Friday, August 14, 2020

BRIEF: Abraxas Adventure #1: Assault on the Astral Rift (1983)

The less interesting of the two title screens, but it has the full title. Despite the copyright date on the title screen, the game was sold in 1983 magazines.
           
Abraxas Adventure #1: Assault on the Astral Rift
United States
MMG Micro Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for Atari 800
       
Welcome to a new sort of entry for the CRPG Addict, which I'm calling a BRIEF (Bid at Research and Investigation Ended in Failure). This sub-series will be reserved for games that are only partly playable, or for which I play for a little while before determining that they are not really RPGs. They will have a special annotation on the master game list but will not be given official numbers or ratings and will not count towards my games played or other statistics. In the past, I have dealt with such games with a couple of paragraphs and screenshots at the bottoms of main entries, but that approach has never satisfied me. This way, I can link these games from the indices (Games Played by Year and Games Played by Title), they'll be more likely to show up in searches, and I'll get fewer comments asking where they are. If I later get information that allows me to finish the game (and it's not rejected), I will of course play it from the beginning. Finally, when I decide a posting is going to be a BRIEF, I will shorten the time before and after its publication so that the normal schedule of more substantive entries is not interrupted.
         
The more interesting of the title screens.
       
Abraxas Adventure #1 is the first game in an intended series by New Jersey-based MMG Micro Software. I thought the initialism must stand for the last names of three of the four developers credited on Abraxas--Bob Martin, Sharon Martin, and Bob Garguillo--but I later found a magazine article which said that the name came from the first names of the founders, Mike, Mark, and Greg, although it only provided the last name of Greg (Fremer). MMG Micro was a low-rent but reasonably active company that published some action titles like Chomper (1981), Asteroid Miners (1982), Rat Race (1983), and Pyramid Run (1984), plus a couple of pieces of business software. Abraxas is the only title that aspires to RPG status, and it doesn't quite make it.
         
An MMG ad from an era Atari magazine.
         
The typed manual tells the backstory. The titular character is one Professor Abraxas, who has assembled a group of grad students to investigate a rift in the space-time continuum. The rift, discovered when a hiker accidentally stumbled on a unicorn, leads to a dangerous and chaotic world with dragons, sorcerers, and other dark forces. An evil magician named Xamplayn has learned about the "other world" and is using a magic crystal to exploit more rifts so he can invade Earth. Abraxas's goal is to destroy Xamplayn and the crystal and find a way home.
    
The backstory is well-written and it has the feel of an episode of a television show like Fringe or Supernatural. The hiker finding the unicorn is told as a "cold open," and Abraxas is introduced after a section break, but in a way that doesn't really "introduce" him, as if we're already supposed to be familiar with his character. 
        
Character creation.
           
The team he assembles consists of a seer, a linguist, a spell-caster, and a pathfinder. You name them during character creation and assign points to strength, endurance, and ESP ability from a pool of 30. Abraxas bills itself as a "multiplayer" game and actually allows four different players to control the four characters with different joysticks. (There are also keyboard shortcuts like G)et and I)nventory.) If only a single player is playing, he specifies a lead character and the others do their best to move out of his way when he wants to go in a particular direction while otherwise huddling about him. There are lots of issues with obstructions and pathfinding, but this is still the earliest game where the developers attempted the "adaptive pathfinding" we see in games like Ultima VI or VII
         
Starting out.
        
The characters are supposed to have their own unique magical senses, represented as futhark runes that flash in the boxes at the bottom of the screen. A translation guide included in the manual helps you make sense of these runes. The seer gets warnings like "danger is near" and "this is a safe place." The linguist's messages include "an intelligence is near" and "you can communicate." The spellcaster gets messages about objects of power, and the pathfinder receives explicit instructions to go various directions. Anyway, that's how it's supposed to work. I never saw a single rune in my couple hours with the game.
            
The rune translations from the manual. I never saw any of these.
           
Play begins at the entrance to Castle Howard, which is unexpectedly on the "Earth" side of the rift. It's a hotel, abandoned when monsters from the rift started invading. On my first try, I got attacked by a dragon and the party died nearly immediately. For fighting combats, the manual only offers that you can use weapons by hitting the "Fire" button. I guess you can't attack without specific weapons because hitting the button never gave me any indication that anything was happening, not even for lesser creatures. 
          
You don't expect dragons so early in the game.
        
On my second try, I skirted the dragon, opened a few doors, and explored some stairways. In a second-floor room, I went for a key but got dropped down a trap door before I reached it. Exploring the dungeon, I reached the end of the hallway, walked through some freaky portal (I assume it was one of the rifts), and found myself inexplicably in a desert environment, where I was eventually killed by a humanoid.
     
As you explore, the game occasionally shows you a full-screen image of an approaching enemy, or some other environmental feature like a tapestry or stairway. You can't fight from or interact with these screens--they're just visuals that disappear after a few seconds. Nonetheless, they're quite advanced for this year and platform. The environmental ones do a great job adding atmosphere to what would otherwise be very banal iconographic maps.
         
A dragon in a cell in iconographic view.
Preceded by the image of the dragon in first-person view.
        
These screens are cool, but not interactive.
Sorry for all the shots in a row, but I thought they were pretty neat.
          
I kept trying other directions but kept running up against enemies with no ability to fight them. I also started running into another problem: crashes during many of the transitions between areas or transitions from the iconographic interface to the first-person views. Finally, in multiple attempts, the commands in the game always seem to eventually collapse into gibberish, such as the nonsense string across the top of the screen below when I try to switch party leaders or get an item. 
          
Maybe it's a code.
        
We found an axe, but it doesn't seem to be usable in combat.
          
These problems might be worth solving for an RPG, but I don't think Abraxas qualifies. There's no indication in the manual or in gameplay that the characters gain experience or develop during their adventures. After character creation, you can't see their statistics and I'm not even sure they have hit points. Inventory items so far have all been of the adventure variety, such as keys, jugs of water, and jars of spices that I'm sure will come into play in some way. Thus, despite some unusual and intriguing gameplay, I'm happy to reject it to the "adventure" category and move on.

34 comments:

  1. Seems like it could have been an interesting game. Pity it's so unfinished.

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    Replies
    1. It probably was finished, the problems experienced here could come from a faulty ROM dump.

      Delete
  2. I love the BRIEF acronym! This actually looks like a fascinating game; I wonder if there's more to it, or if it was actually released so broken?

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    1. It was probably fine on release. Sometimes, emulators just don't work right for older games, or I may have even screwed up a setting that I'm not aware of.

      Delete
    2. Bad dumps are a big problem plaguing the preservation of more obscure titles. In my recent playthrough of the original TRS-80 version of Hellfire Warrior, I had to put together a Frankenstein's monster of different files from the versions out there to get something playable. One version wouldn't boot, another had corrupt dungeon levels, another loaded in SDLTRS but not MAME, etc.

      Even famous games can be prone to this. Until recently, copies of the original Apple version of Wizardry did not have the midgame fight against Lvl 7 Fighters working correctly, and there was no way to get the Deadly Ring. Now there's a pristine WOZ format copy which allows AppleWin to emulate the copy protection instead of bypass it, and the midgame fight works as intended. I've also heard that all cracked copies of Ultima III have incorrect overworld spawn rates.

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    3. >I've also heard that all cracked copies of Ultima III have incorrect overworld spawn rates.

      Could you give more detail on this?

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    4. I could not, unfortunately. I can't even recall where I read that, but I'm 92.3% sure I didn't imagine it. But there's a WOZ copy on archive.org now, which in theory should behave exactly the same as an original disk copy.

      Delete
  3. It looks like MMG wanted to make a simplified version of something like Temple of Apshai, but in doing so made an action-adventure game that anticipates things like Legend of Zelda .

    It also reminds me somewhat of Castle Wolfenstein but with better graphics (but worse sound?), so that could also have been an influence since that was released sometime around 1981.

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    Replies
    1. Those character portraits and thin doors reminded me of something. Wolfenstein may be what I was thinking of.

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    2. It does look like Wolfenstein, but maybe Atari Adventure was also an influence?

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  4. I played this game about 2years ago with the intention of adding it to Mobygames. I thought that's how you found out about it, but it appears I never finished adding the game to the database. Weird.

    Regardless, my experience was the same as yours. Interesting concept for such a primitive system, but I also could never figure out how to engage in combat, and I had constant crashes.

    It could have been an interesting game for its age, but it clearly needed a few more months of bug testing and development.

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad to know that someone else had the crashes. Altirra has been acting up lately on several games, to the point I had to dump it for a different emulator for the next Atari 800 game, so I wondered if it was a misconfiguration on my part.

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    2. I had many crashes as well. I wanted to see what this game was like before your post came along and I had to go through about 5 or 6 different downloads of this title before my emulator would even start it successfully. (not Altirra) So depending on where you got your version of the game, the issue may not lie solely with the emulator.

      Delete
  5. "BRIEF (Bid at Research and Investigation Ended in Failure)."

    I bet some were rather hoping it would be Chad Bolingbroke in his briefs.

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    Replies
    1. I suspect a play on your nom de plume - 'Chad' is the internet's name for what we used to call The Quarterback. He dates 'Stacy' and is resented by the 'incels'.

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    2. Yes, which is why I objected to it.

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    3. Even better if we don't use "Chad" or "Karen" as shorthand for something else, no?

      On another note, does anyone else reading these posts have a hard time remembering whether you've played the game or not? Because I know I played Ultima when it came out, and Wizardry I through III, but I can't remember for sure whether I played Ultima 2 or how many of the Bard's Tale games I played.

      Perhaps I'm just getting old.

      Delete
    4. I have the opposite problem: I vaguely remember some games I've played, but can't recall the names or enough details to find more information. I suspect many of them were games I downloaded off of AOL's 'File Library' or whatever it was in the mid-90s.

      To this day I'm haunted by a Visual Basic game that simulated you being a gladiator in a fantasy-world Coliseum.

      There were no graphics, just all Windows forms. You'd fight against four or five other opponents after selecting your difficulty level. Easy matches were against goblins and the like. Difficult matches might be against Dragons, but also had a chance of the King or Queen showing up to watch, increasing the benefit of winning.

      I spent months trying to beat it and one day someone in my family deleted the game and I never found it again.

      Delete
  6. Great new series. I like it, as it gives the rejected games the attention they deserve without spending too much time on them.

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  7. Since one of the characters and the game itself are both named "Abraxas," I wonder if he was intended as a sort of Lord British-esque figure that ran throughout the series in a sort of guide/mentor role.

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    Replies
    1. That's the impression I got. But I suspect it's also just a framing story and you never actually see the word "Abraxas" (title screen excepted) in the game itself.

      Delete
  8. "Multiple screen updates per second give a realistic feel of flying."

    Wow, Final Flight! sounds awesome ;)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I had an Atari 130XE, which was the ultimate end product of the Atari 8-bit like, and I played a few early RPGs like Alternate Reality on it. I never did hear about this one, but I would have been all over it if I had it. I liked those old CRPGs even if I couldn’t necessarily figure out what the object of the quest was.

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  10. "Brief" seems like a bad name for this sort of thing. You'd expect a one-entry playthrough from that word, not something that is *not* an actual entry.

    Like your "Gimlet", which doesn't specify out of how many points it's scored or what it actually means, that's asking your readers to know something they could only have learned here somewhere that's now lost in a long list of unrelated posts.

    I don't know that creating more obscure acronyms is a good idea.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Damien, the Gimlet is explained on the FAQ page of this blog.

      I think it would be a good idea if Chet added some info about the BRIEF posts on that page as well.

      Delete
    2. You're missing my point, Didier. Nobody should have to look up what a title means.

      Delete
    3. The GIMLET is broken down into each of its categories every time it's used. You don't actually need to know what it means other than that it's the rating system this blog uses. Which should be evident from context.

      GIMLET and now BRIEF are both humorous bacronyms. What they actually stand for is not remotely important.

      Delete
  11. The backstory somehow reminds me the Stranger Things

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    Replies
    1. Wait, I missed the unicorns in Stranger Things? Damn...

      Delete
  12. I can't get past the fact that the characters are grad students. So many questions... which school is offering advanced degrees in prophecy, spell-casting, and path-finding alongside linguistics. Are they risking their lives to build their CVs? Has this expedition been approved by IRB? Is Abraxas planning on being the first author on the papers that come out of this? Is dragon attack covered by the student health insurance? Are these students going to have sufficient time to work on their dissertations? What sort of undergraduate degrees prepare you for spell-casting graduate school?

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    Replies
    1. That reminds me of how I used to feel about Fringe, where John Noble had his basement laboratory at "Harvard." Did the creators know how expensive real estate is in Cambridge? The university would never grant an entire floor to a visiting faculty member who clearly doesn't teach any classes or work on any university-specific projects. Not to mention, every time the agents went to visit him, they'd be stuck in traffic for half a day.

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    2. I'm super impressed to see a linguist in the party. I don't think I've ever heard of that before.

      Delete

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