Tuesday, July 31, 2018

2088: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

A brief and somewhat mysterious victory screen.
2088: The Cryllan Mission
United States
Victory Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for Apple IIGS
Date Started: 24 June 2018
Date Ended: 29 July 2018
Total Hours: 12
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at time of posting: 204/299 (68%)

2088 ends up owing a lot to the classic Star Trek episode "Patterns of Force," in which the Enterprise crew discovers that a Federation envoy has re-established Nazism on an earth-like planet. As usual, questions of language and anthropology (how could a species that evolved on another planet be indistinguishable from humanity?) are avoided in the service of a larger sociological point--and, of course, a cheaper budget.

In the case of Crylla, it turns out that Captain N. Scott Robertson was overthrown by his first officer, Yvonne Smith. (According to Smith's dossier in the manual, she has been suffering from PTSD since the "War of 2081.") Smith enlisted most of the rest of Houston's crew in a plot to overthrow and militarize the Cryllan government, complete with the demonization of a formerly-peaceful minority population--the aforementioned "misanthropes." She liquidated most of the ruling class by claiming that they were misanthropes in disguise (they weren't) and ultimately took supreme power for herself. 
The imprisoned captain outlines the mutiny against him.

Part of Yvonne's villain's exposition at the end of the game.
You learn the full backstory from a handful of surviving Houston crewmembers who resisted Smith. They're scattered in various facilities around the planet. Each require you to answer a copy-protection question to talk to him, and each has an item necessary for the endgame. The easiest to find of these is in the ruined city of Torphur, where on my initial visit I missed an entire underground with additional NPCs.
I mapped the first half of the game world but didn't bother with the second.
Crylla consists of two 128 x 128 outdoor maps connected by a dungeon called Cramur. (Or, more accurately, two one-way dungeons called Cramur, since you can't exit once you enter, and the dungeon's exit is at a different place on each side than its entrance.) The starting side has two regular towns, Karkala and Zenetych, the ruined town of Torphur, and a military prison in the former city of Adion. It also has an eight-level network of caves called Draque, but its only purpose seems to be grinding.
Meeting an enemy in a dungeon.
Crylla's second side has one regular city, Filene, a military prison called Euene, a "dungeon" building called Wycke, and the capital city of Nepenthe, situated on an island. Cramur, Wycke, and Draque are all explored in first-person view. The levels are small and the game has an automap.
An automap helps with dungeon levels that aren't all that big in the first place.
The outdoor areas and dungeons are swarming with humanoid enemies like soldiers, outlaws, and thieves; robotic enemies like automatons, androids, and battle robots; and monstrous enemies like polymuts and mudactyls. (The game says, sadly, that many of these creatures are "misanthropes" who have become terrified of humanity and are just trying to defend themselves.) You fight approximately one billion combats with these creatures. Thank goodness for the auto combat option.

The tactical grid is somewhat like Ultima V, but with no spells, there aren't enough options to justify wasting a lot of time in manual combat. Even grenades--the one option other than shooting--are more annoying than useful. So mostly you just watch your characters fight, although you can fine-tune the computer's actions with a few settings. After the initial few hours, you have more than enough money to keep a hefty supply of medicine, so as long as you check your character's health levels frequently and prevent them from dipping below a minimum threshold, no combat is very dangerous. You can even stop to heal in the middle of battle.
Watching the computer fight my battles.
(In a previous entry, I said that if the doctor dies, you have to start over, since only doctors can resurrect. I was wrong about that. Hospitals in most cities do offer resurrection. I based my comment on the one that didn't.)
Being able to fully heal during combat makes things a bit too easy.
You level up quite rapidly. My characters ended the game at Level 22. They get promotions every 5-7 levels, and my characters ended as lieutenant colonels. You get attribute increases and hefty hit point increases with every level. By the end of the game, some of my characters had nearly 10,000 hit points, and I adopted a policy of checking them every 5 or so combats and restoring their health if it dipped below 3,000. Even then, I ended the game with hundreds of extra vials of medicine and tens of thousands of unspent gold pieces. 
Since we can't make transmissions to Earth, who is doing all this promoting?
Combats also get easier as your equipment improves. There are six types of common rifles and lasers (sold in shops) plus five other types that you can find on the bodies of high-level enemies. By the end of the game, you're absolutely swimming in excess weapons. There are five types of armor, and you have to buy separate pieces for chest, back, forearms, upper arms, thighs, shins, and head. You rarely find armor. Rather than purchase my way through the entire scale, I just waited until I had enough for "heavy" everything.
Different types of armor available. For some reason, you can't sell armor.
Once you have enough money, you can also buy transports. First you need transport papers, which can be obtained in some dungeons or by killing guards. There are several classes; some work on land, some on water. You can buy one for each character or everyone can pile into one, but once you're in a transport, the game uses the transports' weapons in combat instead of your own. These can be pretty powerful, but transports are such a pain to get in and out of (and you can't take them into buildings) that in the end I didn't find them worth it. Enemies often have their own transports.
An exhaustive transport list.
Exiting my sea transport on Nepenthe Island. Lots of foes await me.
The opening stage ends when you're strong enough to assault the military prison at Adion. You use grenades to blast open the gates and to disable the force fields around the prison cells. You fight packs of guards, free a few Cryllan resistance fighters, and meet Lance Corporal Mick Yaya, who tells you part of the backstory.
Blowing up a shield generator.
Once through Cramur, you basically repeat this process in the prison at Euene. The city has been turned into a huge mad scientists' lab, where ghoulish experiments are conducted on prisoners. Most of them are insane. But Lieutenant Vidya Chang fills in more of the history and gives you another key item.
Dead bodies in front of mind-control chair at Euene. The game let me do a little role-playing and blow up the chairs with grenades.
This NPC had been in the chair a few too many times.
The last crewmember to find is the captain himself, N. Scott Robertson, who is imprisoned in the fortress of Wycke. You have to navigate up and down eight levels of interconnected elevators to find his cell. Once you hear his story, you have all four items necessary for the endgame: papers to enter Nepenthe, an entry card to the Broadcast Room, admission codes to access the computer, and "final transmission" codes to reach Earth.

A sea-based transport from Filene takes you to the island on which Nepenthe sits. There are a couple dozen groups of guards in the city, but they don't attack you if you don't attack them. Yvonne Smith has anticipated your arrival and has slain the entire population of the city. Bodies are everywhere.
Alone in the destroyed city.
After you destroy a door with a grenade, you find Smith in your path. She has a long villain's exposition that basically boils down to "I did it for the lulz." She's both impressed with what she was able to accomplish and contemptuous of the Cryllan population for being so easily deceived.
This sounds like absolutely no one I know.
She knows you're there to kill her and doesn't put up much of a fight. She attacks alone, and it was over so quick I didn't even get a screenshot. There ends up being no real "final battle" in the game.
The game gives you no option to act on her request.
After defeating Smith, you head up to the control tower behind here and simply "talk" to the computer. As long as you have the four items in your possession, the game ends with the simple message at the top of this entry. I'm not really sure what I've accomplished, though. Sure, Smith is dead, but there's a brainwashed, armed, and ruined civilization behind me. And what did I "transmit," exactly? A report? A request for reinforcements? Unfortunately, as we'll see, the Second Scenario doesn't really answer these questions.

The plot, though recycled, is decent. It's more than most games of the era provide. But while the game does a decent job adapting Ultima IV and V NPC mechanics, combat and exploration, the game becomes fundamentally too easy after just a few hours, and combats are more annoyances than true challenges. Too much time is wasted trying to find locations: Wycke is hidden deep among twisty mountain passages, for instance. A lot of the game feels padded.

In a GIMLET, I award:
  • 5 points for the game world. As I said, it's a reasonably well-developed mystery, even if the "exactly like earth" trope is a bit tiresome.
Revisionist historians preach in the city of Filene.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. Creation options are limited, and your characters feel more like a blob than six separate people, but development is satisfying and rewarding.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. Talking with NPCs is vital, and the dialogue is well written. But there are no dialogue options or role-playing options in these interactions.
Captain Robertson makes a sad point.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. Enemies aren't very memorable, differentiated only in how powerfully they punch. There are no non-combat encounters or puzzles in the game.
  • 3 points for combat. It has some innovations, particularly in the options you can set for auto-combat, but there aren't enough tactics to make it interesting or challenging. At least it's quick.
  • 3 points for equipment, consisting primarily of basic weapon and armor upgrades.
Checking my group inventory towards the end of the game.
  • 3 points for the economy, strong in the first couple hours but too rewarding later.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options or side-quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The former two are adequate. The interface is reasonably intuitive, but I didn't like the lack of keyboard shortcuts for certain menu options, nor the way that the main window lost focus every time a message popped up.
  • 4 points for gameplay. It's mostly non-linear from beginning to end. There's an obvious order but not a required one. The difficulty is a bit too easy, and nothing makes it replayable, but the length is only slightly too long for its content.
That give us a final score of 34, about average for its era, hovering right around the "recommended" threshold. I feel like the game needed more work on its mechanics to go along with its story.

Victory Software apparently felt the same way, because they did an unusual thing in releasing 2088: The Cryllan Mission—The Second Scenario, which is not so much a sequel as a "version 2" of the original. It shipped with the same manual, though with an addendum, and the same backstory--the crew of the Houston has gone missing on Crylla, and so on. But the addendum promises that the maps and that the story itself have changed, with different plot twists and a different resolution. There are also a number of changes to the mechanics and interface.
The game's production values were better than the typical "indie" title.
In his e-mail correspondence with me, Vivek Pai talked about some of the difficulties facing independent game developers in the 1980s. The game sold for a crazy $69.95, but most of what they made went to costs (including a full-color game box and manual), contracted artwork, and advertising. He said that they conceived of The Second Scenario primarily as a way to get rid of their stock of unused boxes from the first game, which they accomplished by printing up a bunch of gold stickers that said "The Second Scenario--an entirely new game!" and slapping them on the boxes.

I'll get to The Second Scenario eventually during a 1990 mop-up (I found out about it after completing the year), but I'm more interested in the Pai brothers' third and final title, The Secrets of Bharas (1991), which draw upon some authentic Indian themes. After that, discouraged by sales--it didn't help that the Apple IIGS never really took off as a gaming platform--the brothers made some half-hearted attempts at PC coding before ultimately scattering to various university and technology company positions.

It's good to be back on track. If I can finish Citadel this week, I'll be over a major hump. Let's see.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Game 298: Doom Cavern (1980)

I'm issuing a $25 Amazon gift card bounty on the identity of "Morwe."
Doom Cavern
United States
Independently developed; published by Synergistic Software
Released in 1980 for Apple II
Date Started: 27 July 2018
Date Ended: 27 July 2018
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at time of posting: 14/299 (5%)

As a longtime Robert Clardy/Synergistic fan, I had been looking forward to Doom Cavern since a commenter named Keith first brought it to my attention back in 2015. From the "Campaign" series of 1978-1982 to the World Builder games of 1988-1993, Synergistic has always taken an unconventional approach to RPGs, freely mixing strategy, adventure, and role-playing elements. Players frequently go from moving armies across enormous landscapes one minute to one-on-one interaction with an NPC the next. I haven't always enjoyed the result, but they've never bored me.
The manual promises a computer version of tabletop roleplaying, and the game actually delivers. For a while.
Published in 1980, Doom Cavern came out around the same time as Clardy's Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure, which built upon his previous Dungeon Campaign (1978) and Wilderness Campaign (1979; links to my reviews). I rather expected something along the same lines: a basic maze game with lots of random combats and treasures. Thus, when I finally got it working (belated thanks to those in this thread for making that happen), I was shocked to find a fully-realized Dungeons & Dragons-style module in computer form, complete with NPCs, encounters with role-playing choices, and even the use of an adventure-style text parser.
A typical encounter on the first level. I can GET RUBY, GET CANDLESTICKS, say the magic word to transform the skull, or go back to the map.
None of these things are happening for the first time--the Dunjonquest games starting in 1979 followed a "module" format; we just saw a text/RPG hybrid in Dungeon (1979); and Eamon came out the same year--but it's still rare to find such depth in these early years. It's very different than Synergistic's usual titles, but then again, Robert Clardy didn't program this one. That distinction belongs to an unknown developer going by the name "Morwe," a Tolkien reference.

The backstory is amusing, insisting that the game is set in Norway in CE 1300, but almost immediately segueing into discussions of elves, the blood of Numenor, and an evil wizard from the "Moghul Courts." The setup is that the kings of Hammardoom reigned in peace and prosperity for centuries before an evil necromancer showed up and killed King Hammardoom XVIII. (Haakon V Magnusson is somehow missing from the story.) The kind wizard Rastgoft cast a protective spell around himself and the young prince, Theophan. The necromancer imprisoned them both in the Doom Cavern. He's been growing in power and will soon be strong enough to break the spell and finally execute Theophan. Enter the party.
I think the Vikings were gone by 1300, but that's hardly the worst offense against history.
You play with three characters assigned to magician, cleric, and fighter classes. During character creation, the game rolls random values from 3 to 18 for the standard D&D set of attributes (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma), and you get four chances for each character slot to accept one of the rolls. Otherwise, you have to take the fifth roll, no matter what. After accepting the attributes, you assign the class and race. You don't have to choose one of each class, but it makes sense to do so. The characters don't have any explicit equipment at the outset.
I don't like this guy's chances in melee combat.
Clerics are told that they don't get spells until Level 2. Magicians can choose one spell from among "Sleep," "Read Magic," and "Read Languages." The selection can only be used once, so it's more like an inventory item for puzzle-solving than a classic D&D spell. Once you enter the dungeon, you can leave to rest, heal, and select a new spell (and delete slain characters to replace them with new ones), but the game warns you not to do this too often or there will be some negative consequence.
The assembled party.
Once in the dungeon, the game proceeds a lot like the later Phantasie, as you explore the structure and slowly uncover treasures and encounters. Each square has a quick description--often alerting you to more substantive things nearby--and may contain gold, an NPC, or a combat-related encounter. You use NESW to move and unfortunately have to hit (M)ap repeatedly to refresh the screen.
Exploring Level 1.
Unfortunately, successfully surviving the encounters requires you to hit them in a certain order, and getting through them is clearly meant to be a product of trial and error. Level 1's encounters, in a logical order, are:
  • A piece of paper found near the entrance. The "Read Languages" spell uncovers the text, which is a warning from a party of Ents not to hurry to the room east of the entrance because its doorways teleport you to random locations, including one which causes instant death. 
  • A couple of orcs are torturing an elven princess. Kill them, and the princess gives you a magic armband that, among other things, lowers armor class by 1. If you refuse the gift, the princess gets mad and randomly teleports you.
  • A Holy Sword found at the end of a hallway. A cleric can wield it.
Note the rare graphic.
  • A room full of skeletons with an evil cleric. The Holy Sword acts on its own, sweeping through the room and killing all the skeletons, leaving the cleric for the party. Once slain, he has a note on his body that can be read with the "Read Magic" spell. The note is from "Porru," another servant of the evil necromancer, whose first initial is identified in the note as "K." The note talks of a magic fireball disguised as a skull and gives the password to release it.
  • A room with a fireplace with a skull mounted above it. An invisible warrior in the room retreats if a character has the magic armband. Saying the password PILGAMESH turns the skull into magic fireball. The characters can also loot some silver candlesticks and a ruby. In this one room on the level, the player acts by typing verbs and nouns rather than simple directionals.
  • The central chamber with a frost giant. The only way to defeat him is to use the magic fireball. Doing so opens the stairs to Level 2.
Another chamber in the middle of the dungeon holds a "wizened old man" who gives you hints about the various encounters as long as you can answer his questions about the game's backstory. 
This was an easy one.
The characters fight only two battles on Level 1, and the combat system is pretty sparse. You get a grid with the character and enemies, and a series of random rolls determine damage done per round. It's very easy to lose a character in these early combats and have to exit the dungeon to replace him. There are no real options in combat unless the mage has the "Sleep" spell memorized. 
The combat interface.
I should also note that while the game is graphically sparse, there are some fun animations to accompany certain actions. In the skeleton room, for instance, a little graphic of the sword goes spinning through the room. When you fireball the frost giant, you get a red square followed by something that looks like a mushroom cloud.
"Nuking" the frost giant.
Anyway, I was having a lot of fun when I completed Level 1, and I was looking forward to what the other levels had to offer. That's when the game pulled the rug out from under me. Once I descended the staircase, I got a "congratulations!" screen that was about as elaborate as most game-winning screens. Then the game brought up a menu with options to play Level 1 again, quit, or "go on to deeper levels . . . [if] the dungeon-master's elves have finished deeper construction and the second disk is ready." Choosing that option brings up a message to enter a "continuation disk."
Okay, I got through a single level. Let's not overdo it.
I took to the manual, and sure enough it specifies that the disk only includes the first level. As far as I can tell, subsequent levels were never produced. I can find plenty of ads for the original game, but none for the second level and beyond. It appears that Doom Cavern was never a full game--just a tragic tease--a demo of a game engine that could have been authentically fun if it had actually been developed. As it is, the characters never even level up. Clerics never get any spells. More elaborate combats never occur. 

Perhaps to compensate for what is essentially a scam, Doom Cavern was bundled with a second game, Sorcerer's Challenge, written by Robert Clardy himself. It's a computerized board game in which two wizards battle for control of the kingdom of Thessalona. They take turns casting spells of various durations intended to trap their opponents. Unfortunately, I couldn't play because the game requires paddles and I couldn't figure out how to get AppleWin to emulate them. It's not an RPG anyway, although the map looks somewhat like the one used in Wilderness Campaign and Odyssey.
A lack of paddles prevented me from answering the question.
I toyed with not giving this one a number or rating, but screw it. I played and I "won." It scores 11 on the GIMLET, hurt by a lack of any equipment, economy (you find gold but can't spend it), character development, or main quest that you can complete. If the game had been finished and had featured some of these things, it could have easily crossed 20 points. As it is, it's bottom of the barrel.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Game 297: Dungeon (1979)

Woody Allen also said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my works. I want to achieve it by not dying."
AKA Maces and Magic: Balrog Sampler
United States
Chameleon Software (developer); Scott Adams International (publisher)
Released in 1979 for TRS-80, possibly Apple II
Date Started: 25 July 2018
Date Ended: 27 July 2018
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at time of posting: 65/299 (22%)

To reclaim some momentum after my unintended hiatus, I decided to take another stab at a title that had vexed me in the past: the first title in the short-lived Maces and Magic series of text adventure/RPG hybrids. I previously wrote about the series back in 2013, when I was unable to get the first game, titled Balrog or Balrog Sampler (1980), to work. I ended up spending most of the entry on the second title, Stone of Sisyphus (1980), although even that game had bugs that prevented me from progressing far. I couldn't get Morton's Fork (1981) to load at all.

This time, I was more successful, thanks entirely to commenter Porkbelly, who dug up some original disks and posted detailed emulation instructions. Even then, it was tough going. I repeatedly ran into problems that caused me to have to restore a fresh disk. Sometimes new characters would be given only the small leftover gold piece totals of the previous characters. Sometimes the weapon or armor list would be empty. Sometimes the armor would disappear after I started the game. Sometimes the game would fail to initialize, and sometimes the emulator would insist that it couldn't find the file. It's a wonder I got as far as I did.
One of the earliest appearances of this famed publisher.
But it was partly worth it, if only to discover that this initial entry was originally published in 1979, lacked the Maces and Magic umbrella, and was titled simply Dungeon. It also turns out to be among the first games published by Scott Adams' Adventure International (there were at least half a dozen others in 1979), and the only game from that publisher that aspires to RPG status.

In 2013, we learned that Chameleon Software was formed by three Indianapolis medical professionals, including x-ray technician Richard Bumgarner, whom I briefly interviewed. (He declined to give me his partners' names, not knowing if they wanted to be publicly identified with the endeavor.) Sharing a love of tabletop roleplaying, they decided to create what in retrospect is the first text/RPG hybrid, pre-dating Eamon by a year. A lack of graphics hurt sales even in these early days (though Sisyphus and Morton did have a few), and threatening letters from TSR killed the remainder of their enthusiasm for the company. They quit after just a few titles.
A genie breaks the fourth wall to discuss his creators.
Dungeon isn't a great example of a hybrid. It lacks both the prose and complex puzzle-solving of text adventures like Zork and the combat and character development systems of a true RPG. The game has essentially no text parser: you navigate its roughly 100 "rooms" by choosing among numeric options. A handful of inventory and character options work in any location. Very rarely, you have to use an item from your pack, and the game forces you to type one or two words to indicate what you want to do. Such opportunities come along so rarely that it's easy to forget that they exist, particularly since most inventory items have no such creative uses.
This area offers 8 navigation options, plus the ability to (G)et the flask.
A typical encounter menu in Dungeon.
The quality of the writing isn't bad, but from the title screen with its Woody Allen quote, whimsy is the order of the day. When creating your character, you're asked "What's your handle, good buddy?" in the CB radio lingo popular in the day. Upon entering the "Spaghetti Maze," you're told that at least it's better than the "Linguini Maze." At one point you choose between two arches labeled "Lady" and "Tiger"; choose the former and you have to fight a tiger named "Lady"; choose the latter and you meet a lady named "Tiger." Steal a clock and you end up having to fight the "Roc around the clock." The dungeon has no interest in thematic consistency, managing to incorporate an Arabian desert, a hippodrome, and an Egyptian room. Dragons co-exist in the dungeon with pirates, robots, wizards, modern doctors, and poker players.
I don't think that's what "Manifest Destiny" refers to.
The game begins by having you specify a name, after which you get a single random roll for strength, intelligence, luck, dexterity, constitution, charisma, and gold pieces. It's easy to get a unplayable character from the beginning. You need a certain strength to haul around all your items, and if your attributes roll too low, or you don't get enough gold to properly equip yourself, you won't survive your first combat. The "experience points" that you start with 0 of, seem to represent your accumulated scores from previous forays in the maze. They determine the name of your level--dilettante, novice, brawler, warrior 2nd class, warrior first class, master warrior, knight 2nd class, knight first class, and dreadnaught [sic]--but I don't believe they have any effect on combat, and there is no traditional "leveling" as in most RPGs.
Character creation. I didn't do too bad here.
You then purchase weapons and armor from ridiculously long and mostly redundant lists. (When I interviewed him, Mr. Bumgarner said that one of his colleagues, a doctor, had an encyclopedia of medieval arms and armor.) You have to balance effectiveness with cost and weight. I suppose if you don't have enough gold at the outset, you could find some in-game, retire the character, restart him, and purchase better stuff. I didn't try that, mostly because the saving mechanism was so hit-and-miss. It's otherwise important to pick items carefully because you don't find any weapons or armor in-game.
Among the many weapon options. Doesn't "shotel" sound Hebrew? It's from Ethiopia, though.
Gameplay starts in an outdoor area of about 25 squares. Two of these squares have openings to the dungeon, though one of them only goes to a small area where you can pick up a few equipment items. There's a river that you have to cross either by walking across some trees (risking instant death if you fail a dexterity check) or by paying a toll. If you try to attack the tollkeeper, you die instantly. If you try to swim the river, even after doffing all your equipment, you die instantly. There's a hermit who will give some advice if you pass an intelligence or language check. Already in this opening area, we see that the game is dedicated to traditional RPG attribute checks in some areas and capricious whimsy in others.
The outdoor area. Yellow squares mark the two entrances to the dungeon.
The real entrance to the dungeon lies on the far east side of the outdoor map, near a shack where you can pick up some other adventuring supplies.

South of the dungeon entrance is a bank. (Trying to rob the teller is another instant death.) You can deposit gold here, but more importantly you get a personal vault where you can leave items. It becomes clear as the game progresses that the key goal is to bring treasure items back to the vault and drop them; you get points both for finding the treasures and for leaving them in the vaults. This trope, of course, goes back to Colossal Cave Adventure
My vault, mid-game.
The underground part of the dungeon consists of maybe 80 rooms, some with fixed combats, some with random combats, some with special encounters, but very few with anything we might think of as a "puzzle." Mostly, the outcome of encounters is entirely based on luck or the developer's caprice. Some examples:
  • You enter a room with six levers labeled "Sweet," "Sour," "Hot," "Cold," and "Super." Choosing "sweet" causes a molasses flood. Choosing "sour" causes a creature called a "sour masher" to come and attack. Choosing "hot" lets you put your weapon in a slot, where there's a chance (based on a luck roll) of increasing or decreasing its effectiveness. Choosing "cold" causes a block of ice to fall from the ceiling (a dexterity roll determines whether it hits you); there are 10 gold pieces embedded in the ice that you can take if you wait for it to melt. Choosing "super" causes the dungeon's superintendent to appear and demand 10 gold pieces for wasting his time.
  • A "wheel of fortune" has a chance of increasing or decreasing your luck.
  • A room with four boxes. A sign says you can open one. The "poof" box releases a genie with several sub-options that don't work out for the player. The "fizz" box gives you a potion that increases strength by 2. The "skull" box gives you a necklace. (I think this is the one treasure I missed; see below.) The "flower" box decreases charisma by 2.
No logic or skill will get you through this one.
  • A machine takes 10 gold pieces and has a random chance of raising or lowering one of your attributes by up to 3 points.
  • A "Hall of Warriors." You can push a button before any of eight statues. Attila the Hun tells you to make a wish at the waterfall. Genghis Khan bonks you in the head for a loss of 2 constitution. Alexander the Great gives you a clue about defeating a snake. William the Conqueror opens a trap door that damages you. Richard the Lionhearted releases a lion to attack you. Hannibal releases a herd of elephants, and you must make a dexterity check to avoid instant death. Conan warns you not to trust the advice of strangers and then tells you to push Hannibal's button. The Black Knight spits at you.
This dexterity roll went poorly.
  • A woman pans for gold at a stream. You can attack or talk to her. If you talk to her, she snarls at you and attacks. As she dies, she changes her mood and tells you that you can pan for gold in the river. If you then try to do that, you get attacked by piranhas.
This is one of the weirdest encounters I've ever experienced.
Getting through a few rooms successfully depends on having the right item in your inventory. Sometimes this is passive, such as when a stone mongoose scares away a giant snake, or a "witch protector cross" does its job against an old woman with a cauldron. (In one option tree, the witch transforms into Helen of Troy, and you can sleep with her for an increase in luck, perhaps the first RPG sex.) However, in a few other cases, you have to proactively use an item from your pack. Such occasions are so rare that it's easy to miss them, but the game generally does a good job cluing you in. For instance, when told about a high alcove, you use the ladder and specify CLIMB. When in a dark room, you use a torch and specify LIGHT and then notice a keyhole for which you use your keys and specify UNLOCK.
A snake reacts automatically to my mongoose.
There are a few frustrating cases, though. Facing a rusty door and holding a jug of oil, I knew I wanted to use the latter on the former. OIL, GREASE, and LUBRICATE did nothing. I finally got it with OIL DOOR--the only place in the game that you specify a verb and a noun to complete an action. In one room with a giant oyster, you have to intuit that the solution is to BURN a lump of coal, thus heating up the water and causing the oyster to open its mouth and drop a pearl. I found no use for a ton of inventory items--shovel, iron rod, chain, coil of rope, wheel, and so on--but it's probable that there are some red herrings.
Selecting from my inventory options to solve a puzzle.
The dungeon requires careful mapping. I was able to use Excel for the surface, but I switched to Trizbort for the underground, where directions are inconsistent between rooms. There are two mazes of note. The first, the "Spaghetti Maze," is I think all random. You just have to keep hitting random options until you find the exit. The second, the "Monster Maze," can be mapped by dropping inventory items.
The Monster Maze.
Combat occurs randomly and rarely, except in specific rooms. Random foes are mostly silly, including black holes, speckled cruds, brain moles, and speed demons. Success is almost completely deterministic: at the beginning of combat, both you and your foe are given a combat score comprised of your attributes and weapon rating (80%) and a random roll (20%). The variance in scores determines damage. In most combats, you either win while taking no damage or die within a couple of rounds. Damage is done directly to constitution and heals over time.
Initial combat "options."

A combat round.
Because there are no real tactics in combat, a key early goal is to increase your attributes as much as possible via favorable encounters and use of the "personality-changing machine." I admit to a little save-scumming here, just so I could move forward and fully document the game.

Combat isn't the only random event. Occasionally, a pirate shows up, knocks you unconscious, and steals whatever treasures you're carrying at the time. You can only prevent this by frequently taking the treasures back to your vault, but you can "solve" the issue at the end of the game. 
This bastard.
Besides finding treasures to increase your score, much of your dungeon exploration is dedicated to finding the code to open a massive door near the starting area. This part is cleverly done, as you have to piece together clues that may seem nonsensical at the time. For instance, an oracle tells you that "at least a portion of what you seek contains a YAT." Two clues are found in rooms in the Monster Maze. The combination ultimately turns out to be SYNTAX.
This clue was more explicit.
Opening the massive door leads you to a final series of rooms, culminating in an encounter with a baby chromatic dragon and then his "daddy." You kill the baby in regular combat, but the only way to defeat the "daddy" is to RELEASE some mice found early in the game.
The final encounter.
Once the dragons are dealt with, you can enter their treasure cave and find the most valuable treasures in the game. Also, you get to fight the pirate who's been stealing from you and recover anything that he's stolen.

Once you've exhausted all options, you can end the game by taking the "Game Exit" from the bank. The game tallies your points and treasures and lets you save the character to play again. The best I could do was 1866 points out of 1951; I'm sure the missing points are caused by the fact that I opened the box that gave me the strength bonus instead of the one that contained the necklace. I'm going to go ahead and call that a "win" anyway, if you don't mind.
Good enough.
The game earns a 19 in my GIMLET, doing best in "gameplay" (4) for being nonlinear and a good length for its content and "encounters" (3) for at least being interesting. It's not a great title, but it's an innovative game that does some interesting things, and it paved the way for better text/adventure hybrids down the road. Perhaps most important, it took exactly the length of a flight from CDG to JFK.

My experience with Stone of Sisyphus is that it offers the same basic game mechanics but with a new dungeon and a couple of graphics, but I didn't get very far and I might try again with a TRS-80 version now that I know a configuration that works. Thanks again, Porkbelly! This game deserved to be fully documented.


All of the games on my current and upcoming list require some serious work, so you may see me clean up a few more entries on the pre-1989 list before I tackle them again. If so, the next one ought to be the PLATO Camelot (1981).