Thursday, March 17, 2022

Game 450: Darkmoor Hold (1985)

Fun fact: prickly pears are neither pears nor prickly.
Darkmoor Hold
United States
Independently developed; published by Prickly-Pear Software
Released 1985 for TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started: 10 March 2022
Date Ended: 11 March 2022
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 9
Ranking at Time of Posting: 13/460 (3%)
Darkmoor Hold is a notch above the last two Prickly Pear titles I tried, and it comes from an author (Glen Dahlgren) who went on to success in the field. It's still rather slow and boring, and I binged the entire first season of Reacher as I played it. It was all right.
The game's setup is relatively simple: An ancient enemy called the Wizard of the Moors has returned. King Baccinus hires a trio of mercenaries--human, dwarf, and elf--to enter his keep and capture him. The game makes it clear that "you" are the human character and the dwarf and elf are your side-kicks. If the human dies, the game ends. There is otherwise no character creation. The characters have no names and each starts with only a wooden sword.
The game begins in front of the hold.
As Darkmoor begins, the characters have entered the top level of a 10-level dungeon. Each level has exactly one weapon, one item of armor, one treasure, and one staircase downward. The party ideally finds the items before moving on to the next level. Each level introduces a new enemy type, and as you make transitions between levels, you're treated to a scene of the Wizard of the Moors summoning the next level of enemy.
The Wizard creates a demon for me to fight as I transition between Levels 7 and 8.
The interface is first-person, but you can only view each scene from south to north (i.e., you cannot turn in place) and move from screen to screen using cardinal directions (NESW) rather than left, right, and forward. The screens take a lifetime to draw, compounded by the fact that they redraw every time something changes, such as the number of enemies you're fighting. The interface has you type commands for the dwarf, elf, and human in that order; valid commands are Attack, Kill (which does the same thing), Inventory, Drop, Cast, Follow, Search, Listen, and saving and loading keys. You can abbreviate commands as long as you type in enough unique letters. A)ttack and I)nventory work because there are no other commands that start with those letters, but you have to SE)arch and go SO)uth. Only the human can move the party to a new dungeon area.
The order of commands was left, right, center. I must have typed an invalid weapon for the dwarf.
On Level 1, you encounter all orcs. Subsequent levels introduce kobolds, bugbears, gargoyles, lizard things, ghouls, demons, and ghasts in that order. That's only eight, so I must have missed one. I think the game is only capable of showing one enemy graphic type per level, so the manual has some language about how the Wizard "will attempt to cloak the creatures in the illusion of being something better than they are," but the elf sees through the illusions and thus their actual names appear at the bottom of the screen.
The text says orc and kobold; the image says ghoul.
Whatever the case, combat is excruciating. It's not so bad on the first couple of levels, when you basically face a couple enemies on a screen. But by the ninth level, every step through the level might put you in a room with three enemies who are swiftly replaced as soon as you kill them, so that you ultimately have to kill eight or nine monsters before you can finally continue. To fight, you have to type "A" and then type the name of the monster you want to hit, and then the name of the weapon you want to use. Since there's no particular reason not to just hit the strongest monster with the strongest weapon you carry, combat could have been rendered a lot faster with some defaults. What's particularly annoying is that if you make a typo, the game moves on to the next character and you waste your turn.
You can type just three letters for enemies and weapons.
Each attack generates a three-second sound that's supposed to represent the weapon swishing through the air but sounds nothing like it. Then, you find out whether you hit or missed. A lot of missing happens. If you hit, the monster dies in one blow, although it is often replaced with a lesser monster instantly. Either way, the screen redraws, which takes about 10 seconds. The emulator I use doesn't offer a speed boost unless you want to go all the way to "warp," but you can't keep it there because it will over-read key inputs.
Success in combat comes down to the chance of hitting, and that is related nebulously to the weapon you have equipped and your "score," which simultaneously serves as a hit point pool and a strength statistic. Your score increases with successful combats and with transitions between levels. The elf also has a pool of magic points that he can use to cast spells, which is a reliable way to kill enemies if you put enough points into the spell. You want to save them for when you really need them.
Checking my scores before hitting the stairs.
Damage from enemies is mitigated by armor. With weapons, there's no reason not to discard one as soon as you find a better one, but I wasn't sure if the same thing was true of armor. Either way, you want to pick up both items strategically, as there's no way to trade between characters. On the first three levels, you find a dagger, pike, and spear. Those should go to different characters, and whichever character gets the dagger should then pick up the sword on Level 4, and the character with the pike should pick up the axe on Level 5, and so forth. That way, your characters always have the best set of items available. The specific order is a bit weird, though: your last four upgrades are, in order, a halberd, a magic spear, a Ring of Force, and a battle axe. I would think the battle axe would be lower than a magic spear and ring. The monsters follow a similarly illogical order, with kobolds and goblins outclassing orcs and ghasts more powerful than demons.
The levels also have treasures (e.g., silver coin, gold coin, amulet, brooch, diamond, emerald), but I think they just contribute to your final score.
The Wizard summons the final enemy.
The key problem with the game is that there's no strategy. The levels are pretty linear, and you have to try to explore them all to find the items. You have no control over the enemies you face, and not much to do against them but generic attacks. If you run from them, they just get a free attack and follow you to the next square. You can save and reload, which cures some of your wounds, but also restocks the dungeon levels with monsters. You mostly just have to hope that  the dice go your way and you can reach the endgame with enough strength to win.
And the final battle begins!
The endgame commences when you reach Level 10, the Wizard's lair. He summons a demi-lich to do battle, but once you've killed him, the rest of the game's procession of enemies appears in descending order of strength. Sometimes, there are two or three in a row. So you might have to kill the demi-lich, a ghast, two demons, a ghoul, three lizard things, and so forth down to the last orc. The problem is that you miss your attacks a lot more in this battle, even against the supposed easier creatures, than anywhere else in the dungeon. In multiple rounds, I couldn't make my weapons connect with the demi-lich or any of the demons, ghasts, or ghouls. Only once I got to the lizard things did my weapons start to work. What saves you here is the elf's spells, so you want to make sure you have a pool of at least 40 magic points, as some number between 7 and 10 is necessary to kill each enemy, and you have to kill five or six before your weapons will work.
Once you kill the last foe, the Wizard of the Moors meekly surrenders, and you get the endgame screen and score.
The one positive thing I can say about Darkmoor is that it's not clearly derivative. There's an extent to which it feels a little like Dungeons of Daggorath (1982) with the sound effects, abbreviated commands, and level-based inventory upgrades. The specifics of the interface and mechanics otherwise seem original. As often happens, though, "original" doesn't mean "good." Dahlgren's ludography suggests he never had much of an RPG mindset, and I have to wonder if he came from much of a tabletop RPG background. In any event, I give it a measly 9 on the GIMLET, each category full of 0s and 1s except the 2 it gets for having a main quest. My particular complaint is that it's too long for its extremely limited gameplay.
Glen Dahlgren says: "I was really happy with the illustration that Prickly-Pear commissioned for the cover. They used the same guy for all their covers, but I loved his work."
Darkmoor got a positive rating in the August 1986 Rainbow magazine, but the Color Computer was such a niche machine, with so few of the games available on other platforms, that I get the impression that its magazines tended to go easy. The reviewer did concede that it might not be enough of a challenge for experienced players.
The Rainbow reviewer also made some positive comments about Prickly-Pear Software: "Some of the most considerate people I have ever done business with." These comments were echoed by Glen Dahlgren in an email exchange I had with him last week. "I loved Prickly-Pear," he said. They were kind and fair, and when Dahlgren decided to start his own company (Sundog Systems), the owner of Prickly-Pear gave him advice and helped him negotiate a favorable advertising rate with Rainbow. Dahlgren based his own relationship with authors on the example set by Prickly-Pear: "I was always  transparent about sales with authors and always paid them fully and on time."
Although he was interested in Dungeons & Dragons and had some experience with Rogue, Dahlgren admits he was much more of an adventure game author than an RPG author. As an adventure game developer, he was prolific throughout the 1980s, with titles like White Fire of Eternity (1986), Dragon Blade (1986), Champion (1986), Warrior King (1988), and the Hall of the King trilogy (1985-1987). Many of these use an interface similar to Darkmoor.
A shot from Dahlgren's Hall of the King (1985).
In 1990, he took a job at Legend Entertainment Company, where he designed, produced, or contributed to such titles as Timequest (1991), Eric the Unready (1993), Death Gate (1994), Star Control 3 (1996), The Wheel of Time (1999), and Unreal II: The Awakening (2003). In more recent years, he's turned to teaching video game design at U.C. Berkeley and writing fantasy novels. I don't think we're destined to see him again on this blog, but The Adventurers' Guild has already covered one of his titles, Spellcasting 201: The Sorcerer's Appliance and will presumably be covering more eventually. 
The Power Stones of Ard: The Quest for the Spirit Stone (1987) is the next Color Computer game on my list, but I can't get it to work. I only found one place to download it online, and no matter what emulator I use, once I LOADM "ARD" and "EXEC," it just fills the screen with gibberish. If any of you Color Computer fans are able to get it to work, please share the emulator you're using and any special settings you had to tweak. I would appreciate a non-MAME solution if possible.


  1. Nice, I'm a fan of some of the games Dahlgren has worked on. Death Gate obviously isn't an RPG but it has some pretty novel ideas for spell creation relating to a handful of its puzzles that I hoped RPGs had paid more attention to at the time. Mostly of the sort where you take a known spell and edit it in an intuitive way to produce a different effect.

    The only other games I recall doing something similar are Arx Fatalis and Tyranny. I suppose Dungeon Master did too, to a lesser extent, and Rudra no Hihou if we're talking console RPGs. You've probably played others with similar systems that I'm forgetting.

    1. For those interested in Dahlgren's work, The Digital Antiquarian has an article about Death Gate as well:

      He's also already mentioned in this prior post on the Gateway Games of Legend:

    2. I really like Legend adventures, I just recently played a few of them, good writing and puzzles, unsurprising giving its Infocom roots.

      I remember Superheroes: League of Hoboken from 1994 having RPG-like combat and basic character stats, although I'm not sure there is RPG-like character development, it would be probably worth a BRIEF at least.

    3. I always thought that Hoboken was a fictional town name because it sounds kinda funny. Hobo-ken, heh. City of hobos. And many of the game's areas feel run-down and dangerous so hobo city makes sense.

      Then I found out it's actually a real city!

    4. Hoboken, New Jersey. I used to live near there many moons ago.

  2. "The interface has you type commands for the dwarf, elf, and human in that order"

    Somewhat surprising - I'd thought that without character creation and individual stats, based on what I've seen in e.g. the Gold box games (bonus to dex), the "standard" elf would tend to have the highest dexterity and go first. Assume this is pure randomness, though, and Dahlgren didn't think about this.

    Speaking of typical "standard" character attributes for these three (or clich├ęs if you will) - anyone else surprised/confused by the illustration? The one standing left with the beard, the helm and the axe would seem to be the dwarf, but the one on the right (which I'd assume is thought to represent the human) appears to be much shorter, even accounting for perspective.

    1. Yeah, the relative sizes are bizarre in that picture, now that you mention it. I think I immediately pegged the 'human' as a halfling instead. I guess there's nothing to say a dwarf HAS to have a beard, but it's an odd place to subvert genre expectation.

    2. Yes, I immediately thought "dwarf, elf, hobbit," but either it'd be a tall dwarf or a short elf, relative to expectations!

    3. Maybe it's dwarf, human, elf, just using a non-Tolkien conception of an elf.

    4. The illustration surprised me, too. My conclusion was: bearded human, magic elf (she wears an astrologer's cloak), beardless dwarf.

  3. The dwarf and elf remind me of Dungeon Campaign, which was covered on this blog nearly ten years ago:

  4. I know it's just the way how the three-letter abbreviation for "Wooden Sword" turned out, but I kind of love how you can attack a Kobold with a hearty "WOO" in that one screenshot of yours. This is a FUN dungeon crawling party!

    (Alternatively, the human's idea of "attacking" the kobold is to woo him, which also amuses me, if not to the same degree).

  5. Re "The Power Stones of Ard: The Quest for the Spirit Stone": I'm no CoCo expert, but maybe someone more knowledgeable could ask this guy where he got it (in case the download Chet's using is to fault) and how he managed to run it:

  6. Weirdly couldn't run the game in offline Xroar, but could run it in online Xroar. Was able to play for a bit, although when duplicating the exact settings I kept getting a black screen.
    At least it means the file works?,%20The%20(Three%20C%27s%20Projects)%20(Coco%203).zip/STONES1.DSK

    1. That gives me some hope, but there aren't THAT many settings in xroar, and I think I've tried all of them.

      I don't get a black screen though. I get endless lines of the same text and characters in several columns of different colors.

      I guess I can try to play it online when I have several hours free.

    2. I had no issues loading Power Stones of Ard using the Vcc (1.42) emulator. My config settings:
      RGB monitor
      Motorola CPU
      512K RAM

      Not sure those make any difference or not.

    3. I also got it running under Xroar (1.09). I didn't do anything special other that put these 3 ROMs in the Xroar folder:

      I had not used Xroar for any other emulation, nor are any other ROMs present.

    4. What machine selection did you use for Xroar?

    5. I didn't specify a machine type. Since I only had the coco3.rom present that was the only machine it could emulate and then defaulted to that. But when you open the configuration settings in Xroar, you can see that it selected "Tandy Coco 3".

      Under "Hardware -> Cartridge" I also have selected RS-DOS. Without that "LOADM" will not work.

  7. I've had no luck getting Powerstones of Ard running in MAME. I'll have to try xroar online like Jason Dyer suggested. That game is on my list of adds to Mobygames.

  8. I find it quite remarkable that the CoCo seems to have very Apple II like graphics. I wonder how that happened? I would have thought that nobody would have tried to replicate Woz's crazy (but brilliant) hack!

    1. The term of art is "NTSC composite artifact colors", and they were used by design on the Apple II, on the CoCo, and on the original Color Graphics Adapter for the IBM PC.

      They were also available on the Atari 8-bit series (though not as something officially recognized, and apparently the exact behaviour varied depending on which revision of the graphics hardware you had).

  9. In a funny coincidence, I found the first season of 'Reacher' rather slow and boring ;)

    1. I mean, I didn’t mean “all right” as a superlative.

  10. Interesting how the dwarf is taller than the human in the illustration. Or maybe the human is the in the back and the elf is the shortest one. Or maybe the human is the one with the beard and the dwarves in this world don't have beards...

  11. Prickly pears are not pears, but they are prickly. Even if you're just picking the fruit you should wear gloves.

    1. I know. Sometimes I like to toss out an easy one just to satisfy the nitpickers.

    2. Ha, I was thinking of mentioning this, only because I walk past them multiple times a day. I've always considered harvesting the fruits, but it seems like an awful lot of effort.

  12. Fun Fact: Prickly pears were one of the first invasive species in Australia introduced by Europeans, and it completely took over large regions of farmland.

    In the 1920s, Australia imported Cactus Moths (the pear's natural predator) from Argentina, as a biological control, and they succeeded in limiting the ecolongical and economic damage from prickly pears.


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