Saturday, March 12, 2022

BRIEF: Scepter of Ursea (1984)

 
This title sounds like someone heard about Ursula Le Guin's books but never saw how they were spelled.
       
Scepter of Ursea
United States
Prickly Pear Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for TRS-80 Color Computer
     
Scepter of Ursea is one of those games that it's hard to imagine that anyone ever won. I had trouble with it using an emulator with save states. It would have been infuriating in the era of disk-swapping, long reloading times, and frequent glitches. On the other hand, I'm probably not giving enough credence to the incredible amount of patience that we had in the days when budgets were limited and time was endless.
   
The basic setup for the game isn't bad. King Winslick of Ursea is dying and has no heir, so he has declared that the crown will pass to anyone who can recover the stolen royal scepter. A young blacksmith's assistant named Nordae Arkon leaps at the chance. The game rolls random values for strength, dexterity, and constitution and sends you into the wilds with no equipment and a few handfuls of gold. 
   
A brief character creation process. This is a pretty good character. I wish he hadn't died of exhaustion.
      
The game world consists of three 30 x 15 maps stacked on top of each other, plus three dungeons with three 30 x 15 levels each. The dungeons use a completely different interface than the outside world, although combat is the same. The game randomly scatters various encounters, both friendly and hostile, into these maps. You can't see any of them from any distance; you must find them all by stepping in the appropriate squares. This also includes the dungeon entrances.
        
The topmost of three maps. The character is the * in the northwest.
      
Combat is essentially the same as Prickly Pear's earlier Monsters & Magic, which I looked at not long ago. (I could easily believe that author Dan Tharp was the author of Monsters & Magic and took reviews that the game was "too easy" to heart. However, he proudly lists Ursea and other software he made for Prickly Pear on his LinkedIn profile, and Monsters isn't among them.) There are more statistics on-screen, but basically you watch a series of random numbers flash and hit the SPACE bar to freeze them, rolling separately for your chance to hit and then again, if you hit, for your damage. If you face more than one monster, the game brings up something that it laughably calls a "tactical display," which shows you and your foes on a small map. The only thing you can do on this map is walk towards one of your foes, at which point you enter regular combat, then return to the "tactical display" for the next enemy. It accomplishes nothing that simply having them attack you one after the other wouldn't accomplish.
      
Trading blows with a giant eagle.

 
 I ponder multiple orcs on the so-called "tactical display."
       
So far, it sounds like a pretty basic game, but not a bad one. But Ursea does a few things that make it nearly impossible to win:
   
  • When outdoors, you have a pool of "fatigue" points that starts and maxes at 255 and depletes around 5 points every move. If it hits 0, you die. You can (R)est to restore it, but only four times per game. You thus have a maximum of about 255 moves on a map that has 1,350 squares. Supposedly, there's food that also restores fatigue, but I wasn't able to find any.
  • Most of the enemies you face outdoors are too powerful for you, including a hydra, a brass dragon, and a griffon. Killing them, if you're lucky enough to do it, will probably sap most of your hit points. I never found any way to restore hit points.
  • Friendly creatures in the outside world all want gold for their help. You start with a number of gold pieces in the single digits and hardly ever find any more. Combats routinely produce no gold at all.
        
One of the few NPC clues I was able to pay for.
     
  • Most of the third outdoor map is water with a few islands. You need to purchase a boat to explore these islands. The boat costs 60 gold pieces. I never had more than 12 at one time.
  • You start with no weapons. I never found a weapon or a merchant selling them in the outdoor maps. I did find weapons in the dungeons, but there's no command to equip weapons in the dungeons, only outdoors.
  • The dungeons are full of trap doors and one-way walls that leave you in dead-ends, forcing you to reload.
      
Moving through the dungeon.
       
  • The dungeons also have colored doors that required keys. I was never able to find a single key.
  • I can't get the dungeon commands to work anyway. When you switch to the dungeon program, you get a group of adventure game-style commands like SEARCH, OPEN, MOVE, GET, UNLOCK, and DRINK. But it doesn't recognize obvious uses of these commands (OPEN CHEST) and it keeps presenting me with objects like beds and urns on which no command seems to make sense.
   
What do you understand?
    
The best I can figure, success means hitting the game's various encounters in a specific order: weapons and armor before battles; weak enemies before strong enemies; gold before encounters that demand the gold; keys before doors that require the keys; and of course all of this using the limited number of moves that you have before dying of fatigue. I can't imagine there's a way to do it without saving instantly when the game begins, then suffering death after death while you slowly map both the outer world and the dungeons, then using your accumulated knowledge to plot the optimal path through the game.
      
As far as I could get mapping one dungeon level.
       
I'd do it for an RPG, maybe, but this one doesn't have any character development. I don't consider attributes alone an RPG, and thus I move on.
   
A word about the sound before I go. It is aggressively hostile. Watch and listen for a few seconds here and ask yourself how long you'd put up with it.


18 comments:

  1. Misread the game title as 'Scepter of Urea', unintentionally appropriate to a game that seems like it's kind of taking the piss.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Huh, Ursea does sound like Earthsea depending on how you pronounce the U at the start. Wouldn't have noticed that if you hadn't pointed it out as a joke.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Found your man Chester...

    https://www.dantharpmusic.com/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, we had a brief email exchange. I don't know if he'll come around to comment or not.

      Delete
  4. Bit of a moot point as you are not playing it anymore but here's the manual (you don't mention you had it in your post). It doesn't help much I don't think.

    Search for 'scepter' to find the link
    https://colorcomputerarchive.com/updates/2012

    ReplyDelete
  5. It seems you've discovered some of the TRS-80 CoCo games I've added to Mobygames. There's a few more RPGs waiting to be added, and none of them are any better than the ones you've already played.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope they're at least short!

      Delete
    2. Yeah, I doubt any of them would take more than a few hours. The only thing that's kind of interesting is Darkmoor Hold, one of Glen R. Dahlgren's first games:
      https://www.mobygames.com/game/trs-80-coco/darkmoor-hold

      Although the most interesting part is the games he made for Legend Entertainment: https://www.mobygames.com/developer/sheet/view/developerId,604/

      Delete
    3. Already played it, already spoke to Mr. Dahlgren, already wrote the entry.

      Delete
    4. Wonderful. I spoke with him once. He seems like a nice guy, and very talented

      Delete
  6. Aggressive hostility indeed. Might make a good harsh techno track though...

    ReplyDelete
  7. I remember a LOT of Prickly Pear software on my brothers TRS-80 Coco. Seems like they picked up and distributed a lot of things.

    This game design reminds me of Aardvark software games, which featured multiple screens of overland and dungeon. In BASIC this was technically impressive. Mechanics though are all over the place.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Loving these beyond obscure games. That's why I come to this blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed! This looks terrible, horrible. I never know it existed and wouldn't have played it if I had known. But reading about it? Absolutely fascinating. I'm sorry the Addict has to suffer these obscure horrors, but they are endlessly entertaining.

      Delete
    2. I mean, it isn't THAT bad. It's still a game, after all. There's something fun about figuring out what a game is trying to achieve even if you don't like it. Whatever interest you get out of reading my coverage, I probably got out of playing, or at least writing.

      Delete
    3. This is why I'm addicted to digging up obscure games. It's fascinating to play such forgotten little games and wonder about the author's intention.

      Delete
  9. It may not fully qualify as a CRPG, but we used to play an Apple II game called "Dungeon of the Gods" all the time in elementary school around 1984-85.

    It might be worth a BRIEF though. IIRC, if you do try it, good luck with the red dragon!

    Actually, I may have mentioned this one before.

    ReplyDelete
  10. it might be a reference to Ursla, a character in at least one of Tunnels&Trolls solo dungeons ( a powerful sorceress with a pack of bears for bodyguards )

    ReplyDelete

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