Saturday, June 26, 2021

Game 417: The Dark Kingdom (1980)

Why is my servant giving me orders?
The Dark Kingdom
United States
Computer Simulations Company (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for TRS-80
Date Started: 24 June 2021
Date Ended: 24 June 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5)
Final Rating: 7
Ranking at Time of Posting: 6/428 (1%)
The Dark Kingdom opens with your "servant" (I guess you're already a knight) informing you about a "rich and evil empire to the east." You agree to go on an adventure in the land, starting with horse, sword, shield, and 3 days' supply of food and water. There is no character creation. Gameplay begins on the first of four maps, with your abilities--strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, life, and combat ability all at 100%. You learn that your goal is to "slay the evil ruler."
The game begins.
The four maps are dotted with temples, ponds, valleys, towns, farms, cities, houses, woods, deserts, ruins, and castles, with plenty of random encounters in between. Your goal is to first get famous enough that the evil warlord notices you and attacks you, second to purchase a magic sword capable of defeating the evil ruler.
Arriving at one of the generic locations.
All there is to do at most of the locations is search. When you do, there's a small chance of finding gold or silver. (I think 1 gold is worth 10 silver.) In towns, cities, and temples, you can barter for goods, including food, water, healing salves, "no-doz" pills, and information about the evil ruler. Bartering locations sell the required magic sword for 100 silver, or about twice what you start with.
Combat occurs randomly in between locations. The only enemies seem to be baby dragons, old dragons, angry dragons, flying creatures, and giants. Combat moves you to a separate screen where you can move around relative to your enemy, but there's really no point since all you can do is F)ight or R)etreat. If you want to fight, you belly up to the enemy and pound the "F" key, and the graphics do their best to show a sword extending from your little box of an icon to hit the enemy. If you defeat the enemy, you gain "fame" points relative to its difficulty. Retreating works 100% of the time.
In battle with a giant. I'm the lower square; he's the upper square; and the thing connecting us is my sword hitting him.
I rated the game "very easy," but it wasn't easy during my first try, mostly because searching at locations hardly ever produces anything. Half the time, your servant says, "Now is not the time for searching," and you can't do anything. The other half, he searches but reports finding nothing. So you have to scramble around from location to location just to find enough silver to replenish your daily use of food and water. But after a while doing this, I realized that you can search the same place multiple times, until you find something. If the servant says it's not time for searching, you can just leave and return. So you can just stand in the first location you visit, search over and over, and make enough money to buy the magic sword. After that, combats are a cinch, including the one with the warlord.
What happens most times when you search. But you can just do it again.
The hardest part of the game is the excruciatingly slow movement. I had to crank the emulator up to 500% to make it remotely tolerable. I went through a phase at the beginning where I thought the game wasn't responding to my commands, but I realized that you can't enter any commands in between locations; all you can do is move. If you want to eat, drink, sleep, or check your supplies, you have to do it at one of the fixed locations.
You have to eat, drink, and sleep once per day or you start to lose attributes. You don't see this loss, however, until the screen has some other reason to refresh. So you're wandering around with everything at 100%, but then you enter combat, and suddenly everything is at 50%. You thus have to pay attention to the passage of time.
I have no idea what's going on with the "kingdom map." The game's four screens are arranged in a square, which is easy enough to figure out by simply moving from one to the other. For 200 silver--the most expensive thing in the game--you can by an "official kingdom map" that shows you how the four area maps are arranged. I have no idea what value this is supposed to be, since you've probably figured this out well before you have enough silver to buy the map. Also, there's no particular reason to visit all four maps because all of the game's locations are generic and randomized.
This was so helpful.
One thing that could have been cool is the ability to pay 10 silver pieces for information about the evil warlord. However, there are only two items of information. The first is that he's a magic user and can only be killed with a magic weapon. This clues you to purchase the magic sword. The second is that he has a horde of demons at his disposal and sends them against enemies. I never encountered any demons, so that bit of intelligence was of dubious value.
Getting a tip on the dark lord.
By killing about 10 regular creatures, you can get your fame up to 200, at which point it becomes likely that the warlord will attack you as you wander around the screen. He attacks with 500% health, but you swat away about 25% with every swing of the magic sword, so it doesn't take long to kill him. You then get a winning message in which your servant hints at a new adventure.
I don't know what bothers me more: "congradulations" or the sudden switch to gargoyle-speak at the end of the screen.
  • 1 point for the game world. That's generous. If I did half points, I'd give it half.
  • 0 points for no character creation or development.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes.
  • 1 point for combat. There's no magic.
Battle with the warlord.
  • 0 points for equipment. One sword isn't enough.
  • 1 point for the economy, easily cheated, soon wrecked.
  • 2 points for a quest.
  • 0 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are too rough, the sound non-existent, and the keys too unresponsive.
  • 1 point for gameplay. At least it's fast.
That gives us 7 points. There's maybe the seed of a clever idea here. Moving around to different types of locations and finding different things isn't a bad game design--it's basically Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign or even Warlords. There just needs to be more interesting and varied stuff happening at these locations. A little more thought to inventory, combat, and encounters might have made this at least a playable game.
Computer Simulations Company was a Joliet, Illinois outfit that had a handful of war simulations and adventure games in 1980. One of them was Jedi Knight, an unlicensed, under-the-radar Star Wars-themed game that looks exactly like The Dark Kingdom except the locations are planets and the "evil warlord" is Darth Vader. Whoever entered that one into MobyGames tagged it as an adventure game rather than an RPG. I don't think either of them are really RPGs, lacking character development and inventory.
Gameplay in Jedi Knight.
Jedi Knight is credited to David Landry, so I suppose he probably wrote The Dark Kingdom, too. After writing these games, he formed Tactical Design Group with Chuck Kroegel, clearly improved his craft, and designed a slew of wargames for SSI, including Battle for Normandy (1982, probably based on his 1980 game, D-Day: The Invasion of France), Breakthrough in the Ardennes (1984), Battle of Antietam (1986), Battles of Napoleon (1988), Conflict: Middle East (1991), and Steel Panthers (1995). The only time he flirts with RPG territory again is with War of the Lance (1989), a strategy game in the D&D Dragonlance setting. Landry seems to have gone MIA after 1995; I wasn't able to come close to finding him. But this theme--"early quasi-RPG designer finds success later with strategy games"--is going to recur soon.

Edit from 16 December 2021: The credit to David Landry seems to be an error, and the real author of the games is Stan Schriefer, who like Computer Simulations Company is from Joliet, Illinois.



  1. These "discoveries" from the early era just keep getting worse and worse. I try to put myself mentally in the position of a 1980 player with a TRS-80 and ask, "Would this game have been enjoyable in the context of what else was available?" I feel pretty secure in my "no" answer.

    Ah, but were they fun to *write*? That is the question that needs answering. Did they make the developer feel good? (strangely enough this concept still works today)

    LOL the no-doz pills are straight from Scott Adams' The Count adventure game, where you use them to stay awake (if you fall asleep Dracula bites you and drains your blood).

    1. I continue to enjoy seeing these little stubs reviewed!

    2. NoDoz is also a popular brand of caffeine pill available in real life.

    3. Something like this would really only take a couple of days to write. I've coded things of similar complexity in BASIC for the fun of it. The relative shortage of software and the relatively low cost of entering the software publishing market meant that there was a flood of software which in other eras would merely be hobbyist wankery. From the mid 80s to about 2000, we thankfully see this stuff largely shut out of the market, until the emergence of stuff like Flash and Newgrounds lowered the entry point again.

      I'm *assuming* that if we ever hit that era we're not going to wade through every two-bit Flash RPG, just as we (largely) haven't been struggling our way through the interactive fiction scene so far.

    4. Yes, that's where Scott Adams got the name from.

      Sheesh, people really have to add this stuff?

    5. If Chet ever gets to the Flash/RPGmaker (know you didn't say that, same quality issue though) era, there's going to be a few things in Chet's favor, one, a lot of games that are of poor quality either never got finished or are gone forever. Two, most of the obviously bad titles from that era are going to get kicked off by rule 4, unless Chet decides he's also going to be the RPGmakerAddict. Thirdly, so far people haven't exactly been speaking up about Flash or RPGmaker games, because they know what the end result's going to be, Chet is going to hate them. I know I haven't said anything for precisely that reason.

  2. His last game, Steel Panthers, was re-made/ported in 2000 as Steel Panthers: World at War and commands a pretty faithful following even more than twenty years later.

    I've tried it, it's a surprisingly decent turn-based strategy game, but I don't have the patience to ever see a battle completed, unless I'm cruelly pitting 1950's North Korean infantrymen against modern tanks or something.

    If you think about it, the gap between an RPG and a strategy game is vanishingly small. You could argue an RPG is a strategy game with a different set of variables and stats and, later on in the videogame timeline, a stronger narrative. Makes sense to me, considering Chainmail was a wargame ruleset before it inspired Dungeons & Dragons.

    1. I think of roguelikes as strategy games, in which you develop - through successive losses - a strategy for winning on random maps. It's even more obvious with their descendants the 'deckbuilder roguelites' such as Slay the Spire and Monster Train.

      And of course the HOMM and Kings Bounty games straddle this line too.

      However, it's also true that the computer RPG has roots entwined with the adventure genre. Maybe that's the key - RPGs are strategy adventures, adventure games are puzzle adventures.

    2. WinSPWW2 and WinSPMBT are pretty great games (modern-ish remakes of Steel Panthers for Windows, one set in WW2 and the other in post-WW2 battlefields). They're among the best wargames I played at that scale. The turns do take terribly long though, especially when aircraft is involved. But there's nothing comparable in the field of turn based wargames when it comes to level of simulationism and amount of units. Every country that took part in WW2 is represented with their historical equipment, and in the modern version almost every country of the modern world with any significant military is represented. And you can pit any factions against each other: wanna have the GDR face off against ZANLA? You can!

      It also alleviates the problem of large scale turn based wargames a little by having the option to move entire regiments of units at once instead of having to do it for each unit individually every turn. But that function is a bit wonky and makes your lads move in weird formations.

    3. The dated engine is kind of wonky and causes balance issues, particularly at the lower end of the scale. The people over at Shrapnel had to veto any attempt to move the timeline backwards because "rifle only, but heavy machine gun or elephant gun will penetrate" is almost impossible to model properly.

      Gary Grigsby is supposed to be working on a modern iteration of the series called Steel Tigers, but that's been on hold for several years while War In The East 2 got finished.

    4. The great thing about Steel Panthers is that you could command anything. Usually games gave you a panzer or infantry formation and that was it. In SPWAW if you wanted you could command a regiment of Finnish antiaircraft guns through a whole campaign, and the game would randomly generate opponents for you. It was great. I've always had a fondness for the Axis minor nations that usually get left out of the big games. If you're lucky you just get some crappy counters of a different color and try to find a way to use them as speed bumps.

    5. I think there's a fundamental difference in pacing between RPGs and strategy games. RPGs tend to move along at your speed. There may be a time limit - although even that is rare - but generally things move along as your party does, and events are triggered as your party travels to certain locations. In strategy games, there are usually other actors who act independently of you - and if you move too slowly, you tend to fall behind, possibly without the chance of catching up.

    6. Depends on the type of strategy game. Steel Panthers is a wargame focused on the tactical level, simulating individual battles/engagements. Its campaigns are just series of battles strung together with unit carryover. You could compare it to Panzer General, except more simulationist (PG is very simple in its rules).

      The game doesn't have a strategic layer where you deal with procuring resources and producing equipment, so there's no falling behind scenario for a bad player. In the battles themselves, staying put and holding a defensive position is often a valid course of action.

    7. Something I've spent a bit of time musing about is where/when CRPGs would have come from if we hadn't had any P&P examples.

      Would they be derived from strategy games with 'hero' units, or would they have evolved from the action-adventure line?

      What would they be have been called? Strategic adventure games?

    8. I mean, pen and paper RPGs did evolve from board wargames so the strategy -> RPG development already happened.

      Originally D&D was envisioned as a small-scale squad based fantasy wargame where you control small groups of individual units rather than massive armies. All the other details (non-combat gameplay) were added over time.

    9. CRPGs were born so quickly after D&D (less than a year!) that I find it easy to believe that someone would have spontaneously come up with something very similar given maybe another year or two. A universe where computer dungeon crawls were invented without D&D is pretty interesting to imagine.

  3. I've played Steel Panthers World At War and it's a great war game, if dated. I'm about as surprised by that revelation as I was by the game you covered a few years back that was written by the Salesforce guy.

    Just goes to show that dedication and improvement are real things, and great for these guys sticking with it rather than giving up after a disappointing first go!

    1. And better hardware... the TRS-80 Model I was sooo limited! I had a friend who had one and he was thrilled when his parents finally purchased an Apple IIE.

  4. Wait, the map isn't a fast travel system? What does pressing 1-4 do?

    1. It shows you the maps of those areas, but I don't believe you can fast-travel to them. Even if you could, there wouldn't be any point, since all encounters at all locations are random.

  5. Dark Kingdom, the should be in master list

  6. I applaud anyone playing a game on TRS-80.
    Joke aside, you forget to update rating & ranking. I will remove the message(or you can do it cleanly) once you do :)

    1. I didn't forget to update them. I typically don't fill those in for a few weeks.

    2. Ah I never realize. After years of reading you, I was 100% sure it was typically because when you reach the end you sometimes forget to update the beginning. :)

  7. I think there was a mistake with Mobygames game credits (now corrected), but both The Dark Kingdom and Jedi Knight are credited in their source code to Stan Schriefer, not David Landry.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I'll append an edit above.


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