Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Game 314: Zerg (1989)

This version has no title screen; it just launches you right into it.
          
Zerg
United States
Independently developed and published as freeware
Released in 1989 for Amiga on Fish Disk 252; new version released in 1990.
Date Started: 31 December 2018
Date Ended: 31 December 2018
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2/5) 
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 62/314 (20%)

Zerg is a minor, inconsequential freeware RPG, destined for a bottom-20% GIMLET score, and yet it must be said that it offered exactly what I needed at exactly the moment that I needed it. After a number of frustrating hours with The Seventh Link and Theldrow, I desperately needed something I could finish and write about in just a few hours. Zerg appeared like a New Year's miracle.
            
Some Ultima-esque dialogue as I enter the castle.
          
The title is as bare-bones as you can get while still technically meeting my specifications as an RPG. This Ultima-inspired game has no backstory, no character creation, no dungeons, no real magic, and only the most basic inventory, character development, and combat systems. Its primary virtue is brevity plus a certain wit. It is also a rare Ultima clone for the Amiga. (It displays a roughly-Ultima II technology level, minus the dungeons, with a quest system that goes back to Akalabeth.)

The game takes place in the land of Zerg, which is having problems with monsters. Each player controls the same character, named "Wanderer," who starts out as a Level 1 fighter with 75 strength, 75 wisdom, 75 agility, and 50 hit points. The game begins next to a king's castle, where the king is looking for a hero to slay monsters and bring back their cadavers. The king will use these trophies "to help investors feel more secure." 
            
The king offers the first quest. If you say "no," he says, "away with thee!" and you can't do anything else to progress.
           
The kingdom consists of a single island roughly in the shape of a backwards "C," with the castle at the top and the town of Garolin at the bottom. There are little islets offshore but there's no way to reach them. In between the castle and the town, monsters appear randomly: kobolds, goblins, orcs, thieves, hobgoblins, fighters, ogres, trolls, giants, gargolyes, and demons. The king gives you individual quests to kill the monsters in that exact order. After you complete each kill, you return to the king for an experience reward and the next quest. A large part of the game involves wandering around, waiting for whatever monster you need next to spawn.
          
I just killed a goblin. An orc awaits to my east.
          
As you finish each quest, you gain experience and level up from 1 to 6. Each level-up confers an additional 10 maximum hit points and an additional 5 to each attribute (except for the last one, which gives you 4 points so that the total doesn't exceed 99). 
            
The king rewards me for the first quest.
           
My character sheet about midway through the game.
           
Combat is difficult because you have no tactics, just the (A)ttack command. At the outset, even that doesn't work because you have no weapons and armor. You must reach Garolin without getting killed by a monster so that you can purchase a dagger and heavy furs. Over the course of the game, as you amass gold from your kills, you slowly upgrade weapons (e.g., mace, short sword, flail, battle axe) and armor (e.g., studded leather, scale mail, banded mail). The best weapon is a pike and the best armor is plate mail.
         
Shopping for a weapon.
          
Even with the best weapon and armor, combat is never truly easy, especially against some of the game's higher foes. The only way to survive long-term is to adopt a strategy by which you stand near the castle or town and wait for enemies to spawn, attack them, and retreat indoors if your hit points fall too low. You then pass time while your hit points regenerate, go back outside, and resume the combat. This isn't an exploit--it's the only way to win the game. Even with it, the death screen is a constant companion, but reloading takes mere seconds.
         
You see this screen a lot.
           
I have a few compliments. The graphics are some of the best we've seen for Ultima clones (although the doors and objects in the castle and town have no substance; you just walk over them.) The game avoids the rubbish we see in most Ultima clones in which enemies can move on the diagonal but you can't. This means you can generally outrun foes if you need to.

I also have no complaints about the interface, which uses the keypad for movement and sensible letters for common actions, like (A)ttack, (L)ook, and (S)tatus. Perhaps the most baffling of these commands is the "Z" key, which gives you a longitude and latitude. Anyone who could get lost on this completely linear 40 x 40 island should probably be playing another game.
           
Essentially the only use for the (L)ook command in the entire game.
          
There are NPCs in the town and castle, but only a couple have anything interesting to say, and for some of them, their lines are cut off. (I fiddled with some video settings towards the end and I think I fixed that.) The only important clues are for the final quest. Once and only once do you have to use the (O)ffer gold command to an NPC.
          
I have no idea what this NPC was going on about.
         
The (T)alk and (O)ffer systems come together towards the end. You learn from one NPC that only magic can kill a dragon. Another says you need to offer gold to get the dragon spell, and a third tells you that you have to offer it specifically to the Duke of Cora. There may be more letters there but the name got cut off. Anyway, the duke gives you the spell for 400 gold.
              
I should tell the king that you're forcing me to bribe you to save the kingdom.
          
After you kill a demon, the king's last quest is to kill a dragon. The dragon doesn't appear until you get the quest, but after you get it, he's right outside the castle. You simply have to cast the spell (the extra "magic points" you receive are for nothing) and the dragon dies.

The endgame scene, upon returning to the king, is a little funny. He's promised you riches and titles, and this is what you get:
             
"Well, to be quite honest with thee, I didst not think I wouldst see thee again. Thy feat be truly impressive, and the tongues of the Bards shall ne'er cease spewing thine glories." The king shakes your hand. "Thou mayst leave now."
             
The likely-outraged player hits a key, and then:
           
"Just kidding!" shrieks the king, noting your bloody weapon edging towards his quavering form. "I didst promise thee unbelievable riches, and thou shalt have them!" The king hands you a sack of gold coins. "The first of many, oh valiant one. And now, let the celebrations begin!"
           
That's more like it.
             
This is more than I ever got from Lord British.
           
Zerg was written by Michael Gordon Shapiro, who had previously messed around with Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set (1984) and had programmed some (unpublished) text adventures on his Commodore 64. It was Shapiro's only game as a designer, but he went on to a career as a composer for both game and film music. We won't see any of his future work because none of the games are RPGs, but they include Empire Earth II (2005), Empire Earth III (2007), and Star Trek: Conquest (2007). Zerg 1.0, which I played, was released in 1989, and was picked up by Fred Fish's freeware series, Fish Disk, on issue 252 that year. A version 1.2 came out in 1990. (I am indebted to this interview with Shapiro on Amiga PD for this summary.)

The game earns an 18 on my GIMLET, doing best in the areas of "Economy" (3) and "Graphics, Sound, and Interface" (3, none of it for the sound, as there is none). It manages to just tick off 1 or 2 in everything else. One hesitates to heap too much criticism on independently-developed freeware games, but I feel that Shapiro had a decent interface that suffered from a lack of content. A larger, more interesting game could have been built atop these mechanics. Then again, for a game I wanted to wrap up on New Year's Eve, its length was perfect.

***

I continue to get nowhere with The Seventh Link despite having put about 4 more hours into it. In a typical session, I start up, explore a bit, fight some creatures, but soon find that I haven't made enough money to pay the food bill, and I thus have to quit without saving my limited progress. I haven't leveled up or even figured out how to level up. I feel like I must be missing a dungeon somewhere--otherwise, the only thing to do next is somehow make enough gold for a ship, which seems impossible. If anyone has played the game and can offer me the necessary kick in the pants, I'd appreciate it.

Equally frustrating is a five-hour session I spent with Theldrow. (Posting about Theldrow was supposed to be my alternative to posting about The Seventh Link, but I couldn't make any progress in that game, either. This is why I was so grateful for Zerg.) Theldrow is insanely difficult in its opening stages, but that's not my problem. My problem is that I can't figure out anywhere to go. I've found the town of Boden, the nearby cemetery with its small crypt, and the secret forest passage that leads to the hermit's hut and the "Bizarre." That's all I can find. Despite ramming into every wall and searching every square, I have no idea how to get to the castle or any other area of the game. I welcome explicit hints for this one as well; otherwise, I may kick it back to 1988, which I think is its original year, and declare 1989 finished.

33 comments:

  1. Love that end game screen. I would have been tempted to give a bonus point for it.

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  2. Next quest: slay the evil kids who write graffiti on dead adventurers gravestones.

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  3. What a cute little game - I like the part about helping investors feeling more secure. That sounds actually relateable.

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  4. Regarding the Seventh Link: I saw a first part of a playthrough where someone found a companion (thief) and a ship in what looks like the castle at the beginning ("after some searching"). Plus a fountain that heals for free near the healer. It was never continued, though, and in the screenshots it looks like gold and food were edited to pretty high values.

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    1. I did a little exploring myself and managed to find a dungeon in the northeastern corner of the map. I don't know if you've found it yet, but maybe that would provide some traction?

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    2. Yeah, I got that far. Even with the fountain, it's such a long effort to try to grind and keep up with food costs, especially with two characters. And the ship only works in the dungeon. You can't sail it out to the open seas.

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    3. It might indeed, Adamantyr. I don't know how I kept missing it.

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    4. The map is deceptively larger than it appears... I also found some dude who identified as a monster in some mountain corner but I couldn't interact with him at all.

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    5. Did you actually manage to enter the dungeon? My game keeps calling for the dungeon disk and won't recognize it when I mount it.

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    6. Yeah, I got in. I just assigned Dungeon Disk to slot #0 and pressed 0. You should see a shot of a ladder briefly; moving causes things to go dark immediately.

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  5. Zerg! I actually know this one. I bought it with an Amiga Magazine featuring a disk with a game and also enjoyed it for some afternoons.
    Looking at it now, I must say, the graphics have aged really well, and if someone had made more games like Ultima V with these engines (something like the gold box series did very successfully), we would have a lot of classics to enjoy.
    Thanks for this little trip back!

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  6. I've often thought that what I need is a nice little Ultima clone, not too long or too difficult, that lacks the stupid jokes of Ultima, and I just wander around slaying monsters and getting better equipment and finding treasures for 10 hours or so. I'd write it myself if I had any talent.

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  7. Congrats on your Zerg rush, and here's to a new year of inscrutable and punishing CRPGs.

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  8. Antepenult is another Amiga-only Ultima homage that I thought was a 1989 release (the startup message log proclaims "Not © 1989", anyway). I remember it similar to Zerg insofar as being a low-difficulty palate cleanse, but with some care taken to its writing and implementation.

    Well, now I can't tell if it's 1989 or 1992. There was apparently a 1.1 update that might account for the difference.

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    1. And now I see it's on your master list for 1990. Missed seeing that the first time through.

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  9. During last summer you decided to bail out on Citadel: Adventure of the Crystal Keep. However you also said there was a hint book released for the game and it could be fun to play with it a guide. Citadel is your last unfinished game of the year and I think it would be a nice send-off to 1989.

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  10. 1996 isn't the right date for Fish disk #252, it was released long before that. Looking at Aminet (http://aminet.net/package/misc/fish/fish-0252) that disk was uploaded to Aminet in 1996, but all the file dates in it are 15th October 1989, which sounds right.

    I remember playing Zerg back in the day from the Fish disk. I too wished for a bit more content even then.

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    1. Thanks. I misunderstood the dates on that site. Corrections appended.

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  11. While I doubt I have a need to play more Ultima clones in my life, I absolutely love that ending. (Plus the bit about the investors.) <3

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  12. I wonder if the guys at Blizzard played this game :D

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  13. Not much comment on Zerg, except that I can also appreciate short and focused experience compared to longer game.

    On a totally different topic and real reason for my comment, I see Star Control 2 coming ; I am wondering whether it is better for the Addict to play Star Control 1 first (which is NOT an RPG, but a fun game in its own right) at least a couple hours to get a feeling of the universe and get some emotional investment in Alliance of the Free Stars vs The Hierarchy, or to move directly into Star Control 2.

    Also, should he play with the more recent version with voice-over, or without. The voice-over are just awesome.

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    1. It would be good to boot it up and look through the ship stat screens and read some of the scenario introductions, but I don't think otherwise playing it is in any way necessary.

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    2. I think that with the intro sequence and the wealth of exposition that Commander Hayes offers, Starcon 1 wouldn't be necessary to develop a sense of investment in the scenario.

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    3. 2 even does some minor retcons on 1's lore so it could probably be skipped, reading the manual is important though.

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  14. Isn't this the same guy that programmed this game? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Shapiro_(programmer)

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    1. No, different guy. The Zerg programmer is Michael Gordon Shapiro. That guy's middle initial is W.

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  15. So I really enjoyed Theldrow back in the day and eventually managed to get to the end. I seem to recall a way under the river through the forest that eventually leads underneath castle Cravenshaw. I do remember it was worth casting a lot of spells and then just resting/repeating to improve your magical skills as reliably being able to cast heal was a pretty big deal. And back in my youth I seem to recall a lot of save scumming to steal some of the good stuff from the shops. Once you have a decent weapon/armor and good magic, the difficulty ramps down significantly. I'll see if I can dig up my old maps/hints--I had a hintbook of sorts but it doesn't seem to be on the internet anymore so maybe I can dig it up on an old disk image. It is a good game, it just has a tough start.

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    1. So that jives with what I got in the game: a hint about a tunnel under the river. I just don't know how you get UNDER the river.

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  16. I am not sure if this is the way, but have you found the underground entrance in the forest? Go straight from the front gate of Boden, past the square with the text "The forest on this side of the river seems darker and more confusing." Turn right at the corner, go 2 forward. There's a path forward and a path to the right. Search in this spot until you find a secret passage to the left. You may have to search a lot. In that secret area you can go down to a cave.

    In the cave I was attacked by a swarm of ants, and failed to make a real dent in them. I had even save scummed stealing a scalemail and a longsword. So I think some grinding is needed. I just wish I remembered how you made any money in this game.

    With regards to the earlier Legends of the Lost Realm post where you asked about making backups, with Mini vMac I was able to make backups (save scum stealing stuff) by unmounting the drive and making a copy of the .dsk file in Windows.

    The process is a bit weird. I think you need to exit the game, close all the windows of the disk you want to backup, and then move the drive icon on the desktop into the trash can to unmount it. After this you can make the backup. I remember being truly baffled by this bit of design logic when my Mac friend introduced this to me.

    I'm not sure how Basilisk II handles mounting disks/drives, but I do suspect that whatever the emulator does, it must sync the state when you unmount the disk.

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    1. I was supposed to reply to the previous comment.

      Also, if you have the game or the save on the system disk, you can't unmount that. You need to move/copy it to a blank disk. I got my blank disks from the Mini vMac website under Extras - Blanks (https://www.gryphel.com/c/minivmac/extras/blanks/index.html). There are plenty of different blank images. I used a 5 MB one, but the floppy images probably suffice as well.

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    2. My apologies for the spam, but the place I mentioned is not the route to the castle. Or at least there is another, seemingly one way, route on the other side of the town at the dead end right by the river.

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    3. Thanks for the tips. I'll check it out. Having to search multiple times is probably where I failed.

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