Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Game 325: Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual (1992)

Magic Tower I: Dark Stone Ritual
Motelsoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for Atari ST
Date Started: 9 April 2019

This is my third attempt to play a title from the German developer Motelsoft, which cranked out at least 23 mostly-forgotten RPGs (as well as lots of non-RPG titles) between 1988 and 2003. A partnership between two developers, Harald Breitmeier and Heinz Munter, Motelsoft favored the Atari ST for their first 7 years but ultimately switched to DOS and then Windows. To call their games "obscure" is almost an understatement: Of the few sites that carry any information about Dark Stone Ritual, almost all of them have overlooked the fact that the main title of the game is Magic Tower I. But Motelsoft made up for notability with quantity. Based on the information on their web site, just two programmers produced between 5 and 12 games per year for almost two decades. If they borrowed many of their elements from other games, the speed and skill with which they did so is still impressive.
A subtitle screen supplies what most sites think of as the main title.
My first attempt at a Motelsoft title, 1988's Seven Horror's, went okay, but without documentation I never really knew what I was doing. The main party was composed of monsters, with weirdly-named character races like "hunches" and "megrims." The goal seemed to be the collection of seven artifacts from various dungeons, which I did, but I still couldn't figure out how to win. It just occurred to me that the game ought to go on the "Missing and Mysteries" list. My attempts to play Sandor (1989) were also hurt by a lack of documentation, plus the fact that I only seemed to have an evaluation copy. The game was a little more developed as an RPG and seemed to draw inspiration from SSI titles, particularly Demon's Winter (1988). I never found any obvious source for Seven Horror's.

It was thus without much expectation that I fired up Dark Stone Ritual and almost immediately found myself intrigued. To start, the creators had clearly been exposed to Might and Magic III (1991), which means they had to program Dark Stone Ritual quite fast. Not only have they replaced the attributes of the previous titles with the standard Might and Magic set (might, intelligence, personality, endurance, speed, accuracy, and luck), not even bothering to translate their abbreviations to German, but they've done a decent job mimicking the Might and Magic III character and inventory interfaces. Not only did they do this visually, such as the separation of equipment into different categories, but many of the mechanics also work the same way; for instance, clicking on an item in one character's inventory and then clicking on a different character will transfer the item.
The character screen. Note the odd mix of German text and English abbreviations.

And the inventory screen.
The outdoor interface remains top-down like the previous Motelsoft titles, but it's very in keeping with the Might and Magic III experience. The world is tiled, with little huts and caves dotting the landscape, most offering a textual encounter with an NPC. There are forest and mountain squares you can't navigate until you have the appropriate skill.

Once you enter a dungeon, castle, or other indoor area, the game switches to a first-person view that at first reminds you more of Dungeon Master than Might and Magic III, particularly with its navigation arrows and the switches to open doors. But the nature of the encounters within the dungeon are more in keeping with the Might and Magic tradition.
The question mark is akin to the "countertops" that Might and Magic III used to signify encounters in towns.
Combat goes its own way, slightly. The developers unfortunately didn't have the ability to show monsters in the environment, so combats pop up randomly as you explore, more like Might and Magic II than III. You get two combat options: schnell ("fast") and strategie ("strategy"). Fast combat plays a lot like Might and Magic III, just on a different screen. Each character acts in turn, attacking, parrying, using an item, or casting a spell, and the actions execute immediately like in the Might and Magic series (and unlike the Wizardry and Bard's Tale series, where they line up and then execute together). You cannot specify a particular enemy in this method.
"Fast' combat.
The strategic method offers the same options, but on a gridded map, where you can position your characters around specific enemies. It takes longer because you have to move and specify facing directions, but it's a better way to fine-tune your combat and prioritize specific foes.
Strategic combat. The compass is appreciated.
This is all a huge step up from Seven Horror's and Sandor (in between, I haven't played 1991's Projekt Terra or Sandor II yet), and it has the makings of an authentically fun game. I'm still figuring out quite a bit. In addition to being in German, which requires a translation pause on many screens, there appears to be no extant manual, and I have no idea what the main quest is.

I'm particularly keen to see how the spells develop. The cleric starts with just "Close Wounds" and the mage starts with just "Identify Monsters" and something called "Single-Shield." Other classes have spell points, suggesting they will eventually get spells. The game requires gems for some spells, again borrowing from Might and Magic.
Starting out with a new game.
Unfortunately, there are a few underdeveloped areas. The game seems to have no character creation process. It just starts you with a paladin named Monky, a knight named Sirus, a thief named Ellie, a priest named Knorr, and a sorcerer named Laura. (The classes have also changed to Might and Magic standards, though not all of them.) "Monky" and "Knorr" were also default character names in Seven Horror's. If there's any way to dump the default party and create your own, I haven't found it yet. But perhaps the worst part of the game is that absolutely nothing is accomplished with the keyboard. You have to click around with the mouse to do anything.
The party starts on an overland map with a few visible structures. The closest, a hut to the west, a guy named Kalak offers to sell grundausstattung ("basic equipment") to the party for 2,500 of its 12,000 starting gold pieces. This automatically equips each character with a kleines messer (small knife), a cap, a frock, sandals, and a wooden shield. This is a nice shortcut, though I would have still preferred a full equipment shop.
That guy doesn't look like he knows much about adventuring.
Nearby, entering a cave brings up a screen that challenges me to press four buttons in the correct order. No matter what I do, I find myself in a dungeon. A large castle-looking building to the south also has a dungeon.

Southeast of that is a tent where "Mira the Ranger" offers to teach me "Forestry" for 15,000 gold pieces. Either that or the "Mountaineer" skill is going to be necessary to progress very far, because in almost any direction there are objects that tell me I need those skills at a particular level to move on. In another hut, a guy is selling "information about Umure" for 200 gold pieces. I say yes the first time, and he tells me that there are 9 "marauding groups" lurking in the city, and that I should come back when I've "done it."
Notice the player's only reaction to not having enough skill.
Combats and treasures show up as you explore wilderness squares. So far, I've determined that the game has a skill system that determines what items you're able to wield and wear, but not much more than that. There's a food system and a rest system. Clicking other buttons brings up screens that suggest that someone with "Clairvoyance" skill can get an automap of the area. There's a button that seems to automatically take the party to the exit of the dungeon if they're deep into it, and another that allows you to wait in ambush for enemy parties. I haven't yet explored the nuances of any of these things.
I did finally find a weapon shop.
I leave you exploring Umure, which seems to be more a city than a dungeon. It has some marauding enemies, yes, but also a proper equipment shop, a tavern, a temple, and a training facility, again much like a Might and Magic town.
The tavern gives me the ability to sleep, eat, drink, and buy food, but not create new characters.
I haven't made a lot of progress, but I think I'll leave things here for the opening entry. My readers have a way of turning up documentation that I can't find. Motelsoft may have "borrowed" a lot for this one, but so what? It looks like the result is going to be fun.

Time so far: 2 hours


  1. I have a game manual (5 pages, in German). According to this manual, these are the game goals (not quite verbally translated by me):
    "Accept and complete all quests, or you might miss income opportunities and important passwords.
    Find all Mot Crystals and use them to activate the generators in all towns.
    Find all 7 darkstones and open all gates to Galmark's
    Get Galmark's staff.
    Defeat Necromina, the Queen of Darkness."

    1. OOPS! Looks like I confused Darkstone (from 1998) and Darkstone Ritual (from 1992). What I wrote above refers to Darkstone, not Darkstone Ritual. My apologies.

    2. Yep, Motelsoft loved recycling names... there's more than one game of theirs with Darkstone in its title!

    3. Until you told me that it was for another game, the instructions were sounding like they made sense for this one. I wonder if the 1998 game isn't just a remake of this one.

  2. On the first disk from the official download there is a file called help.pic. It is a text file which contains some major spoilers. The first one tells you how to get the task of the game:
    Sbytr qra Jnaqfpuvyqrea va Tybelf, qnaa mvrur qra Urory.
    Fb xbzzfg qh na qvr Nhstnor qrf Fcvryf.
    Sbyybj gur jnyy fvtaf va Tybelf, gura chyy gur yrire.
    Guvf vf ubj lbh trg gb gur gnfx bs gur tnzr.
    I never played the game, but I hope it helps!

    1. Wow. I never would have guessed that was a text file. Thanks!

  3. Somehow the portraits remind me of Realms of Arkania. Is there a connection to the series or is it just me and my German perspective? :)

    Anyhow, keep up the good work. I really enjoy your blog!

    1. The art style struck me as typically German as well.

  4. That screenshot with the question mark looks like its graphics were taken directly from Dungeon Master, colored a bit bluer, and then had the moss at the tops and bottoms of the wall added.

    1. It does. It just plays nothing like DM. There's no real-time combat and no navigational puzzles.

    2. Okay, not entirely true. I just found one minor navigational puzzle in a dungeon. Maybe they'll get more complex.

  5. "have no idea what the main quest is" - isn't that also in keeping with the Might&Magic formula?

    1. Very true. I should have emphasized my questions about the mechanics more than the quest. Things are becoming a little clearer as I continue, though.

  6. As for the interface being mouse-driven and the keyboard not doing much, I'm afraid that's a trend that will carry on through many of Motelsoft's games. I've played a couple of theirs, and as far as I've been able to determine, most of them were mouse-only. Maybe there's some way to activate keyboard commands but I highly doubt it.

  7. The download from http://www.motelsoft.de contains the manual (DarkstoneRitual.txt). Or what they call manual. The full text of the manual can also be found here (under instructions): http://www.atarimania.com/game-atari-st-dark-stone-ritual-magic-tower-i_32275.html

    The download page from Motelsoft lists the game under the name Darkstone Ritual, and didn't even mention the subtitel Magic Tower I. I think you have the name reversed, the manual also writes
    SIE SIND AUCH FÜR ANFäNGER LEICHT ZU BEWÄLTIGEN.". I guess they were a little bit confused about the name of the game...

    1. And the manual concludes with "Wir wünschen Ihnen viel Spaß mit DARK STONE RITUAL !"

    2. Yeah, I should have mentioned that I saw the text file, but it isn't really a manual. It's more like a FAQ written much later. It doesn't explain some very basic things, such as anything about the spell system. Perhaps this is all that the players got, though.

    3. At the German download site they call it Anleitung (manual). So that's all you get.

    4. The "manual" seems to contain a jab at another 1992 game, The Dark Eye/Realms of Arkadia: "In this game you don't have to stand before a specific door in a specific city at the 4th of a month at 15:35 to meet someone in particular who doesn't have to say anything anyway - we leave that to the Dark Eyes".

      Either this game was finished later in 1992 or the manual was added later. Anyway, it's not really that bad in the RoA games. :)

  8. I'm curious if all NPCs in this game stand uncomfortably close when talking.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Quite likely. Personal space varies so much across cultures. A friend from the US only told me after months I was making her uncomfortable by standing too close. Quite a shock.

    3. I'm reminded of the guards in front of some of the locations in Might & Magic IV. They're huge faces that fill the screen and either brusquely tell you to go away or to enter (depending on whether you have the appropriate entry item). They're voice-acted, too, which startled me the first time I played the game.

    4. I once read a funny anecdote about that. Some researchers were studying how personal space varies between cultured and had set up a cocktail party with people from various background and recorded it.

      One of the highlights was an American and a Japanese person talking. The American of course stood at his preferred distance, leaving quite a gap between them. So the Japanese man stepped closer. After a moment the American stepped back to his preferred distance. Again the Japanese stepped closer. So over the few minutes of their conversation, the pair traversed the entire length of the room from one side to the other like that. :P

    5. Given how much I hate almost everything about international travel--SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE, IS THERE NO WORD IN YOUR LANGUAGE FOR "COCKTAIL"?!?!?!--this is one thing I've never really noticed. Now I'm wondering if I have a habit of standing too close to people at home.

    6. Well, using the English word cocktail just sounds a lot more elegant than an awkward translation like Alkoholisches Mischgetränk :p

    7. Not many languages have one, apparently. Is that a pet peeve of yours?

      In Hungarian literature it is sometimes translated as "kevert ital" ("mixed drink"). Colloquially, it's just "koktél". Maybe the fact that we also have a pear brandy and rum concoction called "kevert" ("mixed"), has something to do with it, because that one's just a cheap, sugary swill.

    8. Well, the word "cocktail" is pretty ridiculous, if you think about it. Then again, what can you expect of a mongrel language with nonsensical pronunciation :P.

    9. Once you know about it, it's easy to spot whether you're standing too close. You just have to watch if the other person unconsciously moves away from you a bit after a moment.

    10. You guys took me too literally. It's not that I'm looking to translate "cocktail" so much as to obtain a cocktail. My experience with European bars is that they hardly have any mixers, don't know any of the American cocktail names, and lack most of the apparatus for making them, such as shakers and strainers. If I do manage to finagle something simple, like a gin and tonic, I get a glass of gin, a separate glass of tonic, and perhaps even a little metal bucket with ice and tongs. I just wanted a drink and I now have a whole kitchen in front of me.

    11. (Before anyone seriously gets on my case, the above was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, amusing in its lack of self-awareness, rather than an honest suggestion that international bars should bend to the whims of American visitors. Although that doesn't make it any less frustrating that they don't.)

    12. I'm actually surprised you've had these experiences, with the kinds of business hotels etc you're likely to have been to. Haven't been to a single hotel, casino or other bar in Austria or Germany where you couldn't get at least a half-decent cocktail. Many of them even had extensive cocktail menus and trained barkeepers. Might just be my bubble though?

    13. Yeah, cocktails should definitely b3 more common in European hotels than your experience suggests. Heck, even on my trip to Armenia last summer I managed to get a cocktail at the hotel bar, and that's a remote ex-soviet country.

      But the selection is probably much smaller across Europe than in the US. Usually it's just some standard types like Mojito and Cuba Libre. If you want more, you have to go to a specific cocktail bar. Pubs across Europe generally deal in more straightforward drinks - beer, wine, straight shots. You won't find cocktails in a standard pub, that's for sure.

    14. "wondering if I have a habit of standing too close" Greetings from Finland. Propably yes, people in general are really intrusive and oblivious about it. I assume they don't do it on purpose. https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/5blfam/finnish_bus_queue_personal_space_is_important/

  9. I started the game up and I couldn't find any character generation either. Both PARTY.DAT and the save files (*.GAM) have a very simple structure, though (one data item per line), so you could at least easily rename your charaters (after making a backup copy...).

    I tried a random combination on the cave dungeon and wasn't allowed to enter. Not sure what happened in your game.

    The guy you called Kallak is actually "Kallak's stange brother".


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