Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Game 381: Quest of Kings (1990)

           
Quest of Kings
Canada
Independently developed and published as freeware
Released in 1990 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 15 September 2020
Date Ended: 20 September 2020
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
    
For fans and bloggers of computer role-playing games, there are few resources on the web that are more important--more awesome--than the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History. Since 2001, creator Dr. Howard Feldman, a Toronto biochemist, has provided high-quality scans of the boxes, disks, manuals, clue books, maps, and accompaniments to thousands of computer adventure and role-playing games, most of them curated not from other sites but from scans that Feldman has made of the items in his physical collection. He also has complete sets of gaming magazines, newsletters, and hint books. The brick-and-mortar "museum" is not open to the public, but once I'm allowed to travel to Canada again, I would love to visit Dr. Feldman some day in Toronto and see some of his treasures in person. He has an original copy of Akalabeth donated by Richard Garriott himself.
    
What is less well known about Dr. Feldman is that while he was still a high school student, he wrote two freeware computer RPGs: Quest of Kings for the C64 in 1990 and The Search for Freedom for the PC in 1994. Neither is going to be "Game of the Year," but they're both reasonably fun freeware games, and the young Feldman notably did all the programming, graphics, and sound effects himself. The game uses Dungeons and Dragons conventions and plays a bit like a small D&D module.
         
Exploring the hallways of the dungeon. The compass doesn't appear until you find and equip a compass.
            
Quest of Kings takes place in the land of Kwantulaursia (whoa), where peace was kept for centuries by the custom of simply obeying whoever wore the magical Crown of Kingship. But, as often happens in such stable societies, a necromancer called the Evil One decided to take the crown for himself. He raised an army of beasts, orcs, and undead, and stole the crown from good King Cersis VI, leaving the land in chaos. Figuring that one agent is less conspicuous than an entire army, king's men have been putting posters in local taverns. The PC sees one, grabs a dagger, gets some advice from a wizard named Bagle, and assails the Evil One's lair.
    
A bit of the backstory.
         
A couple of bars of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor play over the title screen, and then we get a little of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" as the game loads. Character creation consists of random rolls for to-hit score, maximum hit points, dexterity, strength, and armor, then a name. Soon, the character is at 0,0 on Level 1. Except for a few places in which you have to enter text, the joystick controls all the action. Even visiting inventory requires pushing down and the button at the same time.
    
The dungeon consists of four 16 x 16 levels. There are no open areas--every square is its own room or section of a corridor--so it took me a while to map. There are the usual tricks like teleporters, secret doors (identifiable by a small mark in the lower-right corner), and one-way doors. Levels 1, 2, and 3 are connected by multiple staircases, but there's only one heading down to Level 4.
            
My maps of the four levels.
        
Encounters come along every 10-12 steps, roughly. Each level has its own set of foes. After an initial screen in which the player can fight or flee (fleeing works about 80% of the time), his options are attack, defend, or visit his inventory to use an item. Enemies only attack; none of them have magical abilities or special attacks, not even those that you would expect, like ghouls and snakes. Combats can take a long time, particularly if you're attacked by a group with lots of foes, and I was appreciative of VICE's "warp" mode to get through most of them.
     
The major downside of the game is that there's no experience and no leveling. Whatever you started with in terms of maximum health and other attributes, you're mostly stuck with. The only way to get stronger is to find better items at the end of combat. (Items are never found outside of combat.) Since you have an equal likelihood of finding something useful whether you fought 6 orcs or just one, it's best to flee combats with large parties.
            
Combat options with a vampire lord.
          
Inventory items get progressively better on lower levels. They include armor, weapons, shields, helms, bracers, gauntlets, and occasional magical items like Wands of Magic Missile, Wands of Fireball, and Scrolls of Death. Most important are healing ointments and potions; if you don't find any of these, you can't heal. Healing items can only be used outside of combat, which causes some problems late in the game when you face large parties of very hard enemies. A high maximum hit point during character creation is a must.
          
My inventory late on Level 2.
        
Level 1's enemies include orcs, kobolds, pygmies, and goblins. With luck, you can find a long sword, a shield, scale armor, and maybe a Wand of Magic Missiles before heading downward. Level 2 has ghouls, skeletons, and minotaurs, and you start to see the first magic items, like short swords +1. Level 3 really kicks it up a notch in enemy difficulty with robotic clones, red dragons, crystal warriors, trolls, and king cobras, but you get even better equipment, including some +2 items. Level 4 features vampire lords, werewolves, war giants, manticores, and dragon kings; here, you can find Gloves of Strength and Helms of Dexterity (both raise their attributes to 18), Bracers AC4, and +4 weapons and shields. There are also high-level magic items to use, such as Scrolls of Death and grenades. The trick is to not go to the next level until you have the best stuff from the current one.
           
Some of the many monster portraits in the game. I want to see that wolf on a t-shirt.
         
The lack of character development otherwise would make for a relatively boring game except for Quest's use of special encounters and riddles. Each level has a few "boss" creatures, usually guarding a room with a key piece of intelligence. On Level 1, for instance, a magic mouth says, "He had vowed no mortal brave would take him to his very ________." A little thought to the rhyme reveals the answer as GRAVE. At this, the mouth says, "Until he came along to prove him wrong. A man known as Sir Dave!" This isn't just doggerel. On level 2, you have to give Dave's name, as well as his hometown, to open the doorway to the stairs to Level 3. You also have to slay a red dragon to get into this area.
          
Recording such messages on the walls is vital to winning the game.
          
Level 4 ultimately brings you face to face with The Evil One, and to defeat him, you have to have been paying attention to several clues. If you just attack him, he immediately kills you with a fireball. Instead, you have to choose the "Talk to him" option.
            
The "bad" ending.
        
Previously, a clue has alerted you that you can "speak the four-letter word to bring the evil one to your mercy." You have also seen a bunch of "jibberish" on a wall that reads: "FTRAX FROJ HBL BNL OV EYTNANM WIPFL OSK IQUG." I thought at first that this was a cryptogram, but no solution made any sense. I then realized you have to look at it along with a clue from a magic mouth on Level 2: "Search with all your 'heart' on the level below for the word you seek." The nonsense text string has LOVE embedded within it, which is what you have to say to the Evil One.
                  
This is the wussiest way that I've ever won an RPG.
          
In disgust, the Evil One flees, leaving you to content with three war giants followed immediately by six shadow lords with no way to heal in between. There is no way to win this battle through conventional attacks. You have to have at least a few high-damage magic items. I had to reload and grind a bit until I had a Scroll of Death and a couple of grenades. These together let me kill the two parties before I ran out of hit points.
 
After this battle, you'd better have a healing potion, because you then have to fight another double header. The first is against the Evil One, who cannot use magic because of your repetition of LOVE, but can still use physical attacks. He's not too hard, but just as he dies, he casts a spell that replicates you and forces you to fight against a shadow of yourself. This battle is a little harder.
          
Chester's shadow is a little more pear-shaped these days.
       
Once the battles are done, you still have to find your way to the central chamber of the level and the Crown of Kings. Outside, a magic mouth says that you have to give it two words. Again, you have to interpret a couple of clues that you found in other rooms:
         
  • "It is to be supposed that the first isn't closed."
  • "After all else had failed, he was left with no choice but to ask politely."
             
The mouth did not like my first attempt at a two-word phrase.
         
Together, these reveal that the phrase is OPEN PLEASE. It took me a long time, particularly because I hadn't encountered the first message on my first pass through the area.
     
After this, you can enter and pick up the Crown of Kings, which makes you the king. Your inventory screen even changes to put "King" before your name.
             
Placing it on my own head feels a bit presumptuous.
         
Unfortunately, this is where things fell apart for me. The game says that you have to find your way to the surface, but I can't figure out how to do that. The down ladder from Level 3 to Level 4 is on the other side of a one-way door, so there's no way to get back to the rest of Level 3. I searched every square of Level 4 and didn't find an alternate ladder or teleporter. I tried using all my items as well as fighting random battles to see if the enemies dropped a Scroll of Teleport or something. No luck. I even tried letting myself get killed, but that just resulted in the "game over" screen. Dr. Feldman didn't remember, either. It's possible that it's a bug and no one ever made it this far before; the only way to be sure would be to search the source code, which you're welcome to do at the link below.

Chester is king. I'm going to consider this "won."
       
A search of text in the game file suggests that you are supposed to make it to the exit and that when you arrive, the ghost of the Evil One appears to vow revenge just before the entire dungeon collapses. Back in town, the Kwantulaursians proclaim you their king, throw a party, and end the game with a toast to your health. However, the game notes ominously that there is an "unwelcome guest" within the crowd.
       
Aside from the riddles, which were fun and occasionally challenging, it's a fairly basic game, but I'm not going to criticize something that a 10th-grader created as freeware. It earns a 17 on my GIMLET, doing best in "encounters" and "gameplay" (both 3s), the latter primarily for its moderate difficulty and length. Four dungeon levels is an ideal size for a game of limited content. It gets hurt in its lack of NPCs and economy. The monster graphics are worth a note. Although clearly the product of an amateur designer, they have a certain goofy earnestness about them, and it's hard not to be a little fond of them.
               
He certainly looks evil.
        
I wrote to Dr. Feldman to ask him a few questions about the game, and he was kind enough to supply his original notes, maps, and code, which he said I was welcome to share, so feel free to download and review it. I can interpret a little, but I'm not sure I see anything that would have been triggered by the final encounters and changes the layout of the dungeon.
    
Feldman started creating a Quest for Kings II the following year but never finished it. It somehow got out, and some sites offer it for download, but all you can do is create a party and look at the backstory. It would have been a more ambitious game, with a four-character party composed of the standard D&D races, classes, and attributes, except for a race called "Teddy" where you would expect to see a hobbit. The party is expected to stop the return of an evil archmage named Kamazol, one slain but now returned as a lich, but first they have to free themselves from a local jail. Many of the plot elements and mechanics made their way to Feldman's The Search for Freedom (1994) for DOS, which he finished around the end of his last year in high school. Feldman still sells Search as shareware on his web site; I look forward to playing it eventually. It promises to blend Ultima-style world exploration with Pool of Radiance-style combat.
            
Wow, he really meant "Teddy."
         
I'll be visiting the Museum less and less in coming years. Although the site has some games that stretch into the mid-1990s, Feldman says that he's generally only interested in titles from 1992 and earlier. This blog would have been a poorer place if not for his images and documentation, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for his work as an RPG creator and curator.
   
   

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Summoning: I Hope You Crush That Little Dude's Rock

Cool. The last level had like 20 challenges.
         
I had a good last session with The Summoning. The enemies became more challenging and the puzzles retained what I thought was already a satisfactory challenge. (Uber-fans of DarkSpyre probably think it's too easy.) My inventory problems were ameliorated by a Bag of Lightness. I got some more information about the main plot. Everything moved along in a reasonably fast clip. It's not a bad game. But at the same time, I feel like I've gotten its basic experience and I don't really need another 20 hours of it, but another 20 hours seems inevitable whether I "need" it or not.
    
When I left off last time, I was just entering the "Elemental Barrier" levels, of which there turned out to be three. The last one had three elemental barriers in the corridor leading out of the level, and my goal was to find three spheres, have Duncan "activate" them, and then throw them at the barriers so I could pass. By this point, all of the levels have multiple small areas interconnected by teleporters, so exploring them isn't as simple as just always following the right wall. Since you never know where a teleporter is going to take you, and if you'll be back, I've taken to fully exploring each section before moving on. It's also a good idea to toss an unwanted item through each teleporter just to make sure it doesn't have some effect in your current area. 
           
In the midst of battle against hellcats. Man, was it hard to find arrows on this floor.
       
On the first Elemental Barrier level, I met an NPC named Skulk who said he hired himself out as a mercenary and also sold rare and unique items, and I thought I might be able to hire him as a companion or buy some things from him, but despite the dialogue seeming to head in that direction, no such options came to light. Instead, Skulk told me about nine wizards who had tried to defeat Shadow Weaver at the behest of the Council, something I don't remember from the backstory. The wizards were all defeated, and eight of them had their heads impaled on sticks, their souls imprisoned within, and cast into the labyrinth. The ninth, Balthazar, was corrupted to work with Shadow Weaver. This was the first suggestion that I would have to find the eight wizards' skulls.
           
Levels are becoming groups of interconnected areas rather than cohesive structures.
          
Elemental Barrier One (which, confusingly, was the second of the three levels) offered combats against a bunch of ghouls. Ghouls can only be damaged by weapons of silver. Fortunately, there was a sword maker named Kern on the same level. He said he'd need a supply of silver and a holy emblem to make the sword, plus 5 gold pieces for his service. I was delighted at the prospect of finally getting rid of some of the gold I'd amassed, only to find that the level itself provides you with at least the 5 gold pieces you have to pay Kern. Anyway, the holy emblem was in the possession of Rhegad, an ex-priest who had become disillusioned with the world and decided to join Shadow Weaver's horde. Lacking martial ability, he wanted to trade the emblem for a Book of the Sword, a magic object that improves your skill with edged weapons. It's a good thing I met him before finding the book, because I would have used it for myself. I don't know if it's possible to kill him after he gives you the holy emblem and take the book back. I'm not evil that way.
        
A cinematic showed Kern forging the sword. Apparently, it will never break, but it sucks against regular foes.
       
The silver came from a chalice that a warrior named Greyreign was carrying. He had been wounded, but his code prevented him from accepting magical help. Instead, he wanted me to find him a "healing mango," which sounds like magic to me, but whatever. There were a couple on the level, so I gave him one and got the chalice. Kern made me the sword, and I used it to wipe out what seemed like dozens of undead. I was frankly a little annoyed that I couldn't break regular weapons on them.
          
Amidst the remains of ghouls.
         
Other new enemies on this level were "hellcats," which look like small cats. I think by now I was also getting attacked by harpies pretty regularly. Minotaurs joined the bestiary on Elemental Barrier Two.
     
It was somewhere on this level that I found a Bag of Lightness, which changed life enormously. The bag has 12 slots, and nothing you put in it weighs anything unless you're holding the bag. I was able to shuffle a bunch of stuff and finally get back below my weight threshold, but that didn't last forever, and by the end of this session, I was back to having to drop a chest at the beginning of the level, explore, and then return for it. 
            
The bag helped, but my new samurai armor made me overburdened again.
         
Elemental Barrier Two started with a combat against an NPC named Murc'met who said he was a great swordsman but died in like two hits. Later, I met one of his former companions, Toh, who talked smack about him. She also talked about making an effort to find the blade Warmonger, the demon-possessed sword created by King Borel and used by the character in DarkSpyre. She discussed a couple of rumors about where it might be held, including a hidden chamber before the elemental barriers or an underground cavern within the territory of the White Knight. I hope it wasn't in a secret area on the Elemental Barrier levels because I never found it.
 
Later, an old man named Nigel introduced the possibility of a multiverse: he said that when he died, he expected to move on to another plane, and he thinks there must be magical ways to move between planes. He cited the example of the Gods of War, Magic, and Intellect, who clearly came from some place external.
          
Punching through the elemental barrier.
           
I otherwise didn't write down much about the Elemental Barrier levels until I got to the end and flung the three spheres into the appropriate barriers. (This required me to take them back to Duncan, but each level had a way to shortcut it on the way back to the beginning.) My shots show a lot of the usual: keyed doors, levers, pressure plates that had to be weighed down (there were a lot of these on the last level in particular), doors that had to be opened with the "Kano" spell, and so forth.
     
Using a rolling ball to weigh down a pressure plate after stopping it with a "Magic Wall." Yawn.
        
As I got through the elemental barriers, I was once again visited by the apparition of Rowena, who confirmed that Shadow Weaver intended to use the Staff of Summoning (I had already learned as much from Dunstan on the Broken Seal levels). The Staff is apparently broken into two pieces, one of which Shadow Weaver already has, the other of which is in another world. To get there, I'll need to learn a special spell from the skulls of the eight wizards. I'm preparing for a twist ending in which this isn't really Rowena visiting me, but we'll see.
          
What do you want to bet that this "other world" coincidentally consists of dungeons with puzzles?
         
The area after the Elemental Barrier levels is called the Realms of the Five Knights. I've only explored one so far, but I'm assuming it ultimately consists of five levels, each ruled by a different colored knight. The first level was the Blue Knight's, and as I entered, I was greeted by one of his warriors, Makabre. He gave me the lay of the land. The other knights are White, Ebon, Green, and Crimson, and the five are constantly looking to undermine the others, sometimes forming alliances, sometimes breaking them. The Ebon Knight is the most powerful of the lot, the Green Knight the weakest. Each wears a medallion, and to get out of the area, I'll need to collect all five medallions and drop them in a hole in front of a great door. Man, I really hope Shadow Weaver has a secret entrance; otherwise, when he's in the mood for a taco, getting out of his own fortress must be seriously inconvenient.
         
You may come to regret that you offered this information so freely.
         
The Blue Knight's level made me complete three "challenges": the mind, the fighter, and the mage. The fighter challenge just had a bunch of enemies, and the mage had a puzzle involving the "Magic Wall" spell that was no harder than a regular puzzle. The "mind" one wasn't hard, but it was funny. The walls in this section were built like an equation, with holes between the operators: HOLE + HOLE = HOLE. There was a chest with three objects in it: a rock, a Jera potion, and an empty potion flask. To solve the puzzle, I had to swallow the potion and hurl one of the flasks at the wall, breaking it, and then drop the resulting objects in the holes so that the equation was ROCK + FLASK = BROKEN GLASS. Unfortunately, the creators made it so the holes would only accept the proper objects, so it was a bit too easy.
      
This was a cute idea.
       
Enemies started getting a lot harder on this level with the introduction of samurai, and then eventually I had to kill the Blue Knight himself. Still, "harder" doesn't mean very hard. Even though the enemies might be capable of pounding away my hit points in a few hits, I can always cast "Freeze," then run away from combat. The spell lasts long enough to make and quaff a couple of healing potions, at which point I can re-engage and cast "Freeze" again if necessary. You can't even run out of spells because the spell preparation window (unlike the inventory window) freezes the action on the screen. To be a real threat, an enemy would have to be immune to magic or last long enough that you exhaust your spell points. That hasn't been a danger yet.
            
This line of samurai was tough, but the pressure plate allowed me to crush some of them in the door.
         
I started finding the wizards' skulls on this level, ultimately finding three: Erastus, Zana, and Sea Raven. Each taught me one symbol for the "Gateway" spell. I figure if I get six of the eight, I could figure out the rest on my own. I don't know if I need to keep the skulls after talking with them, but I have been.
          
It feels rude just to dump them on the floor.
         
The Blue Knight's level ended with a fiendish puzzle. Involving a large area of 20 small rooms, each with two or three doors connecting them to the other rooms. A large chamber nearby held 20 levers, each of which opened at least one door and some of which closed others. I had to test them all, carefully noting the effects (when I could even see them) on the opened and closed doors in the chambers. Each chamber had a will-o-wisp, which has a lightning missile attack. The whole area took a while, but it ultimately led me to the teleporter to the Blue Knight and then to the level's exit. The next area appears to be the White Knight's domain, and here I signed off.
           
My heart sank when I walked into this area.
            
Beyond that, there's not much to tell you except miscellaneous things:
    
  • One puzzle gave me a room in the shape of a clock. There were 12 pressure plates that I clearly had to weigh down with rocks, and a skull told me that I wanted "eagle's position." Through trial and error (and reloading, because the wrong choice sent fireballs hurling at me), I figured out that the right positions were 12 and 7. What does this have to do with eagles?
       
Is there some in-game context by which this makes sense?
        
  • Since I eventually had plenty of weapons, I tried to prioritize the ones for which I had low skill, starting with missile weapons. By this time, I was carrying two bows and had a quiver full of arrows, including a couple of barbed and poison arrows. While you can pick up arrows after combat, I find that I slowly lost about half of them just because they can be hard to see. But the thing I like is that you just have to run over them and hit "T" ("Take") to pick them up, and they go directly into the quiver. I wish Dungeon Master made it so easy.
  • The game has an annoying copy protection system. When you start up, you have to consult a page in the manual, each of which has a string of five faces at the top of the page, which you replicate in the game window. Some of them are kind of hard to make out in the book. 
         
This discourages short sessions.
              
  • Melee weapons and shields have broken plenty of times. Armor, greaves, helms, gauntlets, and bows have never broken. Do they?
  • Some of the doors are tough to pick out from the surrounding walls.
          
Note the closed door to the southwest of my character.
        
  • I'm carrying way too many extra Raido, Gebo, and Thurisaz runes, all of which teleport you to their respective floor sigils if the level you're on has them. So far, I haven't found very many floor sigils that aren't accessible through non-teleportation means.
           
This was a rare exception.
         
  • Amulets use up their magic and disappear in less than five minutes. They may as well have not even included them.
  • So far, every time the game has called for a miscellaneous item, it has offered that miscellaneous item somewhere on the same level. I assume, given all the warnings I've received, this must change at some point. If not, you're making me carry around a lot of extra junk for nothing.
  • Character development slowed to a crawl this section. I ended the last one a "Cavalier" (8/12) and remain one hours later. My edged weapon skill went up to "Savant" (8/10), an increase of one, and my use of missile weapons went to "Skilled" (5/10). Healing magic increased by one category to "Sage" (8/10), but that's only because I used a Fehu rune (creates random objects), which in turn got me a Perth rune, which levels up a random spell skill. 
            
My current status.
      
As I acquire new spells, it's getting harder and harder to memorize them, and inconvenient to refer to screenshots of the hand motions. Now that I have all 12 hand positions, I've assigned a number to each one, and I have a notepad where I've written down every spell's numerical code. This works if I have plenty of time, but I needed something faster for the spells I might want to quickly memorize and cast in combat, so I unwittingly found myself adopting a mnemonic device for the most common spells, based on what the hand movements could represent. 
    
Ultimately, I had labeled the 12 movements, in order:
   
  1. "Point." It looks like someone saying "Point of Order!"
  2. "Hope." Because I initially interpreted it as crossed fingers. I had to go with what works.
  3. "One." That was the laziest one.
  4. "Crush," because it looks like someone crushing a soda can.
  5. "Commodore." It was the first thing I could think of that began with "C."
  6. "Paper." From Rock, Paper, Scissors.
  7. "Hook," because that's what he's doing with his finger.
  8. "Swear," because it looks like someone taking an oath.
  9. "Waiter," because it almost looks like someone carrying a tray.
  10. "Rock," also from the game.
  11. "Dude." I realize the sign is usually with the thumb, not the index finger, but you go with what you first think of.
  12. "Little," as if the person is saying, "just a little bit."
      
Waiter! One little rock, dude.
           
After this, the trick is to string them together along with an image of the spell. "Flaming Arrow" becomes CRUSHING a ROCK, and you picture a flaming arrow doing that. "Kano" (which opens doors) is similarly CRUSHING HOPE, so I picture an enemy on the other side of the door desperately hoping that I won't get through. "Restore" is tougher: ONE POINT is that the DUDE is a WAITER. I don't know why, but for some reason I could hear Robert Downey Jr. saying that sentence, and he was in Restoration with Sam Neill, so it works. I'll probably remember that long after I've forgotten my own middle name.
     
Time so far: 21 hours


Friday, September 18, 2020

Game 380: Mad Paradox (1992)

Spoiler: no explanation is ever given for this title.
       
Mad Paradox
Japan
Queen Soft (developer and Japanese publisher); Samourai (U.S. publisher)
Released 1992 for PC-98; 1994 for FM Towns and DOS
Date Started: 13 September 2020
Date Ended: 14 September 2020
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
      
Nearly 30 years later, I can't even find any evidence that a company called Samourai existed. The title screen of the game itself is the only evidence. I don't know where they were located or who was on the staff. By all appearances, the company seems to have existed solely to bring Mad Paradox to an American market. I desperately want to find the people involved and ask, why Mad Paradox? Why not any of the host of 1980s and early 1990s Japanese PC RPGs that look so much more interesting? There's Fantasian (1985), which coupled first-person dungeon exploration with top-down grid-based tactical combat before Pool of Radiance did it in the U.S. Was SSI influenced by this Japanese game? I'll never know because I can't play it. Paladin (1985) is a fun-looking RPG-platformer hybrid. There's Riglas (1986), an adventure-RPG hybrid with a "studio" perspective that looks like it could have been influenced by Quest for Glory if Riglas hadn't come out first. There's the delightfully weird-looking Panorama Toh (1983). A bunch of other games I know only from intriguing titles: The Magic of Scheherazade (1987), The Return of Ishtar (1987), Zombie Hunter (1987), Bastard (1988), Druid (1988), Slime Master (1989), Another Genesis (1990). There's a Japanese-only fourth entry in the Phantasie series from 1990. The sin of all of these games, I guess, is that they didn't have breasts.
    
Mad Paradox has those, but the game is so inept that it forgets it's an eroge at some point and plays the last third entirely straight. Having played Knights of Xentar (1991) and Cobra Mission (1992) before this one, I had certain expectations, and I was shocked--not disappointed, you understand, just surprised--when the game had no final "reward." 
          
Yes, it's this sort of game. (Censored so my blog doesn't get labeled as "adult" by Google.)
        
That would be fine if there were anything else notable about Mad Paradox, but there isn't. It's a grindy, linear, derivative, ugly game with limited mechanics and a nonsensical story. In basic form and narrative, it's like Knights of Xentar, but with less freedom, more boring combat, and blander characters. It's rare that I say this even about bad games, but there was nothing about the time I spent on it that wasn't a complete waste. I can't tell you much about what's on my "to do" list this week without giving away too much personal information, but suffice to say that there is no stronger justification for my blog's title than the fact that I spent 8 hours of this week of all weeks winning this game.
    
Paradox concerns a character named Mash, who has been raised all his life as an orphan in the city of Dorah. Now, on his 17th birthday, an old and wise friend named Samos tells Mash of his history. Mash's parents had been the rulers of Dorah, but one day an evil warlord named Gorgus showed up and challenged Mash's father to combat. Mash's father was a pacifist and refused, so Gorgus killed both parents and took off. Samos doesn't think Mash's father could have beaten Gorgus anyway because Gorgus had some way of commanding fire. Mash immediately vows revenge.
              
Samos lays out the backstory.
          
The opening dialogue is another prime example of the wordiness that accompanies a lot of these JRPGs. It's like hearing two children shout, "Am not!" and "Are too!" at each other. One round of it, fine, but after a few repetitions you start wondering if any jury of "your peers" would really convict you. In this case, I had to read through several screens of Mash trying to convince the reluctant Samos to tell him about Gorgus, with the equivalent of "Please tell me!" and "No, it's too dangerous" repeated so often that I began to understand Gorgus's motivations for just killing everyone in this town.
    
Eventually, Samos relents and sends Mash on a quest that begins with retrieving his father's arms and armor from the old castle. At first, I worried I'd have trouble finding it, but I soon realized that my worries were baseless. The game consists of only about a dozen areas, each taking up only about four screens. Hallways are wide and buildings large, and areas are therefore hard to get lost in. Pathways don't open until you're ready for them and many of them close behind you, so even when it seems like you're stuck, you just have to loop around the NPCs in a small number of screens, and eventually you'll get the next clue.
           
The game has furniture, barrels, doors, and chests, but none of them (except about four chests in dungeons) are really interactive.
          
Other than combat and NPC "dialogue" (all lines are scripted; there are no choices), there isn't much to do in the game. It lacks any kind of "search" feature. Doors open automatically when you walk into them. NPCs are also activated by walking into them. There are no puzzles, no traps, no out-of-combat spellcasting except for healing. This would describe a lot of games in the 1980s, but it feels like we've come further than this since then.
       
There is no character creation process. Mash (and, later, his two companions) come to the game with fixed values in strength, stamina, intelligence, attack, defense, maximum health, and maximum magic power, all of which increase upon leveling up. Attack and defense scores increase as you purchase or find better equipment. Enemies have no magic and no special attacks. You never miss them and they almost never miss you, and the damage that you do to each other is fixed by a formula that considers the attacker's attack score and the defender's defense score. Because combat is so predictable, it's also boring. There are no tactics save the spells, but offensive spells aren't that much better than physical attacks. You're almost always better off saving magic ability for healing.
             
The main character's statistics early in the game.
        
The game is also extremely grindy. There's a maximum of 40 levels, and you have to be close to the top to defeat Gorgus in the end. If you just walked through the areas (and didn't get killed), you'd probably reach the endgame at Level 16. The rest is grinding, which sucks because combat is slow. Every attack, yours or the enemy's, is accompanied by an animation. Thank the gods that someone told me how to use DOSBox's "warp" mode recently or I never would have survived it. Mechanically, combat seems to be derived from Phantasie. Each round, each character attacks, casts a spell, uses an item, or tries to flee, and the action executes immediately with its animation. All characters go before all monsters. 
          
The translators didn't bother to translate the combat options, but I figured them out by context.
    
The predictability of combat means that you almost always know when you've entered an area that's out of your pay grade, so that's when it's time to return to an earlier area and camp for a while. Fortunately, I was able to watch educational videos for a class I'm taking during this process. It is not an exaggeration to say that at least 5 of the game's 8 hours were spent grinding.
      
That leaves the story, which almost doesn't deserve to be related. As Mash leaves Dorah, Samos asks him to keep an eye out for a girl with a fiery brand but otherwise doesn't tell anything about her. Mash first recovers his father's sword (a regular long sword, discarded almost immediately) from the castle, after which Samos opens the way to Death Valley. Before he leaves town, Mash can have his first ribald encounter with a local girl whose name he doesn't even remember.
     
And so it begins.
       
Each one of Mash's erotic encounters shows three or four pictures of the girl in question, censored in the places that Japanese media typically censors images of girls. None of Mash's encounters are non-consensual, though like Xentar, he is sometimes rewarded with sex (or just images of unclothed girls) in situations where the girls in question have just been through traumatic experiences. As usual, many of the girls look underaged to me, but I'll just accept that's a cultural/artistic thing. The other weird thing is that many of the images . . . I don't know how to say this . . . Many of them suggest that Mash is "participating" in the activities depicted, except that he himself never actually appears. It's as if he's gone invisible. Finally, unlike the heroes of other eroges that we've seen, Mash is not depicted as either particularly suave or particularly inept. He doesn't make jokes or cringy statements about his experiences. They mostly happen without comment, or with bland comment.
    
Areas of the game are divided into those with wandering creatures and "safe areas" (usually towns) without them. In areas that have creatures, they're always depicted as formless blobs until you run into them and the encounter begins. You can avoid them a lot of the time by walking in the other direction, but the game requires so much grinding that it's best to fight when the blobs are present. They respawn quickly. Each area typically only has two types of creatures. The Valley of Death had ogres and "mantrap plants."
         
Mash approaches an enemy party "glob" in the valley.
         
On the other side of the Valley is the city of Garah, which is being menaced by a lieutenant of Gorgus named Gidd. The residents are so terrified that they offer young ladies as sacrifices to Gidd. The latest, chained up and waiting for him to come and get her, is a girl named Lizza. (Lizza disrobes for Mash in exchange for a promise to help her.) Mash also hears about a local young swordswoman named Elle. A third entanglement comes when Mash discovers that the local bartender has imprisoned a girl named Mary in his basement.
              
Ah, the joys of roleplaying a character who ogles girls while they're chained up.
         
Mary supplies the key necessary to unlock Lizza's shackles. Mash creepily has a sexual encounter with Mary before she's even freed from the basement. Lizza returns to her grandmother's cave in a forested area west of town. Lizza's grandmother has some intel on the source of Gorgus's power, which has to do with "plaques" (the way this is used, I can't help think the world is translated badly) that had been created by the gods and convey power over fire, water, and other forces.
    
At this point, it's not clear what Mash has to do to enter Gidd's fortress (the guards repel him if he nears), so it's one of the moments of the game where he has to run back and forth to various NPCs to figure it out. Mary says that to enter the fortress, Mash will need an emblem and suggests he talk again to Lizza. Running back to Lizza's grandmother's cave (fighting zombies along the way), he learns that Lizza has the emblem tattooed on her thigh (picture follows). Lizza suggests that the blacksmith can make the emblem but he'll need to see it, and Lizza doesn't want to return to town. Mash has to return to town alone and go to a shop where the shopkeeper has an "eternity mirror" that captures an image of whatever it's pointed at, but he won't sell it except for a "goddess statue." This turns out to be in the possession of Lizza's grandmother, necessitating another trip through the woods, then back to the shop, then back to the cave to capture the image, then back to town to deliver the image to the blacksmith. Such is the game padded.
            
One of many steps in a senseless quest.
         
Meanwhile, Mash finally meets Elle, who agrees to help him in his quest, as her father was also killed by Gorgus. After Mash picks up the emblem at the blacksmith's shop, Elle meets him at the gates to Gidd's fortress, which (after grinding a while), they invade, killing guards and dark fairies and ultimately Gidd himself. Gidd leaves behind a crystal ball in which Mash sees an image of a girl with a fire brand on her forehead, the one that Samos told him about.
      
Elle is one of the few female characters presented respectfully.

Taking on Gidd.
         
After defeating Gidd, Elle and Mash move on to the city of Krapp. Krapp has a few exits, one of which goes to the "twin cities" of Aquapolis and Foulwater, the other of which goes to the cities of Blessfire and Foxfire. You understand when I say "cities," I'm talking about a couple of screens with inns, shops, and a few NPCs. Each city has a weapon/armor/shield shop, and I found that the party basically had just enough gold for the latest upgrades at just about the moment they became available.
          
Items available at one shop.
        
If you check into the inn with Elle in Krapp, there are some scenes that suggest Mash might have tried to have his way with Elle and was duly reprimanded--this is played for humor, of course. Otherwise, if he checks into the Krapp inn without Elle, he finds that it's a brothel in disguise and has the opportunity to sleep with several prostitutes; there's a sequence exactly like it in Xentar. Great: I've become an expert on tropes in Japanese porn games. Irene will be so pleased.
           
Mash apparently went too far.
        
Elle disappears for a while at one point and is found frolicking with fairies in a waterfall in Aquapolis (with images, of course). In Blessfire, the duo becomes a trio as a warrior named Fugg joins the party to rescue his sister, Lora, who has been taken by Gorgus's next lieutenant, Geir. As before, the party has to get strong enough to raid Geir's fortress, which is populated by giants and necromancers, before taking on the minion himself. Along the way, they free three captive girls (with images, etc.) from Foxfire. Fugg leaves the party after Geir's defeat, which was surprising. I thought the game was going for a permanent hero-girl-male friend composition like Xentar.
          
Fugg briefly joins the team.
          
I lost track of a lot of the plot at this point, and I can't even reconstruct it with my screen shots. The party found one "plaque" in Krapp, but it didn't seem to do much of anything. Later, there was discussion that they had to find a "crystal" and then "holy water." Moving forward for the rest of the game generally meant circling around between "The Wise One" in Aquapolis, Lizza's grandmother, and an overtly Christian priest in Krapp until one of them had the answer.
   
Getting the "holy water" meant visiting the city of Heavens, which turned out to be accessible from the waterfall in Aquapolis. The city was under the thumb of Gorgus's final lieutenant, Goses, who as usual had imprisoned a few girls. Freeing them opened the way to his fortress and represented the last eroge content in the game. As Mash freed them, Elle expressed some jealousy, and I set myself up for an ending just like Xentar and Cobra Mission in which the hero swears off his rakish ways and marries his female adventuring companion in a weirdly wholesome epilogue.
            
The tamest of the images from this section.

          
Goses's fotress required a lot more grinding. Enemies were dark knights and women that looked like sorceresses but were for some reason called "rusty nails." The combat with Goses himself went like all boss combats in the game. Since no one has any special attacks and all attacks do predictably the same damage, combat was just a matter of figuring out how often I had to cast healing spells in between physical attacks. As long as the enemy doesn't do more damage than you're able to heal, you can eventually whittle him down.
    
Following Goses's defeat, discussion again turned to things I don't remember discussing previously. Something about having to find a "sanctum" and an "AquaSword." After making the rounds of the usual NPCs, it turned out that the priest knew of a way to open a doorway to some "sanctum" in Aquapolis. We followed his instructions and found ourselves in a long, linear dungeon (a single straight corridor) containing the toughest enemies in the game, lizard warriors called "death tails" and floating balls of light called "ghost balls." They offered so much experience that we finished leveling up just pushing through the corridor.
        
I guess maybe this is the "sanctum."
          
Gorgus was at the end of it, but he taunted us by saying we could never defeat him without the "AquaSword," which for some reason we didn't have and couldn't find, so we had to back off and return to Krapp. There, the bartender's daughter heard of our plight and stole a "plaque" that the bartender had kept secret. She ran away with it to the forest, where it required her to sacrifice her life to turn into the "Holy Sword," which was apparently capable of defeating Gorgus. This was all told very poorly.
         
JRPGs seem to have a lot of blank lines and ellipses in dialogue.
        
We returned to the Sanctum and engaged Gorgus in combat. It was the same thing as his minions: a couple of attacks followed by a couple of healing spells or potions. It took a long time, but he died.
          
Hollywood, get this script in front of a producer!
       
The denouement was stupid. The girl with the firebrand appeared in the wake of Gorgus's defeat. Gorgus has held her prisoner all her life, telling her she was the daughter of Lord Laggs of Dorah, my father (whose actual name is appearing for the first time), which would seem to make her my sister. Surprisingly, Elle took off at this point, claiming she'd had her revenge. For some reason, Mash expressed an intention to still somehow try to make the "AquaSword," but the nameless girl convinced him it wasn't important and persuaded him to use the holy water to wish their way back to Dorah.
         
I didn't follow all of this, but I wanted the game to end, so I was with "Girl."
        
Back in Dorah, Samos filled in the rest of the story, but it still didn't make a lot of sense. It turns out the girl--who is never named--is not the daughter of Lord Laggs but of the ruler of Garah. A soldier carried her out of town when Gorgus destroyed the city; Samos ended up finding her in the woods; and my parents ended up adopting her moments before they themselves were slain by Gorgus. End of story. The girl didn't end up with Mash, either, so I'm not sure why she's even in the game.
            
Samos appears to be hitting on me.
        
The game ends with Samos offering Mash a drink. A black screen says "And . . . time passed by . . . " and then shows an image of someone--Mash, I guess--sitting under a tree at the top of a cliff. And then the credits roll over (non-lewd) images of some of the females in the game. So I have no idea what that end sequence was about, but neither do I really care. The title of the game is never really explained, either, unless that's the paradox.
 
Unlike most games in the eroge genre, the protagonist of this one ends sad and alone.
        
In a GIMLET, the game earns:
    
  • 2 points for some attempt at a story.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There's no creation, but leveling feels suitably rewarding.
  • 3 points for NPCs. They play a big role in the game, but everything is one-way.
      
Wandering NPCs are sometimes helpful. Sometimes . . .
        
  • 1 point for encounters. There are no non-combat encounters, and enemies are only differentiated by how hard they hit.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Combat has no real tactics and there's no point to the variety of spells, which is too bad because some of the visual effects for the spells are fun.
         
Elle's spell options at the highest level.
        
  • 3 points for the economy. It remains relevant most of the game and is a secondary reason to grind. When you no longer need weapons and armor, you can stock up on healing potions.
  • 2 points for equipment. There are upgrades to weapons, armor, and shields, and it feels rewarding to buy them, but there's no complexity to the items. They just adjust attack/defense scores.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options or side quests.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I found the graphics grainy (why do they look like they have artificial scan lines?) and the icons hard to make out. Some of the cut scene graphics were well-composed, though. I can't tell you about the sound because the music is so relentless, and can't be turned off separately, that I played with the sound off entirely. The controls work fine.
        
The artists clearly had some talent.
         
  • 1 point for gameplay. The overall game wasn't too long, but even within the limited time, it wasted a lot of time with grinding and backtracking. The predictability of combat made it too easy; it's very linear; and there's nothing replayable about it.
            
That give us a final score of 21, which is a pretty low score for the era. I'm glad I investigated what Japanese developers were doing on consoles at the same time because otherwise this would be my impression of JRPGs.
    
I typically haven't subtracted any points for bad translation, so I won't do that here, but the text of the game is riddled with spelling and syntax errors and poor word choice. Also, it's sometimes hard to tell who's speaking.

Normally, I'd offer reviews from contemporary sources, but I can't find any evidence that anyone noticed this game when it was released in 1992. I can report that an Honest Gamers reviewer named Woodhouse agreed with me in a 2003 review:
            
To play Mad Paradox is to step into a world of mediocrity. It’s an RPG that skimps on all the ingredients that can make an RPG great. The battles are neither unique nor exciting, you’re given only an excruciatingly tiny area to explore, and there isn’t any engrossing story or character development. The makers of this title decided to forego all those amenities, instead placing an emphasis on pleasing the viewer’s visual receptors. To captivate its audience, Mad Paradox relies on its one and only asset, numerous naked women.
                        
I would normally also report on the developers here, but none of them seem to be associated with any other games, including designer and writer Tooru Hamada, senior programmer Kei Ishizuka, senior illustrator Akira Komi, or even music composer Shirahama Nanki. The development company, Queen Soft, did produce at least half a dozen other titles between 1989 and 1996, mostly eroge adventure games and what can only be described as "strip mahjong." Even more of a mystery is the supposed U.S. translator and distributor, Samourai, which is an absolute ghost. I'm not 100% sure that it wasn't just a warez group that created a fan translation. Why any of these obscure individuals thought that this game was worthy of their time will have to remain an enigma. A paradox. A maddening one.