Friday, March 29, 2019

Game 322: Nemesis (1981)

Hey, it was a bare-bones era.
United States
SuperSoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1981 for CP/M
Date Started: 24 March 2019
Date Ended: 24 March 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 12
Ranking at time of posting: 17/327 (5%)

In 1977, the innovative first-person dungeon crawler Oubliette appeared on the PLATO mainframe system at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Two students, aspiring programmers, became convinced of its commercial potential. Taking various elements from the game, they reprogrammed it for the microcomputer and released their version in 1981, offering no credit or acknowledgement to the Oubliette authors. The game was a smash hit and launched a dynasty of sequels and imitators, influencing the genre down to the present day.

The last sentence makes it clear that the above paragraph was about Wizardry, but take it out and you also have a description of Nemesis, one of a very small number of RPGs released for the CP/M operating system. The CP/M was a popular OS for Intel 8086 and 8088 computers in the 1970s, and based on most accounts, it would have been the OS of choice for the new IBM-PC if some issues hadn't arisen over a non-disclosure agreement, leaving the door open for Microsoft to sell IBM on PC-DOS, which ironically took some of its elements from CP/M. If things had gone another way, Nemesis might have been one of the first RPGs for a booming OS rather than one that died the same year.
A mix of D&D, Tolkien, and Donaldson in the race list was an early clue.
Like Wizardry, Nemesis isn't an exact copy, and has plenty of its own innovations, so we shouldn't go too far in making accusations of plagiarism and such. In fact, in making their adaptation, the authors--Michael A. Pagels and Michael Q. Hiller--changed enough of the elements (in particular getting rid of the 3-D interface) that I might not have noticed the association. What tipped me off was the use of "ur-vile" (from Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series) as a character class. I knew I'd seen that before, searched my blog, and came up with my entry on Oubliette. From there, I noticed that the list of races for the two games were exactly the same, in the same order, excepting the replacement of "Eldar Elf" with "Grey Elf." Then I got hold of the game manual and noted that the address for SuperSoft was a post office box in Champaign.

Getting the game running was no picnic. The only reliable CP/M emulator that I could find (Simeon Cran's MicroFast) was for DOS, which put me in the weird position of running an emulator within an emulator. The game then requires you to create a configuration file for the terminal you're using before you can run it. It has configurations programmed for numerous terminals, but none of them seemed to overlap with the various options offered by MicroFast. Actually, one did--the D.E.C. VT-52--but I overlooked it for a while, wasted a lot of time trying to define my own terminal type, and nearly gave up before I figured it out.

Nemesis is necessarily dumbed-down from Oubliette. Microcomputers of 1981 had nothing like the resources of the PLATO mainframe. Oubliette's explorable "town" level with numerous shops, inns, and so forth was (like in Wizardry) turned into a menu town. Instead of a party, a single character adventures alone. Combat is rendered considerably easier as a consequence.

But the basic rules, logistics, and statistics come directly from Oubliette, which itself drew heavily from Dungeons & Dragons and a few other sources. Character creation has you choose first from 15 races: human, elf, dwarf, half-dwarf, half-elf, hobbit, orc, uruk-hai, ogre (misspelled "orge"), pixie, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, ur-vile, and grey elf. The game then randomly rolls for your strength, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, constitution, dexterity, gold, and (weirdly enough) sex. The rolls are modified by your race choice. You also choose an alignment from lawful, neutral, or chaotic, which was also used by Oubliette but goes back to original D&D.
Choosing a class after rolling attributes.
You can re-roll as many times as you want before accepting the character, at which point you choose from a list of available classes, with those that don't meet your minimum attributes filtered out. There are 15 classes, and they again match Oubliette's list in names and order, except for the substitution of "rogue" for thief and "featheror" for courtesan. Nemesis's full list is cleric, demondim, featheror, hirebrand, mage, minstrel, ninja, paladin, raver, peasant, ranger, rogue, sage, samurai, and valkyrie. After a few false starts with boilerplate characters (e.g., an ogre hirebrand), I decided to aim for a "minstrel" because it amused me to think of a blackfaced adventurer pratfalling his way through a dungeon while belting a tune about his mammy down in Alabamy.

The menu town has an armory for buying and selling weapons and armor, a hospital, an inn, and Archives. Hospitals and inns both let you restore hit points. Hospitals cost money but heal you a lot faster (in game days) than inns, which has implications for your longevity. The Archives is where you go to pay money to have unknown items identified. New characters have no equipment, but they also have so little gold that you usually can't buy anything. Even a "pointed stick" costs over 100 gold pieces. So you enter the dungeon and take a chance with your hands.
Visiting the store. I have no idea why I'd need a hanky, brick, or beenie.

Visiting the hospital after a rough dungeon trip.
Gameplay consists mostly of wandering the 21 x 23 dungeon levels, picking up equipment as you find it, and killing monsters as they attack you. The items you find almost immediately outclass what's available in the store, so you mostly use gold for healing and identifying items in the archives. You want to stay near the entrance until you gain a few levels and extra hit points; although combat is relatively easy on Level 1, the game still features permadeath, and you can always get unlucky.

The dungeon is rendered in roguelike fashion, with ASCII characters representing the walls and doors, rather than in the 3D graphical fashion of Oubliette. It's possible that the developers were exposed to Rogue but equally possible that they came up with the idea independently. In addition to stairs, players can encounter chutes and pits to lower levels, teleporters, anti-magic rooms, anti-cleric rooms, "melee rooms" (every square has a combat), and special treasure rooms. You maneuver with the URLD keys.
Making my way through the dungeon. The character is a flashing underscore, so don't ask me to find it on this static shot.
Combat is drawn largely unchanged from Oubliette. When you encounter an enemy party, you're taken to a separate screen where you can see your own statistics and inventory and the enemy groups that you face. Your options are only (F)ight, (C)leric spell, (M)age spell, and (U)se a special item. There is no fleeing or parrying. Even worse, the point of most of the character classes is nullified, as the authors failed to adapt any of their special abilities. Courtesans/"featherors" and minstrels can no longer charm enemies; rogues and ninjas can't hide; clerics cannot dispel undead; paladins cannot lay on hands. There is a suggestion that some of these abilities were intended for a sequel.
I believe the primary party I'm fighting is orcs, but I caught this in the process of refreshing the screen. Two mediums (priestly classes) have joined the battle.
Other monsters may appear to join a battle in progress. As you kill them, you see your experience and gold increase. Leveling happens when you leave the dungeon, and it's accompanied by increases in maximum health and spell points.

Nemesis offers 55 different monster types, and all of them appear in Oubliette with a few exceptions, and those exceptions are all simple substitutions. For instance, Oubliette's giant spider and giant ant become "huge spider" and "large ant" in Nemesis. Oubliette has a lot more monsters than Nemesis; those that didn't make the cut tend to be the higher-level monsters like dragons, medusas, and advanced spellcasters, and I suspect that the Nemesis authors didn't know how, or didn't have the space, to program those enemies' special attacks.
The game's town. Oubliette had stores, hospitals, and inns, but I think the Archives are original to this game.
There is some overlap in the games' spells, but on the other hand, the 13 mage spells and 11 cleric spells offered by Nemesis are common enough that they could have come from anywhere. Nemesis doesn't require you to know a spell code name to cast its spells. They are separated into travel spells ("Light," "Protect," "Levitate") and combat spells ("Damage," "Sleep," "Fireball"), and each depletes a number of magic points from the character's pool.

There's no main quest or winning condition in Nemesis. The manual encourages you to set your own goals, such as a certain experience level or treasure level. Survival isn't very hard if you can live past Level 0 and if you play conservatively, for instance returning to the surface when you've lost half your health. The game earns only a 12 in my GIMLET, with no element rising above a 2. It is particularly hurt by the lack of any backstory, NPCs, or quests (all 0).
Ironically, one of the monster types that the game did not adapt from Oubliette was dragons.
The manual indicates that Nemesis II was already under development when Nemesis shipped. The creators intended to bring multi-user capabilities to the sequel. Players were invited to join the "Nemesis User Group," which met at Hiller's residence, to test the new adventure. Alas, it was never finished.

Pagels, Hiller, and SuperSoft issued at least two other products: a multi-player science fiction game called StarJump and a dungeon level and character editor called Nemesis Dungeon Master. The latter came with the edition of Nemesis that I downloaded, but it must have been a late addition because the manual doesn't mention it at all.
The Nemesis Dungeon Master character editor.
On a Google Group about a year ago, Pagels indicated that he and Hiller "had a great time writing this game, and it helped pay for grad school." Neither continued in the gaming industry. I reached out to both for comments but didn't get a response.

If we ever get hold of OrbQuest (1981), we may have a challenger, but until then, I'm willing to call Nemesis the best CRPG issued for the CP/M operating system. I'm glad we had a chance to check it out.


  1. CP/M, oh wow... While my dad had a CP/M machine back in the day in the attic, I was too young back then. Let's see if I can hold of this DOS-based emulator, I'd love to toy with it.

    Even today on modern machines, it should still be so fun to try to develop a standalone single-player RPG (not a Roguelike for a change) with pure text-based user interface, I'd think.

  2. I think a part of the third paragraph is missing, what did you find in the manual?

    1. Never mind the problem seems to have been on my end, the paragraph is fully there now.

  3. CP/M was just an option for 8086 and 8088 CPU. The ones that had it as main os were the earlier 8080 and 8085 from intel. Also, if I'm not mistaken, it was available for z80 and motorola ones

    1. Ah thanks, I'll dig more in its history :)

    2. Yes, there are versions of CP/M for multiple home computers. Commodore even bundled it with their Commodore 128, a strange beast with two main processors (Z80 & MOS 8502). In Z80-mode it'd use CP/M.

    3. All CP/M really required in terms of hardware was a processor that could run 8080 instructions, 16KB of RAM, and a floppy drive. This being both fairly basic and being able to use nothing but off the shelf parts is probably a big reason why CP/M was king for a while. Somewhat ironically, the same thing applying to the IBM PC and DOS as a result is what helped kill it in the end

    4. I have a Commodore 128 and the version of CP/M that runs on it is very crippled because the Z80 chip has to be slowed down in half from 4 MHz to 2 MHz in order to keep everything in sync with the C128's 80-column video chip. The Commodore marketing team tried to push that machine's CP/M capability as a way to run commercial business software like WordStar. But trying to run WordStar on the 128 is horrible. You're just better off using a word processor programmed for the Commodore 128 running on the 8502 CPU itself.

      But Commodore only had to pay $3 for each Z80 chip on the Commodore 128 and they paid a pittance to license CP/M on that machine as well because that operating system was basically on it's last legs.

      Ironically, the Commodore 128 had bugs with how the system booted and they fixed those bugs by having the Z80 chip handle that machine's boot sequence.

      The main reason why I use CP/M on my 128 is to play Nemesis anyway.

  4. Considering the trouble you had with CP/M, I both hope there aren't any UNIX exclusive games on your list, and can't wait to see how you handle games that only run on old versions of Windows

    1. Indeed. Ironically, these days is easier to run some old windows games on Linux with wine than on windows 10

    2. Windows 3.11 can be run under Dosbox without problems. I've seen people emulate older versions of Windows, too, up to Windows 1. Newer versions of windos can be installed in a VirtualBox VM. In all cases, you will need a licence to operate it legally.

      Unix shouldn't be a problem, there are plenty of free derivates like OpenSolaris and FreeBSD. If the source code is available you can often compile it under Linux.

    3. There are very few games that require Windows 3.1, and I don't think there are any at all that require an earlier version. Developers just kept using DOS right up to the point that Windows became a true OS and not just a DOS shell.

      I'm more worried about games that required Windows 95 through Windows XP, but I'll just deal with it when I get to them.

    4. I have tried and failed to get Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol, an old Windows game (95 I think), running on my Windows 10 box (I had previously run it on XP). Suggestions I read online involved creating a separate partition with an old Windows installed on it, which was a step I wasn't willing to take. Good luck once you get up to those styles of game, I'm sure it will be a pain.

    5. For older Windows, I'd try to do it via virtualization. VirtualBox is a good opensource option

    6. For Win95, VirtualBox or PCem will be useful, they are already pretty good, and by the time Mr. Addict will get to those games, they should be as reliable as DOSBox.

      As for Win98 and above, quite a lot of games run OK under Win 7 or 10, with compatibility options enabled. For others, some wrappers/hookers like DxWnd can do the trick.

    7. PCem is as reliable as DOSBox now. The chief problem with it is that Pentium emulation requires a fair bit of horsepower on the host computer.

      Windows 9x works very well on it, and it emulates early 3d accelerator cards as well as other legacy hardware.

      2000/XP is likely to be the biggest problem, but one that won't arise for another 8 blog-years.

    8. Honestly, the easiest way is probably going to be just buying a era correct computer and setting it up. As I understand for most of the 90s it's not even that expensive to set up what would have been the absolute best gaming computer available in its era so that you can make sure all the graphics and whatnot settings are maxed out.

    9. I have been using pcem and virtualbox for years and are way easier to use than an old computer. Windows (any) works on them like a charm. Less desktop space needed. Snapshots on virtualbox. Be able to upgrade with a couple of mouse clicks, self contained...
      I did enough of hw tinkering in my youth, virtualization and emulation are just awesome

    10. That won't help you with old graphics hardware though, when things need a GPU compatible with an older directX version, or the audio was written for an older sound card. There are a number of games that are infamous for being hard to visualize for this reason.

  5. I posted about Nemesis a few years ago here:

    ... and I'm glad that you have finally gotten around to reviewing the game. It is a very stripped-down version of Oubliette, but it is certainly an interesting curiosity. There weren't many RPG games made for CP/M and Nemesis certainly deserved a mention on your blog.

    I'm actually just about finished developing my own retro RPG game, "Realms of Quest V". I have a dev blog about it on Twitter:

    The tentative release date is June 1. My publisher, Double Sided Games has made a teaser video about it:

    Admittedly, I am blowing my own horn a little bit. But one of my RPGs, "Realms of Quest I" is on the CRPG Addict's list of games that he will eventually get around to playing. I don't expect a very high GIMLET score for that--I made that game in the span of a few weeks when I was still in school.

    I am a huge fan of Oubliette. I actually interacted with John Gaby (one of the original programmers) a few years ago by email and he was kind enough to send me a test version of Oubliette for iOS as he was still developing it.

    A lot of the game mechanics for Realms V is quite similar to Oubliette. There are 16 races and 16 classes (I did remove references to Tolkien and Thomas Covenant--renaming Uruk-Hai to Vurdulak and Ur-Vile to Zzy-Zzyx). It's not just a Dungeon crawler, though. Wrapped around the game engine is a world that can be explored on a big world map (and the game will come in a cardboard box, printed manual and a cloth map) with cities, just like Ultima. Writing conversation text for 200 citizens of the game world was also more difficult to do than I had anticipated as well. The game is basically a Oubliette/Ultima pastiche.

    But as a tribute to Oubliette I just _had_ to put in the Courtesan class and yes, the Courtesan can seduce a humanoid monster in the heat of battle to get it to switch sides and join the 10-player party as an NPC (each player can have it's own summon/controlled or NPC attached to it).

    1. I'm sure that comment was why I added Nemesis to the list, along with OrbQuest. I can see that I meant to contact you for your C64 versions, and I overlooked that while preparing for this entry. Thanks for offering anyway.

    2. Is this the first game that incorporates bestiality as a mechanic?

    3. There is no bestiality in my game?

  6. "Even worse, the point of most of the character classes is nullified, as the authors failed to adapt any of their special abilities. Courtesans/"featherors" and minstrels can no longer charm enemies; rogues and ninjas can't hide; clerics cannot dispel undead; paladins cannot lay on hands. There is a suggestion that some of these abilities were intended for a sequel."

    The game itself is even incomplete. I find it odd that you're a single player who fights groups of monsters. I imagine that a lot of players of Oubliette on the PLATO terminals also played by themselves and this is almost like a simulation of that.

    "If we ever get hold of OrbQuest (1981), we may have a challenger, but until then, I'm willing to call Nemesis the best CRPG issued for the CP/M operating system. I'm glad we had a chance to check it out."

    I was never able to find OrbQuest as well. Despite it's flaws, Nemesis is an interesting curiosity and I really like the manual.

    And there is a PDF of "Nemesis Dungeon Master" available at MOCAGH:

    I never played around with it much. But the purpose of that program is to allow you to create your own dungeons and then let others play it. Presumably, this was to add replay value to the game after all of the dungeons were explored.

    1. I just realized I meant to make a comment about the illustrations in the manual, and somewhere along the line I forgot. They're not spectacular, but they add some variety to the otherwise relentless monospaced paragraphs.

  7. A minstrel is just a singing entertainer. Has nothing to do with Mammy in Alabama.

    1. In US minstrel shows apparently refer specifically to such. I was not aware of this myself before the recent politicans in blackface -news. However I wouldn't be surprised if that was the more immediate association for some. I did personally find it weird, given the context of paladins and whatnot make the original meaning more immediate. Still, not all jokes/concepts land on all folks, so I don't really mind the occasional (to me) non sequitur.

    2. Yes, I am aware that "minstrel" has historical uses that make sense in this context (e.g., bard). However, in the U.S. the term has become associated with the "minstrel show" of the 1800s and early 1900s, perhaps more so for a jazz fan like me (minstrel shows are an inextricable part of the history of ragtime, jazz, and American popular song) than others.

      Normally, I would chafe at having to explain an obvious joke, but I realize that the joke probably went way over the heads of non-U.S. readers.

    3. "it amused me to think of a blackfaced adventurer pratfalling his way through a dungeon while belting a tune about his mammy down in Alabamy."

      Seems to be one of those amusements that might be best left out of the public domain though.

    4. To be honest, Minstrel (=middle age) seems more era-appropriate than bards (=ancient history). But then it is true we also have "druids".


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