Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Game 431: The Nightmare (1982)

The Nightmare
United States
Liberty Software (developer); Epyx (publisher)
Released in 1982 for Atari 800
Date Started: 23 August 2021
Date Ended: 23 August 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Very Easy (1/5)
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at Time of Posting: 32/444 (7%)
I can't find much on The Nightmare, so let me tell you what I guess about it. First, I guess that it started as a Crystalware game. Crystalware, as you my recall from my 2020 coverage, was a short-lived developer that specialized in quantity over quality. All of their games have a similar look and feel, blending action, adventure, and RPG elements without fully satisfying in any of those three areas. Marc Russell Benioff, who went on to found Salesforce and make billions, was one of Crystalware's programmers, responsible for Quest for Power (1981), The Forgotten Island (1981), and a few other titles. Liberty Software was Benioff's label.
A new game begins. There's no character creation.
Crystalware started to fall apart around 1982, and Automated Simulations acquired their catalog just as Automated Simulations was changing its name to Epyx. They re-released most of the Crystalware games under new names. For instance, Quest for Power became King Arthur's Heir, and The Forgotten Island became Escape from Vulcan's Island. I can't find any Crystalware precursor for The Nightmare, so I would guess that it was still under development when Crystalware made the hand-off.
The Nightmare is the typical Benioff/Crystalware game with the typical Epyx overproduction. That company could make you think a dog turd was a filet mignon. They would take 200 lines of code and accompany it with a 23-page manual full of evocative artwork, quotes from classic literature, and an elaborate framing story. The gameplay experience must have been a let-down for a lot of contemporary players, but the ride home from the computer store must have been epic. In this case, the manual is full of quotes about nightmares and death from Ambrose Bierce, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, and "a tombstone in Painswick Churchyard, Gloucester, England." Grotesque, gothic images, some from classical sources I can't identify, accompany the text.
A well-designed box suggests a quality of gameplay that isn't here.
In reality, there's nothing so nightmarish about gameplay. The setup of The Nightmare is that you're having a nightmare about being trapped in a castle. You have eight hours (real-time) to escape or your nightmare will become reality, and you'll be trapped there forever. The castle has four levels, and you maneuver your little icon through its rooms and corridors with the joystick. There are no keyboard controls. The joystick button calls up a small menu in which you can check your inventory and single "power" statistic.
All you have to do is wander around the castle collecting objects. Each floor has a bunch of rooms--their names spelled out on the screen--and about one-tenth of them have something in them. (Examples: Armory, Supply Room, Cloak Room, Lounge, Trophy Room, Annex, Laboratory, Royal Crypt.) Most objects give you access to another room in turn. There are no adventure-game style puzzles here. If you have the right object in your inventory, you can walk through the door or past the guardian that it allows you to pass. The floors aren't very big, and you don't have to map them.
The graphics aren't bad, but you can't do anything here.
There are exactly three enemies in the game: a rat pack in the dungeon, a "mistress" on the second floor, and a ghost on the third floor. Killing the first one is tough with your starting power of 100, but my experience is that once you've killed the first one--which boosts your power over 200--than the other ones are pretty easy. To really hedge your bets, you can just run from them until you get one of the weapons, after which you're invincible. If you do die, you can "reincarnate" with no items (so I don't know why you wouldn't just start over) or reload, since you can save anywhere.
Attacked by a rat pack that looks like a turtle.
I won in less than two hours--I can't imagine anyone needing the full eight--and most of that was backtracking. I think the winning sequence was:
  • Get Moriu's Head in the unlocked Headsman's Room (basement)
  • Get the key to the royal chambers in the Key Room (basement)    
  • Enter Queen's Royal Chambers with key to royal chambers and get umbrella (second floor)
  • Enter Bird Room with umbrella and get key to chapel (third floor)
  • Enter Chapel with chapel key and get cross (first floor) 
  • Enter Vampire's Lair with cross and get dagger (second floor)
  • Get the key to the wizard's keep in the Headsman's room (basement)
I pick up a key. Another item awaits to my east.
  • Enter Wizard's Keep with key and get quarterstaff (third floor) 
  • Get past first and second guardians in Tunnel of Death with the quarterstaff and dagger, get key to Rorgon's Room (third floor)
  • Enter Rorgon's Room with the key, get the key to the gatehouses and the can of mace (basement)
  • Enter gatehouses on first floor and get spear and magic lantern (first floor)
  • Enter Storage Room with magic lantern and get ring of protection (second floor)
There is one "side issue": In the Library on the second floor, you find a book. Reading the book (there's a menu command specifically for this) brings up some text that says, "Bath Keeper's Warning: Beware of the Psycho!" If you don't heed this warning and accidentally wander into the bath chamber on the second floor, a "psycho" appears and automatically kills you. You have no ability to move or take any other action.
A "psycho" kills me in the bath. That's original.
I never figured out what a pair of pajamas in the Royal Crypt got me, but other than that, it's just about finding the right items in sequence. Once you have everything, you got to the third floor, where there's a small mazelike room that the manual calls the "Tunnel of Doom." It has four guardians, and some combination of items--I would guess quarterstaff, dagger, spear, and Moriu's Head--gets you past them. (The guardians aren't enemies. They don't fight. They're like locked doors; they block you if you don't have the right item and let you through if you do.) Maybe the can of mace is important instead of one of the other weapons.
I lack the right item to get past this guardian.
The Ring of Protection sees you through a final barrier, and then you pick up your Mind's Eye.
I don't even know what that means.
Taking this back to the entry on the first floor triggers the "congratulations" screen.
I guess there was one ghost, but otherwise nothing "haunted" about it.
Both of Benioff's previous games featured the same limited, short, easy gameplay. It's too bad because there's a lot of potential in these graphics and room names. With a little text, some more complex controls, more frightening enemies, and a puzzle or two, Epyx could have had a decent adventure-RPG hybrid. There were even Crystalware titles like House of Usher (1980) that could have served as models. 
In a GIMLET, it earns:
  • 1 point for the game world. It's not much of a setup. They could have come up with a dozen other reasons why a character would have to escape a medieval castle other than "he's having a bad dream."
  • 1 point for character creation and development. That's generous. The "power" statistic doesn't do that much for you.
My "power" goes up as I find a new weapon.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. That's for the inventory puzzles.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. The simple power comparison and dice rolls aren't worth more.
The three combats are resolved based on your "power" and random rolls.
  • 1 point for equipment, which adds to your power.
  • 0 points for no economy.
My endgame inventory and power.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics actually have some promise. While I normally don't like the joystick, it works okay for such a simple interface. I must not have sound configured correctly in Altirra because I didn't hear anything, whereas a video online indicates that it has various dits and boops.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It gets that for being over quick. It's otherwise linear, not replayable, and far too easy.
That gives us a final score of 11, 1 point higher than I gave Benioff's two previous games (this one had slightly better graphics). His talents clearly lay in another industry.


Edit: In an article on his blog, El Explorador de RPG suggests that this game probably originated as Glamis Castle, a planned epic title from John and Patty Bell of Crystalware. In a Crystalware newsletter, John Bell announced that he planned to visit the Scottish castle on a trip to the United Kingdom and that the game would use layouts and photographs from the real castle in the game. Either the trip never happened or Bell couldn't incorporate the new material before Crystalware fell apart.



  1. I usually keep the mistress on the third floor.

  2. The gameplay experience must have been a let-down for a lot of contemporary players, but the ride home from the computer store must have been epic.

    That happened me a lot back in the 80's

    1. Yeah. I had this experience a lot in the 80s, but the worst offender for me was Daggerfall. That manual promised so much...

    2. Yup, typical 80's experience. It didn't help that being a kid imagination usually is greater than reality, when seeing the colorful game boxes in the local mall young me always had sparkling wide eyes.

    3. The experience might have been typical for the 80s, but Epyx was capable of authentically good games. The Dunjonquest titles in particular were equal to their packaging.

    4. I had a somewhat similar experience with Fallout 3, although that was less disappointment over the game and more a lesson on what minimum system requirements means

    5. I only had that experience when I already played some of the best a genre had to offer and then got inferior clones because I wanted more. Sadly they were always a letdown.

      I was very much into RTS in my early teens and Age of Empires 2 was so damn good, nothing else came close... especially those RTS games that tried to clone AoE's gameplay but screwed up basic stuff like unit movement.

      This led young me to believe that Microsoft, who were the publisher of AoE2, had made a deal with all other game developers that nobody is allowed to make a better RTS than AoE2. And they could make such a demand because they are the publisher of Windows and therefore have the power to say "no other game is allowed to surpass ours".

    6. Early to mid-90s, you could usually get a playable demo of at least the games by the better known publishers. I subscribed to a PC magazine that came with lots of demos on CD-ROM. Most of the games I bought I had played a demo version before, so major disappointments were rare.

    7. Love that line. A similar experience can be had by reading Compute! magazines from the early 80's. The advertisements prior to the video game crash are just overboard. Full color, promising the world, over the top. By 1986, everything reverts to simple text ads in black and white.

    8. JarlFrank: AOE2 is amazing! I'm sure you already know, but the game is quite active still today. There is a Definitive Edition (about two years old) that greatly expands on the original and an active competitive scene.

    9. I have AoE2 DE on Steam! Sadly I can't play it until I update my Windows 7 to a more recent patch but I'm too lazy.

      I could also switch to Windows 10 but... nah.

    10. In fairness to Daggerfall, I bought it on the strength of a demo of the starting dungeon, and I got good fun out of it. It was no Morrowind, but I respect it.

  3. That company could make you think a dog turd was a filet mignon. The gameplay experience must have been a let-down for a lot of contemporary players, but the ride home from the computer store must have been epic.

    Oddly, enough describes the Salesforce experience as well!

  4. I did not think you would cover games like this one. They start to be very far from RPG inded - I don't complain of course it is still an interesting review.

    1. Only taking 2 hours to finish probably had something to do with it getting a full entry instead of a brief. If the dilettantes at Moby Games or wherever tag it as an RPG he's bound to at least check these sorts of games out.

  5. So, have you reached out to Benioff to see if he has any comments about these games? I'm sure he'd be easy to get a hold of ;)

    1. My desire to hear from developers is outweighed by my desire not to attract the attention of billionaires I'm making fun of.

    2. Too late, my lawyers are already preparing to sue your ass off. See you in court Mr. Bolingbroke.

  6. AlphabeticalAnonymousSeptember 1, 2021 at 12:03 PM

    I wonder whether we'll see the return of the Benioff-off from previous comments on this series of games...

    Also, a small typo: "There no keyboard controls."

    Thanks for an interesting, quick read!

  7. This one strongly reminds me of a proto-adventure game that was one of the first computer games I ever played called 'Castle Adventure'. Collecting treasures and the quest items needed to escape the titular castle, fighting or avoiding the ~10 or less enemies.

  8. Congrats for completing 1983 (1982?) again, at least until Moby Games/Wikipedia adds a bunch more quasi-RPGs to their database. I think the atmosphere of these haunted house games needed to wait until the graphics could catch up.

    If I'm being brutally honest, I'm more excited about seeing what 1993 game will take its place on the Upcoming list. It's been a strong year so far, and the imminent Dark Sun: Shattered Lands in particular was one of my favorites from back then.

    1. I've been selecting them at random. I've never even heard of Quenzar's Caverns.

    2. Dark Sun is an amazing game. It's much better than the overrated Baldur's Gate and appeared years before it, but it doesn't nearly receive as much praise as it deserves.

    3. I'm doing my best, but I've added pretty much all the quasi-rpgs I can find from that era.

    4. Jarl - are you being serious there? Whilst BG has its flaws, and it’s definitely not perfect, it really is a phenomenal game which missed a lot of the issues DarkSun has. Sure Dark Sun is underrated but better than BG???

    5. Deano – While I can't speak for JarlFrank, I can speak for myself, and I bounced off Baldur's Gate hard. Not quite as hard as I bounced off Planescape Torment, but pretty close.

      I've tried an assortment of other CRPGs with the interface style of BG and Planescape – NWN, Divinity Original Sin, Tyranny, Lords of Xulima, ... – before I finally managed to stop myself buying any more because I always seem to end up ditching them fairly early on.

    6. I'm curious Martin. What is it about the infinity engine (and its imitators) that repels you?

    7. In the general case, there's nothing specific I can pin down and point to.

      It's not just isometric perspective, because I love Disgaea.

      It's not just real-time combat, because I think that the KotOR series and Mass Effect and Dark Souls are all great.

      It's not just isometric perspective + real-time combat, because I think that Diablo and Dungeon Keeper are fun.

      I really can't place it, which is tremendously frustrating, because if I could pin down what it was, I could offer coherent feedback to game studios when telling them their game isn't to my taste :)

    8. Fans of those games might want to check out Siege of Dragonspear. It fills the narrative gap between BG1 and BG2 and uses the old engine.

      Speaking for myself I would rate BG1 and Dark Sun about equal, but in BG2 the characters were more generic, the level draining was tiresome and overall it seemed more like a disjointed dungeon crawler (although the bad guy was certainly more colorful).

    9. I dunno why I am so lukewarm towards BG1, but it just doesn't do much for me. Maybe it's because I played BG2 as a teen and only got to play BG1 many years later, and it paled in comparison to its sequel and left me disappointed... especially since some people say BG1 is better than its sequel, which raised some expectations.

      It just feels incredibly bland to me, especially when you compare it to other games in the Infinity Engine (especially BG2 and PST).

      The setting is the most generic area of the entire Forgotten Realms. Everything about it screams "my first generic D&D campaign". A lot of the areas you explore have nothing interesting in them, just copypasted mobs of goblins and bandits. The wilderness areas are huge but empty and exploring them in their entirety takes a lot of time but has little payoff. Most of the optional side dungeons are terrible: I remember one that's basically a very narrow labyrinth that completely screws with your party's pathfinding and really doesn't work in this engine at all.

      Dark Sun on the other hand was excellent from start to finish. The combat encounters were mostly on the easy side, but that's the only negative about it. Its combat system is definitely much better: not only due to being turn based, but also having range indicators for AoE spells which BG lacks! The setting is exotic and interesting and makes me want to explore. Even when there's nothing of note to discover in a wilderness map, at least it's a visual treat - whereas in BG, it's all just generic pseudo-medieval fantasy forest that I've seen a million times before. Quests are more interesting and sometimes even have an element of choice.

      I think the main reason I dislike BG is due to my love for BG2. The first game feels utterly bland and generic in comparison, and I just feel bored when playing it. Nowadays when I replay the BG series I just skip BG1 entirely because I'm not having fun with it.

    10. I get why people prefer BG2 to BG1, but to me the open-world nature of BG1 and the greater number of random encounters makes it one of my favorite games even if BG2 does better in a lot of areas, like quests and NPCs.

    11. For me, a big issue with both BG games is that they take way too long to get to the exciting stuff. It was particularly painful with BG2 - I was utterly exhausted with the game and lost the will to play further by the end of the starting dungeon.

    12. My experience is the same as VK's. What I recall from BG1 is you come to this village and they're complaining about DEMONS in the mine. You're really low-level at this point so I figured there's no way these are actually demons yet. And yep, turns out it's actually goblins.

      And at that point I was facepalming over the cliched plotline, and getting one-shotted by flaming arrows all the time, and I just abandoned the game. BG1 really doesn't start strong, imho.

    13. Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 both have extremely large, sparsely populated maps that can feel like a chore to explore -- especially when you have to backtrack across them repeatedly, and especially considering the poor pathfinding of your party members.

    14. Xulima isn't really like the others here, as it is fundametally turn-based.

    15. I don't feel like the maps in BG1 or BG2 are "sparsely populated" at all. They seem chock full of interesting stuff to me.

    16. I can’t imagine someone immediately traveling to Nashkel when there is so much territory to traipse around and level up in.

      Though I would really like the AI not to path into traps I’ve already discovered. I feel like that’s not too much to ask.

  9. Love how the title screen spells out 'The Nightmare' in black on gray ground as written by a pre-schooler on first try, and they were like 'That's it, we got it, let's roll with this!'

  10. I'm half tempted to look for that gravestone next time I'm in Painswick. Note that the manual has an error, and Painswick is in Gloucestershire, but not in Gloucester.

  11. Not that there's been any doubt for many years now, but you know you've really made it when you get this many comments on a game that is this, uh, shall we say, impressively austere?

  12. Just a reminder that stronghold on your played list is not a proper CRPG

  13. The gameplay experience must have been a let-down for a lot of contemporary players, but the ride home from the computer store must have been epic.

    I'd like to appreciate this. I see way too many retrogamers sneering at the concept that a gamer would ever have read a manual, and i'm always like, "What the heck did you DO in the back seat of dad's station wagon on the ride home from the mall?"


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