Wednesday, May 5, 2021

BRIEF: Reign of the Red Dragon (1982)

Reign of the Red Dragon
United States
Independently developed; published by Adventure International
Released 1982 for TRS-80
You have to cut these early developers a little bit of slack, particularly if they were writing for an under-served platform like the TRS-80. They were all trying to figure out the best way to bring the tabletop role-playing experience to the computer, and to some degree we have to be grateful for the variation in approaches. 
A dragon guards a treasure chest.
Red Dragon was written by David W. Daring, who narrates a sample of gameplay on his YouTube channel, and published by Florida-based Adventure International. It was supposed to be the first of a series, published under the master label of Demon Venture, and many sites give the official name with that master title, but it doesn't appear in the manual or on the title screen. Daring wrote a follow-up, Mystery of the Four Doors, which AI apparently declined to publish. 
The box is the only place you find the Demon Venture title.
Some sites claim that Red Dragon is the first "graphical adventure" for the TRS-80, but unless I'm using a different definition of that term, I don't think it's even close. Knight's Quest was out in 1978; 1979 offered three Dunjonquest titles, and 1980 had three more. The first three Warrior of Ras games, plus a port of Telengard, came out the same year as Red Dragon.
The game concerns a quest to find eight pieces of a broken scepter and slay the titular red dragon. The party can consist of up to five characters, drawn from dwarf, elf, human, and hobbit races and warrior, magician, cleric, and thief classes. Each character is rolled for values in strength, intelligence, experience, constitution, dexterity, and charisma; you can re-roll if you want, but there's a chance the game will get annoyed and force you to accept the last roll. 
Creating a new character.
You then spend your gold on supplies. The supply list is differentiated by character, with warriors buying more martial items but clerics and magicians having spell options. One tip, learned the hard way, is to buy plenty of torches, as you're screwed if they run out mid-dungeon. Arrows or javelins are also important for flying creatures, and elixirs for healing. Most items have an associated menu command; this is a rare game in which the inventory list and the interface are roughly the same thing.
Equipment the warrior can buy.
The game begins on the first level of the dungeon. The dungeon has two levels, but also at least one special area. The first level is 30 x 15. There are about 10 squares on the level that offer you the option of opening a trap door and entering a room below. It's in these rooms that most of the action takes place. 
You choose a "leader" for the party, who is less a leader and more a permanently active character. The other characters don't do much until the active character changes or dies. 
Setting a new leader after my warrior dies.
Rooms may have any combination of monsters or treasure. When you encounter a monster, you can attack with a melee or ranged weapon, cast a spell, or flee. The best action is determined by the type of monster. Melee weapons work well against physical creatures, but not flying one. Those are best taken down by arrows. Javelins work well against large creatures. Undead and spiritual creatures can only be harmed by magic. If the active character doesn't have the appropriate weapon or skill, the best thing to do is flee. Otherwise, killing the creature allows you to take the room's treasure.
In a room with a snake and silver bars. The message to the left indicates that I can shoot an arrow, attack with my mace, attack with a javelin, use my "Vermin ID" (basically an "Identify Monster" object), use my pole, eat a yam, or drink wine. I can also flee.
If you use an arrow, javelin, or lance, you have to play a little mini-game by which a cursor moves back and forth along the bottom of the screen. You hit SPACE when you want it to stop and fire. I've never seen anything quite like it this early in RPG history. 
Shooting arrows at bats. The black line in the white area at the bottom bounces back and forth. You have to time it and hit the SPACE as the optimal time to hit a bat.
In between these rooms are twisty hallways and a plethora of squares that trigger wall sections to open or close. Some of these triggers so radically reconfigure the dungeon that it's virtually impossible to map. There are also trap squares, but some of these are the same as trigger squares, and I'm not sure what toggles them. Exploration is quite a challenge.
The square containing my asterisk in the first shot is the same square that is above the asterisk in the second shot. The area reconfigures significantly depending on which direction you approach from.
From what I can tell, the pieces of the scepter are all found in regular hallways, usually at dead ends, rather than in rooms. I found three of them on Level 1. I suspect a fourth is in a room to the southwest, but I can't figure out how to get in there. There's a trigger square in the northwest that opens a passage, but other triggers squares close the same passage as you approach.
A trigger square opens a door elsewhere.
Getting to Level 2 requires you to find a room with a tunnel, then use the pole to vault into it. Level 2 seems even crazier than Level 1, with numerous squares of lava that you have to either find a trigger to drain or trust your dexterity to jump over. I found a weird creature offering to sell things in one of the rooms, including valuable torches, arrows, and elixirs, but we kept getting attacked by monsters during the transactions.
Some spider-thing offers to sell me arrows.
There's also a teleporter square that takes you to a special area called . . . damn it. My computer crashed and I lost the notepad on which I wrote it down. It was something like "Maze From Hell." It's a single screen with six exits that leads to identical-looking screens whichever way you go.
I never found my way out of this area.
Unfortunately, my attempts to play and win the game seem doomed by its extreme fragility. This might be an artifact of the original program, a modern emulation problem, or some combination of the two. I don't even understand the issues that I faced trying to get the program to run, something that both Dungy and Jason Dyer helped me with extensively. My understanding is that the program is so big that in order to have room for the saved characters, you can't have the TRS-80 boot files on the same disk, so you have to boot with one disk, then swap in the game disk, a process that didn't work for me for various reasons. But the problems go deeper than that. The game would refuse to recognize characters after I created them. If you try to clean out old characters to make space, you sometimes get stuck in an endless loop. Every errant keypress seems to cause it to dump to the system prompt. It often gets stuck loading areas. My main character, who had good stats to start, suddenly ended up with everything set to 9. And after successfully getting to Level 2 once, I found myself unable to get there again, even with a new party. The game either crashed or froze every time I tried, even after re-downloading a clean version of the disk.
One of many deaths. Fortunately, you can save anywhere. Unfortunately, reloading a saved game doesn't often work.
Some of these issues may still be solvable, but I feel like I've wasted enough of my time and my readers' time on the game. We'll chalk up these difficulties to issues with modern emulation and give Red Dragon its due for offering some interesting game elements in a time when the best mechanics for CRPGs was still an open question.


  1. I still love seeing these little stubs from the early days. I had a friend with a TRS-80 and we played early games on it, although no CRPGs that I can recall.

    Looking forward to the early day mop up efforts!

  2. I like the dragon's stutter, like it's trying to remember its line.

    "Oh, shoot, an adventurer. What was I supposed to say again? Pretty sure it started with an R. R-R-R-..."

  3. I wonder if Daring still has Mystery of the Four Doors.

    1. I do have the Mystery of the Four Doors, but unless you have a TRS-80 I don't have the expertise to get it into the marketplace. If someone could do it, I would allow free access to all.

  4. If it weren't for the screens with monsters, I'd say "graphical" is pretty generous.

  5. I don't think the term "graphic adventure" was even in use in 1982; the first example of the genre is generally considered to be King's Quest I, from 1984; with earlier non-animated games (such as the 1982 The Hobbit) being called "illustrated adventure games".

    The "adventure" part of the term comes from the 1976 game ADVENT (a.k.a. Colossal Cave), and the genre focuses on puzzle solving; as opposed to RPGs, that focus on statistic-based combat. I'm aware that there's hybrids and gray areas, but this game isn't one of them.

    In other words, ROTD has no call being the first "graphic adventure" because it isn't one.

  6. The snake looks more like a tapeworm

  7. Those monster portraits are so cute!

  8. We should also applaud this early form of inclusion.
    I mean, the dragon has clearly some form of speech impediment.

    1. It could be freezin and the sound is an implication about the temperature of this cave

  9. Love seeing these TRS-80 Model I & III games. And love that snake, which looks like a mushroom that decided to turn into a manta ray at the last minute.

    Too bad that Model I/III emulation is still so dicey, and/or that these games are so unstable. I tend to suspect that there are either subtle timing issues at play, subtle incompatibilities between hardware revisions, or both.

  10. The bar that slides along the bottom of the screen reminds me of some modern Android games. It's a neat concept, and I've seen it frequently in modern games to define accuracy or strength of an attack in otherwise turn based combat. By 1993 have we played any other game that uses this?

    1. There have been games that required some kind of player skill, but nothing quite like this. The closest would be some of the minigames in the Charles Dougherty series (Questron).

    2. It reminded me of the special attacks in Final Fantasy X - which I was never very good at though.

    3. Looks similar to golf games which normally have an animated interface in which you pick the right moment to click for the optimum swing parameters.

    4. Weren't there some action minigames in Hillsfar?

    5. I'm not sure Hillsfar really counts as a RPG. It's more a series of mini-games.

    6. "I've never seen anything quite like it this early in RPG history."

      Reminds me of combat in the ol' BBS door game Operation: Overkill, but of course that one doesn't come up for several more years yet!

    7. Much later shadow hearts and grandia implement this mechanic.

    8. Not quite the same and not an RPG, but for some reason this made me think of the 1985 Apple release of "The Oregon Trail". Trying to shoot that deer with the slow moving bullets, when the deer varied it's speed :P

    9. It also reminds me a little of the battles in Undertale.

  11. Keep up the good work Chet. What fuckin weird game!

  12. Not related to this post or game, but here's a post about TSR's licensing deals:

    Not much details or background but there is a timeline who developed (A)D&D games back when it was owned by TSR.

  13. Well now we know where this game got its combat system.

    1. That is actually very very similar to this game.

  14. isn't it weird that experience is a stat like charisma or strength ?

    1. Yes, it would seem so as it wasn't a normal quality in RPGs. Experience like the other stats was used in the game to improve performance as each quality would rise and fall with the players actions. Every weapon, quality, and creature interacted differently. The game was far more complex than most people realized and a player character could move from one session to another with improved qualities. This game was presented at several SF conventions in the game rooms. When the cleric reincarnated a player they would lose 3 constitution points (an example of using stats for performance).

  15. To get the fourth piece of the scepter you have to activate the trigger and then go to the now opened room the long way: to the southeast, through the sublevel below the map to the northeast, then along the north side to the northwest, and finally south to the room.

    Tha lava squares in the second level disappear periodically (the game explains it as a rock boat passing), and the maze is easily avoidable (its only function is to get back to the first level).

    Tha game's source code is complicated, but not too much bugged. First of all you have to make game's disk bootable in TRS-80 Model III through TRSDOS by following the manual's instructions. Then it works nearly properly if you reset emulator to boot it after saving and quitting.

    I didn't have trouble with my characters, but they are deleted from disk if all of them die or you quit the game without saving them, and the selectable option (1 or 2) to save or kill them when you quit is switched between first and second dungeon levels (I want to believe it was an oversight and not on purpose).

    I think your emulator is responsible for many of the problems, but the all 9 attributes was a random trap in chests, and there is a bug that makes the second level unreachable sometimes (if the tunnel goes in one of two rooms that don't trigger).

    In any case, it is difficult to consider the game a crpg in terms of character development and the use of attributes in combat.


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