Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Game 458: The Fountain of the Gods (1988)

The Fountain of the Gods
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1988 for Atari 800
Date Started: 14 May 2022
Date Ended: 15 May 2022
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
The Fountain of the Gods is an independent creation by a West Virginia developer named Joe Butner. He sold it for $14.50 via magazine ads. In the ads, he says that it's a "tribute to the classic TELLENGARD [sic]," which at the time was only six years old. How quickly things used to become "old" or "classic" back then. Imagine someone calling Grand Theft Auto V or Assassin's Creed: Origins a "classic."
Fountain does evoke a bit of Telengard (1982) and the entire DND line that came before it. In some ways, it's simplified, but it also has its own surprises. What isn't lost in the adaptation is Telengard's insane roller-coaster ride from rags to riches to death. I remember standing at the bottom of the entry stairs in Telengard and immediately finding jewelry worth 25,000 gold pieces, then just as immediately getting fried by a Level 8 dragon. In Fountain, three of my initial four characters died in the first or second rooms; the fourth found a chest with 5,000 gold pieces and immediately went to Level 3. Fountain lets you save anywhere, unlike Telengard, but in 1988, saving and reloading took so long that I would have given up on the entire game quickly.
A typical Fountain screen. I'm Level 2, and I have 2 potions. There's a key on the other side of this room (I have a red key anyway), but potentially a couple encounters before I get there.
The documentation for the game has been lost, so I'm not sure if there's a backstory. [Ed. See the end for more about this.] At the beginning, in lieu of any real "character creation," you're asked to choose from among four defined characters: Varzak, Baaloff, Abrasai, and Celestial. Each has a different balance of health and magic points and a different starting weapon. No explicit classes are given, but Varzak is clearly more of a "fighter" type, Celestial more of a "mage," and the other two in between.
Gameplay starts in a large room with an altar where you can turn in accumulated gold for experience points. From here, you branch out to explore a large dungeon full of enemies, treasures, and secret doors.
Late in the game, I return to the altar to donate my gold. I have explored 43.5% of the dungeon.
Movement is a bit odd in that once you specify a direction, you keep moving in that direction indefinitely until you hit an obstacle, change directions, or hit the space bar to stop. Everything else is pretty easy to pick up. Your small selection of commands includes O)pen (a chest), E)xamine rooms or chests for traps, D)isarm, and take a P)otion. T)eleport has a chance of returning you safely to the starting room, but an equal chance of putting you in the middle of a wall. L)isten and S)mell are a bit mysterious, as I never found a use for either.
E)xamination identifies a line of traps between me and that chest. I'll have to thread a narrow path if I'm going to make it.
Exploration strikes a good balance between fixed things, room-level randomness, and immediate randomness. The layouts of the rooms and the positions of doors and secret doors are fixed. So I think are the positions of some traps. Whether a room has a treasure chest or a key is rolled every time you enter. Encounters with monsters, NPCs, or small treasures (usually healing potions or handfuls of gold) are rolled with every step, which means enemies never become apparent until you're right on top of them.
I encounter a fighter in a room with white and red doors.
Enemies are the standard Dungeons & Dragons list--goblins, trolls, orcs, ogres, minotaurs, skeletons, wraiths, demons, dragons, and so forth--with some misspellings like "knoll" and "kobald." They don't have explicit levels as in Telengard, but since all action in Fountain takes place on a single floor, they can't increase in level as you descend. Instead, their difficulty is tied to your own character level, meaning they never really get easier.

In combat, your only options are to fight, cast a spell, or try to evade by walking away. The latter almost never works. Just as in the original DND for PLATO (1975), survival almost entirely depends upon casting the right spell at the right time. There are 18 spells in the game; you acquire them two at a time as you achieve each level. Each costs as many "spell units" as its level. These spell units are spent fast, and even worse only replenish when you gain a new level or find rare magic scrolls. Careful management of these spell points is vital, which makes you reluctant to spend them on otherwise-useful navigation spells like "Detect Passages," "Teleport Safely," and "Deposit," which automatically sends your accumulated gold to the altar without you having to trek all the way back with it. "Turn Undead," fortunately a low-level spell, is absolutely essential. It reliably works on all undead of all levels, turning them before they can drain your levels. (In a mechanic that I wish every game featured, you still get experience points for turned undead.) "Sleep" and "Web" are as useful here as in D&D. Once you hit Level 9, you get "Death Word," which reliably kills anything at a high cost. You have a couple of healing spells, but healing is best accomplished with potions.
About to cast "Turn Undead" on a specter.
Fortunately, leveling occurs fast. I was already Level 7 with 8 kills, plus some undead-turning and a lot of treasure turned in to the altar. Healing potions are also relatively plentiful. The real danger is encountering a single monster like a dragon or demon that just eviscerates you.
I level up after a successful combat.
There are a few friendly denizens like elves and dwarves who may give you items, and traders often appear to sell you weapons and potions (though gold is almost always better saved for experience). The game otherwise lacks the variety of Telengard's random encounters: fountains and thrones and chests-with-buttons and inventory upgrades. In Fountain, you only have a weapon for which you occasionally gain an additional "+." There are no suits of armor, shields, boots, rings, scrolls, or potions other than healing.
Looking over a trader's inventory.
The ostensible goal of the game is to explore 100% of the rooms. Every room gives you an average of about 0.3%. This is clearly rounded, as occasionally I had total completion values not evenly divisible by 0.3 (nor is 100 evenly divisible by 0.3), but it's close enough that I'm sure the game has around 330-340 rooms. If the game enforced permadeath, this would be functionally impossible. With era technology, you'd have to reload dozens of times. With modern quick save states, it's a lot less challenging but still challenging.
Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to 100% anyway because the game is a bit broken. I don't know whether it was always broken or it's just that the disk images that have survived are bad copies. I tried several versions. The basic problem is that the game often gets confused when you move from one room to another and load the next screen. Sometimes, it loads the wrong room, but you can otherwise navigate it. Sometimes, it loads the wrong room and puts you in the middle of a wall. Sometimes, it just crashes on a blank screen.
Related oddities include rooms that load with configurations that don't make any sense, such as areas that have no way to reach them. When you find a secret door in the game, it causes the entire room to reload, only sometimes it reloads a different room completely, often leaving you (again) embedded in a wall.
Blame the contractor.
These problems become particularly acute during the game's water sequences. There's a large underground lake in the south of the map that requires a boat to cross. I found a boat in a random hallway; I don't know whether its location is fixed or by design. Either way, having a boat in your inventory makes you automatically transition to a little sailboat when you enter a body of water. But the game almost always crashed if I tried to sail the boat off the screen. I only got up to around 50% of rooms, and I'm sure the other 50% are on the other side of that lake.
In the underground lake. If I try to sail off the screen to the east, it will crash.
As to what happens when you hit 100%, I couldn't find any congratulatory text or graphics in the file package, so perhaps nothing. I was hoping it would at least give a hint as to the game's title, as I never found a fountain, of the gods or otherwise. I give the game 18 on the GIMLET; it does best in "Economy" and overall "Gameplay" (3s), worst in "Game World" (0) unless a manual is discovered that offers one, and 1s and 2s in everything else. It has a main quest, which Telengard lacks, but otherwise this is an homage that doesn't quite rise to the level of the original. 


Addendum from 19 May 2022: After this article was already publish, I heard from Mr. Butner. He sent along the original documentation for the game. A few additional points:

  • The "Fountain of the Gods" is what I took as an "altar" in the starting chamber.
  • The framing story is that you're in the service of King Methusa of Odessa, whose kingdom has been bankrupted by greedy gods demanding constant tributes of treasure. You've agreed to go into some ancient ruins and clear them of treasure to get the kingdom back on its feet.
  • "Smell" is supposed to help identify nearby dragons, which give off an odor of brimstone.
Mr. Butner couldn't explain the bugs I experienced but said he was trying to set up an Atari 800 development environment to figure it out. I'll report more here if we learn more.


  1. This page has a few comments from the Author of the game mentioning some of the game mechanics (he also mentions he will try and find the original documentation but I can't find any follow up to this):


    I had a look at the game file and Disk B contains the map info. One of the rooms appears to be an end game room but as it has walls all around it I guess you might get teleported here when you win (it has the words "Congratulations" all around the room - however as I am looking at the Hex file, I can't tell what the other items in the room are).

    If anyone is interested each room is stored as 128 bytes:
    Byte 1 & 2 = Room number
    3 = " } "
    4 = Null
    5 - 24 = Room tiles for 1 row
    25 = " > "
    26 - 109 = Room Tiles for rows 2,3,4 and " > " per row
    110 to 128 = Unknown

    However I have not been able to figure out how each room links to one another.

    1. I corresponded with Butner in 2018 and sent him an e-mail ahead of posting this. He said he would try to send me the documentation as well as some cheat codes, but I never heard back from him.

      Thanks for looking at the code. Unfortunately, the room numbers are not discernible within the game, so even knowing how they connect wouldn't really help much.

    2. @TMV: Thanks for the link. He mentions a couple things that sound interesting, e.g. "there is a dungeon editor available for FOG as well that I never released.  I think it was the first dungeon editor out at the time that I knew."

      Stuart Smith's ACS of 1984 was not a pure "dungeon editor" / construction set, though I guess you could have used / use it for that? The next one was/is 1991's Bard's Tale Construction Set, I assume.

      He also states: "I have massive amounts of software that probably nobody has or at least a small amount of people have." so in the vein of uncovering and thus maybe preserving things like that, I'll try one more email from my side to see if he reacts (unless you see a problem with that, Chet).

      Regarding the crashes/bugs, he writes: "The original sellable disk was copy protected using CRC bad sector checks.  There could be something going on there." Though afterwards they go into some discussion on BASIC et al. which I don't have the technical knowledge to follow.

    3. The dungeon side of the disk is using a compression technique that I created to save space. It is very simple compared to today's standards but it typically goes like this: 1st byte = number (1-255), 2nd byte = character. 1st byte tells how many times 2nd byte is to be repeated. There are some Easter eggs in the game to help playtest and I'll provide those once I take a better look at my code. I don't remember the keystrokes that were used 40 years ago when I first started this game. As for the bugs. .I do plan to setup a DEV environment to enhance the game and address the bugs. This was a favorite project game of mine and I wouldn't mind getting back to the hobby right now. Note that the game was actually developed in Atari Basic and compiled using the ABC compiler so even using a HEX editor may not really reveal everything you are looking for. Cheers!

    4. Pretty weird to claim it as the first dungeon editor out when it was never released. Not like other games didn't use simple dev tools.

    5. Galactic Adventures (1983) had a full-fledged "adventure editor". Before that Galactic Gladiators in 1982 had an Arena and scenario editor that I used and abused when I game-mastered a campaign (https://zeitgame.net/forum/topic/game-6-galactic-gladiators)

    6. "Pretty weird to claim it as the first dungeon editor out when it was never released. Not like other games didn't use simple dev tools." - I don't think I said that. I said it was the first that I knew of at the time. I developed this game in 1982 while still in high school and released it through classifieds early on and then later via small company called No-Frills software. I also developed my own compression techniques as well.

    7. Thanks for getting back to me with the manual, Joey, and for commenting here.

  2. Definitely looks like it is minimally bad/corrupted map data. In your "Blame the contractor" screenshot, it sure looks like the top portion should be slid to the right by 5 tiles.

  3. The upper part is one tile wider.

    1. It's not corrupted map data. TwinMorg explains above that the map data is stored as an array (not a set of vectors or templates) and that means it does not corrupt in this way. It would corrupt to gibberish, not to the exact wall shape moved five squares to the left.

  4. Well, GTA V sold an astronomical amount of copy, 160 millions as of February 2022. It's the second most sold game of all times, behind Minecraft (200 million). It's almost like everybody owns GTAV. I'd say that makes it a classic just by its ubiquity.

  5. I appreciate this new trend of calling out nonsensical titles and sub-titles which never manifest in the game itself, makes me chuckle...

  6. I still consider Skyrim to be a "recent" game, but all the kids call it an old classic. Makes me shake my head because it only came out a few years ago!

    Then I realize "a few years" is actually a decade and feel a little old.

    1. A "classic" is not defined by how old the game is, but by how old YOU were when you first played it :D

    2. Skyrim feels like a particularly weird case since it keeps getting comparatively high-profile rereleases. I remember it as the game my wife played on maternity leave when my son (now 10) was born, but it was also a huge deal as a launch title for the Nintendo Switch in 2017, and then it was a huge deal when it was released for the PS5 at the end of last year.

    3. A good definition of "classic" I once heard is that "a classic" is what is old/ancient BUT STILL interesting and still brings enjoyment to people today; while a "milestone" is something that was relevant back then, maybe even was a "classic" at some time, but now feels too alien and not worth its time for our contemporaries. By this definition, something that was released only yesterday can still be classic; it's just that we cannot recognize it as of yet! Concerning adverdisement, though, I think calling something "classic" is just a gimmick lol =)

    4. I think there's been a genuine shift in the perception of games over the past 10-15 years, and I don't think it's a personal matter. I clearly remember Jeff Vogel's Exile games (1995-) being talked about in the gaming press as old timey throwbacks to the classic top-down Ultima games. Ultima 6, which Exile closely resembled, was released way back in...1990.

    5. I feel like the rise of downloads as a way of buying games makes them have a much larger shelf life. Much easier to consider a game recent when it's still easy to buy, as opposed to the days of physical copies where you had limited print runs and when that was done your only options are used and piracy.

    6. stepped pyramidsMay 20, 2022 at 5:39 PM

      Exile is more like Ultima V (1988) than VI, although in some ways it's more advanced than either. But the early '90s were a time of rapid change in games, and 1995 in particular was well into the "RPG slump" era. The '80s titans had fallen or at least were in a fallow period, and there was a decided shift over to realtime action as the wave of the future. Exile's turn-based tactical combat, top-down view, separation of dungeons/towns from an overworld, etc. were all something of a previous era.

    7. Exile has a couple of elements that feel archaic in the 90s, but Macintosh RPGs kept those well into the later years of the decade and even the early 00s. Things like keyword typing for dialog, rather than having dialog trees with lists of responses.

      Cythera and Jewel of Arabia: Dreamers are good examples of this.

      It's likely because Exile was such a big hit among the Macintosh audience, so it became a template for other developers on the platform.

  7. GTA V is definitely a classic already

  8. Its worth pointing out that GTA V is about 9 years old right now and two console generations ago. In contrast, systems like the SNES and Genesis/MD became classic during the PS2 era, when some of the releases on those systems would have been more recent than 9 years old. And when you started this blog, games like Morrowind, Baldur's Gate and Arcanum were about that old, and were definitely getting that classic treatment by a lot of people.

    1. I was thinking GTA5 was a 2016 game when I wrote that in the entry.

    2. Things move fast in the land of interactive media. If someone called Fallout: NV a classic I'd probably agree. Feels weird to say that about a game so recent that I never owned a physical copy.

    3. The thing is, major games have an increasingly long "shelf life" nowadays for a number of reasons.

      Technology hasn't exactly plateaued, but you aren't getting a HSQ moment every few years because tech advancements radically reshaped what the word "possible" meant. In some respects this is nothing new - Origin considered the Commodore 64 (1982) to be worth trying to force Ultima VI (1990), as one blog-relevant example, but the difference is that very few compromises are being made, and more importantly WHY they're doing so.
      In those days, such compromises were more often an aggressive attempt to appeal to people with older hardware that had large user bases. Today, making sure your game runs on low-spec hardware is often targeting current-gen hardware. It isn't unusual for a very high-end computer from 2018 or 2016 to be equal or superior to a budget computer from 2022.

      Likewise, the current Playstation and Xbox offerings could have been exceeded by a PC build from several years ago (though they're probably better than a similarly-priced PC, and there's some other advantages to them), so the range of hardware you have to target if you want to sell to anybody but a very small group is huge. This has the side effect that somebody building a low-end rig in 2030 will probably find the high-end settings of games from today perfectly acceptable alongside low-end settings from then-current offerings.

      The other major factor is digital distribution. 20 years ago, getting older games was a major chore. For brick and mortar stores, even on the resale market (which, of course, was a major headache for PC titles due to CD keys), finding any given title would be a crapshoot, and online ordering was much much more cumbersome and perilous than it is now. Not to mention actually finding out about the older titles, unless you knew about them on release and made a "play later" list.

      Today, getting most titles is painless due to services such as Steam, GOG, Epic, Origin, or the various console stores. Perhaps more to the point, those services can not only be browsed via tags and categories, at least some have "you've spent 340 hours in this game, here's five or six more like it you might like" algorithms that don't discriminate by how old the game is. So the shelf life is greatly extended both from an accessibility and awareness standpoint.

      The third big factor, and the giant elephant in the room, is Time. In 1988, the entire CRPG genre was around 9 years old. For the average consumer, it was even younger - 1982 (when Telengard released) could quite easily be considered an "origin year" along with 1981 (Ultima I) when the games started trickling out of universities and hardcore hobbyists. A gulf of 7 out of 7 years, or even 7 of 9, is far larger in some ways that 10 out of 43.

    4. 20 years ago people were getting out of print games from Home of the Underdogs, Abandonia and various P2P services, which I guess you could consider 'underground' means compared to the streaming platforms of today.

      (And patches-scrolls for the updates and replacementdocs for the manuals!)

    5. As someone who was doing just that at the time, it was still fairly niche. Having to do that instead of buying them at the store also underscored the "these games are from long ago" feel. They weren't effectively indistinguishable in means of acquisition from the latest releases the way things are today.

      Also, a lot of those releases were pretty crippled in the later era because of the tendency to rip out large chunks of data that weren't strictly speaking needed to run the game in order to keep downloads small. Stuff like music, cinematics, voice acting, etc. Which also underscored the differences.


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