Friday, November 17, 2023

Game 498: Exeter (1988)

 
I used to live down the street from Exeter, New Hampshire, where there was a famous UFO incident in 1965.
         
Exeter
Australia
Independently developed; published by Blaxland Computer Services
Released 1988 for Tandy Color Computer 3
Date Started: 14 November 2023
Date Ended: 18 November 2023
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
      
We see a lot of Ultima clones on this blog but not a lot of Akalabeth clones. That's what we have in the curiously-titled Exeter from Blaxland Computer Services in New South Wales. From Lord British's first-published game in 1980, this one takes:
      
  • The basic quest structure to descend into a dungeon and kill a specific enemy.
  • The size and structure of the dungeon levels (9 x 9, worm-tunnels).
  • The method of increasing hit points by awarding them as you exit the dungeon based on enemies killed.

When you're low on health, better find some monsters to kill.
 

  • A recursive approach to allocating enemies per level, discussed below.
  • The look and feel of the dungeon levels, including the chests, pits, traps, and ladders that you find.
  • The combat system.
  • Thieves who steal your weapon. 
  • Enemies flee and heal when their health gets too low.
  • The need for food.
      
You'd think that in the intervening 8 years, author G. J. Doak would have been able to out-do Akalabeth, but alas Exeter has even fewer features. Where Akalabeth had an overland map with multiple dungeons and infinite levels, Exeter has only one dungeon of 20 levels. It lacks any magic system. What it adds are color graphics, slight monster animations, and some very, very annoying monster attacks.
        
Lord British had you build up to the final boss with lesser creatures first. This guy doesn't have the time or patience for that.
        
The manual's framing story says that Exeter used to be a peaceful, prosperous kingdom until a dragon showed up with "its many disgusting and evil followers." The Master Wizard seeks adventurers to go to the bottom of a dungeon and slay it. 
    
As the game begins, the game automatically rolls for strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, and constitution. Akalabeth lacked intelligence and wisdom, but neither of them really do anything here. Intelligence supposedly affects the bargaining ability with the trader, but there's no real need to bargain with him. Wisdom supposedly improves your chances of finding secret doors and traps with the S)earch ability, but this is not an ability that you often need. Dexterity, which directly affects armor class, is probably most important, followed by strength, which determines accuracy and damage.
       
This character is doomed, oddly, by wisdom.
       
After you choose a name, you're taken to a marketplace where you can buy weapons and armor. You can buy most of what you need with the starting gold, and you can buy everything else after a few easy trips to the first few levels. The economy stops being any use quite fast. Despite this, the game makes you keep a stock of food going, with one meal consumed with every action. You can return to the surface at any time to visit the stores and gain your hit point rewards.
       
Buying weapons.
       
The dungeon is randomized for each new character. I made a couple of level maps before I realized this. All levels are 9 x 9 with one ladder up and one ladder down. There may be one or more additional pits going down only, and on some levels one of these pits is hidden and can only be revealed with a S)earch and avoided with a J)ump. About half the doors are hidden doors, so you have to bump into most walls.
        
I mapped a couple of levels before I realized they were randomized.
        
Enemies start attacking the moment you enter, usually from behind or to the side, so you have to spin around a lot looking for them. Like Akalabeth, the game adopts a recursive approach to stocking the levels with enemies. Level 1 always has one thief, one orc, and one goblin. Level 2 has those three enemies plus one "bogbear." Level 3 adds a skeleton warrior, and subsequent levels add beholders, mind strippers, mimics, trappers, and horned devils. No new enemies appear after Level 8. There's never more than one of each enemy on any level, but levels respawn as you climb up and down. Thieves, mind strippers, and trappers are the only enemies with special attacks; the first two are discussed below. Trappers cannot be seen. They cloak you in darkness when you're in their squares, and you have to fight your way out.
        
An orc approaches with a chest in between us.
        
Combat is just a matter of mashing A)ttack. There are no spells, no tactics, no healing potions, no objects to use. If enemies get too low on health, they'll back up and move away, healing with each step. You have to chase them down to kill them. You can use missile weapons (bows and crossbows), but for reasons explained below, I think they're a bad idea. 
        
The toughest enemy in the game.
              
The enemies honestly aren't very hard, and it doesn't take more than 30 minutes of traveling around the first four or five levels to have a couple thousand hit points and everything you need from the store. There are really only two very annoying problems to hinder your progress:
   
  • Thieves steal your weapons. You can carry up to four at a time and equip one. They'll steal both equipped and unequipped weapons. When you kill them, you only get back the last weapon they stole. On low levels, this isn't so bad, but after Level 4 or so, it becomes nearly impossible to kill the thieves with your bare hands, and they could easily strip all four of your weapons before you get anywhere near killing them. So you get into a death spiral in which you're unable to do any damage to them to get your weapons back, and other enemies are pounding on you from the sides. This dynamic also makes missile weapons a bad idea, because you don't want a thief to steal your two-handed sword and short bow and then only get the short bow back if you finally kill him. Instead, you want to adventure with four two-handed swords.
  • Mind strippers have a "mind blast" attack that drains your wisdom. There's no way to protect yourself from this except to try to kill them before they use it, but it's random. There's no way to avoid or defend against it. If your wisdom drops to 0, you instantly die.
           
An enemy who exists just to make the game artificially harder.
         
These two factors make it very difficult to reach the lower levels no matter how many hit points you build up. You inevitably get killed by a mind stripper or get stuck because a thief has stolen all your weapons and you can't kill any enemies without them, which means you can't get past them.
    
All you can do is a lot of save scumming, saving at a ladder and reloading if you don't like the configuration of enemies when you get to the bottom of it. Using such "tactics," you can try to make your way quickly from ladder to pit to ladder and get down to Level 20.
       
Dying in the depths.
       
Unfortunately, that's where the game breaks, at least for me. There are no ladders or pits down on Level 20, so I assume it's supposed to be the last level. I mapped it, so I know I didn't miss any squares. There's no dragon that I can find. There is one square that looks like it has a chasm that you shouldn't be able to cross, but you can walk on it. If I press the key to go down (X) on this pit, the screen goes blank as if it's loading something and then crashes with "UL ERROR IN 5."
   
As far as I can get before the game crashes.
      
I decided to carry it as a BRIEF instead of an unwinnable game. [Ed. I reversed this decision when I won it; see below.] While I don't know what other category to use for it, it doesn't meet my criteria for an RPG because the only way the character improves is by increasing hit points. I think. The hit points you earn depend on the number and level of enemies you killed in each foray, which means the game is tracking a hidden experience statistic. I suppose it's possible that this statistic influences combat effectiveness. I don't think so, though.
     
Overall, Exeter is a frustrating, annoying, boring game that was eight years obsolete before it hit the shelves. I don't imagine it sold well. If Doak or Blaxland ever made another game, I can't find it.

*****
    
Well, I should have predicted it: Within a few days, commenter Twin Valley had diagnosed the problem and commenter LanHawk had fixed it. With a new version in hand, I loaded up my save state and descended into the pit again. This indeed turned out to be the right thing to do, as it brought me face-to-face with the dragon. The monster animation shows the dragon breathing fire, but I couldn't get the timing right to capture it.
       
It's not a horrible graphic, but the artist really phoned it in on the feet.
         
Defeating him took me a few attempts. All you can really do is stand there and mash A)ttack. Ideally, you'd have about 2,000 hit points at this point, and I had slightly less. I lost the first two times but beat him the third. When you defeat him, the image of the dragon fades away to be replaced with the image of the Master Wizard congratulating you on your success.
        
There you go.
      
Well, now I'm going to give it a number. It gets a 14 on the GIMLET with the best score in "Gameplay" (3) for being short and challenging. "Economy" and "Graphics, Sound, and Interface" deserve 2s; everything else is a 1 or 0. Thanks, guys. It's always nice to be able to document the end, especially when it's just one screen away.

40 comments:

  1. as part of my always non sequiturish comments, I love the final aesthetic of the game. I find it strange that I found so many modern dungeon crawlers copying the Might and Magic interface and not the elegant vector based of the first Ultimas or this one (which is basically vectors with a filling).

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  2. The toughest enemy in the game...

    looks like an angry bee.

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    1. They all look a bit like grumpy middle-aged guys to me.

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  3. Do the Minder Flay.. Strippers steal your Wisdom forever, or does it come back with time?

    If the former, uch.

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    1. It is alas forever. Only the short time necessary to win the game redeems such an affront.

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  4. Ah, those were the times. When every dungeon looked like someones' basement and when the monsters looked like 'pixle art'-posters.

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    1. ...pixel art...

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    2. Pixel Art is such a meaningless construction now... Vector graphics? Pixel art. Polygon? Pixel art. Bitmap? Pixel art. Deluxe paint gradients? Pixel art. 320x200? Pixel art. Anything that is not current gen with light effects is pixel art.

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    3. Vector or not, the resolution is low enough that the walls/floors get visibly rendered as pixels. Seems like an accurate descriptions.

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  5. Exeter

    1: Ancient English city, county town of Devon, Old English Exanceaster, Escanceaster, from Latin Isca (c. 150), from Celtic river name Exe "the water" + Old English ceaster "Roman town" (see Chester). (etymonline.com)

    2: An .exe played by Chester.

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  6. It might be my bad reading of the basic but it looks like when you go down the hole, the game loads another program on the disk called "dragon". When this runs it produces the "UL 5" error which means that on line 5 of the BASIC code there is a reference to another row (63) which does not exist. It seems that this "Dragon" file is corrupted (or has been overwritten) as there looks like another game (Mission Destruction) written over the BASIC code after row 23.

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    1. @Twin Valley is correct. The "Dragon" files on what is the likely source (Color Computer Archive), are corrupted. I have another copy with those files intact. I will email Chet a copy with those files fixed.

      If he doesn't want to test, I will as long as he can provide a savestate file close to the end!! :P

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    2. Updated copy has been sent to the Color Computer Archive, glad to see the ending!!

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    3. It's nice that we could make that small difference in the world. Thanks, guys.

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    4. No problems, happy to help. Also it is interesting that the game which overwrote the original file (Mission Destruction) does not appear in the list of games found in the Archive, so maybe this will need to be extracted somehow and added (which might be a bit beyond my skill level)?

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    5. "Mission Destruction" is a type-in game from here:
      (see page 16)
      https://colorcomputerarchive.com/repo/Documents/Magazines/Australian%20Coco%20Magazine/Australian%20Coco%20Magazine%20-%20Vol.%203%20No.%2010%20-%20June%201987.pdf

      While not a lost commercial release, if someone really wanted to recreate it they could.

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  7. Hey, colour graphics! Filled shapes instead of wireframes! And even A-NI-MA-TIONS! Who needs gameplay (advances) with all these shiny new features compared to Akalabeth? You clearly don't appreciate how far they had come!

    Seriously, though, I guess it was the confluence of a platform and a location probably both underserved in quality software at the time which led people to produce (and buy?) games like this.

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    1. Were they entirely wrong? Even with retro games, there seem to only be people who play games for their graphics. A bit more effort on the monster sprites and this would be a forgotten gem by some standards.

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    2. Yeah precisely, at that time you were motivated by something a specific game offered that other did not, and graphics could be a good selling point. Having music or some kind of speech at times would be other, or having some portraits or bitmaps from time to time.

      I still think the aesthetics here are gorgeous and find it funny others do not.

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    3. @Risington Carlos - I really like these graphics, too! I can take or leave the enemy sprites (although they are 'charming' enough), but the environment is beautiful. Something about the color choices and the clean stark lines create a nice vibe!

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    4. I agree, the dungeons are pretty nice. The monsters don't look bad. Only the chest looks like a parcel the delivery guy dropped in the middle of the driveway because you didn't open the door in five seconds.

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    5. Oh, I don't disagree, it looks nice. And yes, maybe that was indeed enough to sell a few copies. But I doubt it would have been the same on, say, the C64 in the US or Europe at the same time given what else was on offer around then.

      And even if one like(d) the graphics, they only get you so far. I remember e.g. being wowed by Defender of the Crown on the C64 (and even more so on the Amiga, of course). Impressive and gorgeous. But the gameplay of assorted simplistic minigames got stale rather fast. There are games I've continued to fire up - and enjoy - from time to time much later, like Pirates! - in spite of some nice touches not a game that mainly impressed through amazing graphics in 1987 and much less so since -, but DotC hasn't been one of them, not for a real play session. The same goes for others which to me were/are more style over substance. After all, I want to play and enjoy games, not just watch pretty stuff, at least in the long run.

      @Morpheus: I thus assume it's not just the specific graphics which attract people to retro games, rather for some, like me, a mixture of good, but not too complex gameplay and nostalgia. (Unless I misunderstood you and the "only" was meant to refer to graphics, not people.)

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    6. PS: Sorry, should have clarified: Pirates! also has an assortment of rather simple minigames which get repetitive as well. The difference (at least to me) is the overarching game.

      In DotC it's about conquering a limited territory and once you get the hang of it, that's over quick and not challenging anymore already halfway through.

      Sid Meier's game, by contrast, goes on much longer, keeps presenting challenging situations practically throughout (if you choose to engage them) and offers many smaller and bigger strategic choices in an open world which for me makes its gameplay generally much more fun and engaging.

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    7. @Busca, my only was poorly placed, I meant people who play games only for their graphics, since there are some games even on older platforms which have a visual appeal as yet unmatched. I've seen a great many people only ever talking about the visuals of these games without talking about why you should actually play them. Or worse, clearly only playing those games for 5 minutes.

      Delete
  8. I went to high school at Exeter NH in the mid/late 90s (there's a boarding school there, my family didn't actually live there) and remember there being a bit of a buzz about the UFO incident -- this was well before Wikipedia and we didn't have phones, much less the Internet, in our rooms until my senior year, so it was all pretty rumor-mill stuff. I seem to recall there was like a three-page much-Xeroxed pamphlet that got passed around about the incident; no idea who wrote it, but it made it sound like one of the more robust sightings.

    (I remember it not actually happening at Exeter, too, which Wikipedia backs up -- it was closer to Kensington, but I doubt there are any RPGs with that name!)

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    1. I love how you obliquely mention the boarding school as if Phillips Exeter isn't the most well-known prep school in the United States.

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    2. Ha, fair enough! I live in California these days, where "the most well-known prep school in the US" means maybe a quarter of folks have vaguely heard of it (and maybe a third have even vaguely heard of a "prep school").

      (Though I feel like during the George W Bush years Andover was slightly more high-profile since he was an alum -- they're welcome to each other :)

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    3. As a European I was introduced to the concept of prep schools by watching Gilmore Girls in the early 2000s. I later discovered the Comedy Preppies which I consider being as strange as the idea of prep schools in general.

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    4. AlphabeticalAnonymousNovember 17, 2023 at 11:25 PM

      I wouldn't have recognized the school even by name -- but then, I was raised in California and don't know much more about prep schools than the average European... @tetrapod, would you say the school was a worthwhile experience?

      Delete
    5. As a Californian, I know nothing of these boarding schools. We have a school in my area called Bellarmine College Preparatory. It just seems like any other private school?

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    6. I think “prep school” is often just used as a general term to mean private (non-vocational) high school, but in the northeast of the US the term is typically understood to mean boarding schools.

      @AA: yeah I’d definitely say it was worthwhile! I got to go to school with a much broader range of folks than if I’d attended a regular high school (especially on the economic front - Exeter has tuition but lots of financial aid available) and I’m still friends with many of the people I met there, especially my dorm-mates. Living a couple hundred miles from my family was a little challenging at first, but my twin sister was there with me too, and my parents immediately decided to get divorced as soon as we left the house, so it worked out lol.

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    7. I miss that area sometimes. Exeter feels like a small town, but it's such a quick hop to Portsmouth/Newington and Seabrook that you have larger city conveniences. It's within commuting distance of Boston. I could get excellent ethnic food for dinner. I like Maine, but I do miss being closer to civilization sometimes.

      Delete
  9. I see that Shadowcaster is lined up... it is an interesting title, but I don't think it will pass your CRPG criteria, as character development happens at specific points in the game and the player has no agency on it.

    It really is an action-adventure, and also very linear.

    it is fairly short though (about 10 hours) and it has some unique mechanics, if you need a breather from more taxing games.

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    1. I'm curious where you're getting this, because that's not true. It is very simple character development, but it is character development nonetheless. I guess if you stretch specific points to "limited sources of XP that don't regenerate that you could possibly predict", then that's true, but Chet hasn't said no to any of those before.

      That said, I would suggest the floppy version over the CD version. There's a nasty glitch in the game that corrupts a save which is far more likely to happen in the CD version than the floppy. I'm not even sure it happens in the floppy. Not to mention most of the CD's changes aren't good ones.

      Delete
  10. Well I'll give it this... better monster graphics than Castle of Tharroggad.

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    1. I almost liked the goofy charm of those Tharoggad graphics. How can you not smile at this?

      https://3.bp.blogspot.com/-38fzGIi-zn8/WmwGbbbpWZI/AAAAAAAAlSk/4NK9JcMHae4eSgT5zAR8y1HlqIfyiQy4ACLcBGAs/s1600/cotbadwizard.PNG

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  11. Something about the wizard's final speech makes it seem like the protagonist keeps forgetting the name of the country and the wizard is getting fed up with them.

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  12. Today I discovered that this blog is the sixth Google search result for "CRPG."

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    1. I'm proud of that, but more annoyed that the result above me, from PC Magazine, gives an awful definition of a CRPG.

      Delete
  13. The Australian CoCo Magazine found it good enough to give it four stars out of five (just a rating, no review - see e.g. on page 34 in the May 1988 issue (PDF download). And on his page on Exeter L. Curtis Boyle also calls it "A very well done game".

    Blaxland Computer Services seems to have been a Tandy Electronics dealer in the larger Sydney area specialising in the respective hard- and software. Exeter indeed appears to have been the only game that got the special treatment of a separate big 'illustrated' ad from them as being not only a distribution channel, but the actual publisher as well, I understand, see e.g. the second page of their ad listing here(scroll up to see the first page).
    Besides this example from the May 1988 Softgold, the ads show up in the Australian CoCo Magazine from April 1988 through to what I assume was the last issue of that publication in September 1988.

    Maybe it was named after the village Exeter in New South Wales? I guess you'd have to ring or write (I assume this) G.J. Doak in NSW to find out.

    You can apparently play the game online as well (haven't tested it).

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