Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Game 351: Morton's Fork (1981)

The copyright date on the main screen would seem to refer to the Maces and Magic engine, not to this specific game, which all evidence agrees was released in 1981.
        
Morton's Fork
United States
Chameleon Software (developer and original publisher); Adventure International (later publisher)
Released 1981 for TRS-80 and Apple II
Date Started: 9 January 2020
Date Ended: 9 January 2020
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Morton's Fork is the third game in the series generally called Maces & Magic, after Dungeon (1979; later called Balrog or Balrog Sampler) and Stone of Sisyphus (links to my coverage). It's been difficult to reconstruct the history of the company even though I spoke to one of its principals, Richard Bumgarner, back in 2013. Chameleon was the moonlighting gig of three Indianapolis-based medical professionals, including x-ray technician Bumgarner. From what I can figure, they conceived of the series in the late 1970s and may have produced and marketed all three games before they struck a publishing deal with Scott Adams' Adventure International. The first game was originally called Dungeon but later acquired the (nonsensical) Balrog or Balrog Sampler names from AI. Adventure International also seems to be the source of the Maces & Magic series name, although it appears nowhere except on the game packaging. AI also gussied up the title screens a bit, removing the jokes that the creators had placed and (of course) adding the AI name and logo.
        
A later version of the main screen, from the Apple II edition.
         
I've spent years trying to find a working version of Morton's Fork--all three games are notoriously unstable--and the one I was finally able to play lacks the AI logo on the title screen. It's possible that all three games were produced and marketed as early as 1979 and that the 1981 date is from when they were re-distributed by AI, but so far I haven't been able to find any magazine evidence of Chameleon selling the second two games directly.
          
A 1981 ad for the Adventure International releases of the three titles.
        
Even if Morton's Fork had a 1981 release date, its technology is essentially the same as the first game in the series. All three games play exactly the same way, just with different scenarios and puzzles. All three are RPG/text adventure hybrids in which the goal is to collect a fixed number of treasures in a large environment and then find your way out of the game. A mutable hero and wandering monsters are blended with fixed landscapes and unchanging puzzles. The hero could theoretically be swapped between games as if they were "modules" in a traditional RPG experience. The games are thus somewhat like Eamon (1980) but without the central "hub" disk.
            
A leaflet in the game encourages the player to buy the other games.

           
All three start the same way. The player creates a character and the game rolls for strength, luck, dexterity, intelligence, constitution, and charisma. The character is assumed to be a warrior, or a warrior/thief, as there is no magic in the game. After creation, the player is given a chance to purchase weapons and armor from a very long list of obscure terms, apparently created by a doctor who had an encyclopedia or something. You are limited in what you buy by gold and encumbrance.

Dungeon and Stone of Sisyphus had the player explore dungeons with pan-cultural themes, including a hippodrome, an Egyptian room, and an Arabian desert. Fork moves the action to a large castle. The box says that it's a "wizard's castle," but in-game there's no hint of a wizard. The goal is simply to loot it of as much treasure as possible.
           
All of the Maces & Magic games feature absurdly detailed weapon and armor lists.
         
Morton's Fork begins a bit differently from the other titles by including a "good luck" screen as the game begins. Although it seems full of cliches, it is in fact full of hints. For instance, the advice to "lift your spirits; you may pry some of the secrets loose" is a hint to drink with an NPC in the castle's cellar. "Keys to hidden riches may take many forms" is a clue to use a hairpin as a lockpick. "You must know when to hide your light and when to let it spring forth" refers to a section of game where you have to light a torch to navigate a dark hallway, but then extinguish it to avoid getting attacked by bats. "Paint a rosy future for yourself and doors may open" is the clue needed for the endgame.
          
A pre-game text screen full of spoilers.
         
The game eases you into its journey with a long path leading to the castle. You find a token, and then on the next screen a pedestal with a slot. This lowers the drawbridge. You find an iron bar and then a rock with a bunch of scratches; prying the bar reveals a passcode that you must give to the butler when you first arrive. Once you reach the castle's entry, the game opens up and you can flexibly explore and acquire treasures.
      
An early puzzle. The number is randomized for each new game.
          
The text quality is good, if not as verbose as Infocom games of the period. Inputs are also much more limited. On any given screen, the game gives you numeric inputs for what you can do and where you can go, so you never waste a lot of time typing verbs and nouns that have no effect. The only exception is that on any screen, you can use an item from your inventory, typing a simple (and usually obvious) keyword to specify what you want to do. Thus, you enter a dark room. In addition to following the game's suggestions to (1) leave or (2) feel your way down the corridor, you can also hit "P" to open your pack, choose the torch, and type LIGHT or IGNITE or any of several synonyms. Most of the game's puzzles are about using the right inventory item in the right place.
           
A typical text screen with numbered choices.
         
There are fixed combats with certain enemies as well as random combats with guards that roam the corridors. Combat is executed automatically, with your attributes and weapon strengths aggregated into a single combat score and then pitted against your enemy's. Opponents lose hit points (constitution) each round until one of them dies. 
         
Combat with some castle guards.
        
It's relatively easy to roll a character too weak to win any of the game's combats, or too poor to afford enough protection to do well. Some of the enemies are, I believe, out of the reach of any first-round character and would have to be fought by a player who escaped a first attempt with a bunch of treasure and used it to buy much better equipment. 

The game follows its predecessors by offering a lot of choices but not being necessarily very logical or "fair" in the execution of those choices. For instance, in a den, you're faced with a fireplace with three levers. One opens a hidden niche and reveals a valuable coin collection. The second causes the fire to roar into the room and kill you. The third releases a "smoke monster" that you have to battle. There really is no way of determining the good from the bad when making your choice.
                
This is funny, but I'm not sure it's a logical outcome of taking a glass of punch at a party.
          
They aren't really "role-playing" choices, either. If you find your way into the torture room, you have options to attack the torture troll and thus free his prisoner or help the torture troll crank the wheel that operates the rack. If you attack the troll, you face a near-impossible battle and if you manage to kill him, the prisoner just gruffly wanders away. If you help torture the prisoner, you get valuable intelligence about how to enter the throne room.

Finally, there are an awful lot of instant death situations that are hardly fair. Just wandering into the wrong room can kill you. I suspect these are in place to artificially bolster the game's replay value. Otherwise, I can't see how any player would take one month to finish it, which the box says is the average.
       
All I did was pull on a rope.
All I did was pull a lever.
All I did was walk into a room.
           
Overall, though, the castle is a fun place to explore. It's a living place, with guards roaming the halls and shooting craps in their off-duty room, a butler guarding the entryway, and guests dancing the night away in a ballroom. The game isn't obvious about it, but I suspect your success or failure as you navigate the halls is based partly on your attributes. For instance, if you visit the ballroom you can try to pickpocket the guests. Not only is success based (I suspect) on dexterity, but your ability to even enter and stay in the room has something to do with your charisma.

Your ultimate goal is to assemble a group of treasures. I didn't find them all, but I found almost all of them:
         
  • A ruby necklace, pickpocketed from the guests in the ballroom.
  • A large gold figure. It's found in its "small gold figure" form in a room with piles of objects and a large purple flame. By looking at the objects, you can figure out that throwing items into the flame makes them bigger, so tossing in the "small gold figure" gives you the large one. You also have the option to jump in the flames yourself for a permanent boost to strength and constitution, although you kill yourself if you try it a second time.
        
The one bit of "character development" in the game.
        
  • A coin collection, found in a hidden niche in the den's fireplace.
  • A silver tea service, found by picking the lock of a cabinet with a hairpin.
  • An emerald orb, found in a dresser that opens when you strike a tuning fork in the room.
  • Gold cookies, looted after you kill a "cookie monster" in the pantry off the kitchen. That's not right.
  • A diamond stickpin, simply found in one of the rooms.
  • A multi-jeweled crown, found in the throne room, which you reach after a long sequence of puzzles. You have to walk over a pit and pass a swarm of bats by strategically lighting and extinguishing a torch, pass a large dragon by pouring "shrinking powder" on him, and get by a guard monster by giving him a password that you got by steaming open an envelope. 
       
One of the more memorable sequences in the game, though I never did find any use for the dragon dung.
        
  • The platinum chameleon, found at the top of a tower that requires a lot of inventory puzzles to successfully climb.
      
The most difficult puzzle of all is getting out of the castle. I wouldn't have solved it if I hadn't figured out that the welcome screen was full of hints. Eventually, you find a couple of rooms that link to a chute. If you climb in the chute, you end up tumbling into a non-descript room with no exits. It's only from that opening screen that you get the hint to use a bucket of paint (found in a "many-colored room") to PAINT DOOR on the wall. This causes your door to swing upon and reveal "the corporate headquarters of Chameleon Software," where "astonished programmers" help you carry your treasures out of the dungeon.
             
Might and Magic would draw from this ending years later.
          
You're then given your final experience score (from the monsters that you killed) and your final point total from the treasures that you acquired. After a few runs at the game, I was able to achieve 1,340 out of a possible 1,492 points.
         
I'm going to call this a "win."
          
There were some rooms that I didn't solve that might have held the additional treasures. There's a closet off the top of a staircase with a "closet monster" who was always too powerful for me. If you're unlucky enough to wander your way into the gym, you get picked on by three buff guards. Insulting them causes them to attack you, and I couldn't defeat them. The other options all lead to negative outcomes. Also, I suspect there was something I was supposed to do with a crystal chandelier.
         
None of these options leads to anything good.
        
Theoretically, you're supposed to be able to save the character and then re-enter the game, using the riches from your first adventure to purchase better equipment and try again. Unfortunately, for none of the three games have I managed to get a character to survive the transition from game disk to save disk and back again. It's a miracle when the program runs right at all instead of crashing with vague errors, failing to load the weapon and armor tables, suddenly deciding my character has no inventory, or a host of other problems.

In a GIMLET, Morton's Fork gets a 17 compared to Dungeon's 20. Fork has fewer opportunities for character development, fewer interesting encounters, and a smaller game world than the first game in the series.  
        
My map of the game.
       
Before we go, we should discuss the name of the game. A "Morton's fork" is described by The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms as "a situation in which there are two choices or alternatives whose consequences are equally unpleasant." It is traced back to John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VII. He is said to have argued that a man living ostentatiously could clearly afford higher taxes while a man living frugally must be saving his money--and could thus afford higher taxes. The "water test" for witches (if you float, you're a witch and you're executed; if you sink and drown, you're innocent) is often given as an example of a Morton's Fork.
       
An in-game Morton's fork. You die in a fire no matter what option you choose.
       
It's a curious title for a game, particularly since the only "fork" in the game is a tuning fork, and it's hardly a centerpiece. But like Stone of Sisyphus, which references a process of doing the same thankless task repeatedly, I think the creators were making a commentary on adventure games and perhaps even "choose your own adventure"-style books, in which multiple options lead to the same outcome. There's one notable moment in the game in which you're given three ways to escape from a fire, and none of them work. 

Were they critiquing themselves? Making fun of their own players, who paid $29.95 for the game only to presumably lose three consecutive characters to the same fire? We can't say. All we know is that the creators chose a title that ostensibly pokes fun at the laziest of adventure game tropes--and then they stocked the game with actual examples.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

10 Years of Commenters

When I started this blog in February 2010, I immediately found that I enjoyed the blogging process--enjoyed it enough, I thought, that I would continue to do it even if I didn't seem to have many readers, or any. After all, people enjoy writing in diaries with no expectation of external approval, and my blog was, if nothing else, an ongoing diary.

10 years later, I can't imagine the past decade without all of the readers who have commented along the way. I'm sure I've said this before somewhere, but I regard my commenters as co-bloggers. There have been plenty of times that the best information about a game, or the most unique perspective, was found not in my entries but in the comments. My commenters offer alternate perspectives, fill in gaps, solve mysteries, correct errors, answer questions, offer hints, and make connections that I often miss. They have individually gotten me past several blocks and collectively have guided the direction of the blog.

I've often felt bad that I've never done anything like The Adventure Gamer's Companion Assist Points and its associated leaderboard, constantly recognizing commenters for their service. For a while, I had a plan to start scoring comments and creating such a leaderboard. It's something that I might still do in the future, but I think it needs to be lower on my priority list than a few other blog-related tasks. For now, the best I can do is publicly recognize some of the people who have helped the most over the 10 years of blogging.

Before I get into the actual data, let me clear up a few things. First, I obviously cannot know for sure when two handles belong to the same individual, so some people may not appear on the lists by virtue of having their comments split. Second, because of the way I pulled the data, dates are somewhat approximate (and end on 12/13/2019). Finally, the totals refer to the number of entries commented upon rather than the sheer number of comments.

My 10 Most Prolific Commenters

I don't confuse quality with quantity, and plenty of the best comments on my blog have been anonymous or one-offs from people we've never seen again. But I'm lucky enough on my blog to have generally high-quality commenters, and so quantity does equal a certain aggregate quality. These are the 10 individuals who have contributed comments to the highest number of entries over the lifetime of the blog. Without them, the blog would be a very different place.

I like and appreciate all of the individuals below, so if any of my teasing comes across as having an edge to it, that's a fault of my prose rather than my intent.

10. UbAh. Comments on 325 entries between 11 May 2011 and 1 April 2018.

UbAh, whose name sounds like someone from Maine ordering a rideshare, was so prolific that he makes the top 10 even though he's only commented once since July 2015. A lover of roguelikes and (like many of my readers) skilled at obscure technical things, his comments are usually short and of the amiable, supplementary sort--rarely controversial, never rude--although there was one memorable moment where he took down a blowhard and almost immediately regretted it.

9. Alexander Sebastian Schulz. Comments on 336 entries between 30 September 2013 and 21 May 2019.

Alexander joined me after reading an article in Der Spiegel. (Why did every newspaper and magazine want to interview me during the first year, when my project seemed insane, but no one has contacted me in the last 5 years?) His comments show a certain universalism--a willingness to find value in every culture and every thing--a value that I (perhaps wrongly) associate with continental Europeans of my era. Alexander is always ready with a compliment and a congratulations and generally agrees with me about the games that I like. He was a big help with the translation of some German titles. Finest moment: waxing philosophical on how the world of Fallout reflects the modern world.

8. VK. Comments on 336 entries between 13 January 2013 and 5 December 2019.

Russian VK is one of my several--and I mean this affectionately!--"RPG nerd" commenters--the small cadre of people who have probably played more RPGs than me, particularly in the 1990s period. He's been my advanced scout on upcoming titles since his earliest comments (just a couple months ago, he warned me about some quirks in Challenge of the Five Realms), and he's frequently there to make connections that I missed and to offer defenses of games that I panned. He's not afraid to argue but doesn't seem to get overly worked up about his arguments.

7. Harland. Comments on 386 entries between 19 October 2012 and 15 December 2019.

To meet his full potential, a writer needs both champions and critics, and thus for every Alexander Sebastian Schulz, it's nice to have a Harland--someone who's always there to tell me what I did or said wrong. But he's also always there to swat spoilers, as well as commenters who start to grumble when I haven't posted in a while. And for all his grumpiness, I know he likes my blog. Maybe had a tough childhood because his parents gave him an Intellivision. His recent absolutist rants are a somewhat newer thing.

6. Raifield. Comments on 486 entries between 5 April 2011 and 12 December 2019.

Raifield is always polite, useful, cheerful, and to the point. And while I've covered 350 games in 10 years, he's managed to spend nearly that long on just three. I have this theory that the next Elder Scrolls game won't be out until he's finished with Skyrim.

5. PetrusOctavianus. Comments on 643 entries between 14 January 2011 and 12 December 2019

Blend the "RPG nerd" credentials of VK and the bite of Harland, and you have PetrusOctavianus, one of only two of the "Top 10" to have been with me since the first year. His count is artificially low because when I caught him saying some negative things about me on RPGCodex, I renamed his Secret of the Silver Blades character "Brutus," and he commented under that name for a while. Sometimes I get the feeling that he follows my blog more as a professional courtesy than because he actually likes it. But despite his obsession over something he calls "level design" and certain words that he finds problematic, his comments are invaluable for one major reason: He knows RPGs better than anyone.

4. Zenic Reverie. Comments on 697 entries between 14 January 2012 and 15 November 2019.

My counterpart at The RPG Consoler, Zenic puts me to shame by being much more active on my blog than I am on his. (Then again, one might say that he is more active on my blog than he is on his.) Despite his name, he admirably does not push the toy versions of various games on me, but instead simply offers perspectives on how games changed or adapted in their console ports. He seems to like non-console and adventure games, too, and he was a big help with Xoru last year.

3. Tristan Gall. Comments on 856 entries between 8 August 2012 and 15 December 2019

I've never told Tristan this, but I think he'd be the person I'd be most comfortable turning The CRPG Addict over to if I ever had to abandon it permanently--like if I was dying or something. I'd trust him to keep the tone and intent, while of course farming out most of the actual writing. He engages with other commenters as conversationally as he does with me. He has my dry humor. When he agrees with me, he often makes the point better than I do; when he disagrees, he often changes my mind. If he hadn't been so intent on being "right" in that argument on gambling probabilities, I'd probably put him in my will.

2. Kenny McCormick. Comments on 1,040 entries between 23 March 2012 and 8 February 2019.

Kenny hasn't commented in almost a year, and I worry that we may have lost him. What will we do without the master of the single entendre, the prince of puns, the great User of Exclamation Points! Without him, sure, I won't have to moderate things quite as much ("do all of your comments have to involve male genitalia in some way," I once had to ask him), nor scratch my head quite as often, but the comments section will have lost a lot of its life. Some of my favorite moments are when I tee something up and he knocks it out of the park.

1. Canageek. Comments on 1,266 entries between 2 January 2011 and 18 August 2019.

Canageek: the one commenter that I feel like if I ever meet him in real life, I'll know immediately that it's him. One so regular that I once heard from him more often than my wife, although for the past three years (since he started dating one of the Nine Divines) he's mostly relegated himself to random comments on games I finished ages ago. Though clearly very smart (he's a chemist), he's also so guileless than when I made an account called "MexiFriki," he had no idea I was sending him up. I particularly appreciate the comments that come from his perspective as a dedicated tabletop RPG player.

Honorable mentions: Helm (318 entries in 9 years); Gnoman (297 entries in 5 years); Gerry Quinn (292 entries in 8 years); JJ (290 entries in 10 years); PK Thunder (288 entries in 6 years); Amy K. (239 entries in 3 years); Joe Pranevich (238 entries in 7 years); Buck (231 entries in 4 years); william (223 entries in 9 years--you were never a "gadfly," buddy); Mikrakov (216 entries in 8 years); Petri R. (213 entries in 6 years); HunterZ (213 entries in 9 years).

My 5 Oldest Commenters

They might not comment very often, but these individuals have been around since the beginning and have all posted within the last year. (Note: I excluded a few people who used handles so generic, like "Brad" and "Robert," that I could never be sure if it was the same people.) These are sorted by the number of days between their first and most recent comments:

5. mprod. First comment on 8 October 2010, most recent on 5 December 2019. 20 total.

4. Boroth. First comment on 5 August 2010, most recent on 8 October 2019. 105 total.

3. Adamantyr. First comment on 8 September 2010, most recent on 3 December 2019. 137 total.

2. Andy_Panthro. First comment on 13 August 2010, most recent on 8 December 2019. 130 total.

1. Cerdric. First comment on 21 February 2010, most recent on 21 September 2019. 18 entries total.

Honorable mentions who have all commented before my first anniversary and in 2019 or 2020: Eugene (79), Georges (176), Jason Dyer (181), Dungy (64), Alan Twelve (44), JJ (290), Reiko (62), Malkav11 (103), PetrusOctavianus (643), Moonmonster (14), tormodh (7), Kyle Haight (55), Bunyip (54), Giauz (94), trudodyr (90), HunterZ (203), Canageek (1266), william (223), Helm (318).


10 People Who Have Helped Behind the Scenes

These individuals may not have commented a lot, but they've done a lot of work to make my blog function. These are not sorted in any particular order, and I am deliberately excluding game developers who responded to my inquires or commented on my blog; they're a subject for another entry.
          
  • Abalieno kept sending me fixes for my Amiga problems until I ran out of excuses not to play games on it.
  • Adamantyr has been behind every successful run I've made at a TI-99 or TRS-80 game.
  • Buck made it possible for me to (vicariously) "play" Drachen von Laas and to win Seven Horror's. 
  • Bunyip and Gabor both read my entries shortly after I publish them and send me typos and other problems. So if you're in the habit of reading my entries more than 24 hours after initial publication, you're reading better versions because of their help.
  • Joe Pranevich worked out my collaborations with "The Adventure Gamer," basically co-blogging about the Quest for Glory titles. 
  • Lance M has made it his personal crusade to clear everything off my "Missing & Mysteries" list. He's also alerted me to a lot of typos and maintains my entries on HowLongToBeat.com
  • Laszlo Benyi and Nleseul. These two made it possible for me to play The Dragon & Princess (1982), the first Japanese RPG, and Laszlo has continued to help with my Japanese since then, he also got me a working version of the C64 Realms of Darkness, and he's sent me a lot of typos to fix on past entries.
  • Marc Campbell made a random name generating application in 2010 that I still use today, and he's helped me with a few Japanese RPGs.
  • OldWowBastard offered the site's first guest post. I thought it worked out reasonably well and I'm honestly not sure why I haven't followed up with more.
  • Sebastian from Switzerland made me a logo for Gimlet Publications. I haven't had a chance to use it yet, but it's coming!
         
I'm sure I've missed one or more people who deserved to be recognized, for which I'm sorry. I value all my commenters, and I look forward to 10 more years of analyzing RPGs with you!


Saturday, January 11, 2020

Game 350: Fame Quest (1984)

There's no title screen, so here's the box cover.

Fame Quest
United Kingdom
BrainGames (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 7 January 2020
Date Ended: 7 January 2020
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Very Easy (1/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
          
My modus operandi of late has been to write four regular entries and then spin a wheel for the fifth. Today, it landed on Fame Quest, a 1984 British game for the Commodore 64 that I rejected some years ago with the comment "no RPG elements." Upon re-investigation, it turns out that I was wrong about that. It has, in fact, just enough elements to be considered a "CRPG" under my definitions. It doesn't have much more.

Fame Quest is the type of game that you'd expect on a cassette magazine, or maybe even a type-it-yourself code list. But it actually retailed independently, on cassette. Its publisher was BrainGames of Brighton, East Sussex, which existed from about 1979 to 1985 and seems to have specialized in simulation games. Those advertised alongside Fame Quest include Election Trail about the American electoral system, Highflyer ("an airline management game"), and Rail Boss, "about the heady days of the Iron Horse in America."
            
Fame Quest comes with in-game instructions.
            
It plays a little like The Wizard's Castle (1980) and its variants, though not enough that I'm sure that there was a direct influence. Without even the ability to name your character, you start as a Grade 1 knight in the king's castle. You have just enough money to buy a sword and shield. Out the door you go, onto a 9 x 14 landscape of trees, houses, castles, and mysterious encounters. As you explore, you meet other knights, bandits, peasants, maidens, dragons, demons, and other assorted medieval denizens, and you have to decide how to deal with them. If you deal with them correctly and successfully, you get fame points. Once you've achieved various thresholds of fame points, you can petition at the castle for a higher grade of knighthood. When you reach Level 10, you've won the game. It took me less than 2 hours. It's good that it didn't take more than that because there's no way to save.
          
This is more role-playing than the typical game of the era, I admit.
           
The encounters are randomly dispersed on the map, which resets every time you make a new knight level. The encounters include:
            
  • Another knight. You can talk to him or fight. If you talk, sometimes he has nothing to say, sometimes he asks for a friendly bout. If he says nothing, you fight an unfriendly bout. Some random set of numbers is rolled in the background to determine the outcome. If you win, you have a chance to slay him or let him go. Both give you fame, but if you agreed to a friendly bout, you get more fame by letting him go.
           
10 fame for letting a knight live.
       
  • A dragon, a demon, or a group of bandits. Combat works the same way as with the knight, but you only get fame for killing them.
            
My knight on horseback charges a dragon.
            
  • A peasant who begs for money for food. Giving him money increases your fame.
  • A peasant or maiden who begs your protection from a knight, bandits, or a dragon. Saying yes takes you to the encounter with one of those creatures.
           
Selecting my weapons before going into battle.
           
  • An alchemist or monk who asks if you've slain a demon or dragon this quest. Answering truthfully gives you fame. He might also ask if you need money. If you say no (and don't), you also get fame.
          
What if I can't remember?
         
  • A king who wants a friendly duel. Letting him live after you've defeated him gives you fame.
        
Losing the battles can lower your (hidden) strength or even result in death. You don't have many ways to increase your odds, but there are a few. First, you can buy a horse and lance to go with your sword and shield. Second, you can (one time only) pay to sharpen your sword and lance and harden your shield. Increasing your knight level also seems to make you a stronger fighter. After Level 5, I never lost anything.
             
Death in the game is rare but possible.
         
Reaching Level 10 gives you a final screen, and then the game is over. 
        
Yes, those were some amazing trials and hardships.
          
That's about it. There are some "cute" things about the game, such as the way you have to equip your chosen items each combat, and they appear on your little portrait as you do so. The little combat animations, in which you charge a dragon on your steed, or wave a sword at a bandit, are also fun. But it's otherwise not much of an RPG and it only gets 15 points on my GIMLET, with 1s and 2s in everything.
         
Because of Chester's Rule #6 of Computer Games ("Every game, no matter how forgettable, is someone's favorite") and Rule #7 ("If that person is a programmer, he will attempt to remake it"), we got a 2006 remake from author John Adams. Maybe I'll play it in 2036.
            
The lack of faces disturbs me.
        
My goal for most entries is 2,500 words, with a minimum of 2,000. This one is less than 750, so we'll call it a "half" entry. I'll find something to write about tomorrow to fill the other half.
   
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Dungeons of Avalon II might have to be delayed a bit while I work on a technical issue. If the person who is responsible for the "disassembly project" page is a reader of my blog, please contact me offline if you want to help troubleshoot the issue.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Realms of Arkania: Basic Training

The party death screen. I got this a lot this session.
             
One thing I like about modern games is that they seem to share a philosophy about their initial stages. For the first roughly 4 hours, you don't expect any particularly difficult combats in a modern RPG. You expect rather that the game is going to ease you into its mechanics and conventions--sometimes with an explicit tutorial covering the first few battles--before throwing you to the wolves. You expect that you'll gain one level without any fuss before you really have to work for it.

Realms of Arkania is a game clearly developed before this kinder era. I have virtually nothing of substance to cover in this entry because I spent most of the five hours since the first entry trying to win a single battle against some bandits in the starting dungeon. This battle alone took me almost three hours, partly because of its difficulty and partly because combat in this game just takes an insanely long time.

When I closed my first entry, I had explored the town of Thorwal, had received the main quest (to stop an uprising of orcs by finding the subtitular Blade of Destiny), and had received a side quest to explore the "old fortress" and find out who was stealing all the supplies. I explored one level, killed a few bandits, and thought I was done, but I hadn't taken secret doors into consideration. There are two types of secret doors in the game: illusory ones that you can just walk through, and hidden ones that some character has to "perceive" before you can open them.
           
If you suspect this type of door is there, you have to wander back and forth until "Perception" kicks in.
        
In the case of the old fortress, my first secret door led me to a small room stocked with wine, brandy, and rations. I took them all and sold them to the shop on the surface. I spent a lot of this session porting items out of the dungeon and selling them on the surface. The game is so relentless with its encumbrance system--combat movement is restricted if you're overweight--that you don't want to carry any extra items for long.
          
When this happens on Bourbon Street, trust me--keep walking.
          
The second secret door was the illusory type, and it led to the battle with half a dozen bandits. As I covered in the first entry, Arkania blends the combat mechanics of the SSI games (Wizard's Crown, Gold Box) with the rotated axonometric perspective of British RPGs of the era. The SSI mechanics are fantastic--I've repeatedly heaped praise on their Gold Box iteration--but here they're coupled with a horrid interface that depends far too much on the mouse and refuses to let you attack, shoot, or cast on anything but straight lines (no diagonals). 

One huge annoyance is that when targeting an enemy, you not only have to click on his square but first hover your cursor over it and wait for the game to acknowledge (by highlighting the square in blue) the targeting. It's annoying enough when targeting squares to the west and south of the character. To the north and east, where the squares are partly hidden by the perspective, it's a nightmare. Adding to it is the need to specify a normal, aggressive, or careful attack every time you attack. A good game would accomplish this entire thing by having the player strike "A," "N," or "C" on the keyboard and then an arrow direction, not fiddle around with all this clicking.
          
A very difficult battle with brigands. I had to fight it multiple times.
         
Aside from the interface, the combat options are solid. There's even one that mitigates the interface by having the character simply repeat what he did last round. (Although I'm not sure I trust it--it feels like it fails more often than entering the same actions "from scratch.") I just didn't expect to have to explore all of them to survive the third battle. Each round, each character has a number of movement points that he can expend on an attack, guarding (a free attack when the enemy walks into an adjacent square), casting, using an item, changing a weapon, or delaying until later in the round. These are the lessons I learned while trying to win the bandit battle:
              
  • Never walk up to an enemy when you can "guard" and wait for him to come to you.
  • At least with my Level 1 characters, "aggressive" attacks don't seem to succeed more, or do more damage, than "normal" ones--and they leave characters open for retaliatory strikes.
  • You want to have a backup weapon to a bow and arrows because enemies will rush into melee range.
  • At Level 1, your physical attacks fail about 95% of the time.
  • Missiles are kind of useless anyway because they can only be fired in direct lines with no obstacles (including characters). Maneuvering archers into place is more trouble than it's worth.
  • Spells almost never work either--at least, not the ones I invested points in.
  • The only spell that works reliably is "Lightning Find Thee," which doesn't do any damage but rather blinds the target. Four of my characters can cast this spell, so in my one successful game I had them blind each target before moving on to melee.
           
The only spell that never lets me down.
          
  • Enemies (and characters) can only parry once per round, so it's best to gang up on individual enemies and take them down while still trying to avoid having more than one enemy target a single character.
           
The game has a "quick combat" option--which would normally be a godsend given the interface--but it's one of the worst that I've ever experienced. In combat with the brigands, it made my spellcasters waste all their points on ineffective spells before rushing the closest enemies in melee combat. Even against single enemies, it tends to put the worst fighters adjacent to them while leaving the best ones in back with nothing to do. I occasionally activate it towards the end of combat, when everyone is in place and there's nothing left to do but attack round after round, but otherwise I haven't been able to make much use of it.

Given its difficulty, I rather hoped that the brigand battle would elevate us with enough experience points for Level 2, but it wasn't even close. Instead, it gave us access to some decent loot (potions), a lot of money from the bandits' sold weapons, and to the stairway to the next level.
            
Selling excess stuff after the bandit battles.
          
Level 2 of the tower had a few treasure chests, locked doors, and yet another brigand battle nearly as difficult as the first one. I suppose it was as difficult, although I'd learned quite a bit more about combat tactics. This one only took me about an hour to win and left me in the same position as the first one. There was one door that I couldn't open--not with picks, not with bashing, and not with the one key that I found. Nonetheless, the nature of the encounters made it clear that the brigands had been stealing the supplies. There was a ladder down to a shore cave, which answered the question of how the brigands were getting in without Master Dramosch seeing them.

When I returned to the surface, Dramosch awarded me for solving his quest. His congratulations came with some experience points, and I thought surely this would bring me to Level 2 . . . but no, I was only about 2/3 of the way there. I have definitely stopped saving outside of temples, which costs everyone 50 experience points per save.

Solving the first side quest.
             
Meanwhile, Bart got tetanus. I'm not sure how it happened--I guess maybe brigands don't regularly scrub their weapons. Nothing I tried allowed me to cure it. Trying my characters' own "Cure Disease" abilities not only failed to help--it made it worse. So did visiting the healers in town. No amount of rest seemed to work, and praying at temples got me nothing. I don't know what I'm missing. Normally, I'd like to roll with the punches on something like this, but the game had already been needling me so much with combat and encumbrance issues that I just reloaded before the combat where he presumably got it and ran through the final stages of the dungeon again.

Back on the surface, I sold my loot. The good news is that I have a lot--or what seems like a lot--of money. The bad news is that there's no Sword +2 waiting at the shop for me. I could buy some improved armor, but that would just exacerbate my encumbrance issues.
                 
How, pray tell, does the two-handed "war axe" belong to the "Swords" category?!
               
With nothing else to do (barring finding a way through that locked door in the fortress), I decided to hit the road. I could travel to a number of destinations from Thorwal depending on the exit. The Hetman had suggested that I go to Felsteyn to find the last surviving descendant of Hygellik, whose name is Isleif Olgardsson. The game map showed Felsteyn directly north, along a branch of the river that runs through Thorwal.
         
You can click anywhere on the map to get a description of places, but you can only travel along fixed routes.
          
You can't just walk around on the overland map. You have to right-click on it and choose from pre-set destinations depending on where you are. I could travel to several places from Thorwal depending on the exit that I took. A northern exit led by foot to the city of Vaermhag, north along the coast, and a southern one led to the coastal city of Serske. By ship, I could travel to the next two cities north on the coast (Vaermhag and Varnhome) or the next two to the south (Merske and Etherdun). I decided to go east to Tjoila Ferry Station along the river, trusting that I could keep hopping river ports all the way up to Felsteyn.

We spent one night on the road but otherwise made it to Tjoila without incident. The ferry station was tiny and had only a few houses and an inn, so I didn't bother to map it. Sure enough, one of its exits led me to the next port, Rukian. It wasn't any more exciting.
          
The dusty streets of a small river town.
          
On the second night to the next port, Angbodirtal, the game gave me the option to track a group of wild pigs that had wandered by the camp. We lost them, but the experience reminded me that I probably wanted to shift my druid, Bart der Wald, to the front of the party while we were on the road. Almost all the game's skill checks are made against the party leader, so it's useful to have someone who specializes in wilderness navigation ("Track," "Animal Lore," "Survival") for the road, someone who specializes in towns ("Streetwise," "Lie," "Human Nature") for towns, and someone who specializes in dungeons ("Danger Sense," "Perception," "Locks") for the underground. I had arranged for my dwarf to be my dungeoneer, my magician to be my townswoman, and my druid to be my forester, but I haven't been good about moving them around.
          
What were we even chasing them for? Food?
         
There wasn't much to do at the Angbodirtal Ferry Station, but when I explored the nearby town of Angbodirtal, I randomly stumbled upon the house of an NPC named Beorn Hjallasson. The game gave me the option to tell him about our quest for Hyggelik's Sword, and it turned out that he is also somehow a descendant of Hyggelik. He told us we might find luck asking Hjore Ahrensson in Ottarje or Ragna Firunjasdotter in Vidsand. Both were a bit west of my current location, so I decided to continue on to Felsteyn. 
          
You're making those names up, right?
          
And thus through Auplog, Vilnhome, and Upper Orcam I traveled, staying in the inn at each town and paying for a square meal, but otherwise finding nothing interesting except the occasional smith, temple, or tavern. These towns could have perhaps been better handled as menu towns if travel was going to be menu-based anyway. It would be nice at least if the different types of shops were discernible from the outside, so you don't have to bash into every one of them. As it is, you can only tell temples from the facade. 

We finally made to Felsteyn, a moderate-sized town, and found Isleif Olgardsson living on its outskirts. When we told him our quest for Hyggelik's blade, he suggested that we consult . . . Beorn Hjallasson in Angbodirtal. But he also gave us the name of Umbrik Sevenstones in Orvil and he gave us a piece of a map that looks like it might ultimately have 9 pieces.
         
The first of probably 9 map pieces.
        
I hope that the bulk of the game isn't going to involve the party going from one nondescript town to another so that we can talk to interchangeable NPCs hoping to find map pieces. If this game does it right, it will be like Ultima VI, where there's a lot of variance in the length and type of quest needed for each piece. Perhaps by next entry, we'll know.

Time so far: 10 hours

Monday, January 6, 2020

Camelot: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

There I am, third from the top, above even the creator himself.
           
Camelot
United States
Independently written and released on university PLATO system in 1982
Date Started: 20 April 2019
Date Ended: 5 January 2020
Total Hours: 69
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:

The last of the PLATO RPGs, Joshua Tabin's Camelot united the two previous traditions present on the terminal-mainframe system. From the Dungeon/Game of Dungeons/Orthanc line, he took the single-player approach using a multi-classed character. From the Moria/Oubliette/Avatar line, he took first-person dungeon exploration (with a menu town on top) and a combat system where you fight "stacks" of multiple monsters. Players control individual characters but can message each other as they explore the same shared dungeon, which resets on the hour or whenever all the rooms of a level are cleared. The ultimate goal is to get strong enough to explore Level 10, get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, and use it to force Lucifer to cough up the Holy Grail. It takes a while to learn the game's features, and it's pretty hard even with its "relaxed permadeath" approach, but it has an addicting approach to leveling and inventory acquisition

*****

I've often wondered how I would have fared if I had been a student at one of the PLATO universities in the 1970s or early 1980s, and now I have my answer: my life would have been ruined. I would have skipped classes, missed deadlines, plagiarized papers--anything to spend more time on the computer. I know because that's basically what I did this week. I procrastinated on an already-overdue report to win this 40-year-old game. The fact that money, and not just a grade, is riding on this report probably makes it worse.

Like all of the PLATO games, Camelot is about mechanics. It hardly has any story at all. Its allure comes from its constant sense of character development--the idea that the next level, the next epic item, the next 10,000 points (putting you one position higher on the leaderboard) are all just around the corner. This is the kind of game that transitions you from 1:00 AM to 4:00 AM before you've noticed what happened.

I don't often schedule my games to offer compelling comparisons, but what an amazing lesson in contrast we have between Camelot and Challenge of the Five Realms, written 10 years apart for very different audiences. Challenge has all of the content of an excellent RPG--game world, NPCs, dialogue, and plot. Camelot has the mechanics of an excellent RPG--statistics, inventory, and combat tactics. I think it's fair to say that I appreciate and enjoy Challenge's approach, but I am addicted to Camelot's.

Part of the fun of my experience came from author Josh Tabin's occasional presence as I played. (He and his son stayed up with me until 1:00 AM the other night, cheering me on as I won.) I couldn't experience the game the way it was with 20 players swarming the dungeon, but at least I got some of the experience. He helped me fight a few tough battles (the game divides the treasure among the number of people in the room, I discovered, even if you can't see each other) and alerted me where he'd seen a particular foe or item. I want to say that he gave me a lot of hints, but perhaps a better way to say it is that he led me to a lot of hints. He avoided most outright spoilers and instead said things like "Hey, I saw a TARDIS in the shop--you should buy it and see what it does."

Unfortunately, players can't directly help each other by giving each other money or equipment. But they can alert each other to where they've seen, say, a group of lizard men with a particularly large chest, knowing that lizard men often drop magic boots. They can say stuff to each other like, "I just sold a Manual of Quickness to the store if anyone wants to buy it." And of course they can help each other directly in combat.

I think it's been a while since Tabin had anyone take such active interest in his game. He used the occasion to make some tweaks while my own experience was in progress. One was to add a "difficulty setting." He said the programming was already in there, but he had never turned it on. Now any player can customize his own difficulty from "easy" to "nightmare." Easier games make enemies less effective but also give you a lower score. "Nightmare" lets you build your character fast for some extra risk. He also added a few more trap types and introduced a system by which low-level enemies run away from high-level characters. I'd often wondered why some of my charmed companions would up and ditch me for no reason, and it turns out that they do it when you attack other enemies of the same type. In a recent update, he made that explicit by having the companion say "he was my BROTHER!" as he leaves your service.
            
The author added a difficulty setting during the middle of my session.
           
In my previous entries, I talked a lot about the game's difficulty. It is perhaps most accurate to say that like a good roguelike (which Camelot does an excellent job anticipating), it is very difficult until you get a lot of experience and get a natural feel for what's going on. I was well into my 40th hour before combat tactics really "clicked," and I started to learn instinctively when to use spells, when to attack, and when to run. It took a while before I got to the point that I always had my hands on the right keys as I entered a room, allowing me to act before the enemy. I died a couple dozen times in the first 30 hours of the game and only half a dozen in the last 30.

Another important insight was learning how to strategically develop inventory. Each item has a level (the game calls it a "table") from 1-12 associated with it, and these levels are highly calibrated with the monster levels. A mithril sword (Table 3) simply isn't going to do much against a red dragon (Table 8) no matter how high your level or attributes. So instead of blundering all of the dungeon hoping to find anything, you prioritize trying to upgrade your lowest-level items. The average "table" of a looted piece of equipment is the same as the dungeon level on which you find it. So let's say that most of your stuff is Table 7, but you're still stuck with Table 4 armor (Frosty Plate Mail). Hopefully, you've noticed that dragons tend to drop armor, so you want to be on dungeon Level 7 looking for a Table 7 dragon (blue dragon) carrying Tale 7 Azure Plate Mail. If you've mapped carefully, you've noted that dragons tend to show up in rooms with scorch marks on the walls, and you thus head for that room on Level 7. No luck? Wait for the hour to roll around and the dungeon to reset, or reset it yourself with a TARDIS.
           
Running into a high-level enemy with a high-level chest in a "stud room," I use my Scroll of Identification to check the odds.
           
I had originally thought that a lot of the dungeon room messages were just flavor text, but they actually alert you to the type of enemy you're most likely to find there. Monsters of the "slime" table (green slimes, yellow molds, ochre jellies, black puddings) are usually found in rooms that say "the ground is very soft here." If you want to avoid slimes, you avoid those rooms. If you're trying to find enemies from the "bad cleric" list and the potions and scrolls that they often carry, you look for rooms described with "crosses and an altar." Thieves are in rooms with "empty wallets" on the floor. The specific composition of the rooms resets on the hour, but the locations of the rooms of each description do not.

The dungeon levels are full of the types of navigational obstacles that you've experienced if you've played any first-person wireframe game. These include spinners, pit traps, one-way chutes, and teleporters. Some of these are necessary to navigate the dungeon, and you have to map carefully. For instance, you can take regular stairs all the way to Level 6, but to get to Level 7, you need to take a teleporter behind a hidden door on Level 3. Level 8 can only be reached via a teleporter from Level 5, which is in a section that can only be reached via a teleporter on Level 7. Despite the complexity, you learn the steps pretty fast, and I found I could make it from the town on Level 1 to Level 10 in about 3 minutes--faster, of course, if I had the rare Wand of Teleportation.

As you explore downward, it's a good rule of thumb to make sure that either your weapon or your spell item is one or two levels higher than the current level you're exploring. You can do this by repeatedly attacking each level's "stud room"--cued with a note that the walls are covered in blood--which reliably offers monsters and items 1-2 levels higher than the level's average. So if you defeat the stud room on Level 6, there's a decent chance you'll find a Table 8 item.

I was lucky to get a Ring of Wizardry (Table 9) at the stud room on Level 7, and it let me blast my way through the rest of Level 7 and Level 8. (Downside: every time you use a spell item, there's a chance it will run out of charges, and re-charging it at the store is expensive.) Then, early in my Level 10 explorations, I ran into a "friendly" Asmodeus and bribed him $140,000 to drop his chest and leave the room. It had the Level 12 Ruby Staff of Asmodeus in it, which let me kill most things on the level.

Leveling is pretty constant during this process, but it caps at Level 60. I don't like level caps, but in this case I think most players would be hard pressed to hit the level cap long before the end of the game.
         
My map of Level 10. The numbers are all teleporters.
          
Level 10 has the game's final encounters with Lucifer and the Lady of the Lake. Lucifer has the Holy Grail but kills you instantly if you don't have Excalibur. The Lady of the Lake, meanwhile, won't give you Excalibur unless you're fully outfitted with Table 12 gear. How do you get Table 12 items when there are only 10 dungeon levels? You can get extraordinarily lucky, as I did with Asmodeus, or you can camp out at the Level 10 stud room, which will feature a new Table 12 enemy every hour on the hour. The Table 12 enemies are a rogue's gallery of pop culture references: Asmodeus, Tiamat, Zeus, Poseidon, The Evil One, beholders, Thor, Jubilex, Lolth, Saruman, Sauron, the Master of Shadows, and--at the top of the "bad clerics" list--Jerry Falwell.
           
Finding a Level 12 artifact.
         
There's no guarantee that these enemies will always drop Level 12 artifacts. And if they do, there's no guarantee you won't accidentally destroy them by fumbling the trap. So you have to churn through dozens of encounters to assemble your list. If you don't want this to take dozens of hours, you have to load up on TARDISes (which reset the dungeon manually) and keep using them. This took me about 6 hours by itself and would have taken longer if Tabin hadn't sold one of his character's extra TARDISes to the store.

When you finally have a complete set of Level 12 gear, you go to a water room at the bottom of Level 10, and the Lady of the Lake hands over Excalibur.
          
Yes, everybody knows it's no basis for a system of government. Please let it go.
         
From there, it's just a few steps to the stairway to HELL, where you meet Lucifer. He cowers the moment he sees Excalibur, hands over the Holy Grail, and flees.
        
Satan flees and hands over the Holy Grail.
          
Once you have the Holy Grail, you need only return to the town, where the game gives you the option to retire permanently. If you want, you can keep playing and finding more treasure to increase your score, which affects your position on the leaderboard. I retired with a score of 673,809. That was enough to put me at the third spot on the board, behind two characters fielded by the mysterious "greg" or "gregl." I could have beaten his high score, but it would have taken another 6 hours of gameplay, roughly.
          
Am I ever.
           
When you retire the character permanently, you get the following endgame text, suggesting a never-ending cycle of grail-finding. Then again, there has to be a rationale for more than one winner.
          
          
In a GIMLET, Camelot earns:

  • 0 points for the game world. I thought about giving it 1, but I couldn't even justify that. Despite its name and the presence of the Lady of the Lake (nonsensically on the bottom of a dungeon), the game doesn't make any use of Arthurian themes, nor does it replace or supplement them with any story or sense of place. This was the norm with the PLATO series.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. There are a few choices in character creation--particularly the race--which make a big difference during gameplay. I chose to take the elf, a weak character who has a low risk of dying of old age (he ended the game about 30 years younger than he started, thanks to Potions of Youth). During the game, leveling is continually rewarding even though it doesn't give you any choices. The little sub-quests to kill specific monsters to reach some levels was a fun addition. 
            
I just turned Level 60. I assess the level of my equipment as the game gives me my next mission.
             
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Okay, there are no NPCs. But for past PLATO games, I gave a couple points here for the PC interaction that accompanies those titles, and I like how it works here. You don't need other players to enjoy the game, but they can enhance your experience. I also gave a point here to the ability to charm monsters to joining your little "party."
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The game's long list of monsters may be derivative, but Tabin did an excellent job programming their various strengths and weaknesses. A player has to balance his desire for treasure with the knowledge that thieves can steal treasure and slimes can destroy it. A careful player has to note what enemies cause sleep, paralysis, petrification, and destruction. The best part is that all of these strengths and weaknesses are determinable with a Scroll of Identification.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The game has a nice set of options for dealing with creatures, including spells, physical assaults of different types (trading accuracy for power), popping in and out of rooms until you "surprise" the enemies, hitting and running, stealing their treasure out from under them, and bribing them to go away. Only the spell system is underdeveloped, with the character only having access to one "spell" (more of an inventory item) at a time.
  • 6 points for equipment, one of the best parts of the game. The player has 15 equipment slots with 12 levels of items for each slot. Even better is the wide variety of equipment that works in the "Other" slot--scrolls, wands, potions, and the like. There are manuals that permanently improve attributes, cordials that temporarily improve them, scrolls and wands that make navigation easier, items that charm different types of enemies (figuring out what works on which type is a mini-game in itself). Particularly well done is the Scroll of Identification. You can use it at any time, including in-combat and when in the middle of pulling items from a chest. Use it on a monster, and it tells you his hit percentages, damages, and special abilities. Use it on an item, and it tells you what it is and whether it's cursed. Use it on an unopened chest, and it tells you what trap you're facing.
      
The store always held a chaotic selection of items.
           
  • 6 points for the economy. For most of the game, you're trying to make enough money just to level up, so deciding whether to sell a potentially useful item for some extra cash, or whether to splurge on that item in the store, or whether to bribe a particular enemy (who may have more gold than the bribe in his chest) presents a continual set of decisions. Even late in the game, when you have plenty (especially after you hit the level cap), finding money contributes to your score.
  • 3 points for quests. There's only one main quest with no decisions or role-playing options, but there are also sub-quests throughout to kill specific monsters.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are what they are, although I think the monster portraits are well done. There's no sound. The keyboard interface for me was easy to master (and the game usually shows you all available commands at the current moment), and I like how everything is always laid out on the main screen, even if it makes the exploration window a bit small.
  • 3 points for gameplay. This is from a 2020 perspective, of course, where I could have fit three other games in the time it took me to win Camelot. There were a lot of moments of frustration, and the linear nature of the dungeon reduces replayability even as the character options (and ever-present leaderboard) increases it. What feels to me today too long, with too many moments of frustration, would have felt the opposite on a college campus in 1982, with plenty of friends around to compare experiences and jockey for high scores.
       
The final score is 36, which crosses my "recommended" threshold, but not by so much that it would be absurd. It is notably the highest score I've given to a PLATO title.
         
What's particularly amazing is that Josh Tabin wasn't even a college student when he wrote Camelot--he was 12! As a member of the Explorer Scouts, he had access to a special program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where PLATO was born) that taught middle- and high-school aged kids how to write code. Tabin explicitly joined the program because he wanted to play Oubliette (1978) and Avatar (1979) on the PLATO system. Somehow, he found time to complete Camelot in 18 months. Years later, he attended the university as a student and kept adding to the program.

It's an extremely mature game, and the age of the programmer doesn't come through at all except in a few bits of juvenile humor (in addition to "poison dart," there is a type of trap that rhymes with it; one of the magic bags is called a "large hairy sack") and the varied but predictable pop culture references. The game mixes the monster list from Dungeons and Dragons with the TARDIS from Doctor Who and the occasional quote from Blade Runner or monster or item from Lord of the Rings.

(Tabin waited a long time for this review. He first contacted me in 2013, and I assured him I'd play the game eventually. Somehow it disappeared from my master list, so he contacted me again in late 2017 to ask what had happened. I apologized and promised again that I'd get to it "soon." In anticipation, he sent me a long, enormously valuable set of instructions. Then, it wasn't until July 2018 that I took an initial look at the game and sent back some questions, then April of 2019 before I fully engaged it.)

I'm one of only four wins in 15 years (since the PLATO system was ported to Cyber1), but there were 43 winners between 1985 (when Tabin started keeping track) and 2003, including an early 2000s war between two users who went by the names "kappes m" and "pilcher," each of them winning about a dozen times, trying to push each other off the leaderboard, and changing their character names to poke fun at each other. "kappes m" was responsible for a 20-hour speedrun in which he managed to get the Grail at character level 30 using a challenging pixie character, basically exploiting the pixie's high dexterity to run dungeon levels that should have been out of his league and to steal high-level items from creatures that would normally have been able to stomp him.

But I'm the only one to have documented the ending, which is good enough for me. And with this, we have finally played the last of the PLATO games. I won't be returning to the setting unless I go insane and decide to try to win Oubliette or Avatar or record some video of the games I've already won. It's been a fun ride seeing the complexity that these amateur games achieved in the pre-commercial era, and Camelot was a fitting capstone to the series. But now I've got to stop procrastinating and work on that report.