Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Game 437: Dungeon of Ymir (1986)

The information-packed title screen. Castlegar, Argenta, Invermere, and Silverking are all places in the author's home province.
Dungeon of Ymir
Silicon Mountain Computers (developer and publisher)
Released 1986 for ZX81
Date Started: 12 October 2021
Date Ended: 12 October 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 47/444 (11%)
One of the parts of this job that I love best is starting up a new game and immediately finding clues about its influences. It's like being a detective. I remember firing up Nemesis (1981) for the CP/M a few years ago, seeing that one of the classes was "ur-vile," and ultimately determining that not only was the game adapted from the PLATO Oubliette, but also that the authors had attended the University of Illinois and thus had been exposed to PLATO games.
It was similar when I started Dungeon of Ymir and saw a note on the main screen that if monsters attack you, you can't escape (versus you attacking them). That tickled a memory that I followed to Sword of Fargoal (1982). It turns out that Ymir is an adaptation of Fargoal, something that no other site has put together. (Admittedly, not a lot of words have been written about Ymir.) All of its concepts, items, and spells are drawn from that game, although it has an original monster list. Since Ymir was written for a platform with less memory, it has to jettison a lot from Fargoal, in particular the wonderful sound effects that made the earlier game so enjoyable. It also has fewer levels, fewer monsters, fewer spells, and no time limit. Its dungeons are fixed rather than randomly-generated. It "makes up" for these deficiencies by increasing the difficulty to a near-insane level.
Navigating a Ymir level, full of monsters, stairs, a temple, and other resources.
We've had the discussion before about whether this level of adaptation should be considered "plagiarism" even if the author of the derivative game had to write the code from scratch. My position is that we can be impressed with the technical skill exhibited by a programmer in making such an adaptation (particularly, in this case, cramming so much content into limited memory) while still feeling that it was a bit disingenuous not to credit the authors of the original.
An analogous screen from Sword of Fargoal (1982).
If such credit appeared in the game's documentation, it's been lost to time. So has the backstory. But the mission and commands are helpfully encapsulated on the title screen. (Thanks to LanHawk, by the way, for helping me even get to the title screen; the game was very hard to emulate, and several versions I found online simply didn't work.) You have to explore a 9-level dungeon to find the Sword of Kaslo and return it to the surface. Various enemies bar your way and various assets help you along.
The ability to maneuver is vital to survival, which makes it all the more unforgivable that the movement is mapped to the number keys like this:
5         8

Fortunately, the EightyOne emulator let me re-map these to the arrows; otherwise, there's no way I would have been able to get through the game. It was tough even with the re-mapping.
The game updates you on your progress between levels.
Monsters are much tougher in Ymir than in Fargoal, and you thus expend your limited resources much more quickly. The title screen lists them in order of difficulty, most to least, but what it doesn't tell you is that each monster comes in two varieties, one easy, one about as hard as a comparable enemy three or four ranks higher. So while a "three-legged gremlin" is a beatable enemy for a Level 4 character, you need to be more like Level 7 to defeat a "terrible three-legged gremlin." A Level 5 character can probably kill a regular dire wolf with no help, but a "rabid dire wolf" is tough even at Level 8. "King" minotaurs are the toughest creatures, and even a Level 9 character (the highest level) can't kill them without magical help.
Meanwhile, monsters are seeded throughout the dungeon based on central tendency rather than absolute minimums or maximums. Most creatures on dungeon Level 5 will be in the "gremlin-dire wolf" range, but you'll still have a chance of some ghouls (on the low end) or minotaurs (on the high end) as well. Throughout the game, you're constantly going up and down the levels looking for enemies that you can actually beat. You don't earn enough experience on Level 1 of the dungeon to take on Level 2 enemies, so you might have to go down to Level 3 or 4, avoiding the hard enemies, looking for more ghouls. Finally, when you've gained enough experience from those, and from bringing gold pieces to temples, you might level up (which only happens between levels, unlike Fargoal), you can head back up to Level 1 and 2 and kill the bats and cockroaches.
In such a situation, your spells are crucial, and new players learn quickly not to blow them on easy enemies. "Shield" is the most valuable. It protects you for the duration of any single combat, which means that it can kill any enemy. Healing potions restore your hit points in chunks in the middle of combat; they're used automatically if you fall to 0. By prolonging combat for an extra couple of rounds, they might allow a character to take on an enemy that would normally be one or two ranks higher. "Rejuvenation" does essentially the same thing, but in smaller amounts each round rather than one big chunk at once. None of these items are common, I should note. You might only find one or two healing potions, "Shield" spell, or "Rejuvenation" spell every level.
Another random screen.
The other important element is ensuring that you make the attack. If you start an attack and see your hit points get dangerously low, you can retreat. If the enemy engages you by jumping into your square, however, you're stuck until the bitter end, unless you have a "Teleport" spell. "Drift" spells are the least helpful. They just let you go back up to a previous level via a hole in the ceiling instead of finding a stairway.
Hit points regenerate quickly between combats. What you cannot do here, but could in Fargoal, is slowly whittle down an enemy by attacking until you're almost out of hit points, then retreating, waiting for them to regenerate, and attacking again. In Ymir, breaking off combat seems to restore the enemy.
Other elements are drawn from Fargoal. Temples are safe places; enemies won't attack you there, and hit points regenerate fast. Temples convert gold to experience, and you can only carry 100 gold at a time unless you find a "magic sack." Enemies get faster and more plentiful as you go down, making it harder to avoid their attacks. Traps can teleport you, damage you, make you forget your current map, destroy your items, and dump you to lower levels. Levels are occluded until explored, unless you have a magic map of the level. ("Lamps" illuminate areas right around you.) But even if you do, it only works for one visit (unlike Fargoal). I took screen shots of each level to help me get through them without having to re-explore them every time I went back and forth.
I had a map to Level 8, so it was fully illuminated when I arrived.
Ymir's one original contribution is the existence of an "oracle," a mysterious figure who pops up randomly on each level, sometimes multiple times. Stepping on his square sometimes rewards you with an item or a (obvious) bit of advice. But about 25% of the time, the oracle says, "Insolence costs you experience!" and whacks away a chunk of your experience. Experience is so precious a resource--enemies either do not respawn or have extremely limited respawning--that you're tempted to reload when this happens. When the game was new, and reloading took so long, you'd probably avoid the oracle entirely, since the loss of experience wouldn't be worth it.
Speaking of reloading: I'm not sure how you're supposed to do it in-game. The only place the game overtly allows you to save is when you're setting up the dungeon in the first place, which obviously doesn't make any sense. The menu that allows you to save also has key re-mapping options, but the game crashed every time I tried to get them to work. In any event, I suspect you were supposed to be able to get back to this menu during gameplay, but I'll be damned if I can find any keyboard shortcut that does it. I thus saved and reloaded using save states. Owing to the difficulty of avoiding enemies on lower levels while still finding ones to fight to gain experience and levels, I must have reloaded around 100 times. I can't imagine doing that while waiting for a tape to save and reload.
I found the Sword of Kaslo on a level crawling with monsters. But note that some of them (the sad faces) are Level 1 ghouls.
There are some mysteries with the game. One has to do with respawning. Generally, cleared levels remained cleared, but every once in a while some new enemy would come along. I don't know what triggers that. This was particularly true once I'd found the Sword of Kaslo. At first, I thought that the game would make it extra difficult to bring it to the surface by repopulating the levels with hard monsters. This seemed to be happening when I reached Level 8, as there were far more enemies there than when I had left it on the way down. But other levels remained empty during my ascent.
Except for a lonely oracle, there were no creatures to challenge me back on Level 1.
The game occasionally yells, "Time Warp!" and prevents you from moving for a few rounds. I don't know what the purpose of that is supposed to be. At first, I thought it was to hold you in place so enemies could attack, but they don't seem to be able to hit you during those few seconds.
Please, let's not do that again.
I eventually found the Sword of Kaslo on Level 9 and managed to get it from stairway to stairway, back to Level 1. Exiting from Level 1 brought the victory screen below.
"Thou art a HEAD!" is how I originally read that.
I also made a bit of video, in which you can get a proper appreciation of how hard the game is:

Fargoal scored a 19 on the GIMLET, but it was buoyed by a framing story and some fun sound effects. Ymir does much worse:
  • 0 points for the game world. You're not even told why you're seeking the Sword of Kaslo.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation. Your only development is experience-based leveling, which raises maximum hit points.
  • 1 point for NPCs; I'll give that to the oracle.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. Foes are differentiated only by icon and how hard they can attack.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Making sure you initiate the attack counts as a "tactic," I guess, as does the ability to teleport away.
  • 1 point for equipment. You don't really have standard RPG equipment, just counters of spells.
  • 2 points for the economy; gold helps in leveling.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
The "final report" on my game.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. The game has no sound. The iconographic graphics are only okay. I found the interface unresponsive, and the default direction mapping is a recipe for disaster in a game that requires fast movement.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's a bit too hard and certainly not replayable. It makes up for the difficulty a bit by not lasting very long.
That's a final score of 13. Fargoal worked because of elements that simply didn't make the transition; Ymir feels a bit bloodless in comparison. The ZX81 was an under-served platform, however, so any RPG title was probably welcome.
I don't know. My philosophy is pretty twisted.
The game's author, Fred Nachbaur, wrote a number of other games for the ZX81, mostly of the arcade or board game variety. His ZX81 page is still up, although it hasn't been updated since 1999. He passed away of cancer in 2004 at the age of 53; he would have been 35 when he wrote Ymir. Tributes suggest he was a generous and talented programmer, musician, and electronics hobbyist. Silicon Mountain Computers was his own company, based in British Columbia. In addition to Ymir, he apparently sold a dungeon level editor for the game.

Although not credited on the main screen, there is some evidence that Gregory C. Harder also contributed to the title. He at least was Nachbaur's collaborator on a number of other projects. Harder later offered an Ymir II: The Deeper Dungeon (2017) for download on a Sinclair message board. I have not been able to get in touch with him.


  1. The movement key layout is a consequence of the ZX81 keyboard. In it, the keys 5 through 8 have arrows on them indicating those directions:

    1. I mentioned that in the video but forgot to put it in the text. In any event, the game requires such quick reactions that I don't know the little pictures would have helped.

    2. Way back when, I played a dirt bike game in my uncle's ZX81 that had the same controls and didn't find it easy either.

  2. And then of all things that guys family name is "Nachbaur" which reads almost like "person who copies sth." in German. Indeed he did.

    1. That was me btw, don't know what happened there.

  3. "One of the parts of this job that I love best..."

    You heard him, folks, it's officially no longer just a hobby ;)

  4. I remember firing up Nemesis (1981) for the CP/M a few years ago, seeing that one of the classes was "ur-vile," and ultimately determining that not only was the game adapted from the PLATO Oubliette, but also that the authors had attended the University of Illinois and thus had been exposed to PLATO games.

    Yeah, that comes with the territory of being our generation's foremost expert on CRPGs. Seeing that the man has literally played them all, after that happens you get to connect the dots like this. And he took us all along for the ride.

    My favorite moment of clarity from this blog I liked so much I bookmarked it so I can quote it on command.

    "Arborea was covered in several Amiga magazines, which predictably focused on the graphics, sound, and music rather than the actual gameplay elements. (The May 1991 review from CU Amiga begins by giving thanks that "the days [are gone] when a role-playing game meant little more than a great leap of the imagination, a plot with trolls and gameplay along the lines of a special maths paper." You want to know when RPGs started getting "dumbed down"? This is it, right here.)"

    -- The CRPG Addict,

    The ability to maneuver is vital to survival, which makes it all the more unforgivable that the movement is mapped to the number keys like this:

    vi users would have no problem with those. :D

    The game occasionally yells, "Time Warp!" and prevents you from moving for a few rounds. I don't know what the purpose of that is supposed to be.

    It's just a jump to the left...and then a step to the ri-i-i-ight.

    Hooray for another video! Super informative and we can really see how the game plays! And the narration is great.

    1. I feel compelled to mention that "Timewarp" is a reference to "Rocky Horror Picture Show" for the younger readers.

  5. I had the same thought on the Time Warp. Let's do it again Peeps!

  6. I also reside in the home province of the late author of this game. Kaslo and indeed Ymir itself are also small communities in the interior of British Columbia.

  7. It is bizarre that a Canadian would develop a ZX81 game, especially as late as 1986. At that time, I was actively reading computer magazines and otherwise following new developments. The ZX81 had utterly no market presence in Canada; I first saw one in-person in about 1997 at a computer flea market, and that system had been imported from the UK by the owner. I wonder how many copies were sold.

    1. There were some around for sure. I had a friend with a Timex Sinclair (as it was more commonly called here) in Calgary. Pretty sure it was purchased locally.

    2. There are quite a few Timex Sinclairs floating around in North America, both ZX81 and Spectrum rebadgings, but what anybody ever played on them seems like a mystery. As you say, a game released in '96 for the ZX81 is unusual, especially since I understand there wasn't a lot of software for it back when it was new. I'm sure at least the Speccy rebadgings could have their software imported...if you were for some reason really dedicated to it.

    3. That was just about when my family (in the U.S.) got our Timex Sinclair at a garage sale, and it was our first computer. I was only 5, but remember trying to play Lunar Lander and Merchant of Venus. The chemistry quiz tape was equally entertaining, which might say something about the quality of the games, or about me... or both!

    4. And here I thought the horror of Sinclair machines was thankfully limited to the UK. My deepest condolences to anyone in the civilized world who had to own one of them instead of a real computer growing up.

    5. I actually had a Timex-Sinclair 1000 myself. I bought it from a neighbor for $80 and hooked it up to an old black-and-white television. I learned the basics of BASIC programming on it, but I seem to recall there were some BASIC keywords that it didn't support. My mother used to bring me home printouts of code from programs at her office. Sometimes I could get them to run, sometimes I couldn't.

  8. New PC-98 game translation for 1994:
    This uses the Might and Magic 3 engine, so it'll be interesting to see what gets kept and what gets changed. Although of course, the graphics and story are already totally new.

  9. Wow, I've learned something new about the ZX81. I always thought it is not capable of true graphics, and it can display only the built-in set of characters (which includes characters for drawing frames etc.) But it seems that there are some major hacks that allow you to do hires graphics:

    Just for scholarly completeness: I assume that this program requires a memory expansion and does not work with the 1KB RAM of the standard model. Maybe note this somewhere where you mention that the platform is ZX81.

    1. He mentioned it in the video, it needs a 16k RAM expansion to run.

  10. Wow... Fred Nachbaur also wrote the song I used for Realms of Antiquity "Caverns of the Heart".

    I first heard it because it was supplied as an example MIDI for song composition software in the early 00's. I got permission from his daughter to use it in the game.

    His music tribute page can be found here:

    1. I used the same composition software when I was a teenager and loved “Caverns of the Heart” (as well as playing the Moonlight Sonata sample at top speed, but this is off topic).

      I did not realize that the author of this game was the same person till I got to his tribute page and recognize having seen it many years ago. It is very sad that he died so young.

  11. Those black & white screenshots look like embroidery.

  12. That's a touching tribute page. Thanks for linking to it.

  13. Isn't the source for ur-viles Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series? The first book came out in 1977 so it seems plausible to me that the author got it from the source (the ur-text, if you will...)


    1. Oops, I see you explain all that in more detail on your entry on Nemesis. Carry on!


  14. Great post, and great video! You are right that the ZX81 wasn't well served for RPGs (neither, for that matter, is the ZX Spectrum).

    Do you take into account the system's capabilities when giving a Gimlet score for graphics? And dmx says above, the system isn't supposed to be capable of hi-res graphics or even user-defined characters. So compared to the offerings on systems of later years, the 1 score is fair, but compared to what the ZX81 usually achieved, the visuals are almost mind-blowing.

    1. No, all games are rated against each other regardless of the capabilities of the platform or even the capabilities of the era.


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