Friday, March 8, 2024

Game 505: The Wizard's Tower (1982)

The Wizard's Tower
United States
Aardvark Action Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for TRS-80 Color Computer; 1983 for TI-99, Commodore VIC-20, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 6 March 2024
Date Ended: 6 March 2024
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 18
Ranking at Time of Posting: 152/508 (30%)
Note: Please read all the way to the end. Most of the criticisms of the game are only valid for the C64 port. I discuss the original game at the end.
Wizard's Tower is not just bad; it's so epically bad that its faults deserve individual enumeration:
1. It's a ripoff of Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979), a game that, despite being released three years earlier, had far greater complexity and interest.

2. It's the second Aardvark title to rip off Wilderness Campaign; the first was Quest from the previous year. Despite this similarity, the named author is different for the two titles: Robert Retelle for Quest and Steven C. Mitchell for Tower.
Mountains to the north and the castle to the northwest occur in both Wilderness Campaign and Quest.
3. Despite being the second of two ripoffs, it somehow manages to offer a less interesting, less complex gameplay than Quest. More importantly, the army that characterized Campaign and Quest is gone. In Tower, the player just controls a single character.
4. The game can't figure out its own title. The TRS-80 version has a The at the beginning of the title, but the Commodore versions do not.
The TRS-80 Color Computer version of the title screen. The Commodore version drops the "the," the subtitle, and the author's name.
5. It forgets its own backstory. The manual says that your goal is to recover the Sceptor [sic] of Speed, the Ring of Strength, and the Crown of Wisdom from the dungeon under the titular tower, then return them to town to be proclaimed king. Instead, you enter the tower and kill the wizard to be proclaimed king. It's possible, I grant you, that this is a simplification introduced in the Commodore version, but I looked at some TRS-80 gameplay on YouTube, and I don't think that's the case. [Ed. It was the case. The TRS-80 Color Computer version has all three artifacts and no wizard battle.]

6. There are two towns in the game that sell weapons, armor, spells, and rations. You start with a fixed amount of gold and you never earn any gold during the game. You use 1 ration per step, and when you run out, you die. Thus, you pretty much just have to put all your money into rations and never anything else.   
7. You're offered a choice between warrior, wizard, and elf classes at the beginning of the game, but since you just have to win with your starting equipment and spells no matter what, the choice is meaningless. Also, the warrior starts with the best weapon in the game (a magic axe).
Hmm . . . I can buy chain armor and die, or spend all my money on rations and live.
8. When the game starts, there are a bunch of goblins roaming the land, represented by the letters G, like in a roguelike. They move around randomly as you move, and you have to wait for the screen to redraw their positions. But there are also trolls lurking on nearly every square in the mountains and snakes lurking in nearly every square in the swamp. Why show some enemies and not others? You get nothing from killing all the goblins.
9. Combat is resolved through one or more rounds in which your experience, attributes, and (I guess) equipment are pitted against the foe. The game makes a big show of rolling random numbers at the bottom of the screen, and you have to hit ENTER to "freeze" the numbers. The problem is, those numbers seem to have no bearing on the round's results. Sometimes, "your" number is higher but the enemy hits anyway, and sometimes the enemy's number is higher and you end up scoring the hit.
My wizard character fights a goblin.
You gain a couple of hit points and experience for successful combats, and you want to fight a reasonable number before hitting the tower. Speaking of which:

10. The tower has three levels. The first takes up the entire screen, but the second and third are very small. The levels are presented as mazes with numerous monsters present, except that a) you can't possibly explore the entire thing, or you'll run out of food, and b) the stairs are clearly shown, so there's no reason to explore anyway.
The first level of the dungeon. I (*) have just entered in the lower left. The stairs down are in the upper right.
11. The game ends when you encounter the wizard Maggdar on the third level of his dungeon. For no reason at all, he takes all your gold and then offers a grammatically-incorrect threat:
Did they outsource the writing overseas?
12. Maggdar has 85 hit points and 21 experience, so as long as you've built your own stats to slightly more than those, you'll probably win. The victory message has you earning 56 hit points for no particular reason (since you can't keep playing) and then dumps you out of the program:
I may be the new ruler of Wizard's Tower, but I'm just going to brood about how my score was only 26.
13. Let's make fun of the Michigan-based publisher while we're at it. "Aardvark" was clearly chosen to appear at the top of alphabetical lists, but the owners decided to call themselves "Aardvark Technical Services" despite offering products rather than services. For this game and a couple of others from the same year, they decided to bill themselves "Aardvark Action Software." Oh, and in their ads, they call themselves "Aardvark L.T.D.," as if "Ltd." was an initialism rather than an abbreviation for "limited." (And we typically use "LLC" in the U.S. anyway, but some states allow "Ltd." as an alternative.)
I tried to find a reason to make fun of the box, but it has promise.
Author Steven C. Mitchell would go on to form his own developer/publisher called Mitchell Software and release Conquering Armies, Rescue on Alpha II (1984), and The Dragon's Castle (1986), all for the TRS-80 Color Computer. None of them are RPGs. Aardvark existed until 1984, and between Quest, The Wizard's Tower, and Dungeons of Death (1983), which I called "the worst RPG I've ever played," they have one of the least impressive RPG catalogs. Unless more games come to light, I think we've seen the last of them.
Dungeons of Death, incidentally, was re-released in 1984 as Dungeons of Magdarr, an alternate spelling of "Maggdar," so that's . . . something.


A couple of commenters emailed me links to other sites that contradicted things I said about the game. I had trouble finding a Color Computer version, but I redoubled my efforts, found one, and gave it a try. It's clearly a better game than the C64 version, and much of my ridicule evaporates in light of it. 
The original version does indeed have the three artifacts--and no evil wizard.

The TRS-80 version is a bit harder than the C64 version. The character starts with no equipment and only 5 rations (though rations deplete less frequently). Enemies do drop gold, but only a tiny amount, maybe 1-3 per battle. The combat screen is very different; combat just occurs at the bottom of the main screen. You don't see enemy hit points or attributes, and it's possible for both the character and the enemy to score a hit (or miss) in a given round. 

There's also no "experience" statistic, but your other attributes (strength, dexterity, IQ, and I think maximum hit points) increase with your victories. 
My statistics late in the game.
There are only three enemies in the outdoor area: snakes in the swamp, trolls in the hills, and goblins that roam around (but mostly stick to the west side). You cannot clear out all the goblins like you can in the C64 version. Once you've fought a dozen or so battles outside, you become mostly impervious to death against any of the outdoor foes, and the goal becomes grinding for the best equipment, which you need to survive in the castle. Since snakes never have gold, the best strategy is to go north into the mountains and fight trolls until you have enough money. This takes a long time at the game's original speed and almost no time at all if you kick the emulator into "turbo."
Grinding against hill trolls.
The castle is a lot harder. In addition to goblins, there are balrogs, wizards, and dragons all of which have attacks that permanently sap your statistics. Balrogs and dragons can break your weapons, so it's a good idea for even warrior characters to invest in "Lightning" to fight them. The financial rewards are greater, but by the time you're strong enough to take on the castle at all, you don't need them as much.
The castle's second level requires you to deal with dragons.
The TRS-80 version has only two levels to the castle. Treasure chests are annotated in blue or purple, and you need to open them all to find the three artifacts. The game ends when you take them all back to the town.
I like the idea that I just walked into town waving the artifacts and the people proclaimed me king.
Thus, must of the ridicule I levied at the game is valid only for the Commodore 64 port. The original still isn't a great game, but it's a much more competent one, and author Steven Mitchell shouldn't be tarred by association with whoever did the port. I was going to give a GIMLET of about 10 to the port, but the original deserves an 18, doing best in "Economy" and "Graphics/Sound/Interface" for a very easy keyboard interface and graphics that are functional enough for what they depict.
Judging a game only by a single port was an amateur mistake, and I apologize. I was trying to get this entry done by a self-imposed deadline. My re-evaluation does not clear up one mystery: the author of the Retro Games Trove played the C64 version and still says he got gold for his victories, but I swear that statistic never budged for me. 
Thanks to Busca, BronzeBob, and Callandor for alerting me to the differences and prompting this addendum.


  1. Bizarre to have removed the one thing that made Wilderness Campaign stand out.
    What weapon is that guy leaning on? Some kind of pixellated lance?

    1. Sort of looks like a lightning bolt, but the posing of his hands suggests he may be adjusting a very aggressive codpiece.

    2. I mean, the posing of his legs suggests he has a front and back ones rather than right and left, so I wouldn't read too much into the arms position.

    3. You made me laugh out loud on the bus. :)

    4. While one ad reproduces the box art, another (see e.g. on mobygames or the Internet Archive) has a slightly different picture where the character has his weapon in the foreground (though the way he holds it still reminds me more of a walking cane rather than a sword), a shield and different clothing (plus there is no lake, but dragons instead).

      "I tried to find a reason to make fun of the box".

      If the comments above by others are not enough, how about the fact there is no apostrophe in the game's name there (same as in the ads), so you could even say there are three versions of its title?

    5. POSSIBLY related, but Aardvark also turned out a game called "Zeus" that was a space-invader style action game where Zeus is throwing bolts at you. I wonder if they tried to recycle some artwork for Wizard's Tower?

  2. The impressive thing about the box art is that it looks like it was AI-generated (particularly the castle) 40 years before generative AI became a thing.

    1. Probably just because whoever drew it focused more on the rendering of it than the fundamentals. There are a lot of bad artists around who do this exact thing. It can help with a lot of mistakes...but not all mistakes.

    2. Not sure what you mean by that, but that castle's architecture makes zero sense, and the guy's anatomy, only marginally more. And while the latter may be chalked up to a lack of experience, the former... just why?

    3. Basically focusing on detailwork while he lacks any sense of how to actually draw what it is he's drawing.

    4. It's pretty typical for an artist early in their development, similar to a lot of van art and the like. We all start off painting the 'idea of a stereotypical apple' rather than the structure, specifics, and relative color of the real thing. This scene is an assemblage of ideas of 'castle', 'adventurer', and 'night scene' that just don't come together as anything beyond a sort of iconography. The castle, for example, has a jumble of shapes the artist associated with 'castle', rather than even the semi-logical structure of one.

  3. Replies
    1. The GIMLET went on strike and drank all the vodka at the thought of something so bad perhaps?

    2. It's probably just 1s all the way down

    3. I think Chester's Google spreadsheet of game rankings has the GIMLET numbers for each category separate even when there's a summary in the main post, if that helps, OP?

    4. The Gimlet for this is not in the rankings spreadsheet yet, either. I'm sure it will show up before too long.

  4. I should also use from time to time a Buzzfeedesque "10 reasons why this game sucks". It is snappy, funny and fast to write.

    "Conquering Armies" is on my to-do list and from my quick test to check whether it qualifies as a wargame or not, it was pretty decent for the platform. I'll report here :).

  5. Wow, this looks cheap. It's very telling when the captions in the review are more entertaining than the game itself.

    1. If you want to have another laugh, check out what the Retrolorian website has to say about this game - really makes you wonder how they put together their database and says something about its reliability. Chosen bits:

      "Released in 1983 by Commodore International, The Wizard's Tower captured the hearts of gamers around the world with its immersive gameplay and stunning graphics. Developed by Steven Lea, this fantasy adventure game quickly became one of the most popular titles for the Commodore 64, setting a new standard for role-playing games at the time."

      "The game's graphics were nothing short of groundbreaking for its time, with detailed backgrounds and animations that brought the fantasy world to life. The diverse challenges and puzzles within the game kept players engaged and motivated to keep pushing forward. The use of sound effects and music also added to the overall immersive experience, making players feel like they were a part of the game itself."

      "One of the most impressive aspects of The Wizard's Tower was its intricate storyline."

      "The Wizard's Tower received critical acclaim for its innovative gameplay and graphics, earning it a spot as one of the top 50 Commodore 64 games of all time. The game's success led to several ports and remakes in the following years, cementing its place as a cult classic in the gaming world."

      And yes, the screenshots and technical data correspond to the game Chet played (C64 version).

    2. Wow. That screams "ChatGPT-generated review", considering that it gets wrong both company and author, it's very generic and skimpy on the details, but otherwise it seems written in correct English.

    3. It is definitely a Chat GPT review, you can recognize its default style (the systematic use of adjectives and the grandiloquent description, "capture the hearts", "cementing its place" etc.

      I checked a bit, and many "minor" games have similar reviews. For instance, Juggler, a 1982 forgotten game, is nothing short than " Juggler is a classic Atari 8-bit game that still remains popular to this day", "a timeless classic that is sure to provide gamers with hours of entertainment."

      The funniest miss is Drak, a minor 1995 Tetris clone that ChatGPT confused with a RPG: "[Drak] utilizes a mix of 2D and 3D graphics, creating a unique aesthetic that adds to the overall immersive feel of the game. The landscapes are beautifully designed, with varying terrains and environments that make the player feel like they are truly exploring a vast fantasy world." Let's not forget its "exceptional soundtrack. The music perfectly captures the mood and atmosphere of the game, adding an extra layer of depth to the gameplay experience. From soaring orchestral pieces to haunting melodies, the soundtrack of Drak elevates the game to a whole new level."

      Read it yourself and compare with the screenshoots here:

      More popular games have shorter descriptions that feel way more "human", so clearly they just used ChatGPT to fill the gaps.

    4. As the kids would say, this poop is funny. First thing I did was check Ironseed, a weird little Star Control-like. First compared it to Starflight, fair, then said it was a predecessor to Master of Orion in spirit and name. I don't think the short ones are any more reliable, guys. Also, a lot of these descriptions just have random combinations of developers and publishers, especially the Korean ones for some reason. Check out The Necrons on there for a particularly heinous example.
      I feel say for anyone who ends up on that website. Even considering how unprofessional abandonware reviews tend to be, they're usually not THAT wrong. I hope no one's first experience with one of those websites is that one.

    5. The page is originally (in) Spanish (which shines through in translation lapses like the too literal "The Wizard's Tower is a game role-playing" for "juego de rol"), but presents its entries also in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, (Brazilian) Portuguese, Japanese and Dutch (!).

      I guess that's only doable on this scale with 'shortcuts' like these which, however, devaluate the site as a whole. But probably useful enough to generate sufficient first-time clicks in general and traffic for the entries on better known games to in turn show up early in search results and continue the click economy cycle.

  6. Aardvark really published nothing but garbage, but there wasn't a heck of a lot of competition on the CoCo. Their arcade games are no better.

    You've played almost all of the CoCo RPGs at this point. Which do you think was least bad?

    1. The Seventh Link has the highest rating, and I would say it's the best except for the length. Paladin's Legacy is a worse game mechanically but it's at least achievable. I have a soft spot for The Power Stones of Ard, though, despite all the trouble it gave me, and I'm looking forward to trying its sequel.

  7. Hi, everyone. If you read this article before the time of this comment, please go back and read the addendum at the bottom.

  8. It's sad to see this is what my state was sending out, even if it's not quite as bad as the initial impressions. Now I'm wondering how the port was so badly handled, although the answer's probably "unrealistic budget and deadlines"

    1. According to the mobygames entry on the company, "[o]ver the times they used various aliases and registered a big number of trade names in 1983: [...] Sincere Singles".

      Given the quality of this game, the box art and how they handled the C64 port, I'm sure it was a great idea at the time to trust in a potential match-making sideline or follow-up by the same people... or maybe that was their true calling?

  9. To the list above, I note that the response "BREAK IN 5100" happens because of a debugging command in BASIC (it is meant to temporarily suspend a program, analyze it, then continue). This means that the endgame was either unfinished or untested.

  10. With the c64 version - you can get more Gold by the looks of the code, but only via treasure chests (or "teasure" chest as they are spelled) - 50gp + up to a random 100 gp + another random amount I am not sure how is calculated)
    With fighting and the random numbers you can pick, a combat value is generated for you = exp/3 + str/4 + IQ/5 + your combined armour value/50. If you are fighting the wizard AND you are using a magical weapon then it is the weapon damage / 30 othewise it is the weapon damage/ 50 + the first of the random numbers you picked / 20 . Something similar happens for your opponant (exp/3 + str/4 +iq/5 + up to 2 random points + the second random number / 18). So from this, if your random number is 40 higher than the enemies, this advantage could be wiped out by the extra random value the enemy gets.

    1. Hah. Yes, okay, the chests are there. They're not visible in the environment, but sometimes while walking through the dungeon, a very quick message comes up saying you found gold.

      Thanks for interpreting the combat statistics.

  11. The Coco never gets enough love and attention, so thank-you Chet for taking the time to specifically review that version.

  12. Regarding these C64 ""ports"" I'm under the impression that more often than not the original developers or publishers just hired some random guy they knew who had a C64 to just reprogram their game with low effort and payment to try make some quick money on the more popular machine. I remember some retro gamer articles and comments on lemon64 where that guy didn't even get the original source code before or afterwards any payment at all. So the C64 often got the inferior version even when it was technically superior. Also it could divert quite a lot from the original as we've seen here.

    1. That's true. Although there are some exceptions - for example Forbidden Forest. IMO Atari port is nearly unplayable, but original for C64 is one of my favorite games.

    2. Yeah, that makes sense. I tend to default to the version with the easiest emulator, but from now on (though it's a little late), I'll go to the original version first.

  13. Aardvark had ads in every issue of Compute! and Compute!s Gazette. I was a kid with no money but the ad copy always made the games sound really cool. Decades later I'm glad I never spent any of my meager savings on anything they put out...they were quite expensive for the time, too, iirc


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