Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Morabis I: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Morabis I: The Dungeons of Morabis
United States
Independently developed and released as shareware
Several versions released for DOS between 1991 and 1992
Date Started: 2 May 2020
Date Ended: 10 May 2020
Total Hours: 11
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at time of posting: 39/368 (11%)
Summary: A roguelite, Morabis blends Rogue-style gameplay with an Ultima-esque attention to map design. There are some interesting new features added, such as a targeting cursor for missile weapons and the ability to see and dodge incoming missiles and magic blasts. Overall, though, most of Morabis's changes from the traditional roguelike template make it longer and more frustrating than the typical roguelike. Bugs, misspellings, and version inconsistencies also hurt enjoyment.
The second half of Morabis proceeded much like the first half, except that with more difficult levels some of the game's problems became magnified. The chief issue with the game is the level scaling that goes on as you descend further into the dungeon. Creatures increase in attack power and accuracy in proportion to the level you're on, such that you never seem to "develop" as a character. Meanwhile, you're constantly having to chase down new, improved weapons and armor to account for the greater monster power. Because their accuracy also improves, you spend a lot of time fleeing combat and waiting to heal before re-engaging. You spend an awful lot of time gingerly standing in doorways in this game, as if an earthquake is always about to hit.
The search issue never went away, but it was magnified on some levels where large portions were initially occluded. I was also a bit irked by the sheer number of ways the author found for enemies to paralyze or confuse me. I swear that every enemy, even ones who had no special powers on earlier levels, were capable of one or the other during the last 10. Between enemies and traps, I couldn't walk more than five steps at a time without being told I couldn't move. Half the time, I had no idea why. And at least half my deaths were caused by walking the wrong way into lava when I was confused.
Starving and unable to move sometimes feels like the default state in this game.
Food was also a sporadic problem. It was quite literally feast or famine. There was one period where I had to save-scum for about half an hour until I got a couple enemies to drop food when I killed them; otherwise, I starved to death before I could get anywhere. Nothing is more frustrating than finally finding food and having it turn out to be rotten or poisonous, but of course Rogue had that, too.

The best times were when, for a brief time, I had a magic item capable of alleviating some of the game's more powerful annoyances. I enjoyed a Ring of Trap Avoidance for a few levels. A Ring of Slow Digestion was also a godsend. I found a Scroll of Nutrition at one point with about 15 charges. That was a load off. There are supposedly Rings of Lava Walking and Rings of Avoid Paralysis in the game, but I never found either. Anyway, rings don't last forever in Morabis, so at best they offer temporary reprieve.
A "wraglor" degrades my armor just before he kills me.
As I descended, I started to appreciate the author's approach to level design a bit more. I corresponded with Michael Höenie, and he sent me some of the game maps as examples. (There's no way to view the entire map of a level from within the game, unfortunately). Using handcrafted levels instead of randomly-generated ones allowed him to do some fun things with the terrain. Some levels suggested rough-hewn natural caverns, while others suggested fortresses or jail cell blocks. Level 24 is basically one long, thin causeway over lava. The final dungeon level in particular, Castle Morabis, had an almost Ultima quality in the map design. It's just too bad that you can't appreciate it from within the game. The 81 x 81 level sizes are a bit large, too.
The final dungeon level, courtesy of the author.
Every fifth level features a mini-boss guarding the way down: Fennel the Fire Lark on Level 5, Jahaÿ the Gobnor on Level 10, Ñehnor the hobnorlin on Level 15, and Nimlatch the Dragon on Level 20. They had more hit points than others of their class but otherwise weren't terribly difficult.

There's an odd special encounter on Level 18 with a roomful of unicorns. They attack you, but if you attack them, the game says, "Oh! Thou mustn't hurt a Unicorn!" ("Thou-speak" is another borrowing from the Ultima series.) What you're supposed to do, according to Höenie's web site, is find some grass and drop it in front of them, then they give you a key necessary for the final dungeon level. I didn't read this until I'd left Level 18 well behind me. The encounter isn't really fair. Nowhere else in the game do you interact with creatures this way, and there's no particular reason to think that the unicorns would want grass. 
I can't attack the unicorns, but they have no such compunction.
As for keys, you find copious numbers of them on the way down--brass, pewter, tin, copper, steel, platinum, beryllium . . . so many that you run out of inventory space if you try to carry them all. They're mostly unused until the final level, where it appears that every other door wants a different one. At least two doors require the one that the unicorns drop, and I didn't have that. Rather than waste hours going back to Level 18, I hex-edited my saved games to jump across the door.
Opening one of the final doors with a key.
Level 25 is shaped like a castle. You start in the lower-center, and if you just move north from there, you come to the chambers of the demon lord. As I approached his chamber and he taunted me, the game called him "Satu'Javu," but when I actually fought him, he was named "Satu'Nävas. Either way, I killed him in a few blows on my first try.
The demon has two different names depending on whether he's taunting me or dying by my sword.
The Amulet of Sae'gore is found in a nearby chamber, guarded by a couple of "zelthorns." I had hoped that when I killed the demon and picked up the amulet, the game would automatically end, but no, just like Rogue, I had to make my way back up to the surface. Also like Rogue, the game preserves the original difficulty level of the game levels as you ascend, meaning that it's really no challenge once you get out of the bottom few.

Uninterested in spending this kind of time, I made use of an exploit. When the character dies on a level and you reload, the game always reloads you on the up-staircase of that level. Thus, through a boring but faster process of die-reload-up, I made my way to Level 1 and out of the dungeon. There, I got the concluding message:
Congratulations!! You found the amulet and escaped with your life! Unfortunately, Lord Devnon [sic], seeing your triumph, has escaped. Fleeing with only his life, he has returned to Valkner's Keep. Peace will now reign in the land of Croon, at least for a little while . . .
Winning the game.
This brief paragraph manages to confuse the story even more. The story in the manual is titled "your quest for the Amulet of Sae'gore" but doesn't even mention the Amulet of Sae'gore, and is instead about the new king attempting to defeat Lord Devenon by finding the Scarlette Sword and the Armor of Power. Neither Satu'Javu, nor Satu'Nävas, nor the land of Croon, nor Valkner's Keep are mentioned in the manual backstory.

On a GIMLET, Morabis I gets:
  • 2 points for the game world. What would normally be 2 is lowered by the tangled backstory but raised back up by the attention to level design.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. Every character is the same generic adventurer, and the level scaling problem makes development feel futile at times.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction, although Höenie had plans for them in the next version.
Fighting enemies while walking on a thin bridge over lava. One wrong step means death.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The enemies were satisfyingly variant in their special abilities, although not to the level of NetHack or even the original Rogue. I liked the mini-bosses at regular intervals.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. The game features fewer tactics than traditional roguelikes, in particular lacking any spellcasting system. There's also no speed differential and fewer useful items to employ.
Sorting through a treasure pile after killing a dragon. I'm not sure I want to know what an "avocado wand" is.
  • 3 points for equipment. It has a roguelike's variety but not quite as much variety as most. I found that wands were almost useless. There's only one main armor type--no helms, gauntlets, boots, and the like. But what really killed this category for me was the lack of consistency between objects of the same description. Part of the challenge of roguelikes has always been discerning, through various clues and testing, what colors go with what potions and what descriptions go with what rings, scrolls, and wands. The difficulty of lower levels is eased slightly by the fact that you're no longer wasting time probing each new item for its likely properties. In Morabis, with colors and descriptions assigned randomly to each individual object, that process never ends. The only mitigating factor is that Scrolls of Identification are relatively common.
  • 0 points for no economy. You can collect gold, but there's nowhere to spend it, nor does it count towards any score.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
Finding the Amulet on Level 25.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Pretty much any decent roguelike gets a 3 for its utility of graphics and its keyboard interface. I subtracted a point for the searching, the lack of an automap, and frequent artifact issues with the interface.
  • 2 points for gameplay. For the most part, I found the levels too big and the annoyances outweighing the satisfying moments. There's no real replayability inherent in it.
That gives us a final score of 17, from which I subtract 2 points for bugs and needless confusion in the story and instructions. The confusion comes from Höenie being between versions when he gave up, the manual having been edited ahead of the game itself.

In e-mails to me, Höenie said that Morabis started in 1985 (when Höenie was 16) as a text-based BBS game. Höenie had been a dungeon master on a server for Scepter of Goth (1978), and when Scepter was deprecated, he set out to create a similar game. 

After he got some experience with offline games--principally, Rogue, Tunnels of Doom, and Ultimas I-III--Höenie began working on his own single-player roguelike, blended with elements from Ultima like the inability to see around walls. He originally called it Morabis II, but it soon became just Morabis. After he released it, Höenie got about halfway through Morabis II: The Quest for the Staff of Yar'Bore--which would have included a level editor, spells, and NPCs with dialogue and transaction options--but ultimately life intervened and he never finished it.

Höenie maintains a web page devoted to Morabis, on which you can find some instructions for further cheating the game by adding items.

The next game is supposed to be Moraff's Dungeons (1993), the first time that I move prematurely forward in my chronological order, and I confess that despite how well I argued for this new development a few months ago, I'm now having second thoughts.


  1. I'm still of the opinion that there's no need to skip ahead artificially for any reason other than "I'm not motivated and I need to play something I'm looking forward to in order to get out of a rut".

    If you want to progress faster, you're better served by trimming semi-professional derivative fluff like Morabis from your list. (Noting that you've said that Morabis was something you were specifically in the mood for, so this probably isn't a great example.)

    1. Trimming games from the list would run counter to the blog's stated goal of playing and documenting all CRPGs ever made, though. The only reason to kick a game out is if it doesn't qualify as an RPG.

      Games like Morabis are interesting to read about because of the things they do differently to their more well-known brethren, and when Chet manages to contact the developer it becomes even more interesting.

    2. It's not about trimming, it's about prioritizing. The truth is that every game is probably not going to be played and documented, and certainly not in a timely manner. And so each game that gets covered means some other game does not. Opportunity cost.

      From that perspective it might make sense to deprioritize some games in favor of others. Is it worth not covering some future year of innovative games in order to fully cover a past year's derivative bottom of the barrel? I like comprehensive coverage of CRPGs early years, but at some point I think that answer changes to 'no'.

      But yeah, I think those prioritization changes should be chosen somewhat deliberately. As long as we are just pulling games at random, then we might as well stick with the current year.

    3. How can you know which are the innovative games, and which are the derivative bottom on the barrel if you don't play them?

    4. I solved the problem on my blog by creating a priority list of the games that I really want to playing. Every four games or so I get to play something I'm looking forward to, and it's helped a lot with my motivation and forward progress.

    5. Yeah that is basically Chet's plan. A random roll list (which the bog has effectively been since its inception), intertwined with another less random list.

      It preserves the ability of the blog to find the forgotten and the strange, while adding the ability to actually get to the games that really define what we love about RPGs.

    6. @Alan Twelve, you can't with completely certainty, but some amount of advance research could do a decent job sorting. Since we can't cover everything, the approach doesn't have to be perfect to be beneficial.

    7. Or... start the game, and if it is an abysmal turkey or derivative, then document the initial stages of the game and move on.

    8. Which is what the 6 hour rule is supposed to uphold. The reality, though, appears to be that Chet likes to finish the games he starts for the purposes of documentation, even if he's not enjoying them (a stance I do understand if this is the case). I'm of the opinion that time can be saved when a game is clearly not offering anything of note, like those Ultima III clones in the late eighties. If and when he gets there, Chet's going to see a similar glut of Diablo clones around the turn of the century. And those will definitely take longer to get through by virtue of their size than the Ultima clones.

    9. It's simply not possible to play every RPG ever made, particularly once we get into the weeds of RPG Maker, and moreso in the era of Itch.io. Once every nobody has the ability to share their amateurish half-finished Final Fantasy clone or their interactive fiction with RPG elements, the scope balloons impossibly.

      Simply adopt the Wikipedia notability test. If it hasn't received substantial coverage in multiple reliable independent sources, it's not notable, and you don't need to play it unless you really want to for some reason. If a game's influential, someone will have talked about it, otherwise almost by definition it wasn't influential.

    10. Sure, but we're in 1992 now. RPG Maker dates from 1997, and Itch.io launched in 2013.

    11. >If it hasn't received substantial coverage in multiple reliable independent sources, it's not notable

      But it's the coverage of (old) games I've never heard of which is the most fascinating. If I wanted reviews of the most NOTABLE games, there's plenty of that already.

      If someone's already talked about how influential it is, then I could read it already. Finding out about the bizarre offshoots in development and the FORGOTTEN influences is what I'm here for!

    12. Yeah, I'd imagine that sort of requirement would also result in the removal of some of the hidden gems the blog's found. After all, if they have substantial coverage, it's not exactly a hidden gem

    13. If only there was a website that only did the hits. Man, imagine how amazing that would be, just going into detail on a single important game at a time. Really digging through old books and magazines to find what people said at the time. It would probably be high quality enough that Chet would link it on his sidebar. But what would someone call it? RPG Antiquarian? Digital Historian? Someone should really think about doing that.

    14. A wikipedia page could be enough to blindly qualify a game for a spot in the queue, but I'd agree that all unmentioned games deserve some amount of investigation to see if they do anything worthwhile or if they are just bad copies of what came before.

      And pitching this as just famous vs. obscure misses the point. Getting bogged down in derivative obscure games causes us to cover fewer interesting obscure games (as well as fewer famous games).

    15. I've discovered plenty of interesting RPGs that are obscure as shit. Check the "Really Obscure RPGs" thread over on RPG Codex. Some of those aren't even on Mobygames yet (though I made an account there a while ago and am adding missing games to the database bit by bit). Some of those are derivative boring crap, sure. Others are genuinely good. And some are just interesting for their place in history (like how Mac-exclusive RPGs from the 00s retained elements from 80s and 90s games that PC games, both mainstream and indie, had long left behind).

      This blog offers an overview and commentary on those weird little forgotten titles, and I always enjoy reading about them even if they're not that great. Morabis is a good example. Not particularly good, but it offers enough ideas of its own to be interesting, especially as an unusual oddity within the long history of roguelikes.

      If a game really has nothing to offer, Chet can always invoke the 6 hour rule. I'm sure he'll make use of it plenty of times once he reaches the era of Diablo clones. But skipping a game entirely? No way. That would make this blog way less interesting.

  2. "I'm now having second thoughts" - well, it only take a brief glimpse of the game's screenshots to see why :D

    1. I wonder if Moraff's World looks more bearable to Chet with his color blindness.

    2. I feel like Dungeons of the Unforgiven's VGA mode isn't that bad. Sure, Moraff's EGA never went past "We got 16 colors now! COLOR PARTY! COLOR PART!" on a scale that puts ZZT to shame. The monsters look competent in Unforgiven and the walls aren't bad.
      Of course, I've also seen a lot of trash that makes Moraff's World look competent, so what do I know?

    3. I tried running some of Moraff's World screenshots through colorblindness filters. The colors are less garish that way, but it'still ugly as sin.

    4. Which Moraff game is the one again that has a common monster named "Giant Garbage Can"?

      I mean, kudos on the multiple releases and the name recognition; but all the Moraff games are really very shoddy and derivative.

  3. Understandable to have second thoughts, given that you'd be moving forward to what has to be one of the ugliest games I've ever seen while it seems like some pretty great games of 1992 remain to be played.

  4. Despite "how well [you] argued for this new development", it never really convinced me. Go with your gut, and skip the skipping ahead. Permanently.

    1. Plus, there's still some interesting stuff that Chet skipped in '92, not just generic guff. I know Legacy - Realm of Terror got skipped over, and that's a very unique RPG, to say the least.

    2. It's not like moving forward would discard the 1992 games not yet covered. It would just put some 1993 games into the rotation, while 92 and missed 80s games would continue to be played.

  5. I just reached the year 2001 on my own chronological play list, so I counted all the games I've played, and it made me even more impressed by Mr. Addict. He's played 364 games in a little over ten years (I think?) and most of them completed.

    In a little over nine years I've only played 131 games and completed 114. OTOH I've also completed about 250 user made maps and campaigns for various games (mainly Heroes of Might&Magic 2+3, FRUA and Thief 1+2).
    Some of the user made content are works of art of a much higher quality than the base game. Hopefully on this blog we'll see less Ultima clones as people spend their creative juices on various game editors instead...

    1. Yep, these days I enjoy user-made content more than most commercial releases. There's some real top-tier level design in fan maps for Thief, Doom, Quake, Tomb Raider, etc

  6. I think the most effective way to expedite progress would be to cut more games off at the 6-hour mark, if they don't look like they are going to be out of the ordinary.

    On the other hand, every game is unique in its own way, and the more obscure games are the ones least documented elsewhere.

    1. I 100% agree with you. When was the last time that Chet applied rule n.6?

    2. Considering how rarely he applies that rule, most games seem to be worth playing to the end for him, for one reason or another ;)

    3. I think he applied that rule to the Dragonblade, Gayblade, et al games.

    4. Chet's indicated that he finds it unsatisfying blogging about 6 hours of a game.

  7. On one hand, it seems like it wouldn't have needed much bug-fixing and playtesting to make this game a lot more playable. On the other, like so many of these games, it was written in a young programmer's spare time; QA is difficult enough for publishing houses to get right!

    Looking at Moraff's world, I wonder if your comment wasn't at least partly wry.

    But if it's not - keep in mind that your change doesn't involve abandoning anything, you will carry on doing what you have been for the past 10 years. It's the start of another journey, but it's not leaving the old one behind.

  8. All tremble before the mighty demon SatNav! :P

  9. Like a quantum-mechanical wave form, the demon SatNav cannot be reliably located in space-time.


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