Saturday, October 19, 2019

Game 341: Shape Shifter (1992)

Shape Shifter
United States
Independently developed and released as shareware
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 17 October 2019
Date Finished: 18 October 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Some years ago, I modified my rules to allow myself to reject independent games "if they are clearly amateur efforts with no innovations or accolades attached to them." I have never invoked the rule. The problem with the rule is that it almost seems like there's at least one innovation to explore. It's only after several hours, when you've committed to the game (or else you'll have nothing else to publish), that you realize that you've been hoodwinked.

In the case of Shape Shifter, the element that sucked me in was right there in the title. You play a non-human character who can polymorph from a tiger to a snake to a mouse. The tiger, we learn, is strong and good at combat, but also slow and obvious, thus inviting more encounters. The snake avoids most combat, the mouse almost all of it. I figured the game would feature some interesting puzzles and encounters that relied on the ability to shape-shift.
The game opens with the player as a tiger.
The manual establishes the land as Vor Terra. Creatures of Chaos are invading the world via a rift in the space-time continuum. To face the threat, Lord Drelx Axtvqar created the Absomal Fxile, a council of the most intelligent (which, ironically, the manual repeatedly spells as "intellegent") creatures in the land. The Absomal Fxile sequestered itself in an impenetrable palace. "It is the goal of every living creature," the manual offers, "to one day join rule with the Absomal Fxile," whatever that means. To gain access to the palace, the character will need to significantly increase his knowledge and solve a variety of puzzles.
I explore another part of the world as a snake.
Character creation asks only for a name, after which the character begins in tiger form. Statistics are strength, knowledge, speed, and health. The numbers redistribute every time you change forms; for instance, the starting character has 55 strength and 25 speed as a tiger, 25 strength and 45 speed as a snake, and 20 strength and 55 speed as a mouse.
Checking my statistics on a city street.
As you explore the land, random encounters mess with your statistics. Angry gnats, chill winds, and snare traps sap your health. A "horrible darkness" decreases health and knowledge. The goddess Sona Luna might suddenly decide to increase your health and knowledge, or "friendly wicker people" might give you a boost to strength, speed, and knowledge. Two of the cities have temples to gods who alternately boost and decimate your statistics.
A random event costs some health.
There are also combat encounters, and here the developer shows something of Chuck Dougherty's (Questron) inventiveness with monster names--if Dougherty had endeavored to make them all unpronounceable. You face off against Illio Mucks, Nubliagg Frimuth Teroptts, MetzoBraums, Altzo Mafts, and Thraxiax Runners, among others. You and they do an amount of damage determined by your speed and strength. You get "credits" with every victory.
Combat is a rote exchange of blows with weird creatures.
The game takes place on 9 adventure screens arranged 3 x 3. The palace is in the far northwest. There are five other cities and towns to enter, each consisting of a single street of structures. Some of them are random buildings that you can search and talk to the residents. Others are more classic RPG facilities like taverns, healers, temples, and shops selling potions that temporarily increase strength and speed. There are no explicit weapons or armor in the game.

An all-keyboard interface works reasonably well, with arrows for movement and the occasional use of easy-to-remember commands like (E)nter, (I)nventory, and (U)se. The screen shows your available options in special circumstances.
Getting a clue from a tavern patron.
So far, none of this sounds too bad, but the game simply doesn't add up to anything interesting or enjoyable. The world is extremely small, and you can explore the 9 screens and 5 cities and towns in significantly less than an hour. There are no puzzles in these locations. You have to acquire an inventory of artifact items, but you simply find them on your first search of the houses in which they're secreted. (And in a bit of amateur programming, you keep finding them every time you search the houses, even if they're already in your inventory.) There are also clues to find, but you get them by simply hitting T)alk in obvious locations.
A magical ring just laying about in an abandoned house.
Worse, there's really no reason to use the titular shape-shifting ability. No puzzle or encounter requires you to be a particular animal. (I think there's one tavern where they don't talk to snakes, but that's it.) You might want to swap out of tiger form to avoid combat, but combat is how you earn money, and as long as you replenish hit points by paying for healing, combat isn't all that dangerous.

Over the course of the game, you learn that a key artifact--the Crystal Heart--is in a tower in the southwest part of the map. To enter the tower, you need three keys. Two of them are found in deterministic locations in cities, but the third appears as part of a random encounter in the wilderness, meaning you have to wander around until you get it. By then, you've probably assembled most of the other items and clues you need to solve the encounters in the palace. 
Only one thing to do in the "tower."
You encounter one odd issue in that once you achieve a certain speed threshold--around 25--you successfully avoid all encounters. The problem is that a few key items and clues only appear with random encounters, so you can character-develop yourself out of victory unless you get lucky and pray to a god who takes umbrage and busts you back below the speed threshold.
One of the keys needed for the tower only appears as a random encounter.
The hardest part of the game is finding the Fire Lizard's Bladder that you need to--uck--eat to immunize yourself to a poison mist that surrounds the palace. It only shows up in random encounters, possibly after a certain knowledge threshold, and I began to despair that I would ever find it. I finally got it after wandering and fighting for about an hour.

Part of the endgame sequence involves dealing with Earth Demons . . . 

. . . and crossing a "Rainbow Bridge."
The endgame takes place at the palace, where you have to use all your artifacts in sequence. You eat the bladder to escape the mists. You use the "silk wings" to get over the wall. You use the Ring of Flame to destroy some Earth Demons. You use an Amulet of Knowledge to safely cross a Rainbow Bridge. You appease a guardian by giving him the Crystal Heart. Finally, you speak five words of entrance at the door to the Absomal Fxile. All of these solutions are provided in very straightforward clues throughout the game.

It would be easy to make a typo on this final screen.
The final message tells you that you have achieved the honor of joining the Absomal Fxile, "the most prestigious council in the land." A final victory screen precedes the DOS prompt.
I can't decide if it sounds more like a weapon or a tumor.
With 1s and 2s across the board, Shape Shifter earns a 17 on the GIMLET. It's ultimately too trite and unchallenging, and it fails to live up to the promise of its premise. 

The game's author was Jeffrey P. Kintz of Waukegan, Illinois. (He goes by "J. Kintz" in all the documentation.) A 1999 biography indicates that Kintz was 19 when he wrote Shifter. He claims his primary inspirations as the Ultima series, Moebius (1985), and the adventure game Below the Root (1984), although it's hard to see the influence of any of them in his own work.

Shifter was his second game; his first was a horror-themed adventure game called Dismal Passages (1992) in which a protagonist tries to avenge his family's death by tracking down a wraith. Over the subsequent decade, he would churn out half a dozen games, including The Dark Convergence (1993) and its sequel (1994), Elkinloor (1995), a 1995 remake of Dismal Passages, Vor Terra (1996), Borderworld (1996), The Darkest Night (1997), Savage Future (1999), and Lost Infinity Part 1: Roquan's Farewell (2001). All of them except Vor Terra seem to be adventure games, although some of them are set in the same world as Shape Shifter. Enough feature non-human protagonists that it seems to have been something of a thing with Kintz, and in his bio he brags about the appearance of several of his games in a "Furry Video Game Database."
A shot from Dismal Passages, which appears to have no character creation.
He sometimes published under the label of Aries Software and sometimes Midlothian Software. Although there are signs that his games do get better, Kintz strikes me as one of those Ed-Woodish creators (see this entry for more on Wood and developers I associate with him) whose enthusiasm for making games far surpasses his skill. I tried to see what he's been up to in the last couple decades, but my search led me down some weird paths perhaps best left undiscussed in case I accidentally picked up the trail of the wrong Jeff Kintz.

Apparently, registering Shifter got players a free copy of a sequel called The Sun Demon in which the character faced the origin of the Creatures of Chaos. I was unable to find an extant copy.

If nothing else, an independent one-and-done is a good way to build some momentum after a long break. We'll continue with Fantasyland 2041 soon. For those of you wondering about The Magic Candle III, for some reason I was unable to muster any enthusiasm when I fired it up the other day. I figured I'd best table it for a while longer and play a few games that intrigue me more.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Game 340: Fantasyland 2041 (1981)

Fantasyland 2041
United States
Crystalware (developer and original publisher); Epyx (later publisher)
Released in 1981 for Apple II and Atari 800
Date Started: 9 October 2019
I had already passed through the 1980s at least twice before someone recorded Crystalware's catalogue on MobyGames. The company was so prolific that it's hard to believe that its absence on my blog went unremarked for so long. Between 1980 and 1982, the company--founded by John and Patty Bell--produced at least seven games with enough RPG elements to make my list, including the already-covered House of Usher (1980) and Beneath the Pyramids (1980). They may have produced the first Japanese RPG, with Dragon Lair (1982) appearing the same year as the better-known The Dragon & Princess.

Fantasyland 2041 (the manual tags the title with an A.D. but the title screen does not) is clearly meant to be the apogee of John Bell's contributions to the genre as an author if not as a publisher. He even writes in the manual that, "This will probably be the last great Fantasy that I write." The game combines themes from several mythologies and shipped on seven disks, which must have been some kind of record for 1981. It's too bad that Bell wasn't writing in a technological era that could better accommodate his ambitions.
The game had epic ambitions, but these were not epic platforms.
Thematically, Fantasyland combines elements from Disney World, the film Westworld (1973), and the television series Fantasy Island (1977-1984). It takes place in a giant live-action-role-playing theme park, presented as the natural future of Crystal Computing, although one which the owners ("John B." and his "pretty young Swedish wife, Patty") have been forced by "religious zealots" to set up in the Australian Outback. The entrance fee is $3 million.

The park consists of seven sections, each contained on its own diskette: the introductory Hall of Heroes, Congoland, Arabian Adventure, King Arthur, Olympus, Captain Nemo, and Dante's Inferno. The ostensible goal is to rescue Guinevere (if you're a male) or Lancelot (if you're female), but beneath everything is a Great Mystery, and Crystalware offered $1,000 to the first people to solve it, with separate awards going to Apple and Atari victors.

The game begins with your little character standing at the entrance to the Hall of Heroes, although it tries to have things both ways by presenting what looks like a first-person view but then having the character walk "up" past the doorway, past the roof, and past the screen text to enter the opening that goes to the "real" hall. The background continuously scrolls rather than presenting as discrete screens.
The game often suggests a first-person perspective even though the character walks around the screen from a top-down perspective.
The rooms beyond the entrance are full of objects and companions that you can buy for various amounts of money. (You start with 5,000 gold pieces.) In the first room alone, I was offered a diving suit, a diver, a horse, a Zulu warrior, a zombie, rations, a submarine called the Tari, fuel, a blowgun, a samurai, a cabin boy, an archer, a knight, a crossbow, and a tunic.
Maybe later.
The items and positions are randomized for each new game. After a few false starts, I learned that you want to purchase as many resources as you can, and as many companions as you need to carry them, in the Hall of Heroes. You continue to find treasure and to get opportunities to spend it later in the game. You have to make sure you buy plenty of rations, or you and your companions will immediately starve to death.
Some of my inventory after initial purchases.
I had expected the other lands to branch off the Hall of Heroes like spokes, but instead you explore them in a linear order, starting with Congoland. The area consists of around 12 screens of various terrain features, offered in the manual as "jungles," "mountains," and "swamps." As you explore, you can find treasure chests with gold or valuables (e.g., bone necklaces, emeralds, diamonds) that you can later sell. Mountainous areas feature crevices in which you can lose your equipment and companions, and swamps feature sinkholes that perform the same function. Occasionally, you have to have a particular item to progress; for instance, a plank or boat to cross a river or a lantern to see in a cavern.
Losing a gem in the mountains of Congoland.
Controls are even more basic than the previous Crystalware games. The joystick moves the party, and the only keyboard commands that you use often (at least in the starting area) are A)ttack and F)lee when encountered by enemy parties, P)ick up, D)rop, U)se, and T)rade.

You get attacked a lot as you explore, by area-appropriate enemies like tigers, gorillas, headhunters, and Zulu warriors. The character doesn't really fight in these battles, instead trusting in his army of companions. (If they all die, the character dies soon afterwards.) Their numbers plus their weapons and armor make up the army's combined strength, pitted each round against the enemies', with round-by-round losses on both sides fairly formulaic depending on the variances in strength. Victories don't really confer any benefit to the party except the opportunity to loot enemy equipment, so I think it's a good idea to flee from most battles. Overall, the combat system is rather underdeveloped. Coupled with the inventory system and the way certain items are needed in certain places, the game feels not unlike Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979).
My party squares off against some natives on the other side of a river.
One repeated encounter is with a "witch doctor," who will join you if you defeat him in the first round of battle. He comes with a shrunken head and earth magic, which you can use like an item of equipment. He can die in combat, but if he does, eventually another will approach you.

Eventually, you cross a river in the northeast (you may have to fight a pack of piranhas) and make your way to Kabunga Village. There, you can stop at the various huts to sell valuables and buy adventuring equipment and companions, including most of what you need in Congoland specifically. North of Kabunga Village is a "banana grove" where every tree offers some rations.
Trading in Kabunga Village.
In the far northeast corner is the entrance to King Solomon's mines, a maze for which you need a lantern or else you lose an item every few steps.
In case we catch malaria.
It took me several abandoned characters and hours before I understood the game enough to make it to the mines. The manual recommends that you "conquer the sorcerer of Congoland" before you enter the mines. I wasted a lot of time looking for him before I realized that's simply a fancy name for the witch doctor that you encounter repeatedly.

The mines contain the same sorts of treasure and encounters as the wilderness area. At the center, I found King Solomon's Temple with the spirit of Solomon blocking a door and the number "666" on the floor. Using the witch doctor's earth magic made the ghost disappear, allowing me to enter the chamber beyond and transition to Cathay, the opening village of Arabian Adventure.
The final screen of Congoland.
Before I continue, let's talk about the manual and the so-called Great Mystery. I think I explored Congoland comprehensively, and I didn't find anything with any text except for the "666," although there might have been more to find in Solomon's Mine. I suspect that solving the Great Mystery is going to have something to do with the manual and the stories it relates about six sample adventurers and their initial explorations of each land. The first section relates the story of "Tisha: Queen of the Jungle," who gets this riddle as she enters Congoland:
Northeast as the crow flies deep in the bowels of the earth
The treasures of Solomon, his Gods, his worth
10,000 wives and concubines to make a temple fair
A young lad who he deeply loved with long and flowing hair
Bagies burnt on hilltop fires, a nation plunges down
A thousand temples to Pagan Gods the King has lost the crown
A magic ring the demons shrink and on that ring a sign
The eater of heads a mystery is hidden in the rhyme
One two three four five six seven -- 666 or 777
22 clues from here to there--from the bottom neath the squid
To the Dragon's Lair
Other than the 666, which I found on the floor of Solomon's Temple, none of the imagery in the poem seems to correspond to the features in Congoland. There's a similar poem to go with "Thomas of Arabia's" adventures in the game's version of the middle east.

Arabian Adventure switches background and text color but otherwise plays much like Congoland. You can purchase goods and companions in Cathay and in the city of Baghdad to the far northwest. In between are treasure chests, sandstorms that make you lose inventory, oases where you can gather food, and a curiously large group of locked doors that you can unlock with keys found in the chests. Monsters include scorpions and "Turks."
Reaching Baghdad ends this level.
A couple of chests refer you to the manual to look up, for instance, "Treasure #5." This turns out to be a giant golden Buddha that I can't even begin to carry. The use of treasure numbers with manual descriptions was earliest seen in the Dunjonquest series, and it's possible that the Crystalware titles owe more to Dunjonquest than I have previously speculated.
Six giant golden Buddhas on the outskirts of Cathay.
You escape the Arabian Adventure via a door in Baghdad. It's blocked by a genie who only moves when you use the air magic of your own genie. The door leads the player to King Arthur's realm and the third adventure and game disk.
I suspect the "sorcerer" will end up playing the same role as the witch doctor and the genie.
I have a feeling it's not going to be too hard to simply whisk through all the levels, find Guinevere, and "win" the game, but without figuring out the Great Mystery. So I'm going to slow down and repeat the first two levels and see if I can pick up any more clues.

Fantasyland isn't really an RPG by my definitions. There's no character development and no "personal" inventory. Nonetheless, it's an intriguing quasi-RPG from the days before RPG standards, and I'm impressed by its ambitions even as I'm frustrated by its limitations.

Time so far: 3 hours

Friday, October 4, 2019

10 Reasons I'm Still Blogging About CRPGs After 10 Years

In case you're not already aware, the 10th anniversary of the CRPG Addict is coming up on 15 February 2020. Other than my marriage, which turns 21 this month, I can't think of anything that I've stuck with for 10 years. Since 2010, I've moved five times (it will soon be six), switched primary jobs three times, started and abandoned dozens of diet and exercise programs, made and lost several friends, and, if we're being honest, even tried to quit the blog once. Spoiler: it didn't work.

In recognition of my 10th anniversary, I've decided that for the next four months, I will periodically pen a special entry plumbing this project's past. I've written down several ideas but I would welcome more:
  • The 10 best comments ever received
  • 10 times I was very wrong
  • 10 great discoveries
  • The 10 most frustrating threads
But I'm starting today--mostly because I haven't done enough with Fantasyland 2041 to round out a full entry--with my list of 10 reasons I'm still pursuing this hopeless task to play all CRPGs.

10. Commentary on art is important.

In thinking about art, in analyzing it, in discussing it, we make it part of us; we make it live in a way that transcends the creator's pen or brush. One of the things I was "very wrong" about is when I agreed with Roger Ebert that video games are not art. At first I thought I was wrong because of a failure of definition: "art" is too complex a concept to be subjected to, to be generalized with, an "is." Now I think I was wrong just because I was wrong. You hardly have to twist the definition of "art" to make it encompass video games; you only have to abandon certain unfortunate prejudices. 

Perhaps the most important proof that video games are art is the level of critique that they provoke. Over the last 10 years, you and I have dissected hundreds of games and discussed how their plots, themes, mechanics, and artwork do and do not work, do and do not satisfy, on every level from aesthetic to socio-political. These are the same discussions that people have about paintings, books, films, and music.

I believe that there is incredible value to this commentary--not because either the art or the commentary is necessary to human existence, but precisely because it isn't. The measure of a great civilization must surely be how much time it devotes to unnecessary things. Oh, we certainly have some lingering problems, but what more testament do you need to our victories over hunger, disease, and violence than the existence of Keeping up with the Karashians, pet chiropractors, and a blog that spends decades chronicling every video game in a niche genre?
9. It's a nice contrast with reality.

To protect my anonymity, I don't discuss my "real" job on my blog. But suffice to say it's unlike playing computer role-playing games. It does not involve any art or entertainment, or the creation thereof, or the consumption thereof. It is worldly and necessary, about making existence sufferable rather than actually enjoyable. I'm not going to pretend that I play computer role-playing games as an antidote--I was addicted to them long before I had this job--but certainly this blog, in contrasting with the work I do during the rest of the day, fills my life with more variety than I would otherwise enjoy.

8. It makes me a better writer.

Communication skills are important in just about every profession and every walk of society. Because of this blog, I've written over 2 million words, the equivalent of about 5 door-stopper novels, in less than a decade. I've certainly put in the 10,000 hours that are supposed to make you an expert at something.
7. I learn things.
Once, I scoffed at the idea that RPGs actually taught you anything. But 10 years later, I find myself with a nascent ability to read German, much greater knowledge of the history and culture of Finland, a better understanding of classical mythology, and a large number of new technical skills. A lot of this learning, of course, has less to do with the games than with the discussions that we have on the blog, but this post is about why I'm still blogging, not just playing.
6. Maybe one day I'll work on an RPG.
The more I think about it, the more I think it would be fun to participate in the development of an actual game. I can't bring any technical skill to such an endeavor, but at least I can say that I have overall subject matter skill.
5. It's making me some pocket money.
This obviously isn't a major consideration because I only started my Patreon account this year. But thanks to my awesome supporters, I'm taking Irene to Chicago in a couple of weeks. This makes her feel a lot better about the time I spent on the blog.
4. It captures what might otherwise be forgotten.

In the last 10 years, we've uncovered and exhaustively explored many games that would have been utterly lost otherwise. I'm not the only one doing this, of course--Jimmy Maher and Matt Barton deserve particular accolades. But I like that I play a unique niche in this community by often being the only one to fully play a game from beginning to end.
3. I no longer feel like I'm wasting time playing CRPGs.
I used to beat myself up--a lot--for how much time I spent on computer role-playing games. I felt particularly bad about playing them to the exclusion of doing things with Irene. I haven't felt that way in a long time. The blog "legitimizes" my hobby in a way that I wouldn't have anticipated--not only because it's my blog but because it engages me in discussions with other fans of the genre. Prior to 2010, my CRPG addiction was a solitary, lonely, shameful experience. Post-2010, it is a community experience that adds value to a global understanding of this art form. What a change.
2. I really enjoy the discussions.

Early on, I thought that I would probably keep blogging even if I didn't have any commenters, just because I enjoyed the experience of blogging itself. Now, I'm not so sure. I think my blog would be missing something without all of the great comments that expand, supplement, and sometimes correct my own observations. I find myself looking forward to what certain commenters will have to say about certain aspects of a game, and I eagerly check in with comments a few hours after each posting.
1. I still think I can make it.

I don't know why I persist in this delusion. I can see for myself how many games lie both behind me and ahead of me on the "master list." And yet some part of me believes that I'll reject a lot of them, or that the process will go faster as they get more "playable," or that I'll somehow find a lot more time to spend on the project. Either way, my quest to be the One Man who has played all computer RPGs continues with Fantasyland 2041. Very soon.