Saturday, December 22, 2018

Game 312: The Seventh Link (1989)

                 
The Seventh Link
Canada
Oblique Triad (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for Tandy Color Computer 3
Date Started: 16 December 2018

Our last Color Computer RPG is a slick one. Just look at those graphics. I didn't have any idea the machine was capable of that. It's an Ultima clone, sure, but that's never a negative thing when the developer clones the right parts of Ultima. Here, as we'll see, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

The game takes place on the world of Elira, where a fantasy setting meets a science fiction backstory. "Ancient" documents tell of a desperate expedition fleeing a doomed Earth, hoping to find a new world on which to settle. Arriving in Elira's star system, the crew was dismayed to find that its planets were still in the throes of creation from cosmic dust. They figured they could put themselves in hibernation for a billion years, but it would take at least 3 billion for Elira to form, develop an atmosphere, grow life, and so forth. One of the engineers had an idea: he would take the ship's energy source, a contained black hole, and seed it at the center of the slowly-coalescing planet, causing it to form faster while the crew slept.

Half a billion years later, the crew awoke to find a lush Eden. They named it Elira after the captain's daughter. Something went wrong with the cryo-chamber of one crewmember, "Simmons," who awoke with an altered biochemistry, including rock-like black skin and red eyes. He went insane and destroyed half the ship before fleeing for the planet and becoming the ancestor of orcs or something. The rest of the crew descended and formed a new civilization, their descendants regressing to technological primitivism within a few generations. There are suggestions that the crew set up teleporters to other planets in the system, called Dulfan, Selenia, and Kallios. There is talk of an evil being or force called The Power that has mostly enslaved the giants.

Unfortunately, the black hole at the core of the planet is a ticking time bomb, its containment system destined to degrade and fail after about 2,000 years--a time rapidly approaching. There are suggestions in the historical record that the original crew seeded the world with energy packs to recharge the system, ransoming the planet for another era. Cue character creation, etc. I have to say, the story seems pretty fresh, although one of you is going to ruin it for me by telling me it was taken directly from some novel or something. I like little touches, like the suggestion that "orcs" are named such because when the crew encountered them, they gave them a name from Earth literature.
              
Character creation occurs while you watch a sample party frolic around the screen.
         
In creation, the player chooses between human, dwarf, elder, and giant races, and I'm not sure whether some of these are supposed to be native to the planet or if all of them somehow sprouted from the human settlers. Classes are fighter, thief, cleric, druid, magic user, ranger, paladin, and sage. You spread a pool of points among strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, and constitution.

Mechanically, the game is basically Ultima III. You navigate with an easily-memorized set of keyboard commands like (T)alk, (A)ttack, (C)ast, and (E)nter, and there's an option to type your own command if you have a good reason. NPCs have one line of text to offer with no dialogue options. Combat switches to a tactical screen in which enemies and characters take turns attacking, casting, and so forth. Dungeons switch to a first-person view. There are graphical and thematic borrowings from Ultima IV and V, including the little icon animations and the list of classes (replace thief and sage with tinker and shepherd, and you basically have the Ultima IV set). The title screen shows a little vignette of characters entering and exiting towns and ships, fighting monsters, and so forth, just like Ultima III and IV. Also borrowed from Ultima III is the system of determining spell points from attributes, the specific formula based on class (e.g., intelligence for the magic user, half wisdom for the paladin). There is, finally, an Ultima-like quality to the detailed monster descriptions offered by the manual.
          
This feels familiar.
          
Like the hero of Ultima IV, the character here starts alone, on a plain outside a castle, with limited food, gold, and equipment. Later, he'll get NPCs to join his quest, but he's weak at the beginning, especially if he went against type like I did and created a giant magic user.

It's a promising start, but some oddities become clear once we enter the castle and start poking around. Some games announce their names by telling you that you're "Entering Trinsic" when you enter. Some have "M I N O C" written in the walls. A few, you have to determine the name from NPCs. Here, none of those strategies are in play. Maybe the towns just don't have any names.

There are NPCs, and they give you a line of dialogue with hints and lore, but there aren't many of them. There are a fair number of icons, sure, but most of them are just guards, who say "Move Along!," and most of the rest just ignore you. (In particular, any NPC that moves around inevitably ignores you; only stationary NPCs have anything to say.) In the castle, there is no sign of King Edfax II, "the philosopher king," nor his son Prince Ferdino.
          
Buying at the weapon shop. I'll need some NPC companions before I can use any of these.
          
The castle does have a weapon shop, an armor shop, a healer, and a food shop. One advantage to creating a magic-user is that I can't really upgrade from the cloth armor and dagger I started with, thus saving my gold for other things. 

If there's one aspect of Ultima you definitely don't want cloned, it's Ultima II's tyrannical attitude towards food. Unfortunately, that's what we get here. My starting 100 meals didn't last long enough to even explore the castle. The bakery sells meals for 1 gold piece each, and it appears that's where most of my money (at least in the early game) is destined to go. Unfortunately, you can't steal food the way you can in Ultima II.
            
I feel like 100 cakes ought to last me the better part of a year.
         
The Seventh Link takes an Ultima-esque approach to hiding key NPCs. To find the one who says "The magic user's guild is below us," you need to wander around the outside perimeter of the castle's walls, around to the rear, taking care not to blunder out of the castle map and back to the world map. A lot of other NPCs are behind locked doors; it's clear that I'm going to need a lot of keys to finish exploring the castle.
          
This game adopts the simple NPC interactions of the pre-IV Ultimas.
           
I find my way in the castle's wall network, where a sign alerts me to "DRINK at pools of Earth-sprung water." I hope this will be a source of free healing, but every time I try it, including at the pool right next to the sign, the game just says, "Blech-Salt!" and nothing happens.
           
"Not this Earth-sprung water. Other Earth-sprung water."
         
There's a room full of chests, and after a momentary pause in which I remember that I'm not on the Quest of the Avatar, I plunder them. It helps my financial situation temporarily. But unlike Ultima III, this game remembers the state of its towns when you exit and return. Plundered chests remain plundered and unlocked doors remain unlocked.
            
Ain't no ankh cross in the middle of this screen.
         
I find some ladders going down and explore a bit of the maze-like basement. I eventually find a hidden guild. If it's the "mage's guild," it weirdly just sells torches and keys. I buy two keys--all I can really afford--and expend them opening a couple of doors to find an NPC who tells me to seek a wise knight in the hidden islands far to the southwest.
           
Who's manning that counter to the north of the usurious healer? That answer will have to wait until I have enough keys.
           
By now, my food is running out again, and it's clear I need a lot more money for keys. I decide to head outside and start grinding. There are several problems with this goal. First, random enemies are not copious. There's no standing on bridges to make trolls appear every five turns. You can find skeletons, orcs, fighters, and "wolf dogs," but you have to really hunt for them.
            
Blasting some skeletons with "Ring of Fire." Great, now I'm going to have that Johnny Cash song, which really isn't that good when you think about it, stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
          
The second problem is that my cloth-wearing mage isn't really up to the challenge of grinding even if there were a lot of enemies. Some of those enemies attack in packs of six. Three seems to be the average. Now, my mage is capable of a few handy spells. "Ring of Fire" does minor damage to multiple enemies, "Magic Missile" does moderate damage to a single enemy, and "Shield" offers a little protection. The game manual only lists 15 spells, five each for the magic user, cleric, and druid. It promises that you will find more on scrolls. My magic user only started with three of the five listed in the manual, and you have to figure out which spells map to which keys.

Anyway, I can cast maybe four of these spells before my points are exhausted. Spell points and hit points regenerate as you walk around, but very slowly.
            
Damned wolf-dogs don't even leave any gold.
           
The third problem is that grinding isn't very rewarding. For the post-combat treasure system, The Seventh Link draws from Ultima V, which only came out the previous year. Enemies drop individual chests on the field of combat, and you walk around opening them before you leave combat. Most of the time, they leave only blood splatters (and unlike Ultima V, you can't search those hoping to find sacks). When they do leave chests, the chests may contain items like torches instead of gold. When they have gold, they typically only contain 10-20 gold pieces, and they run a risk of damaging you with acid or poison traps. Poison traps are basically an instant reload at this stage because the condition costs 500 gold pieces to cure.
            
Four skeletons, one chest.

Sure glad I opened that chest!
             
I started poking around the map, thinking perhaps I'd find a dungeon with treasure chests and easier grinding. A map comes with the game, but it fails to depict a lot of features, particularly water. On the map below, you can basically only explore the top third at the outset. Mountains and rivers prevent you from moving south along the western isthmus. I found only one other town, far to the northeast, and no dungeons, but I have to mess around the mountains some more. I kept getting too far afield and dying. From what I explored, I suspect the overall world map is 150 x 300, and of course there are other worlds.
               
The map of the world of Elira.
            
Thus I leave you a few hours into The Seventh Link, on the brink of starving, desperately trying to find orcs so I can make money, usually dying even when I find them, and hardly making any money even when I survive. Something's gotta give.

Time so far: 3 hours

*****

When I got frustrated with The Seventh Link, I started fiddling with the master game list (including the upcoming list), looking for things to prune. First, 2010 has been added, which I guess is the opposite of "pruning."

I decided to reject Terradyne (1992), from Bit Brother software. The game is basically an updated version of Stone Mist (1991), which I tried to play but couldn't get very far because of bugs. Terradyne itself is a little buggy, with an excruciating control scheme. It also seems to be the exact same game as Dragons Shard (yes, the official title omits an apostrophe) from the same year, to the extent that even the opening narrations are the same. Since Dragons Shard seems to be a more mature version, I'll leave that on the list, but I don't otherwise need to experience basically the same game three times.
             
The opening of Terradyne . . .

. . . versus the opening of Dragons Shard.
             
Morkin 2 (1992) was listed by MobyGames as an RPG when I first compiled my list, but it no longer is, and indeed I don't see anything RPG about it. It's a simple shareware strategy game where a couple of wizards duel with spells.

Crossfire (1992) turns out to be a MUD, which I've generally kept off the list. The commenter who first recommended it told me that I could set up my own server and play it like a single-player RPG, but as we've seen with other MUDs played that way (Neverwinter Nights, Operation: Overkill), this always produces an unsatisfying experience. The bigger problem is that the MUD has been in continuous development since 1992, and I don't see any way from the site to experience the original version.

Finally, I moved TaskMaker (1989) to 1993. The 1993 version, by Storm Impact, is an update of the original version, by XOR. The update feels more like a 1993 game than a 1989 game, and it's the only one I can find. My commenters are eager little beavers, and I suspect one of them will manage to dig up the 1989 version, so this change might not be permanent. Maybe if you have the 1989 version, you could wait until after I close the year to offer it to me, so it goes on the "clean up" list instead of forestalling the Great Reunification we've all been anticipating.


16 comments:

  1. Morkin 2 seems to be an adaptation of Julian Gollop's Chaos, the sequel to which (Lords of Chaos) you've already played. Certainly not an RPG at all.

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  2. The Seventh Link is exclusively for the Color Computer 3, which has the best graphic capacity in the TRS-80 line. The Seventh Link is in the 320x192 mode, with 16 colors that can be selected from a palette of 64. The Coco3 had an 80-column mode available as well, but you had to have a high-end monitor to be able to use it; on TV's or even composite monitors it was too blurry.

    There are some very good games on the CoCo3 of the non-CRPG variety. Super Pitfall was released for it, and it's considered much more playable than the NES version. (Although it's lacking some features and isn't full screen.) Both Rescue on Fractalus and Koronis Rift from Lucasarts are VERY good on it, my brother and I spent hours playing both of those.

    I haven't gotten far in the game myself for all the reasons you described, the difficulty grinding and the dependency on food. I KNOW guys have worked past that, because I've seen comments on forums and even in Rainbow magazine back in the day of guys asking late-game questions.

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  3. Also, as far as I know, no one has done a full walk-through of the game. Stu started one on Armchair Arcade years ago but after slogging through Gates of Delirium he was burnt out. :) So you'd be the first if you can keep going with it!

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  4. You're absolutely right, the game looks really crisp for its time. Looking forward to hearing more about it!

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  5. When you get to Waxworks, the Amiga version of the game has superior music (although you mute audio, IIRC).

    I can provide you with instructions how to make the game work in WinUAE. I can provide a configuration file and can point to the game.

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  6. I would strongly recommend playing the 1993 version of TaskMaker, rather than the 1989. IIRC (which I may not, because it's been several years), it not only updates the graphics to color, but adds content and improves some aspects of the UI.

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  7. TaskMaker sounds like it should be a sequel to Executive Suite.

    Hint, hint game developers!

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  8. Ah, Crossfire. I remember playing that back in 1992; I even did some (very minor) work on it, which was enough to get my name in the credits at the time. Sadly, I don't seem to have saved a copy of the source. :(

    That was my honours year in computer science, so all of the honours students were playing it. I changed the icons of one of the deadliest monsters to a picture of one of the department's more irascible tutors. It proved to be an irresistible lure for attacks that were soon regretted.

    (I wouldn't have called it a MUD as such, since I feel a key point of MUDs is their extensibility from within the game. I'd say it was a non-massive MORPG, but without (at the time) any questlines of significance. Nor any way to "win" the game. The author originally described it as a multiplayer arcade game, which is a fair description.)

    In any case, I think it would have worked fine as a single-player game (as, indeed, I mostly played it) -- the interaction with other players was not a key component of it. But it seems hard to track down the early source. :( The oldest I've been able to find are some Linux RPMs of v0.93.5, which the release notes put as a mid-1997 release. (The original 1992 release was v0.8.)

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  9. And now for the nittiest of nitpicks:

    Since the "Earth" in "Earth-sprung" is capitalized, it seems to refer to our planet rather than the ground. So what does it mean for water to be Earth-sprung when you're not on planet Earth?

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  10. Dammit !
    I was hoping to see you play TaskMaker as it was one of the rare games I had on my father's Mac. But yeah, thinking about it, it was the 1993 version.
    I cheesed the hell out of it. In the training area, you can't die. Your stats grow when you do something. Bonking against a force field gives you stamina and HP, if I recall. So I jammed the forward key with a pen and came back 8 hours later to a beefy character.
    Rot13ing the other part: Nyfb, gurer'f n tnfrbhf sbez cbgvba va gur ghgbevny gung lbh qba'g unir gb hfr VA gur ghgbevny vgfrys. Xrrc vg, naq hfr vg gb npprff gur gernfher inhyg bs gur gnfxznxre. Gurer'f na nznmvat obbzrenat va vg :Q !

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  11. Merry Christmas!
    Keep the good work. And many new/old games for the addict, next year.

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  12. Will there be a "Wrapping Up the '80s" post?

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  13. Oof, two tricky RPGs to be stuck on as we get close to the end of the year. I wish you and the wife a happy holiday period, Addict. Play something fun this break as a nice change of pace.

    It's strange to think we might be done with 1989 (and the '80s) by this time next month, but then going back through some of the smaller-budget 1992 games you've played I've realized something: though there won't be any '80s games for a while, there'll still be plenty of CRPGs that *feel* like they were made in the '80s.

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  14. Thanks for your efforts in making this very entertaining blog with many entries. Seasons greetings and again, your efforts are very appreciated!

    ReplyDelete

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