Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Game 362: OrbQuest (1981)

I'm playing the second edition of the game. The first is not available anywhere.
United States
Alternate World Simulations
Released in 1981 for CP/M
Date Started: 10 March 2020
Date Finished: 15 March 2020
Total Hours: 25
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at time of posting: 76/368 (21%)
Digital Research's CP/M operating system only boasted two original RPGs, and it turns out that both of them were adapted directly from games on the PLATO mainframe. A year ago, I covered how Nemesis (1981) was just a microcomputer version of Oubliette (1977), and now it's clear that OrbQuest is nothing more than a microcomputer version of The Game of Dungeons (1975), more popularly known by its file name, "DND." Specifically, it is a direct adaption of the game's fifth edition.
Finding a treasure chest in the OrbQuest dungeon offers the same options as The Game of Dungeons.
We've discussed at length how Daniel Lawrence based his own DND (c. 1976) on The Game of Dungeons, but OrbQuest is a far more literal porting of the code than Lawrence's. Indeed, if I'd known about it when I won The Game of Dungeons, I might have been content to discuss OrbQuest in an addendum rather than playing it as a separate game. Among the things it shares in common:
  • A goal to recover an Orb, held by a powerful guardian (a dragon in Game, a "dragon wizard" here)
  • Twenty 9 x 9 levels with the same system of movement (e.g., SHIFT to go through a door), secret doors, and one-way doors
  • No staircases, just "teleporters" that take you to the next and previous levels, and the teleporters are oddly spaced between squares rather than in them
  • The same attributes, with "piety" substituted for "wisdom" 
  • Experience based on monsters killed and gold retrieved
  • Most of the same spells, divided into cleric and mage, with slots given to the character upon leveling
  • The same combat options, including minimized importance of "fighting" and each enemy having a particular weakness to a particular spell
  • The same commands and results for opening chests, drinking potions, and reading books
  • Most of the same items of magical equipment to find
  • Most of the same monsters
  • On dungeon Level 1, monsters are never higher than Level 1 
  • Options to toggle on or off automatic collection of gold and automatic fighting of enemies below a certain level
I'm assuming that Dirk Pellet and the other Game authors didn't know about this attempt to monetize their work, or certainly they would have objected as strongly as they did to Lawrence's. Relative obscurity must have helped: OrbQuest appeared only for a dying platform, and the creator notes on a message board that he only ever sold about 100 copies.
The Game of Dungeons' cleric spells were, in contrast, "Light Candle," "Holy Water, "Exorcise," "Pray," "Hold," "Dispell," and "Datspell."
As to that creator, his name was Walter E. Donovan, and his company--existing only for this game, it seems--has an address in Milpitas, California. So far, I have not been able to tie Donovan directly to a PLATO campus (unlike Lawrence and the author of Nemesis), so I'm not sure how he was exposed to it, but it's clear that somehow he got the source code or otherwise thorough documentation of its elements and mechanics.
A nice cover leads the game manual, which is otherwise typewritten and photocopied.
As usual, this is not to say that Donovan added nothing to the game. In fact, he smoothed away some of Game's most egregious imbalances and made the game less random. Gold is less plentiful, particularly on earlier levels, chests (and thus magic items) rarer, and traps less deadly. A player can no longer spend half the game just wandering the same corridors of Level 1 and picking up nearly every magic item along the way. Chests have only about 10 times the gold as random loot on their levels, not 1000 times. Chests aren't trapped as often, and when they are, they rarely kill you unless you've delved too far too fast. Magic items are never trapped. Books and potions help more than they hurt, so it's worth taking the chance on them.
Potions and books are less deadly here than in the source game.
The result is a game that is, even with permadeath, far more survivable than The Game of Dungeons but also less "gameable." There aren't any tricks to help you get rich quick (unlike in Game, you can't cache gold, either) or otherwise bypass the long and tedious process of grinding yourself senseless for several dozen hours. I've been doing it while clearing out my Netflix queue, but I can't imagine that even back in the day, when it was the only game for my platform, I would have had a lot of fun with it.
Collecting gold to raise my level. I have a pretty good set of equipment here.
The game begins with random rolls of 3-18 for strength, dexterity, intelligence, and piety. After that, you begin on Level 1 of the dungeon. The 9 x 9 levels have a fixed layout but a random distribution of gold, chests, and other items, re-randomized every time you change levels or exit the dungeon. Encounters are completely random and also extremely variable. Sometimes, I walked 20 steps or more with no encounters; other times, I had three or four in the same square.
The limited character creation process.
For the most part, you meet the same monsters on all levels, but the monsters themselves have levels. The monster's level is far more important in determining his danger than the monster type; that is, a Level 3 ghoul is deadlier than a Level 1 dragon. On dungeon Level 1, monsters are never higher than Level 1 themselves. On other dungeon levels, their levels are randomized to a maximum of roughly 5 times the dungeon level for levels 1-10--unless you're carrying gold, in which case their maximum level is something like 4 times the dungeon level plus 1 for every 5,000-10,000 gold pieces you carry.
My maps of the first nine levels.
OrbQuest lacks the "excelsior transport" from Game, but several of the levels have pits that take you directly to lower levels. The levels have varied layouts with secret doors, one-way doors, and such, but no special encounters until Level 10. Playing the game is a process of exploring downward, picking up gold until you start to encounter monsters you can't handle, then hauling it back up to Level 1 and then exit in order to level up. The next time, you can go a little further and collect a little more gold.

There are 13 monsters in the game: balrogs, deaths, demons, dragons, evil curates, ghouls, green slimes, hirebrands, huge spiders, mindworms, specters, wizards, and zombies. A few of them have special attacks. If mindworms do any damage to you at all in combat, they'll sap intelligence permanently. Same goes for specters and strength. Green slimes eat inventory items.
Despite my victory, the specter manages to eat a point of strength.
As with Game, fighting here is a last resort except for enemies significantly below your level (you can set the game to auto-fight such enemies so you don't even need to press "F"). Instead, you need to learn, through trial and error, each enemy's weaknesses to various spells. For instance, balrogs are susceptible to the "Fatal Charm" mage spell. The cleric spell "Holy Water" deals with demons, evil curates, and zombies. As in Game, the cleric's "Hold" and the mage's "Sleep" work reliably against enemies below Level 5 and hardly at all after that. As long as the enemy isn't more than three times your level, he should die immediately from the spell that works best against him. At higher levels, the spell might partly work (depending on the spell), leaving you to finish him off (or vice versa) in melee combat. Again, you can control the level of enemy you face by controlling the amount of gold you carry and the dungeon level you're visiting.
Combat options.
The occasional potion or tome offers a chance to increase your attributes, and unlike the ones in Game, they don't have an equal chance of decreasing attributes, although they do have an occasional negative effect like poison or a trap. "Clerical detection" reliably determines if the item is safe.

Chests occasionally deliver magic items. Swords, shields, helms ("haumes"), hauberks, Cloaks of Defense, and Belts of Healing are all initially found at +1, and as you find more, you gain additional pluses. Amulets of Revival will save the character from one death. Small Idols of Luck increase the amount of treasure that you find. Necklaces of Eyes allow you to see secret doors. I was never sure what Rings of Power or Glory did.
The Belt of Healing is a useful tool that regenerates hit points.
Level 9 has a bunch of one-way doors that funnel the player to one of the teleporters to Level 10. Immediately on arrival to Level 10, the character is attacked by Demogorgon. This is a test encounter to see if you're strong enough for the lower levels, and you need to be around Level 100 to beat him. Once he's dead, he never appears again.
Killing Level 10's Demogorgon is a key milestone.
Levels 10-20 are a lot harder. Not only are the monsters much higher level, but there are more navigation obstacles. There are invisible walls, wrapping levels, lots more one-way walls and doors, and other difficult terrain. Downward teleporters sometimes skip two levels. Level 15, with a bunch of concentric squares, is a copy of Game of Dungeons' Level 11. Level 16, featuring a spiral of corridors, is a copy of Game's Level 15. And Level 17, with a bunch of featureless north/south corridors connected by secret doors, is a copy of Game's Level 20.

The Dragon Wizard is found somewhere on Level 20. The level has a couple of squares that halve your available spells and another one that blinds you. If you defeat the Dragon Wizard, you get the Orb and millions of gold pieces--which it would be sensible to immediately drop, as the Orb itself is going to attract enough high-level monsters. You then have to make your way back up 20 levels, apparently somewhere encountering The Grim Reaper, who's even harder than the Dragon Wizard.

Here is where I run into problems. Although I've explored them both multiple times, I cannot find the up teleporters from Levels 19 or 13. A "Teleport" spell that's supposed to move you upward for one cleric and one mage spell slot absolutely never works. Thus, although I have managed to obtain the Orb, I can't find my way out of the dungeon.
I had the Orb at one point; I just couldn't get it out.
I haven't been adhering to permadeath, of course. The game makes it easy to cheat. It saves your character with every level transition and doesn't record his "death" until you acknowledge the death message. This is an opportunity for players to quickly remove the disk from the drive, or in my case kill the emulator. Reloading is a pain, though, so death still has consequences. Since I'm emulating the CP/M from within DOSBox, I have to restart two emulators with their associated commands and sit through a timer in the unregistered CP/M emulator. It was probably easier for a 1981 player to restart his game than it is for me.
Thus, having wasted an absurd number of hours on the game, I can't show you a winning screen. But if I know my readers, one of them will eventually grow curious enough to poke around in the game's code and let me know what I missed, and I'll be able to come back with an addendum. For now, the game ties with Game for an 18, although the individual stories aren't exactly the same. Game of Dungeons at least tried to make up a story about the dungeon, which OrbQuest doesn't, but OrbQuest has a slightly better variety of equipment.
OrbQuest gets some credit for slightly more gruesome combat language than its source.
We'll take our second look at Planet's Edge next while I gear up to plan fan (and Addict) favorite Ultima VII. Replacing it on the "upcoming" list is Catacombs (1982) for the ZX81, for which I haven't even found an emulator yet, so we'll see.

Addendum from 22 June 2020:

Commenter LanHawk got us to the end. He took my maps and figured out what I missed. For the Level 19-18 transition, I simply missed a secret door. My failure to find the Level 13-12 teleporter was more understandable: it's an illusory wall, one that requires you to just walk normally into it, rather than using the SHIFT-walk command that all other secret doors use.
LanHawk also found three magic items that I didn't: a Ring of Power, a Ring of Might, and a Ring of Invisibility.

With this knowledge, he took my character and won the game. He used the "Fear" spell to kill the Dragon Wizard and get the Orb. The Grim Reaper attacked when he took the Level 2-1 teleporter, and he killed it with "Fatal Charm."

Killing death himself.
Naturally, he then found the exit and got Chester into the Hall of Fame.
Or, rather, the "Valhalla of Fame."

I got stuck on Level 423; LanHawk won with my character on Level 425. I'm thus going to claim this as an "assisted win" and take the point. Thanks as always, LanHawk, for a sense of patience that exceeds mine.


  1. For a lot of my favorite games on DOSBOX, I create batch files to open them from desktop shortcuts.

    That shade of blue probably hurt a lot of peoples' eyes back in the day. Do all CPM programs look like that? Yeesh.

    1. That grey-on-dark-blue color scheme was very common back in the day. A ton of Infocom games used it, old word processors used it (type EDIT at a DOS prompt - you'll see this exact scheme) until WYSIWYG became dominant (and you thus needed to see the exact foreground and background color), and a lot of other text-based games used it. For that matter, some console games adopted the same standard - white-on-dark-blue has been the default for Final Fantasy games since the NES days, and I'm pretty sure there's others.

      The reason for this is that it doesn't hurt peoples eyes at all - it is one of the least eyestrain-inducing color schemes in dimmer lighting, and has good contrast.

    2. The color scheme always reminds me of the Turbo Pascal IDE (though I think only comments were grey, keywords were white and the rest a light yellow...). And lots of programs that were written using its GUI toolkit.

      Certainly not bad to look at.

    3. Good old EDIT.COM on MS DOS Also used a similar scheme.

  2. Kind of astounding that someone plagiarised a 1975 game written by students for their university mainframe, to sell.

    More importantly, what was on your Netflix queue!

    I'm trying to get into The Dragon Prince (because the creator was head writer for The Last Airbender, which you should try watching with Irene if you haven't already), but I had to switch the audio to Italian because I can't deal with the accents or joke delivery in the English version.

    1. Astounding? It seems to be the norm. The Game of Dungeons was plagiarized (or "adapted") three times that we know of: Lawrence's DND (plus half a dozen games plagiarized from him), OrbQuest, Dungeon of Death, and The Standing Stones. Meanwhile, Oubliette gave us Nemesis and Wizardry and probably a couple of others that I'm forgetting. If the game was released between 1978 and 1983, there's like a 40% chance that it ripped off something on PLATO.

      I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I've been binging the Arrowverse. It's not very good, but there are like 500 episodes, and I'm just beginning a new treadmill program.

    2. Hmm, you have a point. I guess I'm more astounded that, with the world their oyster, some of these early crpg 'devs' were so unimaginative that they directly cribbed from what little already existed.

      I think the sum of Arrowverse I have seen amounts to a couple episodes of Black Lightning. It was....a television show.

    3. I think it's that so little was available, that they had no inspiration to make new games. In 1981? Look at the landscape out there.

      People who are high in the personality trait of Openness are good at making new things. People with the personality trait of Conscientiousness are good at starting what they finish. Guess what kind of person is good at computer programming in 1981?

      A few people are good at both, and that's where you get the legends like Lord British.

      At any rate the author's copying didn't serve him well. Only 100 copies sold.

    4. I'm curious how much each of those 100 copies likely sold for.

  3. Ultima VII is the first RPG I have ever played and still my favorite,even with its glaring weaknesses such as the dull combat.

    Can't wait for your coverage of it.

  4. I'll be interested to see what you liked about Ultima VII.

    I finished it, but... like VI and VIII, and unlike IV or V, I have no desire to ever do so again.

    1. Onward to Ultima VII!!

      A flawed but brilliant game...

    2. I'm looking forward to Part 1. Part 2, not so much.

    3. Part 2 is a great game for the first half, but then hopelessly falls apart.

    4. Personally, I vastly prefered Part 2 to Part one, although that's mostly because the early open world "go anywhere do anything" thing the original was going for has been done far better in enough games for that part to not impress me, and the rest of it wasn't the greatest to me

    5. I felt like most of Spoony's reviews of the Ultima games weren't particularly good as actual reviews. There was the obvious issue of not getting more than half an hour into Underworld 2 because of refusing to just walk past an enemy he couldn't kill, and his review of 5 ended up making me think the game would be a lot different than it was, which ended up making me disappointed when I played the game for myself

    6. I think Spoony said at some point that the reviews of 1 through 8 weren't intended to be reviews so much as context for his Ultima 9 review, which wasn't a review so much as an angry screed.

    7. Uh...he says about a billion times he loves these games. Of course they're not supposed to be actual reviews. The videos are just funny. Laugh.

    8. I never said they weren't funny, just that they're not good as reviews

    9. Spoony's retrospective is great if you like the series, those videos motivated me to do a marathon of the series a few years ago.

      And the Ultima 9 videos are histerical.

      What's a paladin?

    10. Jimmy Maher has a great set of articles on the compleat Ultima 7. Basically, Serpent Isle would have been the greatest Ultima of them all, but then they sold the company and basically didn't finish the second half.


    11. Serpent Isle has by far the best writing of the series, the most interesting worldbuilding and characters, etc. It's also more "Ultima-ish" than Black Gate in terms of plot (it especially has a much better choice of primary antagonist). The game up to the Wall of Lights is strong enough that it would be my favorite Ultima game by far if the rest of the game after it was streamlined into a 1-2 hour endgame scenario. Obviously, the hypothetical completed late game would be better.

    12. Interestingly enough, there's a beta copy of Serpent Isle floating around that dates to before they started making massive cuts to the later parts of the game. While it's obviously unfinished, it still has a bunch of stuff that shows what the original plans were

    13. TCRF has a page about it here. It's a work-in-progress, most of the story content hasn't been listed on the page yet, but it might be by the time Chet gets to playing Serpent Isle.

    14. Considering it's been over a year since the last update, and there honestly isn't much interest in early 90s PC games compared to console ones when it comes to digging into them for unused stuff, it probably won't have anything added by then

  5. I had good results with ZEsarUX when I played the ZX81 version of Football Manager. Didn't even have to learn the intricacies of tape loading - just smart-load a 'p' file and then type 'RUN' to play it.

    1. I had a friend with a Sinclair 1000 back in the day... the American version of the ZX81.

      Not sure if it was a computer or overprices calculator...

      I love your blog too Ahab! Glad there is a community going back and forth!

  6. I'll get to this game on my blog eventually, and given that I enjoyed The Game of Dungeon v5 quite a bit, there's a good chance I'll persevere to the end of this one as well. But, as I'm currently mired in 1979 that's a ways off.

    I'm stoked to see you've started on Ultima VII. It's tempting to start discussing it already, but I will be patient and wait for your first post. (Hurry up Chester.)

    1. Same here... funny that most of my favorite bog writers have all chimed in... if Adamantyr shows up we have a quorum!

    2. Ha! Just noticed this... I made one "D" in my entire academic career... in typing!

      Bogs aren't so bad, you don't have to worry about cleaning them and the monsters keep everyone else away.

  7. Might you play Ultima Runes of Virtue?

    1. I doubt it. Not only would have to except it as a console game, I'd have to doubly-except it as a HANDHELD console game, and even then, I don't think it meets my definitions of an RPG.

    2. However you played Zelda, another action rpg from the console world.

    3. What about that Ultima-clone minigame you can play in System Shock 2? :D

    4. Yeah, and that was an exception. Which means he probably ain't gonna do it again. That's the thing about exceptions: they're exceptional.

    5. Chet breaks the rules when he wants to, which is just the way it should be :p

      (Generally he only does so when playing a given non-CRPG informs the blog’s purpose in some fashionj

    6. Eep? Eep eep!

      RoV may not be the worst game bear the Ultima name, but it's certainly the most annoying, why would we want to subject Chet to that?

    7. I had fun with it, but it's definitely more Zelda than Ultima.

    8. Those are my two favourite game series, I have got to get around to playing Runes one day.

  8. This sounds rather dull, but somehow I can understand it, endless grind does have its appeal at times at least.

    About the colour scheme, if memory serves me right, yellow on blue is actually the best to read with a font without serifs (i.e. arial or something).
    At least that is what I use for my Linux shells since ages.

    As for U7, looking forward to you playing this, this was an amazing experience in 1993. I will pass on the news to the other ultima dragons, curious as to what they will think about your coverage of the game.

    1. Oh man, the Dragons are still around? That takes me back.

    2. I remember spending hours looting every house and dropping everything I took in the middle of town for some reason. I also spend mad amounts of time baking.

    3. For those interested, the Ultima Dragons are still around - check on Twitter @ultimadragons or they still run a website you can join at udic.org. A lot of us old timers are still out there.

    4. That udic.org site (hyperlinked for your convenience) looks like it was last updated in 1997. My browser auto-downloaded a .mid file into my downloads directory. A better result than auto-playing it, though, I suppose.

  9. Chet's tendency to mute the music means we'll probably be spared the spectacle of him going mad from hearing "Hail Britannia" constantly playing anytime you go near the capital in Ultima VII.

    (It's been more than two decades since I played the game so I might be misremembering how extensive it is but I can still hear those opening bars starting up in my head...)

    1. Oh, and I just realised we're about to encounter the first game with an "expansion", aren't we? And deal with the question of whether you play Ultima VII with Forge of Virtue installed from the start (because it's a huge pain to go back to it later, and you don't get to do the new content at an organic point in the game) or revisit it as a separate release, and therefore play vanilla Ultima VII and THEN the expansion (to get the authentic "on release" experience that matches the reviews).

    2. Wizardry II was an expansion, wasn't it?

    3. U7P1 might be the first game that has an expansion that takes place within the main game instead of as an extension or coda. I'll play it as part of the main game, of course. It was released the same year, even, so there would be nothing gained by saving it as a separate game.

  10. So is the college you teach shutdown with online classes? Does that leave more time for games? Just trying to look at the bright side.

    Id bet you are a terrific teacher btw.

    1. Thanks. My institution is moving online for the rest of the semester. That brings its own challenges, of course. I think it will wash out about equally.

    2. Stay safe, Chet! This Coronavirus is no joke. Get stocked up and avoid going out.

  11. Is Ultima 7 the last game of 1992? You had originally said there were 65 games in 1992. I counted 35 played so far. So you really through out 29 games for 1992?

    1. No, there are about 18 games left in 1992. You missed a recent announcement where I said I was going to allow myself to move forward without having completed entire years.

  12. You can play Catacombs (as well as a bunch of other ZX81 games) online at:

  13. Replies
    1. Indeed... so many ancient pearls have been unearthed here!

  14. I'm still waiting for someone to finish Wiz4 for him...just kidding ;-)

    1. I still had quite a few levels to go on W4, so I wouldn't accept someone's help anyway.

  15. I played the Macintosh version of Orbquest back in the mid to late 80's, and I can't help wonder what you would think of it? Seems there are quite a few differences between the two versions.

    1. That’s not a version of this; it’s a completely different game. I covered it here:


  16. "So far, I have not been able to tie Donovan directly to a PLATO campus [...], so I'm not sure how he was exposed to it".

    It seems Walt(er E.) Donovan was at the heart of it, at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. At least the first publication by him in this list is an Oct 1973 M.S. thesis at UI.

    Other works by him referenced e.g. here and here were in publications by the UI's Center for Advanced Computation in 1974/75.
    And a late 1976 mention in 'Byte' magazine still puts him at UI.

    In 1980/81, shortly prior to publishing this game, he apparently was at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, see e.g. here and here.

    In the Official Gazette for Trademarks the entries for OrbQuest (here and here) are found next to slightly better known / more successful contemporary names: Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man and Star Wars - The Empire strikes back.

    In spite of its moderate success, the game still shows up (now being sold through 'Digital Marketing Corp.') in 1983 publications e.g.
    here and here for USD 39,95 (! - in the ad shown in the article, which I assumed is older given the 'Alternate World Simulations', it was USD 35?). One wonders indeed what the creators of The Game of Dungeons would have had to say about that.

    Donovan apparently went on to work for SUN Microsystems, Rendition Inc., Micron Technology, Inc., NVidia, filing some patents. Hopefully those were based on more original creations.


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