Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Red Crystal: Chipped and Cracked

I'm offering money for a town I already somehow own. This is the least of the problems I experienced this session.
The Red Crystal turns out to be hilariously broken, which likely explains why there are no walkthroughs or videos longer than 15 minutes to find online. At the end of my first entry, I had discovered some fairly bad mechanics (NPCs, combat), but this session produced a plethora of bugs that--and here I have to give the game credit--I've never seen before.
A lot of the bugs have a common theme. The game seems to get confused about the relative positioning of things, whether the character on the map or items in the inventory. Just a sample:
  • When you sell items at a shop, the game often sells the "wrong" item--that is, a different one than the one you selected in the menu.
  • As you explore towns, the game thinks you've walked into buildings that you are nowhere near.
  • When you exit buildings, the game often puts the character on the far end of the map from where the building actually is.
  • You often use items and completely different items vanish from your inventory.
This isn't a bug, but NPC icons look exactly like yours, leading to some confusion.
  • The game gives you an option to "Bribe" before every battle, including those with insects and animals, but they never take it. 
  • NPCs to whom you deliver quest items often take completely different items from your inventory, including quest items meant for other people.
  • The game frequently crashes on NPC screens.
  • Wandering NPCs sometimes turn out to be houses which say "nobody home."
This is the result of an NPC running into me, not me running into a house.
  • When you start up the game, it gives you a copy protection screen asking you to type a specific word from a random position, page, and paragraph in the manual. It took me a while to figure out its conventions, including paragraphs that start on a previous page don't count but headings do. Even knowing this, the game tells me that I entered the wrong word about half the time and boots me to DOS.
There are other things to talk about that may be bugs but may just be weird mechanics.
Since the first entry, I exhausted myself exploring Gronk's castle, leaving with nothing to show for it except a Lost Crown and something called Hunwell's Skull. For all I know, one of those two things is one of the "Seven Secrets of Life." I mean, I expected the secrets to be textual, like "brush your teeth between meals," but they could be physical objects.
I made lots of money, so I returned from the castle to the nearby town of Groth. There, I visited an NPC who asked me to find the Lost Crown in the first place. He gave me 3,050 gold coins for it and said he'd give me more when he was restored to his rightful throne. What I didn't notice until later is that he didn't take the crown from my inventory, but rather a random club. I was later able to visit him again (accidentally) and get another 3,050 coins. He didn't take the crown the second time, either. It did disappear from my inventory later, when I tried to use a potion.
Notice that he hasn't actually taken the crown. He took a club.
Also in town, I purchased a "bull axe," learned the "Door" spell, and acquired the deed to the town for 1,732 zetos. I set taxes "fair."
The rate before I arrived was set to "exorbanant" [sic]. The people are going to love me.
Towns are horribly annoying to navigate. First, you get absolutely swarmed with NPCs as if they're trying to attack you. Second, wandering NPCs have absolutely no use whatsoever. None. All the useful NPCs are in houses. Wandering ones don't give you the slightest hint or advantage. They just deliver stock lines, like most of the NPCs in Ultima II. Soldiers say, "Move on, desert rat!" Merchants say, "What can I do for you?" but don't do anything for you. Dwarves say, "Good day, stranger." And you have to stop, wait, and acknowledge every damned one. As above, sometimes wandering NPCs turn out to be houses. I don't know how that works.
As you've already told me 25 times.
And speaking of houses, you have to thread yourself through the town carefully, because a building will read your approach from a mile away. You can point yourself vaguely at the wizard's tower, move a millimeter, and suddenly find yourself in the tower. Other times, you can wander back and forth on top of a building and not enter.
I returned to Gronk's fortress to try again. Enemies remained relentless and combat never really got any better. It did get shorter. My sword had done maybe 5-15 points of damage on the right attack setting, but my axe did more like 15-40. However, the sword would do small amounts of damage even if I didn't choose the optimal attack type (one of nine options as covered last time). The axe would just miss if I didn't choose the optimal option.
This was one of my weaker swings, but I didn't get screen shots of the stronger ones.
Slowly, I mapped, taking screenshots as I completed each level, since the game forgets each level as you move to the next one. I found some gold armor and put it on, raising my armor from 7 to 8. The game's approach to armor is weird. It disappears when you use it (put it on), and the effects of multiple pieces of armor are cumulative. By the end of this session, I was wearing gold plate over my gold plate and had three sets of boots on.
I found my way to the bottom level of the dungeon but got stuck there. The bottom level has a weird blue tone. It is full of invisible walls that appear on the automap but not the main screen. In the southeast corner is a hallway heading east, but there seems to be no way to get into it. The game has a secret door mechanic, but with no wall to see, there's no door to find. I hunted around the level multiple times and could find no way to access the attached area. I don't know whether that's a bug or whether I missed something.
The weird bottom level of Gronk's fortress. I can't get to that area to the east.
I made my way out of the dungeon--this time, I had risen to Level 5--and decided to try the dungeon in the northeast corner of the outdoor map. On the way, I stopped in the isolated town of Stalnaker. There, an NPC named Solas gave me a sword that did over 100 points of damage when I chose the optimal attack position, so no complaints there--except that NPCs kept stealing it when I tried to give them other things, forcing me to reload.
Nice! See you in Dragon Age 4!
I went to town hall to see how much it was to buy the town. What I didn't notice is that at some point, the game decided I already owned the town, and put "Owner: Chester" in the town information block. So when I offered 3,200 zetos for the deed, the game told me that I was paying myself (I didn't get them back, though). The deed appeared in my inventory.
An NPC named Pizunni said he was sick and needed an elixir. I bought one from the nearby mage's tower and returned it to him. He took my Solas Sword instead, and the game froze on this screen, so I never saw the rest of her message. It happened again after a reload. I had to give up.
Hey! That's not going to cure your illness!
In the northeast corner, I visited the city of Nazar, where nothing interesting happened. North of it was the Temple of the Undead. I entered and found a scroll on the ground that said, "Only Xoptaous may enter." There were no exits from this room. I assume I have to find something somewhere else that lets me disguise myself as Xoptaous.

When I exited the dungeon, I was all the way on the south edge of the world map even though I had entered the building in the northeast. 
Not for long.
I went to the closest castle, Tagar's, and explored seven floors without finding anything that seemed like a Secret. One by one, I lost all the items in my inventory while using my Red Crystal to view the entire automap without having to explore everything. I still couldn't get past a certain point. I had paid to learn spells in the towns, including "Crystal," "Detect," "Aware," and "Door." These are supposed to help make maps, find secret doors, and create doors in blank walls. I couldn't get a single one to cast. Maybe knights just aren't good at magic.
Anyway, with all those inventory items missing, it's probably a good thing I didn't find the Secret. I'll have to reload from before visiting the castle. I wish I knew what the secrets to exploration are so that I could find at least one of the Secrets of Life. I wish I even knew what I was looking for.
Do these rocks have anything to do with it?
It's probable that I'm not going to be able to continue with the game and will have to code it "NP" for "not playable." However, I'll leave it open for a little while in case someone comes along with any intelligence--including perhaps author Charles Griffith, to whom I've sent a message. In the meantime, I had a look at Computer Gaming World's April 1994 review of the game by Alan Emrich and Petra Schlunk. It is easily the harshest review I've ever seen in the magazine. They encountered many of the problems I described above and several that I didn't. They were unable to get multiplayer to work, for instance--although it turns out that if you do get multiplayer going, the only thing that you can do with the other player is trade off who fights in combats. You can't even talk to each other.
They do offer that: "The seven secrets of life are decent pieces of sage advice, told by one of life's truly great adventurers, co-designer Bruce Williams (founder of QQP)." I don't really know how to interpret this. Do you meet Bruce Williams on top floors of the castles? Is his advice written on scrolls or something? Or am I misinterpreting what CGW is saying?

The review concludes:
Frankly . . . we can't believe that it says QQP on this game's box . . . Like Babe Ruth, when QQP steps up to the plate and connects with a game, they hit home runs and the fans come back anticipating the next one. When they miss, however, a strike-out seems all the more disappointing. We fear that this foul ball has hit them in the face, leaving a black eye that may take some time to completely heal.
Well, QQP came back all right, publishing more than a dozen strategy games and casino games before the company was sold in 1995. (It was sold a couple of times after that, too; its assets currently seem to be held by Digital Leisure, a Canadian company.) They never tried another RPG, though.

Ed. I just realized from the screenshots that despite reloading when something important disappeared, I somehow lost Hunwell's Skull at some point. I hope that wasn't important.
Time so far: 8 hours


  1. I'm still amazed they sold this for actual money. Imagine you can only afford one game in a few months. For the price of Serpent's Isle or Elder Scrolls: Arena, you get... this.

    Well, at least from a historian's point of view, you have probably found the CRPG equivalent of The Room. That's something.

    1. You really have to wonder if this was tested AT ALL! Memory pointers should be easy to fix at least. Exiting at the back of a building you can live with, the broken multiplayer means you can still play it, but the disappearing items is just not acceptable.

  2. Oh to move on then. If you wonder if it's winnable there is a 10 hour playthrough by some guy on YouTube with a won screen in the end so apparently it is. Still this is so not worth 10 hours of anyone's life.

    Regarding the player icon vs NPC icons, your sword has a light blue-ish hue you perhaps didn't notice due to color blindness.

    1. From the playthrough, you're looking for a boss battle in the castle which, when won, will give you one of the secrets as a text.

    2. How in the world did I miss that? I'd better study it to see what I'm missing.

      I probably got the battle and accidentally hit "Continue" or something.

    3. Apparently, I need to search without a subtitle or publisher, and for the wrong year. I never would have found it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  3. "I did disappear from my inventory later, when I tried to use a potion."
    These bugs are getting worse and worse! Talk about losing yourself in a good game.

  4. With regards to what CGW meant about the Seven Secrets… I think they mean that they are textual “secrets” that were written by the author, not coming from an existing religious or philosophical text. “Be excellent to each other “ vs. “Thou shalt not kill.”

  5. Sounds like bad memory management, list pointers, and such. You've already put more time into it than I ever would have - those are the sorts of bugs that make a game unwinnable. At some point (even if you keep careful watch to not accidentally lose a quest item) something's going to get corrupted.

  6. Go home Red Crystal... You've hand enough to drink.

  7. Sounds like this playthrough of Skyrim didn't go too well for you then?

    In seriousness, that's an accurate comparison. Bethesda's Terminator games made their TES games look like they were running like butter, so I can imagine a RPG from before Arena playing just as badly as this one did. Goes to prove that even for people who are generous to buginess there are limits.

  8. If I were you based what you've encountered, I'd punt and move on. I have a feeling you're going to get stuck at some point.

  9. ohh, I bet I know what they've messed up: They've got an error in their pointers or their list indexing somehow, probably an off by one error. If this was written in C this is REALLY easy to do if you, say, forget arrays start at 0 instead of 1. If this is in assembly, it is even easier.

    What is bad is at best this is going to cause you to randomly lose the wrong item from your inventory and buy the wrong thing in stores. At worst it is going to start pointing at random chunks of memory and corrupting them. This is quite possibly why the game crashed after talking to the women.

    If you want a really fun example of this: I know you hate pokemon, but seeing a game turned inside out like this via memory manipulation is a lot of fun.

  10. I was browsing for, er, my own purpose in the Computer Gaming World 1996 article on the "50 worst games of all times" and well, it is there, rank #22: "Deadly proof that QQP should have stuck to strategy/wargames".

    I would not trust them completely: they put Ultima VIII and Cardinal of the Kremlin in the "50 worst". Those games don't deserve to be in the "50 best" for sure, but there are much worse games out there.

    1. Here's the list, although it looks rather poorly researched. Megatraveller and Disciples Of Steel are also in there, but also a few games that (according to Wikipedia) have been smash hits and bestsellers.

    2. What sick, twisted minds can put Disciples of Steel on a 50 worst games list?

    3. I don't know, but could some of the games mentioned been just about as buggy as this game at release? Only to be fixed later?

    4. I forgot how strange that list is. Some pretty good candidates, but also some strange choices that are more...well...weird to say are truly best or worst. (Star Fleet 2 is a particularly odd choice) Cardinal of the Kremlin, for instance, might be full of American cranberries, but I've seen no indication it's anything worse than an unusual anomaly.

    5. These lists are written for entertainment purposes, and for that you need some well-known games, mixed up with some traditional "worst game" choices, plus some controversial picks that get the flamewars started. I mean, noone's going to play all the games and rank them according to a well-defined scale, right? That would be madness ;)

      (If you wanted to make an argument for Ultima 8 as a "worst game" - expectations play a role in how badly a game is perceived, and the expectations for an established, beloved franchise from a respected publisher are much higher than for a game like Red Crystal)

    6. We should make a list of the "50 worst lists of all time"!

    7. @Buck: Of course, I am aware there is no definitive list of the "worst 50 games"; I am not sure it is here to trigger flamewars though. This was in 1996 - flamewars did not trigger clicks back then, only more Letters to the Editor to parse through. On the other hand, before mass Internet, the video game journalists lived on islands: if two people in your circle of friends did not like a game and no one else played it, then everyone would assume that the game sucked indeed.

      @Dalinar: I am sure Umberto Eco, grand connoisseur of lists, did something like this. I remember he compiled a "list of lists" [but only for list of the Middle Ages, it would be impossible with internet]

    8. @TWS you mean like this?

    9. OK I did not know this one, and now I am happy to know it.

      I was thinking of this one:

      Amusingly, it links to your LoLoL.

    10. Other RPGs on the list are MegaTraveller 1, Disciples of Steel, Ultima VIII, and Fountain of Dreams. It seems to be all over the place.

    11. Well, I hope it's safe to say that it looks like that 50 Worst Games list was probably right about Homey D. Clown.

    12. @Buck, generally, yes, but CGW isn't supposed to be like some modern gaming website, surviving exclusively off hate clicks and whatever shred of reputation they've managed to keep over the years; You expect an article from them to not be clickbait, or rather whatever you would call magazine bait, you would expect some journalist integrity.

    13. The list is from 1996, I suspect Ultima 8's reputation improved a bit over time afterwards, simply by not being Ultima 9...

    14. Indeed MK, we all lived on the Chesil Beach of the Internet back then.

    15. CGW was VERY controversial at the time. Oh sorry I was thinking of the Spanish edition, the one who gave 4.5 stars to Call to Power and 2 to Alpha Centauri.

      The list is a mixed bag, with mostly the thing that made me hate online pop reviewers: one sentence that explains very little because it shows that they only added the game without playing it. Inca II is at least very fun, Hell is basically a point n click Bloodnet so I am going to defend it with my life (it is also very fun), Unnecessary Roughness was a hell of a fantastic sports game, Blue Force is at the lowest an amusing Police Quest spin off, and why add Threxder there, really.

    16. What's wrong with Call to Power? (Outside of not being as good as Alpha Centauri, of course)

      Also, according to people over at TAG, Blue Force is basically Police Quest 4, with the actual PQ4 playing like the weird spin-off. It might be worse than the other entries, but not so poor as to be that bad, not when Capstone has stacks of adventure games...

    17. Carlos, I remember playing Alpha Centauri pretty much at launch, and, unless it received a very good translation, it was rather unenjoyable even to an advanced ESL speakers. All tech trees was pretty much wall of text, hard to visualize, and the many custom units were quite hard to distinguished from one another.

      Now, I agree that SMAC is probably a deeper game with more replayability, but to a casual non-native English gamer it could be over the top for no good reason.

    18. @Wargaming Scribe, this is not entirely correct: a lot of gaming community in the 90es was more in person (if only to exchange pirated versions and solution files), and BBS'es were pretty active. True, they had less penetration than the Internet today, but PC gaming community as a whole was much more tech-savvy than the average citizen at the time, so the two cancelled out.

      As I remember late 90es scene, trash talking articles did sell magazines, if only for gamers to see what the author will pull off *this time*.

    19. @MorpheusKitami the issue was an obvious putting one against the other and a low score (which is basically a "failed") to the Sid Meier one, describing the game as unplayable. I don't know what the canonical people at TAG say, as Carlos if you ask me because I have played loads as well I can tell you that PQ4 gets worse every year while Blue Force does not :P
      @RandomGamer weird thing is that SMAC went directly into the canon of turn based strategy games as a deep, fun example of the genre while Call To Power disappeared. I did not play the Sid Meier one until years later and, eh, yeah it is very ugly I must admit.

    20. "What sick, twisted minds can put Disciples of Steel on a 50 worst games list?" I suppose the same kind of mind that would review the game by writing: "Clunky controls. Small view window + large, mostly empty cites. Having to manually check the prices on each item in turn in shops. Inadequate documentation. Very poor graphics for a 1994 DOS game (just a port from the four years older Atari ST/Amiga version, I guess)."

  11. I don't like to speak too harshly about games on this site because I know the creators sometimes come by, but this is just embarrassing. Even if it wasn't incredibly buggy, this does not seem like a professional 1993 game (why is the play field so tiny? why are all of the character swords? why are the dungeon levels so basic and empty?). I have to assume that it was rushed to market, but it's really unbelievable that anyone considered it fit for sale. I'm pretty sure you've reviewed shareware games written by teenagers that are more complete products than this.

  12. This feels like a contender for one of the most broken games covered so far. Like, even the ones that couldn't be beat because of glitches seemed like they were more functional than this

  13. Those bugs are hilarious. A likely case of "It compiles? Ship it!".

  14. I second Canageek. They most likely messed up their pointers, be it in C or assembler, which means that this game will behave completely unpredictable. Randomly vanishing objects are your least problem, much more critical are things going on in the background that you don't realize and that will mess up your game. A crash is actually something good under this circumstances, because at least you know that something went pear-shaped.

    1. Either off by one errors, miscalculating parts, or they’re overwriting the pointers. Either way it’s recipe for carnage for the code!

  15. Yeah, I agree with the diagnosis. Also, why does this look like a Might and Magic game? (of the Terra/Xeen era)? I think it might be the silly helmet reminding me of Sheltem in the Xeen games. Shame it is so buggy - I *liked* the Xeen games, silliness notwithstanding.

  16. I have a bizarrely strong urge now to reverse-engineer the game and release a patched version...


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