough spell points for a REVIVE and the conjurer saves enough for an OUT, you should be okay. On the other hand, you do have to be careful not to over-extend yourself in dungeons, and the game does offer some of Wizardry's tactical tension as you try to balance hit points, spell points, and exploration time.

The game struck a good balance between combats that you can breeze through and those you have to micro-manage, particularly because the default actions, including the various "blast" spells used by the spellcasters, are usually the best actions. The only time I really had to slow things down is when I was low on hit points, when I faced large parties and decided to use mass-damage spells, or when I faced parties capable of mass-damage spells themselves. I never got much use out of the very high-level spells like BANISH, PSIWAVE, or MINDKILL, because they required too may spell points. Low-cost spells like ARROW, BOLT, and DART scaled with the caster's level and remained viable throughout the game. Perhaps my most effective spell was the illusionist's FLASH, which takes an entire party out of commission for a couple of rounds.
BOLT remains valuable late in the game.
Even when I wanted to blow through combat, though, I couldn't just hold down ENTER because I had to conserve the conjurer's points for REVEAL and the default has him cast BOLT. I armed him with a bow and used that as his usual action instead, but I had to do it manually every combat.
Vyvolat conserves his spell points while the other spellcasters blast.
Again, no individual combat in the game is very hard. There are some enemies capable of status effects like poison and enchantment, but these are easily healed with spells or potions. There are no level-drainers, no stoning, and otherwise no enemies capable of instant kills unless you let your hit points get down below 50 or so. There are also no fixed combats in the entire game. In some ways, this all sounds too easy, but on the negative side you can almost never flee from combats (every character has to make an individual check), and if a character dies, you have to heal him right away or lose him.

One huge disappointment was equipment. In contrast to what other players have reported (and the manual offers), I never found a single enchanted weapon or piece of armor. I jacked my "Magic Sense" skills to max levels for multiple characters, but the only random loot I ever found was a single "Icewand." I don't know if my particular game was broken or what. I was also disappointed that neither of the towns in the Hidden Valley sold anything new.
The one non-fixed magic item I found all game.
The economy was tight for a long time, and I continued to have trouble paying for all the training that I was due. But somewhere around the Demon Castle, I found enough loot in the dungeons that the ratio reversed. Not only did I pay for as much training as I needed, I was able to stock up on healing and spell power potions that made extended explorations much easier. 
Chests like these soon erased my financial woes.
Each dungeon level, although often offering multiple up and down stairways, was small enough that I didn't feel that I had to map. A couple of the outdoor areas were a bit too large for comfort (and MAP doesn't work except in the starting wilderness), but most of the important things were found around the edges.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • I'm not sure I mentioned before that the game has a "fatigue" system by which characters slowly lose effectiveness if they don't sleep. In one of the game's few bugs, resting at an inn, even for multiple nights, doesn't seem to restore (at least not reliably) the character's fatigue levels. You have to camp outside instead.
After nine nights at the inn.
  • In towns, NPCs go to bed at night and disappear from the screen.
  • Every time you start the game you have to set three options. I'm not even sure what the third one is asking me.
  • This option showed up at the beginning of a small minority of combats but never did anything. Choosing "Leave" always landed me in combat anyway.
It would be nice if this had worked.
  • I never figured out what this message meant. 
What is my shirt size progression over the last year?
  • Although I didn't think so when I first started playing, the game does save dungeon states. You can't loot the same treasure chests multiple times.
  • I never found a single trap and thus never used the "Disarm" skill.
The game ends on Level 7 of the Ice Castle (though you have to go to Level 8 first, then back down), when the Amulet of Callus begins to glow, warning the party that the Demonking is near. At that point, speaking GRYXLIM (found in the Decrepit Castle) banishes the Demonking.
You almost feel bad for the poor Demonking.
A few steps beyond, the party finds the titular Wizard's Lair and discovers that it has passed the subtitular Trial. The wizard tells the party that the game so far has been a test to find a party worthy enough to aid an oppressed population on another plane. That story presumably would have been told in Wizard's Lair II, had it been created. (Don't be fooled by web sites suggesting it exists; they're hosting version 2 of Wizard's Lair I.) After this winning screen, the party is teleported back to Angston and can keep adventuring.

In a GIMLET, I award the game:
  • 3 points for the game world. There isn't a lot of history and lore, but it's at least thematically consistent.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. I didn't love the level cap at 12, but at least I didn't hit it until fairly late in the game. The game offers a decent selection of races and classes, plus a solid skill system alongside the leveling system. It would be fun to replay with a more challenging party combination.
My centaur fighter towards the end of the game.


  • 3 points for NPC interaction. You mostly just talk with them and sometimes pay them. There are no keywords or dialogue options, so in a way, NPCs might as well just be sign posts.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are basically drawn from the usual high fantasy menagerie, though curiously muted in special attacks (with a few notable exceptions). Non-combat puzzles were okay.
You'd think acid or fire by itself would be enough.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. A decent Wizardry-derived combat system with a small but effective selection of spells.
  • 3 points for equipment. Weapons, armor, potions, and a few magic items. The selection could have been bigger.
  • 4 points for the economy. You need money for bribing NPCs, buying equipment, making potions, and training skills. You go from too little to too much very fast.
  • 3 points for a main quest with a few optional areas.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are minimal but work for their purpose. The bloopish sound isn't worth much attention, but the keyboard interface is intuitive and easy to master.
  • 6 points for gameplay. Though a little linear and not very replayable, the game benefits from a moderate challenge and a moderate length.
That gives us a final score of 38, just above my "recommended" threshold, which few shareware games of the era manage to achieve. I don't see any evidence that author Rick Nowalk worked on any other games, which is too bad. Wizard's Lair was a strong foundation.

Finishing it means that I've finished 1988 for the second time. Although I played about 8 new games this time around, and some of them (Nippon, Legend of Blacksilver, Silvern Castle, Wizard's Lair) had their moments, I don't feel a particular need to update my 1988/1989 transition posting from 2012. Pool of Radiance is still the clear "Game of the Year." Let's plunge right into 1989, where 24 games--minus the ones that I ultimately reject--separate me from finally catching up on the non-DOS backlog and getting back to a single list.


  1. AT was a type of IBM:

    It was better than the XT. I'm not sure why the game asks you that; presumably it has code that takes advantage of the newer features of the AT to run faster, or something like that? I remember programming graphical-text games like this and they would run slow on my XT 8088.

    1. Yep, the game is asking you if you have an AT compatible computer. The mystery is why the game needed to know...

      * The AT required a slight delay after talking directly to hardware (i.e. a JMP $+2)

      * The keyboard was a little different, and its possible the game wanted to account for it.

      * I doubt the game wanted to take advantage of the 286 processor... this text mode game does not come across as a highly optimized speed demon.

    2. I've never heard of games taking advantage of newer features of the AT like that. Rather, I think the question means "do you have a fast computer?" (AT is 25% to 65% faster than XT) and if yes, it slows down the game to make the experience consistent between platforms.

    3. Thanks for the explanation. I didn't notice any significant differences whether I said yes or no to the question.

    4. I remember retail pc games being marked as "PC-AT compatible" so it must have been relevant at some point for some reason.

    5. PC-ATs came with a better CPU (80286 instead of 8088 in the XT). Other than that for relevant for games at the time was just the fact that the 8088 was an 8-bit processor with very limiting RAM, while the 286 could access much more of it.

      The PC-AT has an effect to this day: Ever questioned why Motherboards come generally in an ATX format? That is because it's an expanded AT form Factor. Another lasting thing was the AT Bus - and the reason why IBM left the PC market. IBM made that bus to lock out the XT clone producers, but they quickly reverse-engineered it and called it the ISA, or Industry Standard Architecture, and quickly undercut IBMs prices by huge margins.

  2. The valley entrance being visible only by day is definitely the clue I missed back in the day, I am delighted you finished the game. I am a little surprised it broke your recommended threshold- I guess there’s a reason I remember it so fondly.

    1. The actual clues are "search well west of this city for the cave" and "The cave is all but invisible to the unprepared." I don't know how you could have "prepared" to find it, but I was in the process of searching every square when day happened to break and I saw it.

  3. Interestingly enough I never found the amulet of Callus in my playthrough when I was younger. Either that or I had no idea how to use it, as I always had to fight the Demonking. All I remember is it shows up as a level 30 monster, but it is beatable if you throw everything you get at it.

    1. Me, neither. I've finished it a few times, always fighting the Demonking. Now I'm going to have to play through again. I'm excited to finally see the Crypt of Callus after all these years.

  4. Ring of Stef?
    I have a feeling that it may be one of the (if not THE) reason why the creator might not want to talk about this game...

    1. There must be something I'm missing.

    2. Perhaps a (wedding) ring for someone named Stef(anie)?

  5. I think a roc would have to be the fastest of those birds - it'd have to go pretty fast to generate sufficient lift to carry an elephant.

  6. I'm glad you were able to win it. However, the version I played (2.1) seems to have a game breaking bug at the end. The password HLYRXXM does not work, preventing progress. Instead, I get a weird display thing.

    I did find a lot of random magic items, though. Magic weapons and armor were fairly rare, but I almost always found a backpack type of item after every combat after raising Magic Sense. There was only about a half dozen kinds:
    - Dwarven Ring, that's supposed to raise a fighter's Combat Sense
    - Healing Amulet, that's supposed to improve a Druid's Heal spell
    - Fire and Icewands that do decent damage to a couple enemies
    - Imrals improve all of the user's attributes. Obviously pretty uncommon
    - Trapnull Wand, which is supposed to protect the user from traps
    - Sophyst completely heals the user of all damage and maladies

    Some of these items I was only able to find their uses by getting them looked at by the old sage near Forestview.

    The dungeon state seemed to be saved, but there's also something that resets it, as I was able to go back into dungeons and reloot chests. I think it may be resting.

    The pool of enchantment gave all of my characters a fairly significant, random boost to all of their attributes. This really helped them to equip better items and reduce their encumbrance. I'm not sure what armor and armor class did, though, as it seemed my fighters with Mithril armor, which says grants a -30(!) AC, got hit as often as everyone else.

    I never was able to find the item in the wilderness that protected from were creatures. Also, there's a cottage in the wilderness Northeast of Oceanview that I never found anything to do with.

    A cool thing I found, after the boost from the pool, and about 20 or so Imrals, was that my party's Stealth had been raised to a point where I could avoid nearly all random combats. My characters reached max level quite a bit sooner, probably somewhere in the second dungeon, so it was quite the boon. This made it so I could simply explore without having to constantly fight mostly worthless combats.

    1. That sounds like a much more satisfying experience, at least in terms of equipment. It's too bad the final word is bugged, but Brian's experience suggests you can still win the battle against the demonking.

    2. I wasn't able to reach the Demonking. It's the second to last word that's bugged, the one having to do with depression. If you don't say the word, you have to walk along a long corridor, all while everyone in the party is taking significant damage every few steps. It *might* be possible if I load up my highest hp fighter with healing items, but I haven't bothered trying. I've seen pretty much everything the game had to offer, and I consider it effectively 'won', since I was mere steps from the end. Not a huge deal.

    3. Have you tried the password again later? When I use it at the first mention of depression, it just shows two question marks. But just a few spaces later, when it prompts again, the password works for me.

  7. You've put Kayden Garth on the list, are you going to be able to complete it? Apparently the developers gave some info on the game's Lemon64 page, but it's not so clear if it is unfinished or just unreleased.

    1. I know nothing about it except that it was on my list.

    2. "Kayden Garth", eh? That name doesn't make me think "RPG", it makes me think "Mom wears yoga pants to Whole Foods and Dad manages a hedge fund".

    3. ROFL Oh man now I have to use that name...

    4. A bunch of Atari-themed retro sites like Atarimania and AtariLegend also list an Atari ST conversion from 1989, some even have box scans and manuals and there are a couple gameplay videos on YouTube. It would be fair to assume that version at least was released. Not sure about the C64 one though.

  8. You mention finally going back to a single list after finishing up 1989...but there still are a few unplayed entries for 1990 and '91?
    What I'm getting at - I hope you don't skip on Centauri Alliance! :)
    (I assume other games like The Immortal simply don't qualify and the list just isn't updated - but that game is an intriguing one and I'd love to read your take on it.)

    1. Yes, even when I catch up, I still have some sweeping up to do. I'll do it gradually between 1992 entries.

  9. you are closer to 1995-2000 era, sweet...

  10. After about 25 years, I have now finished the game the proper way (by banishing, rather than killing, the Demonking). Thank you for pointing me in the right direction. It's so easy to miss the Crypt of Callus. Still haven't been able to figure out the purpose of the words you are supposed to utter, but I got the amulet anyway.

    A few other things that I'm still left wondering:

    1) Is there anything to do in the clearing in the southwest? It seems like it was at least planned to do something, with the bridge and the portal, but I can't figure anything out.

    2) "The secret is by the wall that sighs." - I can't figure out which wall this refers to.

    3) Can you do anything with the Eye of Truth? I know it's supposed to help with visions, but does this play a role in the game?

    If anyone can help me with these, I would really appreciate it.

  11. Got this off a BBS when I was a kid, b/c family was stuck with an old 8088 XT computer that couldn't run anything other than Rogue and what-not. I frequented BBS' to download any game that sounded D&D'ish or Rogue'ish, and this one caught my eye. What surprised me about it was a) an actual scripted adventure, not just a Rogue-like heavily using RNG to do everything (maps were crafted, and the plot was crafted), b) it ran on my old XT, c) it was the full game, d) it was free! Maybe someone bought the game, and was scummy uploading the full game to a BBS. But, young, broke me was just happy to get a full-fledged D&D-style adventure for free. Angband, Rogue, etc, are fun, but they don't feel like real adventures with plot and purpose; just random dungeon-delving. So, a real adventure felt like a real treat. Getting going was a slog, b/c, like with most games, you never know what you're getting into. So, you do your best during party creation to anticipate things. But, we all know some games have skills, character classes, etc that are absolutely worthless once you start playing. So, it was hard to tell what skills would really be good, and what party comp would, too. I created a party I thought might do good, and found out really fast they were awful. Once I realized where the downfalls were, what skills were good, etc, I literally spent a whole evening stat-scumming a new party to get the best stats possible for my little band of deviants. Can't remember the exact party I had (b/c it was so long ago), but I do remember min/max'ing them where each one had a specific useful skill to be good at along with their main profession. Like, I had a wizard or priest or something that was also specialized in the magic item sniffing skill. I leveled the loot sniffing skill as much as I could as fast as I could, and found good stuff, like +X weapons and things. So many I had to ignore or sell some. So, you mentioned struggling to find magic items through-out the whole playthrough. I think the version you had must have been different from mine, b/c I had Heavy Crossbow +X's thrown at me and other weird stuff that made my team a juggernaut by the end. Just getting out of the city with 1st level characters was a struggle, thought, b/c the difficulty range of fights was dramatic just outside of town. I spent the whole next evening just grinding fights right outside town to get a level or two before I felt comfortable exploring. Game just seemed a bit too unforgiving early on, but, once magic sniffer skill really kicked in, it shifted into a cake walk. Really enjoyed the game, though. A free, full CRPG I was able to download off the net (BBS) from the comfort of my (parents') own home! People don't realize how much we take that for granted today. Fire up a game service and just "download a game". But, back then, that was a big deal! Hours spent watching the bytes tick by hoping nobody would pick up the phone and ruin the modem connection. Good times!


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