Friday, November 13, 2020

Game 389: Secrets of Bharas (1991)

 
         
Secrets of Bharas
United States
Victory Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for Apple IIGS
Date Started: 7 November 2020
    
I was looking forward to Secrets of Bharas after I played Victory Software's first title, 2088: The Cryllan Mission, a couple of years ago. 2088 wasn't great--it scored just below my "recommended" threshold--but it had some interesting thematic elements. The three brothers who started Victory Software, Vinay, Vivek, and Vijay Pai, were raised in Houston, but by parents recently emigrated from India. Their games are the closest we get to an "Indian RPG" until a couple of Trine Games titles in 2008.
    
Indian themes, or at least proper names, are far more on display in Bharas than in the sci-fi 2088, starting with the title. In the game, Bharas (almost universally misspelled online as "Bahras") is the name of the land. In Hindi . . . I'm not sure. Bhar appears to be a caste, and both it and Bharas appear as prefixes to a number of names and place names, but I'm not sure how Hindi roots work (and, of course, the entire word has been romanized). The game's backstory is similarly filled with Hindi or Sanskrit names: the lands of Bharas include Surya, Nadhi, Darthi, and Vashi among many others.
       
I wonder if Vivek and Vijay occasionally think about how they used to style themselves "MC VSP" and "DJ VJ."
         
These names pepper a game world heavily inspired by Ultima and other high fantasy. The manual spends a long time setting up the history of Bharas and its six lands: Surya, kingdom of humans; Nadhi, land of great rivers; Dharthi, kingdom of dwarves; Wairan, land of great deserts; Jalamuki, land of volcanoes; and Hawa, kingdom of the elves. The races originally didn't know about each other, but the great Suryan explorer Sadanana traveled the world and established relationships and trade between the three peoples. An elf named Narayan and a dwarf named Gaspard independently discovered magic; the rivalry between their two schools eventually escalated into a war between Dharthi and Hawa that spread across the world, drew in the Suryans, and resulted in four Great Wars over 200 years. Each new spell discovery shifted the balance of power in favor of those who discovered it.
    
The game begins a few years after a Great Summit established peace across the world. As a symbol of a new era of unity, the three kings agree to a joint expedition to "chart the lands of Bharas." However, the party of cartographers sent to Jalamuki mysteriously disappears. How this impacts the main quest, or what the main quest is, is left (strategically?) unsaid by the manual.
       
Creating a new character.
       
The player creates a party of six, choosing from human, dwarf, and elf races and warrior, mage, and cleric classes. The game rolls random values for strength, agility, stamina, psyche, and ego, and you supplement that with a pool of around 12-20 additional points. You need high values in psyche to assign a mage or cleric. I made two of each race and class. There's a training round after creation, during which your stats may go up or down.
         
The game starts in the wilderness, at night.
        
The game begins in what seems like a random place in Surya. The game uses the same interface as 2088, dominated by an exploration window and a message window. It has acquired a few features since the previous game. A row of command icons duplicates the most common menu selections. There's a map of the current continent, showing the party's current position as a blinking cursor. A clock tracks the time, which only advances when you act, not when you sit still. A compass points the way to the nearest town, and a set of status bars show the current health of the party members.
    
Movement is accomplished with the mouse (you click on your destination) or the numberpad. Commands are found under the menus at the top. Most have a keyboard backup, but in all cases, this involves using the Apple II GS's "command" key, mapped in the emulator to ALT. This is mildly annoying. The game isn't very interactive. There are no chests to find, doors to open, or places to search. All you can really do is attack, talk, camp, shuffle player inventory, and mix spells. The party has started with only daggers, no spell components, and no gold.
    
Following the coast, I make my way to the first town, called Varnas. It has a healer, a magic components shop, a transport shop, and a transport repair shop. Other continents are accessible by ship, and the manual suggests you start saving money for a ship right away. 
           
As with Ultima, spells in this game require reagents.
         
There are about a dozen NPCs. Conversation hasn't changed since the last game. Although there are different dialogue buttons--"background," "introduction", "new topic," and "more detail"--they all serve to basically advance the same verbose (and often recursive) narrative. For instance, these are the results with the first NPC I find, Emilio:
      
  • Background: I am from Dharthi originally. I came here to explore the dungeons of Surya. I'm just resting in Varnas for a while. I'll go to the dungeons soon. I've been talking to people in this village, but it seems like nobody knows where any dungeons are. Before I go, I'll have to stop at that place they call Kota. 
  • Introduction: I have sailed to this land from Dharthi. I like Varnas. It is one of the better ports that I have been to. I'm just here to get some supplies and some information before heading to the dungeons. A lot of travelers come up to me and ask me questions. They must realize that I'm a traveler too since I am a dwarf. But I don't know that much more than anybody else.
 
Chatting with Emilio.

             
  • New Topic: Sailing up here was an interesting experience. Kind of seasickening. I'm used to doing all my travel by land. As far as I'm concerned, the land is always the best way to get places. They should build a land bridge from Surya to Dharthi. At their closest, our two kingdoms aren't that far apart.
  • More Detail: I sailed here from Normandy. We went north through the bay and then headed northwest. We then started following the western coast of Surya. I noticed that most of the islands south of Surya are pleasant and full of meadows or light forests. But there is one island covered with mountains. The mountains are very tall. Quite bizarre. I must go there one day.
      
There's also an option to ask an NPC for a specific object if you also have the name of the person who told you to request it.
       
I suspect I'm going to be asking Nathan for a CACTUS FLOWER and telling him that DARCIE sent me.
       
The NPCs are relatively interesting, bringing us perhaps the closest to Ultima IV-VII dialogue that we've seen in any other RPG. They don't seem quite as mission-driven as their Ultima counterparts--sometimes, they just ramble--but every paragraph fills in a bit about the game world and its lore.
    
Some other NPCs in Varnas include:

  • Bagdu. He used to be a map-maker. His expedition was recently canceled because of the disappearance of the other cartography party. He notes that much of Bharas is covered in water.
  • Giselle. She loves ancient artifacts and hopes to collect them someday in a "Giselleum." Her father wrote The Book of Legends about the "ancients," a race that had the ability to create magic amulets and gems, but these seem to have been lost to the ages.
  • Igor: His family is descended from those who used to run the Prisons of Lakmos, which are now ruins. A mysterious man was once incarcerated there--no one knew his name or crime--and he somehow got hold of an Amulet of Invisibility. He was killed trying to escape, and the amulet was lost in the dungeon. Igor intends to go look for it.
  • Baal the Goat Man: Says he has a secret but I'm not ready for it yet. Goats are apparently going to be a thing in this game.
  • Baxter: Goes on about Varnas's history as a port town. He says he knows a lot about history and hopes to get appointed to the Varnas Proud committee.
  • Dritte: A follower of Yajiv the Big-Nosed, who has the gift of prophecy. No one knows if Yajiv came from another world or just nearby Kota.
  • Julius and Hermes. Two marine merchants who were recently lost at sea. They ended up at the city of Davenport in Hawa, where elves told them that all lost ships end up there.
  • Craig the Elder. A village elder who governs Varnas with four other elders. He's always had the sobriquet "the Elder"; the fact that he is an elder now is just a coincidence.
  • Andreas: A former farmer who notes that Varnas grows most of the food of Surya. The meadows to the north grow a lot of food and also have a lot of game.
  • Ralph. A dungeon explorer who tells me there are three dungeons in Surya. One is the Caves of the Yukon to the east.
     
I find the sage named Yajiv in a secluded area. He's twice the size of a normal man and surrounded by unicorns. Unfortunately, I apparently need the "Tassels of Learning" to speak with him.
     
Focusing on his nose somewhat misses the point.
      
Leaving Varnas, I head east, hoping to find the Caves of the Yukon, but instead I find a second village, Kota. I note its location but decide to move on until I have some money. The land is quite large, and it's hard to find anything, particularly since the day/night cycle (which works like Ultima VI, bringing a fog of darkness around the periphery at night) makes it hard to see.
       
It takes a while before I have my first combat, with two peasants. They attack me, so I don't feel bad. As with 2088, combat occurs on a tactical grid. In its sheer number of options--move, attack, cast, use an item, enter and exit transports--it shows similarity to the Gold Box games. Unfortunately, executing the commands isn't quite as elegant. Particularly annoying is simple movement, which requires you to click and drag the character to an adjacent space. I don't know why numberpad-based movement suddenly stops working here.
       
Two peasants attack from the top of the screen.
         
But the developers did a great job with auto-combat options in 2088, and that same control panel returns here. In 1989, it was probably the most sophisticated calibration of auto-combat that we'd seen at that point, and it remains so through 1992. Unfortunately, even with the computer in charge, you have to activate each round manually. The manual hints at something called "continuous combat" where this isn't necessary, but I don't see any options for that. 
           
Various autocombat options.
       
I eventually find the Caves of Yukon and enter. Dungeon exploration is first-person. The compass changes to show your facing direction; the world map changes to show a dungeon map; and a separate button now brings up an auto-map. Unfortunately, I'm clearly here too soon, and I get slaughtered by the first group of enemies I fight.
      
Inside the Caves of Yukon.

My dagger-wielding level 1 characters aren't ready for this.
        
With my remaining time, I head to Kota and make the rounds of another dozen NPCs. An elf from Hawa named David said he had come to Kota to learn magic from Matthias, only to discover that Matthias didn't really know anything. He now plans to return to Hawa and study with Yaniv the Powerful. I don't really understand magic in this game yet. I know you have to mix reagents as in Ultima, but I'm not sure if there's a training component. I need to head back to the manual.
   
Two NPCs encouraged me to consult the sage Yajiv, and yet there were two self-identified prophets in town. Gwendolyn the Gifted said she recently dreamed of an evil being arising from a chasm in the earth. Another seer named Io said that I would have to purchase a ship and travel far.
   
Kota's main industry seems to be growing and processing turmeric. The town has a food shop, so I think I'll hang out in the area, practice combat, and build up my food stock. The game has offered a solid, Ultima-esque start so far. My only complaint is that I have no clue as to what my party is doing or what our place is in all of this. I don't know whether it's supposed to be implicit that we're on a quest to find the missing cartographers or if there's something else at work. Maybe we'll know by next time.
    
Time so far: 3 hours


55 comments:

  1. So if you uncheck the box labeled "Halt combat after each round" it doesn't go into continuous mode?

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    1. Good question. I assume I tried that, but heaven knows I've overlooked obvious settings like that in the past. I'll try it again next time I fire it up.

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  2. Yaniv and Yajiv, eh? Probably only a matter of time then before Keviv makes an appearance as well.

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    1. I honestly didn't know what you were talking about at first. How does that stupid M.O. KEEP GETTING ME!?

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    2. could someone elaborate?

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    3. "Yaniv" and "Yajiv" are two of the Pai brothers' names backwards. "Keviv" would the the third.

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  3. The auto-combat options honestly look like the most impressive part of this game.

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  4. I always like seeing the Apple exclusives coverage, because it feels like somehow those have been forgotten more readily than commodore or amiga stuff. I'm not sure why that would be, though.

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    1. Commodore always had a significantly larger market share than Apple, especially outside of the US. The Apple IIGS effectively being ignored by Apple after it launched also doesn't help.

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    2. Part of the problem the IIGS had was that Apple didn't want it to compete with the Macintosh, so they limited the CPU speed to 2.8MHz when the current production version of the 65C816 was already rated for 4MHz (and later revisions within the lifespan of the IIGS would be rated as high as 14MHz).

      Throw in the fact that the IIGS released at the same list price ($999) in 1986 as the Atari 520ST had released at in 1985, and, well...

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    3. While I don't know how true it is, I've heard rumors the IIGS was gimped specifically to try and kill off the Apple II because they were still selling better than Macs at the time. To be fair, considering Apple's still around while Commodore and Atari aren't, they may have been onto something

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    4. The only reason Apple is still around are that Microsoft bailed them out (in an attempt to dodge antitrust suits by propping up a competitor) and that allowed them to stay afloat long enough for Jobs to get lucky with the iPod and iPhone.

      One of the reasons that Apple was dying was their deliberate refusal to make anything affordable (like the IIGS), couple with Job's insistence (which got him fired for awhile) on making computers for idiots (as was highlighted in a major ad campaign that had people saying "I'm too stupid to use a PC, but Macs work for me"). If there's any truth to the story of the IIGS being sabotaged, it is symptomatic of the strategy Apple adopted for years.

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  5. Trying to not get my comment eaten, but I think most of the names are just loose transliterations from Hindi of fairly descriptive words, e.g. धरती ("Earth") for Dharthi, नदी ("River") for Nadhi, वीरान ("Deserted") for Wairan, and ज्वालामुखी ("Volcano") for Jalamuki, which leads me to suggest "Bharas" is meant to be भारत. ("India")

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    1. It doesn't get eaten, moderation is on. That means your comment will take a while to show up.

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    2. It wasn't actually the moderation, it was Blogspot deciding I was in a mysterious state and deleting my post the first time I tried.

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    3. Thanks, Imban. I started to look some of them up, but I wasn't sure of the results that I was getting. I did a lot of Googling looking for "Bharas" and somehow failed to note that "Bharat" is one of the official names of the country.

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  6. The background lore on this one seems pretty interesting, and I like the visual style of it. I wish I'd known about it contemporaneously. I couldn't find much to play on my Mac at the time.

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  7. Wow, have we seen any IIGS games on here before? It looks a lot like the PC-88/98 with the color bars.

    Also I know it reduces the immersion a bit, but it's cool here and on the Mac version of Might & Magic that the game commands are shown in a menu with drop-down bars like a productivity program. It really makes one feel like the boss of the party. I miss this aspect of Windows XP-era programs so much... and the Luna UI for the OS itself of course.

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    1. No kidding... I kept looking at it thinking it was the oddest looking Mac display ever. And in color...

      I had one friend who had a IIGS and loved it, but the support was minimal for it. I don't think much software was written directly for it, although no expert here. Apple had a love/hate relationship with the Apple II line fairly early on. Interesting history with the flubbed Lisa and the early Macs.

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    2. I played Wraith: The Devil's Demise (1990), Dark Designs III (1991), The Tower of Myraglen (1987), and 2088: The Cryllan Mission on the Apple IIGS. I have never liked the emulator.

      I can think of lots of reasons to like menus in games--they make it easy to see all the available commands, among other things--but I still can't shake a viscerally negative reaction to them.

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  8. Wait, what? That guy's name was really 'Vivec'?
    This guy knows he has godly powers, yes?

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    1. Nah, it's Vivek, with a K. Totally different guy. Probably he can only levitate a small rock at most.

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    2. Vivek's a common Indian and Nepali name which means (as best as I can tell / as best as names mean anything) "wisdom" or "knowledge". Also used as a shortened form of Vivekanandan. It's possible Bethesda just liked the sound of "Vivec" but equally possible they drew it from the same etymological root.

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    3. He hasn't attained CHIM. He only has a girlfriend named Kim.

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  9. A lot of these recent blog entries, briefs or not, seem very poor quality games, almost a waste of time. Where are the five star, heavy hitter rpg reviews?

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    1. Well Dark Queen of Krynn and the Summoning were both ranked as recommended for modern players thirty years after they were made ... I’d say that makes them heavy hitters. One of the main points of the blog is to play ALL crpgs looking for the ones that hold up. There’s obviously going to be a lot that don’t.

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    2. Then I recomend you go to just-the-best-crpg addicts blog.

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    3. This is just the sort of comment that I was hoping to get after trying to write an in-depth, nuanced review that explored an obscure game's positive and negative elements.

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    4. The "five star heavy hitter RPGs" have been covered over and over again by just about every style of reviewer in every format imaginable. Let the obscure forgotten games have their turn.

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    5. I've been scouring the internet looking for people's takes on Mass Effect and Fallout and there is just nothing, unlike all the great Secret of Bharas LPs and Defender of Boston deep-dives! Why won't Chet cater to me!!!!

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    6. I LOVE these little known games Addict! They are my favorite... I'd rather read about this game than another Gold Box to be honest. I read every post you make though, thanks! Keep the obscure ones coming.

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    7. While I absolutely disagree with the sentiment in the original comment, the "current and upcoming" list looks like it'd make a rather frustrating playing experience for Chet - except for the two early 80s titles, it consists solely of games with very bad rep. Legends of Valour at least has a historical interest as the game that inspired TES - but my understanding is that Chet hasn't played early TES, so it's be interesting to see how much he picks up on. It's actually one of the cases where it might make sense to go against chronology and play TES: Arena first, since otherwise Legends of Valour is unremarkable at best.

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    8. Isn't half the point of the chronology to see inspirations for future games? Going and playing Elder Scrolls before Legends of Valour feels like it'd be going against one of the main points of the blog, even if it'd make Legends of Valour more interesting

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    9. Chet, I was very glad to see this entry. I'd never heard of this game before and it seems like at least an attempt at a respectable Ultima-like on the IIGS. That platform was so poorly served by Apple, I've heard of very little software that was even published for it.

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    10. I remember Legends of Valour was announced as an Ultima Underworld-like game, but better in every way. And then when it came out, it was a complete letdown. People weren't even impressed by its 3d graphics, which were somewhat novel back then. I think the general consensus was that the game was bland and disappointing. Let's hope part of that is because people compared it to UU, and not because it IS a complete failure.

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    11. @Didier, I played it... for about 2 hours or so. It's very boring. For the first few minutes, exploring an immense fully 3D city is impressive, even by today's standards - until you realize there's jack shit to do and the plot just takes you from one barely distinguishable house to another.

      @Twibat, I wasn't suggesting that Chet blogs about Arena ahead of LoV - but it might make sense to put a couple of hours in, just to have a reference point. The thing with influences is that LoV is obscure and forgotten and Arena is not, so writing about LoV's influences in the entry on Arena doesn't make sense - very few people would get the reference. On the other hand, approaching LoV as a "missing link" betwen UUW and Arena could make for an interesting entry out of a boring game.

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    12. I used to just rum around LoV for hours just being impressed by the graphics, I was very young at the time.

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    13. This looks like a decently made above average RPG I never even heard before, so I'm glad this is getting covered here. Posts on these obscure games are always more interesting to me than those about the heavy hitters, because everyone and their mother already covered Ultima, Wizardry and co and there's little new to be said about them.

      These posts are what I read the CRPG Addict for.

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    14. I read Addict for a range of reasons, but I like seeing the evolution of the form more than anything else, and often that is most evident in the so-called 'heavy hitters', at least once you leave the zany era of pre-88.

      I prefer reading about Bharas to Gold Box #11, but wont pretend I am not looking forward to Chet's take on Fallout more than pretty much any other title.

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    15. Yup. All people want is to see the same things that they know over and over again. Not interested in anything new, just want to see the five star heavy hitters. Again.

      If anyone wonders why Hollywood turns out the same derivative crap year after year, this is why. People like Benn have money and they spend it.

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    16. ... and looking at contemporary reviews of LoV it seems people where divided some loved it and other hated it, so I really look forward to hear what chet have to say about it.

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    17. considering that this blog is so well written makes it stand out against most text produced about games, the engaging text makes it interesting to read even when the games are nothing I would like to play.

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    18. I never played LoV but my recollections from the coverage on game magazines of the time matches Didier's, as an ambitious game that was really hyped (with ads halfway between Daikatana and No Man's sky) but fell well short of people's expectations.

      Looking forward to the Addict's coverage

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    19. I look forward to any review, whether it's about an obscure freeware game or a well-known top title. Given Chet's writing style and sense of humour, I'd look forward to a review of a crossword puzzle as well.

      Side note: is it true that Chet has never played the early TES games? It amuses me that someone who likes TES and has a blog about the history of CRPGs has never played Arena.

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    20. Personally I love reading about oddball mechanics in largely-unknown RPGs; because there is way less difference between mechanics (or experimentation with weird mechanics) in "heavy hitter" RPGs.

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    21. I have played Arena, but it was a long time ago and I don't really remember it. I also played Daggerfall for about five minutes. I look forward to giving them both a second try, as well as seeing this game that supposedly inspired them.

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  10. Seems like this will be the first game to punch above its notoriety in a little while. I think Taskmaker was the last, which probably-not-coincidentally was also on Mac.

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    1. The Mac had some good exclusive rpgs. Taskmaster (and its sequel), Cythera, etc.

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    2. There are some interesting Mac only games from the late 90s that follow entirely different design templates than what we find on PC at the time. It's its own little ecosystem. A lot of Mac RPGs in the 90s feel like they're heavily inspired by Jeff Vogel's games, which makes sense.

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  11. So what some of you are telling me is that this is now the "Stuff you´d never bother to play because it´s so awful" addict blog.

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    1. Don't feed the troll, people.

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    2. I don't think the poster is a troll, they're just expressing an opinion after all.

      Are we no longer allowing differences of opinion and moving towards an echo chamber? If so that is unfortunate.

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    3. I think if someone is contemptuous of the very premise of the site, they don't really belong here. Not all differences of opinion are welcome at all times: you don't tell your grandmother "Your turkey sucks!" even if it does, and you don't wander into a panel discussion on Brahms and start preaching about the superiority of Beethoven.

      Also, I don't understand the "now" in the original post. Now as opposed to...when, exactly? It's always involved awful-but-interesting games from the start -- that's a big part of what most of us love about the site!

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    4. I agree with Rory that the original poster didn't necessarily sound like a troll, just someone new who didn't understand the nature of the blog. However, in a later post that I didn't approve, "Benn" did show himself to be interested in nothing more than causing trouble.

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