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


58 comments:

  1. There were similar games that offered physical and/or cash prizes to those who would solve a mystery, either by winning the game or solving a riddle hidden within. There was the "SwordQuest" series for Atari, the final game of which was never produced and thus the final prize lost to history. There were also a handful of others for popular British computers like the Spectrum and C64, though the names of those titles escape me at the moment.

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    1. I believe there were three more, if my recollection of the Angry Video Game Nerd's video on it was correct. Two for two more games and then a final treasure for whoever was best in a new game among the four winners of the four treasures. I believe the head of Atari made off with the final three treasures, one of which may have been melted down for its primary value.

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    2. Most famous was probably Pimania for the ZX Spectrum. I didn't play it myself, but I remember when the treasure was eventually found.

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    3. "Call Apogee and say Aardwolf"...

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    4. I wonder if Apogee still gets calls about Aardwolf.

      AFAIK, the contest was discovered and ruined by hackers before Apogee had even decided how it would work or what the prize would be.

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    5. By Apogee, I mean people related to Wolf3D in general, which I guess would be Bethesda. I never really cared about Apogee, but for some reason it never sticks in my mind that they don't exist anymore.

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    6. Actually, Apogee does still exist under the label of 3D Realms. Recently they did Ion Fury and Bombshell and they have a few other recent credits to their name.
      Also, Bethesda isn't really related to Wolfenstein 3D except as the modern publisher of the game. It was developed by iD, none of the employees who worked on it are still employed by the company.

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    7. Another example was Quo Vadis on the C64. Where, yet again, the final prize was apparently never awarded.

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    8. Hardly a stellar prize, but buried in the back of the Jagged Alliance manual is a bit saying something along the lines of "The first ten people to call and say they've seen this will receive a free hintbook"

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    9. The swordquest story is pretty interesting - there are a number of tellings of the story that are well worth investigating.

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  2. These kind of grand treasure hunts - a sort of forerunner to modern ARGs - enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity in the late 70s / early 80s.

    My understanding is the craze was kicked off by Kit Williams' gorgeous 1979 book-slash-game "Masquerade", which challenged readers to use clues in the book to find the real-life burial place of a golden hare. Fantasyland would appear to fall right in the middle of all this, which reached its peak around 1982 and had largely died down by 1984 (until kicking off again in 2004 with I Love Bees and the wave of ARGs that followed it).

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    1. There's a short (about 36 minutes) video on youtube on the Norwich Games Festival channel called "Hareraiser (The Worst Game Ever) - Stuart Ashen - Norwich Gaming Festival 2017 wherein Mr Ashen gives a talk describing the absolute nightmare that was the PC game tie-in to Williams book Masquerade.
      Here's a link to that video if you're at all interested in a video about a game whose ideals stretched far beyond the abilities of the programmers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouvi-fwrfIY

      It is an entertaining and interesting look at a game that probably should never have seen the light of a CRT.

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    2. The Digital Antiquarian covers the whole Masquerade/Hareraiser saga with a two-parter I would recommend to anyone interested: https://www.filfre.net/2016/05/kit-williamss-golden-hare-part-1-the-contest/

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    3. More recently there was the 'What's Inside The Cube' contest from 22Cans: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curiosity:_Whats_Inside_the_Cube

      Alas, it seems the winner never got his prize...

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    4. I never understood the appeal of these "find the prize" things. They appeal directly to the sensibilities of the most obsessive weirdos. Who else is going to have that much spare time to waste?

      Instead of a $10,000 prize, how about 100 $100 prizes? But that's not how it works.

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    5. Even people who won't look for the big treasure will be interested about who finds it. Nobody cares who wins the $100 prizes.

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  3. Intriguing game! I find myself wondering if the graphics are supposed to have additional colors.

    On the Apple II -- and other computers like the TRS-80 Color Computer -- you draw alternating pixels in a striped pattern to get various colors. (I don't fully understand the details, but they have to do with the NTSC color carrier and various possible phase relationships.)

    I think the same holds true for the Atari 8-bit. Often, when you see those kinds of vertically striped patterns -- as seen in what I assume is meant to be water, on the title screen at the right -- it means the emulator isn't rendering the artifact colors correctly.

    Or, I wonder if a quickie port from Apple II to Atari 8-bit might not have bothered to adjust the graphics to take advantage of the Atari's graphics hardware?

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  4. The Great Mystery accidentally reminds me of this one creepypasta called Pale Luna Smiles or something like that. Its about an obscure text adventure that crashes whenever you move in the wrong direction. Someone finishes it by trial and error and buries some gold. They then figure that it's buried in a real place and go to dig it up. They find the gold, to discover its a severed head. Its like one of the few gaming creepypastas that came off as interesting. I don't know why that reminded me of that beyond it being the Halloween season.

    As to the game, I feel like not enough games try to put each monster into their original "genre" so to speak, instead of the usual DnD mash-up. More games need to have these kinds of multiple locations, just not necessarily as a theme park. It gets credit for that even if its not good in other areas.

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    1. There is a PS 2 JRPG, Romancing SaGa, with this type of mechanic. The protagonist moves through the various realms (in any order) and can acquire followers/mercenaries. So, much like Fantasyland, one can have e.g. Zulu warriors fighting in Medieval England.

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  5. It comforts me greatly to see a new post, Addict.

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  6. Kabunga huh? Zulu warriors in 'Congoland'? Headhunters (I think this was a more common phenomena in literally every other continent)?

    Not the first nor the last cringey, trope-laden depiction of Africa we're going to get.

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    1. There's a bookstore near me that sells really old stuff. I paged through a copy of National Geographic from 1921 and was bemused to find that the publication referred to African natives of the British Empire as "fuzzie-wuzzies".

      Old tropes die hard, I guess.

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    2. You wrote "natives". Even that word is "problematic" nowadays.

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    3. Hey, at least it is a depiction of Africa! It's a cool setting I'd like to see more of in RPGs, but it's barely ever used. The only game I know of is a crappy German RPG from the late 90s or early 00s set in colonial Africa. Too bad it's not very good.

      I've seen so many paladins and dragons by now that even the most cliched depiction of Africa would be a breath of fresh air.

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    4. Petrus, for someone who hates that word so much, you sure do have a way of introducing it where no one else was using it.

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    5. "Not the first nor the last cringey, trope-laden depiction of Africa we're going to get." If the game was attempting to depict "real" Africa, I might have something to say about it, but it's clearly the "Africa" of 19th-century adventure novels. (Is "junglepunk" a term?) One where the 10th-century BCE king of Israel somehow made it 4000 miles to the Congo.

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    6. It's not, but I don't see why Junglepunk can't be a term. Raypunk and Sandalpunk are applied to '50s science fiction and Jason & the Argonauts type dealies retroactively. It seems the current most common way to describe it is as a Victorian adventure or a lost world novel. But those don't necessarily refer to something exclusively in Africa or perhaps South America.
      The only obstacle I can see to that is that most of the stuff that would be called junglepunk isn't very punk, but that's never stopped anyone before, especially steampunk writers.

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    7. Not a word about the deeply problematic cultural appropriation, either. I think maybe in the future either skip over the racist games or use the review as a teachable moment.

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    8. Yeah! Instead of reviewing the game on its own terms like every other featured on the blog, use the review as a bait and switch to castigate its politics and demonstrate your moral superiority!

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    9. I'll just quickly mention the relatively recent Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan as a rare example of an (action) RPG set in not-19th-century-adventure-novel Africa, actually developed in Africa (Cameroon).

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    10. The only people who get upset at being called racists, are racists.

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    11. Probably best that the blog devoted to RPGs actually sticks to talking about the RPGs, not lecturing people. As a person of northern European heritage, I'm not offended by this game's depiction of Medieval Britain, nor the million ludicrous misunderstandings of North America I encountered while living in Japan.

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    12. Heike, I think if you examine that statement carefully, you'll find it doesn't really pass a logical test. Non-racists would be (justifiable) upset to be called racists.

      There are often important points to make about cultural sensitivity and harmful archetypes as we play games, but anyone already using the term "racist" after two comments is jumping into things too fast.

      As for you, Anonymous, I assume you're talking about the comments rather than the blog entry since I didn't introduce the subject and never "lectured" anyone. However, I'll do so now: analysis of art often treads uncomfortable paths. For instance, we might ask if a game that depicts a fantastical version of Britain and a fantastical version of Africa doesn't do the latter a disservice by making it WORSE than it was in real life and by making Britain fancifully BETTER. I mean, a "knight" is hardly a negative stereotype while a "headhunter" is. If you don't want to see such discussions, find a more puerile blog.

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    13. Chet: I would argue that the Africa of British pulp is nothing to celebrate via uncritical homage, as its tropes are reflective of the beliefs the British had of Africa.

      ie It doesn’t get a pass just because it’s not trying to be realistic.

      Punk is an ethos concerned with challenging our assumptions about things, and about rejecting the status quo. Cyberpunk is ‘punk’ because it projects extreme versions of today’s problems onto a fictional future, and sets the hero against those elements. If junglepunk were a thing, the guys in safari suits would be the bad guys!

      Yeah yeah, you were talking about the aesthetic, I know. Steampunk isn't very punk most of the time :p

      And for anybody mistaking my comment for righteous apoplexy: It was more an an eye-roll at garden-variety 80s depictions of things, chill.

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    14. Didn't the Salomon mines in Africa also appeared in a Quartermain novel? Could be a nod to it, or an inspiration..

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    15. Africa was ravaged by colonizers. Africa's natural resources were abused and its people were displaced, enslaved, and dehumanized.

      Using that history as an excuse to avoid being introspective about one's own culture is appropriative and extremely insensitive.

      Racism isn't about intent. It's also about outcomes.

      Racism can occur without anyone having to be a racist - or without someone being actively prejudiced against a person of color.

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    16. I agree with your general thesis, Heike and think you and Chet are broadly on the same page as well.

      I'm pretty confident the way you are using the term, and the way Chet is using the term are somewhat different. It doesn't mean either of you are wrong, but the word 'racist' always risks causing conversations to veer into definitional quibbles.

      I do agree that it makes sense from a video-games-as-cultural-artifacts perspective to critique such tropes to a degree, without it necessarily becoming a blog about representation in media.

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    17. Now we have three racism apologists in this thread. Some community you've got here on this blog. Why's it so hard to condemn racism? Why all the pushback? I suppose I should have expected this: video games have long been known as a fertile recruitment ground for the alt-right.

      I liked this review. I’ll give it three flaming crosses out of five.

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    18. Have you ever wondered, Heike, whether you are a fertile recruiting ground for the alt-right?

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    19. Video games are a recruitment ground for the alt-right? Since RPGs are widely known as a recruitment tool for Satan, does that make Chet an alt-right Satanist leader? Chet's also a fan of Jazz music, also known as the music of Satan. That explains why I sacrificed all those people to Satan. It all makes sense now. Chet is the Antichrist. All hail Chet, our Dark Master.

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    20. Vote Trump 2041! Make Fantasyland Great Again!

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    21. Heike, people like you are the reason everyone is getting fed up with politics and why there's so much pushback against leftist agendas. People just want to enjoy playing games, reading books and watching movies without someone jumping in and telling them that's racist, sexist, or whatever. It's incredibly tiring.

      You sound like one of those people who want to censor the n-word in Mark Twain, even though he never intended it as a slur, just because its usage and meaning has changed so you have to adjust old literature to modern sensibilities.

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    22. What exactly is even racist? For a fictionalized depiction of indigenous people, especially in the 1980s, it's not that bad. There are natives who both help and harm.

      On one hand we have Petrus, who is so offended by the idea of a game being questioned that he starts arguing against the word "problematic" before anybody else brings it up.

      On the other hand we have Heike, who has a problem with what might be the mildest depiction of indigenous people ever.

      The only way this thread could be dumber and more reactionary is if Heike and Petrus were actually the same person.

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    23. Yes, Alex has encapsulated my own views quite well. Not that anyone ever listens to me when I say this, but I would like this thread to be over at this point.

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    24. Not quite the same as the Solomon-in-Congo idea, but those interested in such things might enjoy googling "beta Israel", a group of (what today would be called) Ethiopian Jews from the 4th century onward.

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  7. I wonder how many of these old promotions actually paid out. There was a console game, Shining Wisdom, that had a 10K cash prize for fastest completion, but the time had to be submitted within a month of the game's release I believe. No clue if anyone won. I find it funny now because even with the prevalence of speedrunning video games, I don't know anyone that has done one for that game.

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    1. Well, by now it's no longer worth doing one, eh? :p

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  8. There's also Treasure Master.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_Master

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  9. So...still 22 years until this happens. What do you know, the future is very retro, Very.

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    1. I could buy it taking another 22 years before a combination of VR and animatronics could create realistic adventure experiences. I don't buy such a lucrative endeavor being forced to set up in the Australian outback.

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    2. In 22 years the outback will be nigh unlivable

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  10. I think you misunderstood me Chet. I think fantasy depictions of Medieval britain is dreck. Idiots in steel cans going around tromping on the peasants. I think of them as both negative stereotypes.

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    1. From what I've seen, fantasy set in Britain tends to ignore the peasants and keep the conflict within the ruling/military classes. Maybe there's monsters instead. I read Beowulf to my kids and he never fought the commoners, only monsters or witches.
      Come to think of it, to my knowledge only Monty Python and the Holy Grail ever addressed the issue of ruling class oppression of the peasants.
      Go figure.

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    2. And it may be the best scene they ever wrote.

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  11. I think what you guys might be missing here is that someone who is not a racist would react to being called a racist by acknowledging their own unconscious biases and recognize that any accusation of racism, sexism, or whatever other isms and phobias that are going around lately is by definition and prima facie true.

    Not my circus, not my monkeys. Not the world I made, I'm just living in it.

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    1. The society that created me has biases. The art it creates has biases. I have biases.

      I think that examining the biases in art is actually a really good way of exploring society's biases and unsurprisingly, it's a significant element of art criticism.

      No point running from it. No one is a 'bad person' for liking the art they like.

      Unless they like the aethetics of Moebius.

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  12. In its capacity as art, computer games, like books, have always made subtle political statements. Politics is so tiring and dirtier than ever these days. Yes folks we have to keep focusing back to games, and in particular the game that Chet has posted from time to time. I don´t mind political banter though here or there, personally speaking.

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