Friday, February 24, 2023

Game 486: Antepenult (1989)

Then I guess I'm not going to send your shareware fee.
United States
Independently developed; published as shareware
Released 1989 for Amiga
Date Started: 18 February 2023
Ultima clones get a bad rap sometimes, but the problem is that they clone the wrong Ultima. Ultima and Ultima II were innovative for their years, but they were utterly outdone by their sequels--to the point that I wouldn't play either today except as historical curios. Unfortunately, legions of developers have effectively forced me to play those games by making generic iconographic games with one-line NPC dialogues and one-command combat systems.
Antepenult is an Ultima clone--in fact, it's what my glossary calls a "Ztats Clone"; that is, an Ultima clone so clone-y that it even includes the Z)tats command. But it's paradoxically refreshing in that it clones Ultima IV (and a little of V) rather than the more simplistic earlier titles. This includes keyword-based dialogue, a developing backstory learned from NPCs, and the ability to target enemies in combat. I found its opening hours much more engaging than the typical clone.
The game, designed by Paul Falstad, makes no effort to hide its roots. Its README file includes "apologies to Lord British." Of course, the very title pokes fun at its inspiration. ("Antepenultimate" means "third from best" or "third from last." I wonder what title Falstad thinks deserves the designation of "penultimate.") The tiles, NPC icons, and monster icons look mostly identical. The phases of two moons are shown above the exploration window. There's a line-of-sight-based fog of war. Not only does the keyboard interface include a Z)tats command, but it also includes B)oard (a ship or horse), P)eer (at a gem), and Q)uit and Save. It has the same three character attributes: strength, dexterity, and intelligence. The king who sets you off on the quest, Lord Hypnos, is an in-game avatar of Falstad himself, as HYPNOS was his handle on several online service providers. Hypnos's castle even includes a jester named Chuckles.
Of all the things to adapt . . .
There are losses that ultimately make Antepenult, as its name suggests, rank lower than Ultima IV. There's only one character and apparently no magic system. Inventory is stripped down, and even if it turns out that the game has dungeons, I don't think they'll use a first-person interface. There's no sound. But it also has some elements of originality that I enjoyed. These include:
  • Graphics aren't necessarily just blocky tiles. The author uses diagonals and curves to more organically depict transitions in terrain. I want to say the only time that Ultima IV or V did this was with the barriers set up by the three Shadowlords that you have to dispel. My memory of these is so strong that when I encountered a curved white wall in Antepenult, I immediately assumed there was something evil about it.
  • Antepenult has combat occur on the same screen as exploration, but it still offers the ability to target a chosen enemy and to fight more than one enemy at once.
  • The author designed some clever dissolve/wipes when you transition between maps (e.g., from the overworld to a city). 
  • Antepenult draws its character and place names from the ancient world, primarily cities and locations in Greece and Anatolia, plus some references to biblical mythology.
The game begins with no creation, and the documentation that comes with it doesn't give you any kind of backstory. You slowly learn that you're in the land of Havilah (from a land mentioned in Genesis). The unnamed character starts with 500 hit points, 400 gold, 999 food, 25 each of the three attributes, and no weapons, armor, keys, torches, or sextants. He starts outside what turns out to be Castle Chryse (several figures or places in ancient Greece).
My first conversation.
I enter Chryse and started poking around and talking to NPCs. NPC dialogue uses the same basic approach as Ultima IV. You get a visual description of each NPC as you initiate dialogue, and all of them respond to NAME, HEALTH, and JOB. Their responses to those prompts lead to further dialogue. One key difference is that Antepenult considers the entire word, not just the first four letters, so for instance DARKNESS produces a different answer than DARK. Where you are in the conversation also seems to matter. Sometimes, NPCs won't respond to the same keyword that they responded to a few lines ago. That makes things a bit more difficult. 
Guards (who all have the same dialogue and respond "just a guard" when asked their names) direct me to Lord Hypnos's throne room, which requires going through a garden and up a ladder. You'd think the throne room would be more accessible. Hypnos is surrounded by guards, his throne at the west end of a hall. To get to him, you have to cross a bridge that goes through lava or fire.
In dialogue, he relates that he used to share power with his brother, Lord Sylvan, who ruled the west country from his Castle Pergamum. But something destroyed the castle and plunged that part of the land into darkness. The nearby forest is overrun with monsters; the town of Megara has become a den of thieves; and the town of Argolis is in ruins.
"We"? I don't rule anything.
Hypnos charges me with finding out what happened to Pergamum and with discovering the source of the darkness. He says I should start by going to Laodicea to the north and west. He encourages me to get a horse and use the road, even though it's longer, as the forest is unsafe.
Chryse has a stable, a healer, and a few other features:
  • There's a zoo on the second floor with a number of monsters in walled cages. A guard identifies them as dragons, zorns, serpents, gazers, reapers, sea beasts, liches, and hydras. A druid named Pekah suggests there might be a way into the cages, but he doesn't know what it is.
I hope the zookeepers are the highest paid positions in the kingdom.
  • There's a dock, ship, and lake somehow contained on the upper floor of the castle. Boarding the ship lets me sail to the far corner of the lake, where I find a daemon. He identifies himself as Diogmos. "In the Gehennen Bathos shall I surely kill thee!" he shrieks. "Follow the river Acheron!" He then does 56 points of damage to me and disappears. 
This is quite a feat of engineering.
  • The same thing happens in the northwest corner of the castle, which has a demon named Sphage in a room marked by the Greek letters chi, theta, omega, and . . . I don't know if it's supposed to be nu or pi. I have no idea how this would be pronounced. In any event, the demon tells me he'll kill me in the Gehennan Bathos, "west of the great lake," swats me, and disappears.
Why not just kill me now?
  • A third room has a demon on the other side of what looks like a lump of ice. I can't get to him.
  • A sailor named Tmoles tells me I should ask a prisoner named Nabal about a sextant, which you need for the L)ocate command. 
  • A handful of NPCs hanging around a "MESS HALL" do not respond to T)alk. These are the only NPCs in the game so far of which this is true. 
  • A cook named Cookie tends a huge fire in the kitchen. I force myself to walk through the fire to search the far corner, as Ultima IV probably would have hidden something there. This game did not.
Damn. Someone already found that rune.
It costs only 30 gold to buy a horse on the first floor. I head out looking for weapons and armor, as I didn't find either in the castle. I find both in the nearby town of Larissa. I buy a mace for 200 gold and then realize I don't have enough for any armor; the armor shop only sells cloth for 200 and leather for 600.
The game occasionally throws in a "thee" or "thy" but isn't as serious about it as Ultima.
A fighter named Capys suggests that I "try the meeting room" if I'm on a quest. I can't find such a place, but there are a couple of locked doors, and I haven't found any keys yet. A paladin named Polydeuces asks if I fight for Havilah. A fighter named Pyrasos says they sell axes in Megara. There's a pub, and I find that if I tip the bartender enough, I can feed him keywords, but he doesn't respond to anything I can think to ask.
I leave town and start following the road to Laodicea, but I'm ready for combat, so I ignore the king's advice to stay out of the forest. Before long, I'm attacked by a couple of spiders. When you attack an enemy, you can target anyone on screen (with missile weapons if they're more than a square away). Each enemy icon might have multiple enemies beneath it. Unfortunately, there isn't much in the way of tactics, partly because there isn't any magic. When enemies die, they leave a chest behind that you can G)et. There's a chance of a trap, and if there is, there's a chance of evading it.
One spider has left a chest. I target the second group.
In this first session, I faced giant spiders, insects, sea horses, ghosts, and bats. All of them drop chests except for the aquatic creatures. All give experience when you kill them, and before long, I was up to Level 3. Leveling increases your attributes by around 5 points each (my strength and dexterity are now at 35, but for some reason my intelligence is at 37) and your maximum hit points by 100.
I reach Laodicea. It has a food shop, an inn, a pub, a weapon shop, and an armor shop, but multiple NPCs alert me that you can't fully explore the city without renting a ship. This costs only 10 gold pieces. (The ships you rent lack cannons, so you can't turn them on the townsfolk.) I sail around the city's outer moat and access a few hidden places, including a room marked with Greek letters full of mage and cleric NPCs.
Technically, "ships."
Through a variety of conversations, I learn that the evil that destroyed Pergamum is a daemon. It can be defeated with a gold dagger. This little group of NPCs is part of a secret cabal called "Ikhthys" that seeks to end the daemon's evil. There's a second group somewhere else; I should ask someone named Saul about that. A cleric named Athanasius argues with me about whether the world is flat or round. I suppose I don't really know in this setting.
Just as long as we agree that it's not a torus.
Elsewhere, there's a jail with locked cells. On an island, a thief named Pheres attacks me when I talk with him. I kill him, but this is apparently the wrong thing to do, as it incurs the wrath of the guards, and I'm forced to reload.
After some grinding, I'm able to buy some cloth armor, but my real concern now is food. I have less than half of the original amount, and it depletes at a rate of 1 per 4 moves. Food sells at a rate of 1 food for 1 gold piece. I get about 15 gold from the average combat, and it takes me close to 60 moves to find the average combat; enemies are not very plentiful. I'm going to have to find some place with more lucrative pickings.
I'm debating whether I'm going to try to map the overworld. I always hate having to do that in top-down games, and it will be particularly hard here because the non-blockiness of the graphics makes it tough to tell where the coastal tiles end. Still, it's probably better than being paranoid that I'll miss something.
Some miscellaneous notes:
  • Sometimes, there are multiple characters of the same name. There are actually two jesters named Chuckles in the Castle Chryse foyer, and in the city of Laodicea, I found a bard named Dymas entertaining three children, all named Cythera.
  • The interface doesn't make use of H, J, K, M, N, or V. Instead of just having the game say the equivalent of "Huh?" when you press them, Falstad programmed dummy commands: H)arvest, J)udge, K)ibitz, M)aterialize, N)ag, and V)erbenate, all of which produce silly messages.
Because some of you like silly messages.
  • If you stand still without doing anything, the moons continue to change phases, but enemies don't move and your food does not deplete.
  • The game warns you not to try to find secret doors by bashing into walls. I assume this is because bashing into walls freezes the interface for about 10 seconds. I don't know if there are any other secret doors or mechanisms to find them.
  • Hit points regenerate over time, one every eight turns.
  • The game is exposing my ignorance of various alphabets. Either the game is mixing Greek and Cyrillic or there are ways of writing Greek letters that I didn't know about.
How do you interpret this?
  • The game lets you ride your horse inside the castle and towns, but you can't go through doors with it. You can't X)it it inside, so it's best to leave it outside.
  • There are a lot of treasure chests in some of the towns. I don't know whether these are just for show or whether there's a way to reach them. If so, it must involve secret doors somehow. 
This may be an Ultima clone, but I'm no avatar.
I made contact with Paul Falstad after I'd written most of this entry. He clarified the release year as 1989. He put "not" before "© 1989" on the title screen not because it wasn't 1989 but because he didn't feel comfortable "copyrighting" it after taking so much from Ultima, thematically and graphically. He released it by uploading it to GEnie and perhaps PeopleLink. An update followed in the early 1990s that fixed some bugs.
It's fortunate that I reached him, because apparently the unregistered version of the game is more difficult than the registered version. He still had the generator that took the serial number shown on the title screen and turned it into an unlock code that I could enter in the game. 
Thanks to commenter mpx for first alerting me to this game (in 2016!) and commenter Busca for helping me find some information about it.
Time so far: 2 hours


  1. I can't quite make sense of the others, but the Greek on the room with Sphage appears to be "Chthon".

    1. Indeed it does. Means Earth.
      Icthys means fish.
      The first one is Hydor, meaning water.

  2. lots of biblical references including "Ikhthys" which I refers to the fish symbol early christians used a lot (which you still see sometimes today).

    It does look like a very competent Ultima-like, shame there's no magic system but I suppose you can't have everything! I assume from your comment under the picture with all the treasure chests that there is also no karma system?

    1. Yeah, it looks to me like this might be yet another Christian Ultima clone, since Pergamum and Laodicea, the cities coveted in darkness, were among the 'seven churches' written to/about in the Book of Revelation (and Possessed's excellent proto-death metal album, 'Seven Churches').

    2. Covered, not coveted.

  3. "How do you interpret this?"

    What's there to interpret? Those letters are clearly AHP, since A occurs in several English words in the screenshots, H in KITCHEN, and P in WEAPONS.

    1. My Greek is quite weak, but I surmise that in those contexts, the P might be intended to be a rho? In which case that one might be some variation on "AIR", which would fit with one label for each of the elements ("Chthon" being for Earth).

    2. I agree - it looks like a capital Rho with a tail, cf.
      Also agreed that the first one is Chthon.
      I'm not sure what to make of the symbol between Alpha and Rho, but @Delvin's theory about the elements seems plausible to me.

    3. AlphabeticalAnonymousFebruary 24, 2023 at 2:07 PM

      (Sorry, that was me. We anonymice all look alike.)

    4. The middle letter of what must be "aer" (air) looks like an "N," maybe because lowercase eta (η) resembles an "n"?
      The screenshot above "chthon" (ground) also features "ydor" (water).
      I guess there must be a "pyr" somewhere, too.

    5. Wait, never mind, of course aer uses the letter that appears elsewhere as a Latin "H" because it looks like an uppercase eta...

    6. And if I had scrolled all the way down, I would have seen that George Grady was way ahead of me all along. Oh well.

    7. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this. In retrospect, the Air/Earth/Fire/Water bit should have been obvious. Using Greek letter is clearly this author's version of Britannian runes, although they do go well with the Greek names in the game.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. What an interesting find, looks promising so far.

  6. I understand that Megara is a place in Greece and a mythical figure (Heracles' wife), but for me the first association for that name is a story arc of several episodes in the (German language version) old animated SF series 'Captain Future'.

    And now excuse me while I go on a quick OT nostalgia trip listening to 'Feinde greifen an' ('Enemies attack') and other pieces from Christian Bruhn's instrumental OST ... .

    1. 'The Megara' are also a pair of 'justice machines' in an old Doctor Who serial called 'The Stones of Blood.'

    2. Megara, Laodicea, Pergamun are all cities in Asia Minor (=modern Turkey). As you say, Havilah is a biblical location, but it is usually put in Asia Minor too. Wikipedia tells me Chryse is in the Aegean sea, but maybe there is another one.

      I am going to bet you find a city called Sinope soon. Maybe also a Bathys. Smyrna would be another good one, but maybe too well-known.

    3. Pergamum/Pergamon and Smyrna (Izmir)! I've been there - a long time ago - and found the wealth of archaeological sites of ancient Greek cities on the Western and Southern Turkish coast fascinating: Ephesus, Priene, Didyma, Milet(us), Hierapolis, Halicarnassos, Side, Termessos, Phaselis, Aspendos (what an impressive theater! Apparently the best-preserved of antiquity)... an area worth seeing for anyone interested in the subject.

    4. Yeah, Peramum (modern Bergama) in particular is one of the most spectacular ancient ruins I've been to, as locations go. I suppose it would have been a pain in the ass getting up and down from there in the ancient times, but you can't complain about the views or defensibility!

    5. Nice. That's two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World right there, or what remains of them. The closest I've ever gotten was the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

    6. Unfortunately, there is not much left on site of either the Temple of Artemis in Ephesos or the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos. But Ephesos is now still a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to, among others, the remains of the library and what might have been the biggest theater in antiquity (est. capacity 25 000) and in Halicarnassos / modern day Bodrum there is e.g. also the theater (plus the medieval castle now housing the Museum of Underwater Archaeology).

      For anyone interested, James "Jimmy" Maher is not only the 'Digital Antiquarian', but also the 'Analog Antiquarian' and has covered, inter alia, four of the five other Wonders of the Ancient World extensively on his respective site and in books: (click the menu in the upper right to see them).

    7. With the exception of the pyramids, time, neglect, and wars have eradicated most of the Wonders. I still would like to see them.

    8. Interesting topic. To be fair, there exist(ed) more in the ancient world of what we would regard today as Wonder. It's just that the greeks of the hellenistic age who compiled the list couldn't possibly know of others such as the Great Wall of China. And yes, I know what most people mean by that is the today still prominently visible Wall from much later times, but I'm sure the first Wall of the first Chinese Emperor would also qualify.

  7. The Greek χθών "chthon" basically means "soil/earth"; Ἀήρ "aer" means "air"; and ὕδωρ "hydor" means "water". I assume that somewhere there's a room with πυρ "pyr" for "fire".

    1. One of the things I like about obscure games is they let people with obscure knowledge take center stage for a bit.

  8. I hope you had to have a dance-off with the Havilah Naga.

  9. So if there is no magic, what's the purpose of the Intelligences stat?

    1. You don't need intelligence if you got enough strange / general po

    2. Yeah, that's a good question. I have no idea.

    3. There are some signs that there may in fact be magic in the game. More in a later update.

  10. Falstad must have been a linguistics student, or at least had some enthusiasm for it.

    1. Yes, or just a more general student of classical studies, a field which has a fair amount of intersection with linguistics. The heavy influence of Greek and biblical names, as well as the use of the Greek alphabet reinforces this. It's worth noting that in addition to the "third from last" meaning that Chester describes for the game's title, "antepenult" in its shortened form also has a specific usage in the study of language (often Greek or Latin) when identifying the stressed syllable of a word. Falstad's use of the shortened form rather than the full "antepenultimate" suggests to me a familiarity with this use, and makes his title a little bit more of a winking in-joke.

    2. You don't see as many games with a classical Greek/Asia Minor setting as you would think. Falstad also seems to have done a deeper dive into the historical context of his setting than Garriott did for his. Garriott appears to have developed the lore for his games around his experiences with the Society for Creative Anachronism. I lived in Oklahoma near OU when I was a kid, and SCA regularly exhibits at the Medieval Fair in Norman. I used to love going to those. That's probably why Ultima resonated with me. It's basically Renaissance Faire: The Game. It was funny to me when I learned from the Digital Antiquarian and others that the "Lord British" moniker was believed to have originated at the University of Oklahoma. I never knew I lived in such proximity to RPG history.

    3. For "historical RPG", I was very impressed by "A Legionary's Life", an indie RPG from 2019. Of course, as a Roman Legionary, your "visit" to Greece was not peaceful. The game also had a very-well designed turn-based combat system which was all about managing posture. Hard to describe but it worked well and you could strategize or rather choose whether to behave like a hero or let the other soldiers in your army do the work.

      Classical Greek / Asia Minor is of course more popular with strategy games. No example needed.

  11. I wonder if the name "Penultima" was reserved by Origin themselves for a potential table-top adaptation?

    1. It was used some years ago for a (terrific) series of comedic Neverwinter Nights modules by Stefan Gagne (who's written a bunch of other stuff apparently also.).

    2. The reason for the name "Antepenult" might be the one mentioned in HappyChef's interesting comment in the thread just above this one.

      For what it's worth, there is also an Ultima Online emulator called 'PenUltima Online'.

    3. Also, Tom Hall (of id Software fame) mentions in a reply comment on his site that he created a game called Penultima, a parody of Ultima, as a one-off joke for the April Fool’s issues of Softdisk (


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