Monday, May 17, 2021

Game 413: Orb Quest, Part I: The Search for Seven Wards (1986)

Orb Quest, Part I: The Search for Seven Wards
United States
QWare (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for Macintosh
Date Started: 9 May 2021
Orb Quest is not the first RPG that was available for the Macintosh, as there were 1985 ports of Wizardry and the second and third Ultimas. But if we accept that Quarterstaff isn't an RPG at all, but an adventure game, Orb Quest seems to be the first RPG designed natively for the Macintosh. That isn't always a good thing. There are times that the Mac seems too "cute" for its own good--and too in love with its mouse in particular--but nonetheless, it's a historically-important game. It was unavailable for years. In August last year, a copy showed up on eBay and ended up selling for $305. At around the same time, it became available on Macintosh Garden, but copy protection made it impossible to play until a number of dedicated users (including our own LanHawk) cracked it. LanHawk ended up finishing the game himself and sending me all the instructions necessary to get it going on my own.
The documentation is still lost, I believe, which creates a conundrum when it comes to the title. When there's a conflict, my policy is generally to go with the best two out of three between the game's title screen, box, and manual. With no manual, there's nothing to break the tie between whether the game has a space between "Orb" and "Quest" and whether it has a "Part I" in its title. I tend to favor the game's main screen and have done so here, but in contrast to what nearly every piece of documentation on the Internet says.
Some of the in-game backstory.
We also have to piece together the backstory from the game's brief introductory screen plus what contemporary reviews of the time said. It seems to be simple: Evil threatened the land. King Cricken assembled the seven parts ("wards") of an ancient orb that had the power to banish evil. But something interfered with his spell and caused an explosion that annihilated him and scattered the orb. Evil was pushed back temporarily but now has returned. It is up to the hero to find the seven wards and reunite the orb. I hate to start off with a criticism, but is an orb really the best object to use in a "Disassembulet of Yendor" quest? How do you get seven pieces out of an orb? Okay, sure you cut seven equal ungulae. But how do you put it back together?
Anyway, character creation has you choose from human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, and half-orc races; spellcaster, fighter, and thief classes; and female, male, and--in perhaps a "first"--other gender. [Ed.: As commenters reminded me, Ultima III had the same "other" option three years earlier.] Your attributes--strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma--are rolled on a scale of roughly 30 to 100, modified by race, class, and gender selection. For a "woke" game, the effects of gender selection on attributes is interesting. Males gain 10 points of strength and intelligence over women, plus 5 points of constitution, but lose 10 points of wisdom and dexterity and 5 points of charisma. "Others" have a male's intelligence, dexterity, and charisma, but a female's strength, wisdom, and constitution; in other words, they get two good attributes and four bad ones.
That low intelligence is going to come back to haunt me.
The character starts on a monochrome plain, near a castle and town, with a random amount of hit points, food, and gold. Already, the game and I have some problems, as while some actions have a keyboard shortcut, movement isn't one of them. Until this moment, there were only two things I found unforgivable in CRPG design. One is level caps that an average player would hit before the last 5% of the game. The other is forcing the player to click the mouse to move. Unfortunately, this game manages to find a third one that I didn't even known existed: playing a piercing tone with every move. You can turn sound off, but it doesn't seem fair to force the player to miss all sound effects just because there's one stupid one. Oh, and I would note that turning sound "off" doesn't prevent an error message from playing every time you bump into a wall or mountain.
Starting out.
The menus suggest there is a fixed equipment ladder, with armor starting at "Unprotected" and moving upwards through cloth, leather, ring mail, chain mail, and plate mail, and ending with a magic cloak. Weapons similarly start with "bare hands" and go upward through dagger, battle axe, short sword, bastard sword, and crossbow before ending with a magic wand. I assume some of these things won't be available to my thief character. Already we see a fusion of tropes common to Ultima, but tempered with a little Dungeons and Dragons (including the specific attribute order).
The castle is surrounded by mountains that I cannot yet cross, and the other structure--I assume it's a town--has some water between me and it, so I start heading north and east. Immediately, I'm attacked by a pair of buccaneers. Combat only has one action ("Attack"), plus spells. My thief gets a couple of spell points, but at the outset it's only enough for "Cure Wounds." I kill the buccaneers with my firsts, but it costs me almost half my hit points and nets me 11 gold. A few steps later, another buccaneer takes me down to 36 hit points. I cast "Cure Wounds" twice, but the first one only gets me 8 hit points back, and the second fails. Fortunately, it appears that both spell points and hit points regenerate every few steps, but food depletes fairly quickly, too.
Trading blows with a buccaneer.
As with the first Ultima, enemies pop up in the environment when they're a few steps away, and unlike a lot of games, they don't have some special ability to move faster than you do on the diagonal, so I'm able to outrun a couple of them on the way to the nearest town. This turns out to be called Barrowsmith. You can only save in towns, which is a difficulty setting that I enjoy provided that the game is otherwise fair. Hit point and spell point restoration stop while in town, but so does food loss.

The town is large but simple. It has a food shop, a weapon shop, an armor shop, and a tavern. I buy a dagger, cloth armor, some food, and a drink, which gives me a tip. I assume the higher orders of drinks, which are expensive, give additional tips. There's a large area in the center of town that's inaccessible. It doesn't look like there's anything there, and as far as I can tell, there's no secret door mechanic. The only commands are "Attack," "Enter," "Inventory," "Use," "Drop," and "Barter." That is, except for a mysterious, grayed-out command called "Global Thermonuclear War." This is obviously an allusion to WarGames (1983), but I have no idea what it means in the context of this game. Wow--Matthew Broderick is 59. I guess we're never getting that Ferris Bueller sequel.
Buying a weapon.
For some reason, I expected the game to be difficult and grindy, but it's not so bad. I found I could generally keep up with healing against the starting enemies (satyrs, killer moths, buccaneers, bad bats, floating eyes, pygmies), although it was a good idea to stay near a town and periodically save. Every once in a while, an enemy has a treasure chest, and you get a couple hundred gold pieces instead of the usual 0-10. These were the keys to acquiring better items quickly. The thief can also try to steal inventory, but the risk (loss of all your gold and whatever items you had in that category) is too high to be worth the risk.
The game has mostly normal enemies and then this really weird one.
The opening area has only a couple of towns. Mountains or sea block most ways out. Swamps don't serve as a barrier, but you don't want to walk through them because they sap hit points. To get out of the starting area, you have to cross one of two bridges, both of which are guarded by trolls who demand a 100-gold piece toll. There's no way to fight them instead, so the first task is earning that money.
There are no explicit levels, but I noticed I was gaining maximum hit points and spell points, the latter at a rate of 1 for every 100 experience points. I'm not sure if the experience points also serve as a kind of subtle multiplier on your attack rolls. Battles against low-level foes seem to get a bit easier as I earn more experience, but then again I also upgrade my weapon a couple of times. Unfortunately, as I gain more experience, the game starts throwing more difficult and numerous foes at me. The level scaling seems to only apply to the maximum level of each generated enemy, as I still get single buccaneers. But if the generated enemy is a "white knight" or an "iron ape," I might as well just kill the emulator and restart.   
The truth is, I was thinking about doing something worse than "crossing without paying."
In the wider world, I soon found a city called Petrburg that, in addition to the weapon, armor, and food shops, also had a healer and a shop selling magic items and spells. The spell shop seems to be how you acquire new spells, so I'm not sure what the "Tome of Magic" in the magic shop does. The "Ring of Wishes" is also a mystery.
Fighting battles around Petrburg, I discover that enemy chests sometimes contain clues. In fact, they seem to share the same "hint pool" with the taverns. So far, I've learned:
  • Beware when the fat lady sings! 
  • Beware the floating eye, for it brings bad luck.
  • Many come back to town after meeting the cube.
  • The swamps are known as the little death.
  • The shape changer assumes more than just your form.
  • Legend says that only the pure of spirit, the strong of arm, the swift of foot, and the keen of mind may enter the pyramids and succeed.
  • Levels maybe make combat easier.
  • Many fall upon hard times after meeting the evil eye.
  • Only an adventurer with a keen mind will ever reach the center of the pyramids.
  • There is protection from dragons to be had.
  • Tarry not in thy quest. Evil grows stronger.
  • In the temples, it is said that one receives more than what is bought.
  • All can be cured within the temple.
  • The Orb must be placed upon the throne of the ancient kings.
  • Not all places may be reached by foot.
  • Judge not and thou will still be judged.
  • Few return who behold a beholder. Its powers are many.
  • Only by appeasing the spirits may entrance to the pyramids be gained.
  • When in darkness, go forward one, left two, left 'til you can go no more, right 'til you can go no more, and left for success.
I knew it!!!
Near Petrburg is a pyramid. Entering the pyramid, I found myself in a maze with hieroglyphics on the walls. There were no monsters. The maze led to a center, where I found the first ward. It was surrounded by plates that teleported me around the little room. I just had to keep testing plates until I found a sequence that brought me next to the ward. When I picked it up, I got 25 points in my "orb" statistic, and a new menu ("Special") with a "Remove Curse" option. 
Trying to approach the first ward.
What I do next is only understandable if you know a bit of context. During the period between roughly 7 May and 12 May, I had to grade over 100 papers and other assignments. I'm always looking for something mindless to do in between papers. It can't be too enjoyable, like actually playing an RPG, because I'll get sucked into it and never emerge. But something boring, like mapping a top-down RPG, is ideal. Like grading papers, it's something that you don't really want to be doing. The next paper serves as a break from mapping, and mapping serves as a break from papers. It's perfect.
I expect to have to make my own maps for first-person RPGs, but I think the developer should provide one for top-down games, even if it's just a rough sketch to help get your bearings. I don't know if QWare did that for Orb Quest, but I do know that the geography of the place is too complicated to navigate without one. The map probably took about 12 hours total. Dimensionally, it occupies 267 squares north-south and 219 squares east-west. As you can see, a lot of that is blank space, though. I don't know if boats or other methods of crossing water exist in the game--I never saw a hint about them as I visited the towns--but there looks to be at least one important island. There also has to be some way to cross mountains because there's a castle completely encircled by them.

My map of the Orb Quest world. Yes, it looks a bit like Africa and South America have switched places, and there's a land bridge from South America to Australia.
The red squares are the poisoned swamps, and as you can see, you have to cross through one huge one to get to the southeast continent. By the way, I want you to imagine me mapping that area, going one row of 13 tiles at a time, figuring confidently that based on the dimensions of the rest of the map, the southern tip of the red area is going to be the end. Only it never ends. There's this trail of single red squares that seems to last forever and ever, and then suddenly it opens up into new, huge continent. There was more than a little swearing that evening.
During this mapping, I found seven pyramids. All of them are named after a precious gem, metal, or other material: Emerald, Ivory, Bronze, and so forth. I don't think I tried to enter all of them, but the ones I did try to enter (other than the first, Azure), refused to let me in because I have "yet to be judged at the Island of Mystics." There are 11 cities and towns with names like Cape West, Clearview, New Talos, Three Rivers, Susetta, and Eventide. I didn't exhaustively explore all of them, but none seemed to offer any NPCs or services that I haven't already discussed. 
Any chance the "powerful guardian" could give me a lift?
I gained a lot of experience during the mapping process, but not as much as you might expect, since well over half my expeditions ended in death and reloading at the previous town. I discovered that chests sometimes contain additional pieces of armor, like steel gauntlets and a magic shield, that you equip and use automatically. I found a Wand of Death at one point, but that character didn't last.
Now that I have the map and I'm done grading papers, I suppose the next step is to figure out how to get to that Island of the Mystics. I hope it doesn't linger more than one more entry, because I'm thoroughly sick of the movement system already: If not for that, this would be a perfectly pleasant if somewhat bland Ultima clone.
Time so far: 14 hours


  1. Today I learned a new word: ungulae.

    If the orb was glass or crystal, I suppose it's lucky that one of the pieces isn't a tiny shard stuck to the guy's robe or something.

  2. "and female, male, and--in perhaps a "first"--other gender.

    Certainly not a "first", as for example
    Ultima III also have you the option to specify an "other" gender for your character back in '83. I remember having an "Other-gendered Fuzzy Lark" in my party when I played the C64 version at some point, which gave me the idea of a transgender Ewok jester...

    1. Ah, that's right. I had forgotten that U3 had that option. That's probably where this game got the idea from.

  3. That map is beautiful, I'm amazed by the effort you put it in for it.

    I like that the landmasses do not seem to be constrained by a rectangular shape, as other gameworlds are (for obvious reasons).

    1. I suspect that this map wraps horizontally and vertically; that way it fits neatly inside a rectangle. If you look closely, there's a little red dot in the upper right corner that matches the poison continent at the bottom, and there are two offwhite dots to the lower left of the poison continent that match the landmass to the north. It seems the leftmost continent is likewise above the lower right continent, although there's apparently an unvisited island in between.

    2. The map does wrap. I am a little surprised as well that he mapped the whole thing. The seahorse area (lower right) looks rather nice with Chet's use of color. And there is a town in that area called Seahorse.

    3. Yeah, I figured out the wrapping for the second entry. I'd probably still display it this way, though.

    4. So, would that be a Peirce Quincuncial or a Dymaxion projection? :)

    5. Chester, did you consider uploading some of your maps on ? In particular, those that took you the longest time, like this one.

  4. "The little death" is an interesting thing to associate with swamps. Makes sense here in context, but makes me wonder if the developer was familiar with the usual meaning of the phrase.

  5. "There are times that the Mac seems too "cute" for its own good"

    There must be a word for this, because I feel like Amazon AWS is the same way. Trying to be so clever that they loop back into being, not quite dumb, but far more frustrating than they sought to be.

    1. "Microsoft BOB"

    2. Or any of the assistants, such as Clippy or the Wizard.

    3. It reminds me a lot of Nintendo and it's consoles + first-party games - there's a bunch of their consoles where they do something kinda interesting like "let's put a microphone in this so games can tell if you're making noise!" and then they're making a game and someone says "well we have this microphone feature we want to show off - let's just make it so you HAVE to blow into this microphone in a certain way to proceed!"...and the player just winds up quitting the game and looking for something less infuriating.

    4. You always had to blow into the nintendo to proceed.

    5. I can't think of any first party Nintendo game that used the microphone like that. Now, I know of a few third party games that tried to use them for far more than they really should have, and there's plenty of arguments about the Wii's motion controls to be made, but Nintendo was pretty good about knowing the limits of the mics and either making them completely optional or just checking volume

    6. First Zelda game on the Famicom used the mic, the nes didn't have it so only Famicom games used it, the first zelda on the ds had you blow into it to play the ocarina... I was on a planeride and this part came up and I just put the ds down and read the inflight magazin. But I liked the speaker on the Wii controller one of the later silent hill used it for an Easter egg.

    7. The microphone in particular was minimally abused, but the other console gimmicks didn't have that. The Wii's motion controls are a prime example, but the absolute worst offender is the DS touchscreen.

      Besides the obviously idiotic decisions - the DS Zelda games and at least one Harvest Moon title forced you to use the touch screen for all basic tasks instead of using the buttons on the console - touch stuff got massively shoehorned in to a lot of games.

      There's an interesting parallel here with the Addict's attitude toward the mouse. It is a legitimate input device that can greatly expand functionality, but not everything is better with it, and you should not be forced to use it just because it is the new thing.

    8. I actually really liked the second DS Zelda game (Spirit Tracks, the one with trains.) But then I had no problem with the touchscreen, and absolutely hated the few times you were really required to use the mic.

      In most Zelda games that have you "play" an instrument, it's enough to just input the correct notes. Spirit Tracks, on the other hand, seemed to need you to actually play the song somewhat correctly.

    9. I've also never had issues with the touchscreen. I honestly felt like it was usually an improvement when it was used, to the point where it was a big reason I got a DS flashcart instead of using emulators

    10. In Mario 3d World, you have to blow into the microphone to move platforms in two or three levels (out of over a hundred.) It's a fun moment of discovery that lasts exactly the right amount of time before it would start to get annoying. Not infuriating at all!

    11. It's like Sony trying to push the six-axis thing for the PS3 and everybody hates it and it made the games worse.... Looks like this isn't a new thing it's experiencing with controls have been around since the dawn of computer games.

    12. And in the age this game came out there were miniscule testing and the programmers got used to the control scheme and went with it this would explain disasters like Shadowlands.

    13. We tend to focus on the input gimmicks that didn't work, but the history of computing and videogaming is defined by the gimmicks that looked stupid until someone invested in them and then became standard. And sometimes it took a few implementations to find the version of them that hit the magic point of cost, reliability, and intuitiveness.

      WASD would likely never have been a thing without Doom. WASD + mouse likewise took (I think) Quake to popularise and Half-Life to standardise. The mouse itself was definitely driven by Apple, and there was definitely a "this is stupid" learning curve for a lot of people first encountering it. Sony may not have been first with a controller rumble pack, but they pushed it and haptic feedback generally. Etc etc.

    14. To this day, I wish WASD was never a thing. The absolute worst control scheme to have ever been invented for keyboards...

    15. You think WASD is bad? Try OPQA! Why yes, some older games think it's useful to control your main character horizontally with the OP keys, and the same character vertically with your other hand on the QA keys.

    16. Out of curiosity, what do you think is a good control scheme, Max? In first person games at least, I've seen several worse choices, like using the function keys or the numbers (not numpad) to move around.

    17. I got my start on first person RPGs with Might and Magic, so if I'm on keyboard the basic arrow keys with my right and left hitting the usual hotkeys are the best.

      Now for modern games (or modern methods of playing old games, such as classic DOOM with Zandronum), I've found I prefer to do a combination of gamepad and mouse; gamepad in my left hand for basic movement and the two shoulder buttons, mouse in my right for mouselook and the six thumb buttons that my G602 gives me.

      I'll also say that Might and Magic 6-8 using Greyface patches lets me do the same with the arrow keys on my left and mouse in right, due to the inclusion of mouselook and again my six thumb buttons on my G602.

    18. A couple things I wan to this discussion:

      1. I don't share Max's opinion on WASD. This shortcut was first used, to the best of my knowledge, in the PLATO Oubliette. I'm sure Doom is why it achieved greater popularity. It has a huge advantage for right-handed players in that it keeps your more dextrous hand free to use the mouse or hit commands on the right side of the keyboard.

      2. It's important to remember that my objection to the mouse is an objection to using it as the SOLE interface component, especially for something like movement in a tiled, top-down RPG. If the developer had offered the mouse AND the arrow keys, you wouldn't hear a peep of complaint from me.

    19. This discussion thread and Chet's complaint about the mouse as sole input device brought Scotty's interaction with it (and comment about the keyboard) in ST IV to my mind:

  6. Whoever did the little icons new what they were doing, this game looks pretty good for '86.

  7. This game reminds me of "Caste of the Winds" (Win 3.X) which came out a few years later (and perhaps inspired by "Orbs").

    1. I still replay Castle of the Winds every couple years or so. Fond memories of it as a kid. I bought the first episode from a pharmacy discount bin back when everyone and their mother was selling software. Skipped the 1000+ clip art CDROM though.

    2. Same for me. I have Win 3.1 emulated via DOSBox just for this single game.

  8. I feel like the way to make the "orb broken into 7 pieces" thing make sense in regards to how you'd figure out how to put it back together is to assume they aren't "really" all identically shaped and sized, and that the sprite is just graphical limitations at play.

    1. I was picturing it as a geode and each of the segments being an irregular chunk of geode....

  9. if we accept that Quarterstaff isn't an RPG at all, but an adventure game,

    Ah, the game of hot potato.

    ...nah, actually, I'm OK with that. The RPGness is pretty half-baked.

    1. Not a very good hot potato if it's only half baked though

  10. The game seems to be "more of the same" for you, but I really like the sharpness of it all.

    Navigating in the labyrinth of South America seems to have been way less fun than grading the most poorly written papers though.

  11. The 1980s Mac GUI just hits me in the nostalgia so hard. Every time I see it I’m tempted to learn to use Sheepsaver and play Shadowgate or something.

  12. As far as that map, I interpret it more like this: The "Southeast" is Antarctica, North of that is S. America, North of that is N.America (with a red twisted Florida), which has a land bridge via Alaska to Asia (North) and Europe (farther North). Europe is connected for some odd reason to a mythical North pole (top), while Asia is strangely connected to the West to Australia (Western red continent) and that is merged with Africa (Southwestern continent). So yes, it is all mixed up, but that's continental drift for you.

  13. How are you playing this??? This is one of my fav games as a kid!

    1. I got my coy here:

      I used an emulator (Mini vMac) and loaded the game onto the emulator (drag file onto floppy disk with "?"). I used the "hacked" version on the above link since the original file didn't work.


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