Saturday, June 12, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: Won!

A final score in the billions is a good example of the inflation of everything in this game.
My last entry must have been maddening for anyone who knows the game well. I was minutes from winning, but I kept allowing myself to get distracted.
To win Darkside proper, I just needed to finish going up the various levels of Castle Alamar. Level 2 had a large area full of rings of elemental power, with four "sundials" in the corners. If I tried to walk in the elemental area, I got dumped back to the first floor. Clearly, I had to set the dials, but to what?
For some reason, I expected the answers might be found on the elemental planes, so I went back to the skywalk and revisited the Plane of Fire. That was a waste of time, but more on that in a bit. While I was there, I remembered that I'd taken screen shots of about 15 statues with various clues last time, so I went sorting through those. One of them said: "Nine is the time." I thus set all the dials to 9 and opened a way to a stone head in the center of the level who asked me Alamar's real name. I answered SHELTEM, and the way to the next level was open.
This is one way to avoid having to grout.
The next level had a bunch of individual squares of each of the four elements. I had to figure out the safe path. Again, a statue had my back. One of the statues in the basement had a long string of letters representing air, earth, fire, and water, and together they traced the safe path through the elemental forces and to the stairs.
The ending was anticlimactic in terms of our own participation. A cinematic took over as we went up the last set of stairs. It shows Sheltem sitting on his throne. "Come to me," he says, as the door opens. Someone from the party tosses Corak's soul box into the room. It lands on the floor; the lid pops open; and Corak emerges. 
I still don't understand exactly what these guys are made of.
"Corak?!" Sheltem screams. 
"Yes, it is I. You have nowhere to run, Sheltem."

"Nor do you!" Sheltem retorts. He takes off his helmet, revealing a scarred and burned face--half-destroyed, really. "I'm ready for you this time. This fight will be your last."
Then I shall head to Gotham City!
"I cannot fail!" Corak declares as their battle begins. We get about half a minute of the two entities casting spells at each other. Finally, Corak bounces some kind of energy beam off the ceiling and then Sheltem's throne, hitting Sheltem in the back and driving him into Corak's grip. 
This is just a bizarre-looking throne room.
As they grapple, Sheltem says, "Admit your defeat, Corak."
"I do," Corak replies. "Initiate self-destruct, Code zero-zero-one."
"Do not want!"
"What?! No! No!" Sheltem hams, as some kind of energy dissolves both entities as well as the floor beneath Sheltem's throne room. For some reason, the hole in the floor shows open space beyond, including a nearby planet. As their remains get sucked out into space, a bolt comes out of somewhere and blasts away Sheltem's tower. That seems like an unnecessarily thorough self-destruct sequence.
What are we even looking at?
The party then gets a winning screen, but of course things aren't over yet. The next screen has a note from the Dragon Pharaoh that the World of Xeen still needs us and that we should return to the Great Pyramid.
If you're interested, my score at this point was 2,523,228,511.
The game reloads in Castleview. We cast "Town Portal" to get to Olympus and then took the skyship to the top entry of the Great Pyramid. There, the Dragon Pharaoh outlined the steps necessary to bring about the final destiny of Xeen: turn on the four machines in the corners of the other side of the world, awaken the elemental sleepers on this side of the world, rescue Prince Roland, and open the way to the cloud world above Darkstone Tower. We had already rescued Roland, of course.
Much of the rest of the game was perfunctory. We visited each of the elemental planes in turn. Each had elemental enemies aspected to the plane: fire idols, water terrors, earth blasters, and whirlwinds. Some of them were hard to hit even for my high-level party, but they couldn't really damage us, and when we did hit, they died in one or two. Each plane had a single treasure chest with 1,000 gold and a few items. Each had a shrine that offered us an elemental "test," the purpose of which is unclear. And each had a statue that together told us the exact same things that the Dragon Pharaoh had just told us about how to win the game.
That sounds like a weapon in a Buck Rogers game.
From there, we returned to the Clouds side, where the only difficulty was judging how many squares to "Teleport" to the floating platforms in each corner. Once there, we activated four reflectors, each aspected to one of the four elements.
Maybe it doesn't know the words.
To open the way to the clouds above Darkstone Tower, I needed the Chime of Opening from the Southern Sphinx. I was somewhat annoyed by the dungeon. At Level 150, I still had to buff strength to open the coffins (none of which had anything anyway), my ninja failed at disarming most traps, and everyone kept getting cursed. It was trivial to drop a "Lloyd's Beacon" and zip over to Vertigo for healing and uncursing, however. The monsters were easy enough--dragon mummies and ghost mummies and phase mummies. Being able to kill them in one hit somewhat justified all the leveling I'd done.
When multiple dragon mummies don't bother you, it's time for the game to end.
Still, the dungeon seemed to be designed to troll me. There's a section of pendulum and blade traps that can tear apart even a high-level party, and a couple of enchanted candles wanted me to pay 2 million gold, each, to disable them. Who has that kind of cash at this point in the game? I nearly ran out of money having the temple cast "Uncurse." Then there were these barrels that just handed out 2 million experience points, as if experience isn't utterly worthless by this point in the game.
Either this is just to screw with players, or the game really has no handle on its own economy.
The sphinx was three levels, and it had the same sort of deal as the northern sphinx I explored a lifetime ago. We had to descend into the basement to find the letters that spell the sphinx's name, then speak that name at the stairway from the main level to the upper level. It was like the developers read my last entry, because as one final needle, they made the sphinx's name PICARD. 
Actually, I guess that wasn't the sphinx's name, but rather the mummy that rules the sphinx from his throne on the upper floor. He said he'd give me the Chime of Opening in exchange for a widget ("a hypothetical item of which its existence has never been proven"). We had one from ages ago. I couldn't remember why, but a check online shows that we got it for bringing Halon the Inventory a hot lava rock. Picard gave us the chime, and we warped out of there. Honestly . . . a "widget"? If you're the developer of this game, how do you not make Picard demand a Tribble instead?
If the revival series has any guts, it will end with Picard getting mummified on a distant, flat world.
I steeled myself for Darkstone Tower, forgetting that I'd already cleared it, so that was a nice surprise. I just had to return to the top staircase and go up to the cloud level. There, we met the game's final challenge: a pointlessly long spiral walkway with little signs advertising New World Computing's other games. It took a good 10 minutes to follow the path all the way to its terminus. I feel like they should have thrown in some combats here. 
Did you have to disable "Teleport"?
The walkway ended at yet another pyramid, and entering it triggered the endgame sequence for the World of Xeen expansion. You can watch it on YouTube, but I'll summarize it for the sake of completeness. The image shows a domed platform on the top of a very long pole--almost a space elevator. I have no idea where this is supposed to be. I guess maybe the final pyramid takes you there, but the in-game graphic doesn't show anything extending upward.
Where did this thing come from?
"And so the call went out to the people throughout the lands of Xeen that the prophecy was nearing completion," we learn. "They came in great numbers to witness the momentous occasion." As we're about to see, one hopes that they came in total numbers. On a dais surrounded by packed bleachers, Queen Kalindra and Prince Roland get married. Kalindra "presents" the Cube of Power and Roland "presents" the Scepter, and these artifacts are combined on something called the "Altar of Joining." 
The Ancients originally seeded each XEEN with three artifacts, but that got awkward.
A light bathes the room, shoots upward from the chamber, and reaches an apex in space above the world of Xeen, which we see now for the first time as it is: a thin rectangular wafer. (The terrain seen on the Clouds side is a pretty good match for what you find in-game.) The beam splits and arcs from its apex, with four separate beams going to the corners of the land and hitting the four reflectors. Somehow, these reflectors do less reflecting and more relaying, sending the beams around to the Darkside, where they form their own apex. 
My screen shots are going to be lag behind my descriptions for a while.
I'd love some geometry major to tell me what shape we have at this point. If the lines were straight, we'd simply have a couple of pyramids with rectangular bases (I don't believe "pyramid" presumes the base is square), joined at the bases. But instead, the graphic shows the lines arcing to each corner, forming something like a Reuleaux polyhedron but with a flat base.
Whatever the shape is called, the game pretends that two of them joined at the base basically form a sphere. A bunch more beams of light appear, giving shape to the sphere, which then turns solid. There's a final flash, and we're suddenly looking at a planet with continents and water and everything.
The original Xeen looks a bit like a Pop Tart.
This is not uncool, but there are a few problems. I have no problem with the idea that we just created a planet. The game already established that there are portals to the four elemental planes at the corners of the world. It's not a stretch to suggest that by opening those portals and using some combination of magic and technology, the ancients could channel and manipulate the elemental forces in such a way as to create a planet. I might have rewritten the terminology a bit. The "reflectors" might become something like "focusing beams" or something, but I'm otherwise down with the concept. 
See, to be "reflectors," there needs to be a beam coming out somewhere.
My issue is that the graphics suggests that the old two-sided Xeen forms the core of the new world. You literally see the sphere forming around it. I don't know if the sphere is hollow or solid, but either way, the people in that dome are in for a tough time. What I would have done is show the dome--which already looks like a flying saucer--popping off its spindle, heading up into space, and then firing the beam downwards. You could then imagine that it was like an ark, keeping the inhabitants safe until they could land on the new world. 
A better ending all around would have been to set the endgame in the core of the world rather than the clouds above it, then show the new planet sort-of "puffing" into existence out of the existing wafer. You could then pretend that the existing structures were preserved on the new world.
Okay, I'm with you so far, although we have to assume there's something in space causing the apexes to form where they are.
But sure, if I was willing to accept multiple VARNs attached to a CRON, I'll accept this. It's a cool ending to the lore of the series, and I wish the game had been more interested in that lore than making Star Trek references. Might and Magic is best when it gives you hints about its universe to ponder. Think about pyramids in general. What are we to make of them, and the clearly Egyptian themes like sphinxes and mummies and pharaohs? Is this just a clumsy borrowing of ancient Earth culture, or is there a deeper suggestion here that the Ancients visited Earth, or even came from Earth? (The answer is almost certainly the former, but it's more fun to pretend it's the latter.) Not only do we later encounter a pyramid on Enroth, but its guardians are called defenders and sentinels "of VARN." How does that jibe with previous lore?
See, this is where you lose me.
We never did find out what happened to the Might and Magic III party that supposedly "beamed down" to Xeen. If they were the original inhabitants of Newcastle, that doesn't explain how they later made it to Enroth. If the party in Clouds is supposed to be the same party, it doesn't explain why they don't have the same default names, or why they're busted back to Level 1. One possibility is that Enroth orbits the same star as Xeen--that it's that other planet you can see in many of the Xeen screenshots. The III party beamed down, got lost or had other adventures, and later hopped back into one of the two crashed ships and flew to the sister world.
A couple of days ago, commenter Jason Mehmel posted some excellent insights as to why the developers might have allowed such jarring transitions from serious plot to slaptstick comedy and nerdy references. In a concurring reply, P-Tux7 remarked both accurately and prophetically: "I'm pretty sure 'SUPER Goober'" was still burned red-hot into Chester's corneas when he watched the endings (the first of Darkside, and then Xeen as a whole) try to be awesome and heartwarming."
The simple fact is, I highly value good lore. It hasn't come up that often on my blog because so few games do it well, even through the 1990s, but I highly prize a good setting and backstory in which you learn little pieces of it as you explore. This is probably why Morrowind remains my favorite RPG, and why I feel so positively about The Elder Scrolls in general. The world-building is massive, and while a casual player will experience the major themes, names, and plot, I love that practically every dungeon I explore, every house I burgle, every NPC I speak with, is going to tell me something interesting about the world.
What's happening to all the people on Xeen?
You can count on one hand the game series that even attempt to build an interesting game world through 1993. Of them, I have to somewhat "write off" the Dungeons and Dragons games, just because you need so many external sources to really involve yourself in the game worlds. After that, you only have a few things left: Star Control, Starflight, Ultima, and Might and Magic might be a comprehensive list. In 15 years and 500 games, we have maybe four series that have any sense of world-building--one of the things that I most look for in a game--so I hope you can understand why I get so irked when developers undermine their own world-building with a bunch of nonsense. Being a fan of an ongoing setting is fun--see all the great discussions people have about the Star Wars and, yes, Star Trek universes, Babylon 5, Doctor Who, Brandon Sanderson's "Cosmere." Those fans forgive occasional lapses. The words are big and complicated, after all. Some of the most fun in fandom is trying to reconcile seeming inconsistencies or plot holes. "The author forgot" is never any fun. Let's find an in-universe reason that the Eagles didn't fly Frodo to Mount Doom or no one ever used the "Holdo maneuver" before. I want to find an in-universe reason that we never meet the Might and Magic III party on Xeen but they somehow show up on Enroth later. But that desire is weakened by every pair of flying feet and every mummy named "Picard." Why would I put effort into a setting whose author clearly didn't care? This is what gets Star Wars fans so upset about the last trilogy.
Scratch that theory.
"Your problem," you now want to tell me, "is that the Might and Magic series was never meant to be taken that seriously." First off all, sod of with the passive voice. I'll believe that it "was never meant" to be taken seriously when Jon Van Caneghem shows up in the comments and says so. Second, if an author doesn't want his work taken seriously, the least he could do is not tease the audience. Make it outright parody, like Keef the Thief. Don't make me believe in the Avatar and then send him to Mars. Imagine getting all the way to the A Dream of Spring and finding out that Jon Snow's parents are Lyanna Stark and Bozo the Clown.
Here, the opposite happened. By the end of my last entry, the New World Crew had gotten me to the point where I was ready to wash my hands of the entire series. Then, Xeen ends with a bunch of stuff that makes it interesting again. I don't like being yanked around this way. My memory is that it gets a little more stable with The Mandate of Heaven, but unfortunately it's going to be a long time before we get there.
Final Time: 44 hours


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Abandoned Places 2: A Small World After All

"Claw monkeys" attack me in the game's wilderness.
I don't know if Abandoned Places 2 is going to score very high on the GIMLET, but it's been a nice, relaxing game for this week, a perfect companion to the spring breeze blowing through my window. It offers a nice contrast to both Might and Magic and the writing-heavy work that I have to do this summer.
We left off as I was entering Level 3 of the starting dungeon. This one was a bit easier to map than the first, featuring lots of long corridors and big rooms. It was conceived as a set of tombs, and stepping on squares in front of the tomb doors usually offered some information about the resident of the tomb. Examples:
  • You see a note written in gold above the entrance: "Here sleeps Marcus the Mage. We hope he will rest in peace, for his and your sake."
  • Difgabos mightily defended the city when it was under attack by twelve hundred trolls. The warlord made them flee with only one hundred warriors."
  • You stand before the tomb of Lord Vezil, who founded and built the city from nothing. He is rumored to be buried with his favorite jewelry.
"For his sake and yours" would have been so much better.
I thought the names might be references to the backstory of the first game, but I couldn't find them anywhere in there. Nor are they the names of the first game's heroes.
Enemies were just more skeletons and armored skeletons, same as the first level, when my characters were Level 1 instead of Level 4. There was one large room in which we had to fight about 20 of them, but even that wasn't too difficult as long as I kept up on healing. My necromancer got "Cure Serious Wounds" at some point, which made that easier.
The party encounters an anti-magic zone.
The dungeon's puzzle did more to kill me than the enemies. There was a long corridor where I kept having to deliberately walk through fire squares because the regular squares were "slick" and kept pushing me back. I don't have any "Walk on Fire" or "Resist Fire" spell yet. Even worse was a room that slid us into a group of fire squares, each of which had a slider pushing us to a different square. In my panic to get out of the room, I kept running headlong into walls. This area produced the only party death so far in the game. On a reload, I had to act quickly to open a door from within the fire and then step out of it.
There were more chests on this level than the first, many of them with things like gems, jewelry, and statuettes. I think these are probably just for resale. My characters finished getting suits of armor on this level, plus a few helms and boots to go around. 
Finding the first quest object.
Ultimately, we had to find two keys to open two successive doors. They led into a chamber with a final treasure chest, which contained the Elixir of Health. We took it back to the wounded Master on the first floor.
A follower takes the elixir from you and pours it into the mouth of the Master. The Master opens his eyes and says, "Thank you for not letting me die after finishing my mission. Now go to the old Southern Dwarf Mines and seek the ancient magic shield called 'Dobelal.' I know little on this artifact, but some say the dwarfs knew it well. But be cautions with them! It is said that Pendugmalhe took control over the strongest dwarven army, too. Maybe Pendugmalhe found the Dobelal, but he can't destroy it without the ancient sword Kuhalk and the powers of his strongest creatures summoned upon the artifacts. I doubt he can get them all to curse the weapons, but who knows . . . . We had better find at least one of the artifacts to make sure he can't finish his crazy plan. Your journey will not be easy, but hopefully Kuhalk and I will give all the help we can. Now go."
The way out of the dungeon was unblocked. I had expected that we would emerge into a top-down overworld, like in the first game, so imagine my surprise when instead we found ourselves in a three-dimensional outdoor area. Imagine my further surprise when it turned out that the area was on fire, and the party started taking massive damage. Even if you're ready for it, you can barely get out of the fire before you die, and I wasn't ready at all. It took me a couple of reloads. No explanation is given for this forest fire that mysteriously never spreads nor diminishes.
This doesn't seem fair.
The forested area was 30 x 30, just like dungeon levels. (I just realized now that there were only two dungeon levels, and that the small "second level" actually fits within the blank space left over on the "first.") It was less interesting to map because there were no puzzles or treasures, just a lot of trees, water, and occasional combats with bears and giants. The graphics are quite nice, though, with particularly good detail in the trees.
Giants attack as I explore their area.
I ultimately found my way to a city on the edge of the map. It was just a menu town with buttons for an armorer, a tavern where you can find a jewelry merchant, a food shop, and a magic shop. I sold all the excess that I had dragged from the dungeon, but even then, my gold wasn't enough to buy anything interesting.
One of the interchangeable cities . . .
. . . and its armory.
When I left the city, I was confused to find myself in an area that didn't match my map. I soon realized that each city has two exits, and that these cities serve as bridges between outdoor maps. Ultimately, I found four outdoor maps, each 30 x 30, connected by four cities. (Three of the cities are perfectly aligned between the maps, but for some reason the one that connects the northeast quadrant and the southeast quadrant enters in one column and exits another.) The cities seem interchangeable. They have no names, and all the shops sell the same things.
Within the four areas, I've found three dungeons on three different maps, including the one I emerged from. I probably need to take a swing around the southwest quadrant to make sure I didn't miss anything, as the map has no purpose otherwise.
The four 30 x 30 maps, stitched together.
I think the outdoor areas might respawn, as a few times I encountered enemies in areas I thought I had cleared. They also might just wander around a lot. If they respawn, it should provide some opportunities for grinding if it turns out to be necessary. Then again, since you get points for successfully casting spells, I could "grind" by just having the spellcasters cast "Create Food" all day.
Speaking of food, the mechanic is about as annoying as I expected it was going to be after the first entry. Food depletes at a rate of one unit per minute, real time, so if I get a character up to 60, I don't have to worry about him for an hour. But casting of "Create Food" can create something worth anywhere from 2 units to 20. I usually have to cast it about 10 times to get a character's statistic over 50. I also think it's amusing from a realism perspective that characters don't complain about hunger until they're so hungry they're literally taking physical damage from it.
I popped into the northwest dungeon, but the mages I met at the bottom of the stairs were way too tough for my party, and the place didn't look very much like a dwarven mine. 
I was here far too early.
In the southeast dungeon, on the other hand, I was greeted by a dwarf immediately on entering. "So you are the Heroes of the Crypt. We have been looking forward to meeting you. Though most of us are forced to hide in tunnels and caves, we will try to help you if possible."
The mines feature some fun graphics--one of the game's strengths--along with numerous attacking dwarves. I guess these must have been corrupted by Pendugmalhe. The first level had a small area behind a secret door where my characters took constant damage, and a number of teleporters that dumped us into this area. There were at least two anti-magic zones, something that continually worries me since my party is so magic-heavy. One of these was in an area full of water and fire, so I couldn't cast "Levitate" or any healing spells. I just had to plow through them and hope for the best. 
Instead of always just showing wall textures, occasionally you get something like this.
As I entered one room, I got a message from some dwarves: "We have come to wish you good luck. But don't you dare touch our treasures!" I really hope they just meant in that one room (where there was one chest), as I opened chests liberally throughout the dungeon.
Other than that anti-magic zone, the party composition has really been working out. My fighter is the deadweight, currently running about 40,000 experience. My voider, in contrast, has almost 100,000. (That's only a single level difference, though.) He got "Fire Storm" a while back, which damages enemies in both columns, and he's likely to continue earning the lion's share of experience until the other two casters get something comparable. 
The spell system is more sophisticated than I originally gave it credit for. Each spellcaster has three status bars, indicating their mana pools in the three different spell spheres: cosmos, elemental, and necromancy. Each spell uses a different combination of these mana pools, as indicated in the spellbook. "Magic Missile" is pure cosmos, but "Sleep" requires a little of each. "Fire Area" is a lot of elemental and a little cosmos.
There are 48 total spells in the game, spread across eight levels, and I think each spellcaster can learn all of them, but each class learns them in a different order, and each class has a different capability for casting them. So while my voider might eventually get "Cure Serious Wounds," he'll only be able to cast a third of them as the necromancer, who has more spell points specific to that spell.
Regardless of the allocation, it feels like the game was a bit generous with spell points, or perhaps the speed of the regeneration of those points. I have not so far had any character run out of points in combat, and they usually fully regenerate before the next combat.
So far, I have 17 of the 18 spells that make up the first three levels. Since I don't have a lot else to report, I thought I'd offer my notes on them. The sphere given is the one that requires the most mana.
Level 1
  • "Magic Missile" (cosmos) and "Meteor Swarm" ("elemental") are both missile spells that only hit the column of monsters on the same side of the caster. They were good when they were all I had.
  • "Light" (elemental) does what it suggests, but most of the dungeon squares are already lit. You only need it in special dark squares, and there haven't been enough of those that I've even noticed how long the spell lasts. Duplicated by torches.
  • "Create Food" (elemental) is absolutely essential, as above.
  • "Sleep" (necromancy) is a bit wasted, unless it works on undead, which I didn't try. The first living enemies you meet are too advanced for it; you need to upgrade to "Dream" (Level 3).
  • "Cure Light Wounds" (elemental) was invaluable until replaced at the third level.
Level 2
  • "Power Bolt" (cosmos) and "Globe of Air" (elemental) replace the Level 1 missile spells.
  • "Create Fire" (cosmos) is another offensive spell that creates a temporary fire square. It's replicated by burning oil.
  • "Levitate" (elemental) is necessary to get over water squares.
  • "Create Potion" (necromancy) is a weird one. It seems to create a Potion of Healing 75% of the time and a flask of burning oil 25%. I suppose it could be useful if I found a large anti-magic area.
  • "Cure Serious Wounds" (necromancy) is a better healing spell.
Level 3
  • "Fire Storm" (elemental) is a better damage spell and effects everyone in front of you, not just the column that lines up with the caster.
  • "Fire Area" (elemental) is like "Create Fire," but it creates a two-square ring of fire around the party, burning everyone who's even vaguely aware of the party's presence. Awesome.
  • "Wall of Illusion" (elemental) puts a temporary illusory wall in front of the party. It might be useful if I was trying to get away to regroup and heal.
  • "Dream" (necromancy) is a more powerful sleep spell. "Sleep" in this game is really just "freeze."
  • "Body Heal" (necromancy) is a more powerful healing spell.
Freezing a couple of dwarves with "Dream."
Getting back to the dwarven mines, the first two levels have not really expanded the game's bag of tricks. There are lots of secret doors, buttons, pressure plates, teleporters, spinners, and corridors with spells whizzing by. Trying to approach the game without mapping would be a nightmare, but when you're making careful maps, none of this is terribly bothersome. Back in the original Abandoned Places, I noted that in the early levels, there was no complexity to buttons or pressure plates. When you saw one, you almost always wanted to activate it. (That sometimes makes it hard to map, however, as you can't always be sure what button opened what area.) Later in the game, it got more complicated. A button might open one door but close another. This game seems to be repeating the pattern, or at least the fist half of it. So far, there's no mystery to buttons or plates. If you see one, you press it, because it's going to open a passage that's otherwise closed. This generally means that I can solve puzzles in the order I encounter them. In a more serious Dungeon Master game, I would map everything I could without touching anything so I could be sure exactly what effect everything had.
As I got to Level 2 of the mines, there were three messages in quick succession:
  • You hear a voice saying, "You may freely go now. Do not push your luck, before its too late!"
  • The voice is getting angrier. "Leave now, rats."
  • Hundreds of dwarves are ahead, dead and tortured.
Not that I wanted to see such a thing, but it's too bad we're not in the era in which such things could be depicted visually.
The only way to go (other than locked doors) took me into a huge room called the "Room of Chaos." Here, every single one of the game's tricks was on display in a huge 13 x 15 room. My map below shows three teleporters with one destination (the 1s), numerous spinners, a couple of which are also dark squares, two slider loops, and a bunch of traps. I'm not really sure what the point of the room is. Other than a small pile of gold in the middle of one of the slider loops, there wasn't much to find except the exit. I'm not sure if I missed something.
The aptly-named "Chaos Room."
That I took the time to list and describe every spell means that I've hit that point that I always hit in Dungeon Master-style games, where there's not much left to say but still a lot of game left to play. Mapping those four outdoor areas, for instance, took about six hours but only provided me enough content for a few paragraphs. If this were Might and Magic, those same 3,600 squares would comprise 14 map areas--more than half of the outdoor game world--and there would have been enough content in there to blog about for weeks. One of these days, it would be interesting to see a hybrid of the two approaches--something with the real-time combat and puzzles of Dungeon Master and the density of content of Might and Magic. If anyone knows of such a game, please share.
Time so far: 13 hours

Monday, June 7, 2021

Revisiting: Empire II: Interstellar Sharks (1983)

This was a pretty good character. He lasted 15 minutes.
Empire II: Interstellar Sharks
United States
Interactive Fantasies (developer); Edu-Ware Services (publisher)
Released in 1982 for Apple II
Date Started: 6 February 2014
Date Ended: 7 June 2021
Total Hours: 45
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 29
Ranking at Time of Posting: 227/414 (55%)

Empire III: Armageddon (1984) came up recently when I went searching for a random game. It would have appeared on the "upcoming" list via the natural course of time soon anyway. I'm eager to try it, but before I did, I thought I'd take another run at Empire II: Interstellar Sharks, which I first covered about seven years ago. You'll want to review that entry before finishing this one, as this builds on that one without re-explaining key concepts.
I spent about seven frustrating hours with the game this week, attempting each of the three character classes with a slew of characters. It's a tough game. You can only save by going back to the space station, and I never saw a commercial flight to the space station, so you have to play long enough to get your own ship if you don't start as a pilot. When a character dies, he's immediately erased from the disk. You can't forestall this by popping the disk out of the drive, as the game continually references the disk, and it crashes--it doesn't ask for the disk; just crashes--if it can't find it. You can't really use save states because it's constantly writing the character and world state to the disk, and if it finds discrepancies between the memory and the saved files, things go wonky.
Winning the game involves making your way to the imperial home planet, Triskelion. This is tough because its location is secret. No commercial flights ever go there; no navigation program will take you there; no "flight planning service" will help you plan a flight there. To get there, you have to have your own ship. Of the three classes, the pilot comes with one, and the businessman and diplomat can buy one after enough financial success.
Making money is a major objective of the game, and each character class has a way of doing it legitimately. The businessman buys and sells stocks and runs missions for his corporation. The diplomat carries messages and handles negotiations. The pilot sells commodities. But there are some sinister implications to the "legitimate" means of making money. Every once in a while, the businessman gets a mission to bomb a rival corporation. The diplomat is asked to assassinate an ambassador or the priest of the Lord of Light. If the pilot wants to make any serious money, he has to trade in weapons or slaves (this is theoretically possible, at least; I never found any place buying or selling slaves). 
This isn't what I got that MBA for.
An interesting element is that any character class can become a businessman simply buy purchasing a seat at the stock exchange. He'll be assigned to a corporation and start getting missions from his corporate masters. A businessman or diplomat can also purchase a ship and start trading cargo. However, I couldn't find any way that a non-diplomat can obtain the things that a diplomat starts with, including high-level passports and diplomatic immunity. Thus, you probably want to start as a diplomat for the most options.
Nonetheless, even the diplomat or businessman eventually gets a quest that requires them to go to Fyrokken, and you can't do that without your own ship. Purchasing a ship from scratch is expensive. At minimum, you need a hull, rockets, a fusion drive, a computer, a navbeacon, and an environmental shield. If you don't want to put your life in the hands of 1d20 roll every time you take off and land, you also need a navigation program. The sum of this equipment is about 10,000 credits, or roughly 5 hours of game play doing diplomatic missions or trading stocks.
You need almost all these parts.
The game's message seems to be that doing things legitimately is for suckers. The easiest way to make a bunch of money in this game is to roll a character with a high dexterity and then STEAL at the bank. The game rolls a 1d20, and as long as it rolls less than your dexterity, you get 100 x the roll. Seven or eight successful thefts can leave you with enough for a ship by itself. Also lucrative is killing criminals in the black markets and playing a gambling game called "Fizzbin" in Denieves. On the other hand, punishment for crime is harsh if you can't BRIBE, ESCAPE, or NEGOTIATE your way out of it.
Bank security sucks in the future.
Unfortunately, your problems are only beginning when you purchase your ship. First, the sheer number of commands to get from one place to another is annoying, and if you forget one of them, you might die. Even if you do everything right, systems fail all the time, usually killing the character. With every single character, I ran into an issue by which the game decided the power no longer worked, and I couldn't load any programs without a battery backup. The problem is, the game only lets you buy one at a time, and it's consumed every time the power fails. If you find yourself on a planet without a Coronal Shipwright (the only place that sells batteries), you can't get anywhere else. And yet the repair service insists that the power is okay. Fortunately, this particular problem seems to be fixed by returning to the space station, saving the character, and reloading. More random failures of power, engine overheating, and environmental systems failures don't have such an easy solution except start again with a new character.
Combat is extremely rare in the game--you basically have to go looking for it, or attack police officers when they try to arrest you for another crime. It's too bad because the system is strong, allowing the character to attack with a variety of weapons, to target specific body parts, to attack recklessly or take AIM, and so forth. The game also offers a staple of tabletop RPGs that we rarely see in CRPGs of the era: frequently rolling against your attributes. If you're trying to escape customs officers, you roll against speed. Trying to negotiate a trade agreement? Roll against charisma. Stealing from the bank? Check your dexterity. Combat uses both strength and dexterity.  
I guess I'm playing a vigilante.
For all the extra time I spent, I still couldn't figure out how to win. I frankly hoped someone else would have figured it out in the last seven years. I did, however, find my way to Triskelion. It turns out that the galaxy is only 6 x 6 locations. The manual warns that the planets move over time, but I always found them in the same places. Finding Triskelion is just a matter of exploring by GO RIGHT, GO FORWARD, and so forth. This process is fraught with a little danger. Systems seem more likely to break when you're manually exploring, and every time you move manually, you have to roll against your "Senses" to see if you were successful in going the direction you intended.
In any event, Triskelion for me was only two moves from either Denieves or Agrosphaire. The problem is, when I arrive, the game just says I can't penetrate its force fields, and then kicks me into a random region of space. There's no opportunity to enter any command.
My map of the galaxy.
Now, I know something else is supposed to happen here (see below), but since there's no opportunity to do anything between your arrival and forced departure, I assume the game must be checking for something that you have. But I've tried buying absolutely everything sold in every store, legal and illegal, to no avail.
For a while, I thought the answer must be the WHITE ROCK. The game calls attention to this specific item, which is only found in the possession of the priest of the Lord of Light or the alien ambassador. You can try to steal it from them or kill them for it. (You can also have fun with the disciples of the Lord of Light by yelling PRAISE THE APEX or PRAISE THE EMPRESS at their meetings.) But it turns out if the rock is in your possession when you arrive at Triskelion, the planet blasts you out of the sky and you die immediately. So that's worse.
The closest I can get to winning.
While we're on the subject, here are some other mysteries:
  • I can't for the life of me figure out how to use either the LASERADIO or NETHERADIO. If I turn them on in the ship, nothing happens. The manual suggests that the laseradio will tell you the name of the planet you're orbiting, if you don't know, but I can't get this to happen. No commands I enter seem to allow me to communicate with other ships with either radio. [Edit: I later figured this out. You turn them on by typing ON LASERADIO and ON NETHERADIO. The netheradio tells you what planets you're near and the laseradio tells you what planet you're orbiting. Each works by scrolling a message in the "communications" window. I had the emulator cranked up too fast to notice it.]
  • There's a ship-to-ship combat mechanism, but you encounter other ships extremely rarely, and it's illegal to possess the items necessary to fight them. Since there's a chance those items will be discovered at customs every time you land on a planet, it doesn't seem worth it.
  • The manual gives SLAVES as one of the commodities that you can trade, but I've never seen them for sale anywhere.
  • You can buy something called a MACROPHONE, "a covert listening device," but I can't figure out any situation in which to use it.
  • You can buy vacuum suits and airtanks to go outside your spaceship, but I can't think of any reason to do that.
I was frustrated enough trying to figure out this game that I installed an Apple II disk file utility so I could read the programs. Unfortunately, I only know enough of Apple BASIC to confuse myself. The critical lines seem to be in the program labeled IS.4:
243  GOSUB 236: IF LR THEN LM$ = "WHAT IS THE WAY?":CM = 1: GOSUB 26: GOSUB 60: IF OB = 72 THEN LM$ = "YOU ARE PREPARED FOR ARMAGEDDON":RQ = 0:CM = 0: GOSUB 26:LM$ = "PASSWORD 2: 'ERGO'": GOSUB 26: FOR J = 0 TO 9: POKE AR% + J,15 +  FN D(3): NEXT : GOTO 229
244 RP$ = NM$ + " IS SPACE DUST": GOSUB 261: GOTO 61

"You can't penetrate the imperial force field" is the message I get if I try to visit the planet; "Chester is space dust" is the message I get if I try to visit with the white rock. What I'm not sure is how I get the messages in line 243. There are a bunch of conditions in here using language that I don't understand, with values that are set in other places in the programming. 

Coming to the CRPG Addict in June!
If anyone with more Apple BASIC skills (or knowledge of the game) wants to help me figure it out, I'd be very grateful. The disk can be downloaded here, and I used CiderPress to inspect the files. I'll give it a week or so to see if anyone responds, and then give Empire III a try either way.
As usual, my commenters came through, and I've been able to see the end, although I'm not 100% sure what to make of it. As you read above, I was able to find Triskelion by exploring space. It turns out you need a) the white rock in your inventory, b) the laseradio on, and c) the CODEBREAK program running when you approach the planet. The white rock must do something to negate the shield, but heaven knows why.
A ship appears as you approach. If your laseradio is not active, the ship simply destroys you. If it is active, you get a message. If CODEBREAK isn't running, you can't read it, but if it is running, the message is "WHAT IS THE WAY?"
I don't feel prepared.
I had to inspect the source code to get the answer. I tried a lot of objects and verbs first, including APEX, EMPRESS, LIGHT, LORD OF LIGHT, FORWARD, SNUFF, and INFINITY. All of those, plus any other incorrect answer, results in the ship blowing you out of the sky. If you type HOME, it takes you back to the space station and you can save the game, but it's not a "win." The winning word is TORCH. At that point, the ship radios: "YOU ARE PREPARED FOR ARMAGEDDON. PASSWORD 2: 'ERGO'." The game then takes you back to the space station on which you started.
So why "Torch"? Code elsewhere in the game suggests that the "Way of the Torch" is affiliated with the Lord of Light, the worship of whom is illegal in the empire. In some encounter--I don't know how it's triggered--you can be visited by the Lord of Light who says, "Remember the Way of the Torch." TORCH is also given in the game manual as one of the many objects that the game recognizes, although I never found an actual torch during the game.
So it was a bit of a cheat, but I'm still going to call it a win. I now feel much better prepared for Empire III, where presumably the ERGO password will get me something.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Mission: Thunderbolt: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

I poured myself a tall one at this point.
Mission: Thunderbolt
United States
MegaCorp (developer); Casady & Greene (publisher)
Based on a module originally released as Doomsday 2000 on mainframes in 1987
Released in 1992 for Macintosh, 1993 for Windows 3
Date Started: 16 March 2021
Date Ended: 24 May 2021
Total Hours: 45
Difficulty: Hard-Very Hard (4.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
A fun, engaging roguelike with a science fiction setting, Mission: Thunderbolt sends your character into a 16-level corporation headquarters to recover an anti-matter bomb and perhaps save the world from alien invasion. The building--partly hand-designed and partly randomly-generated--is crawling with aliens and their human sympathizers. Although Thunderbolt allows you to save, it's no "roguelite." The game is consistently challenging (but fair), and has an advanced roguelike's inventory, combat, and exploration mechanics. Its interface makes excellent use of the Mac's strengths even if its graphics and sound are nothing special.

What I love about roguelikes is that their unpredictable, sandbox nature creates epic stories unique to each player. What I dislike is that those stories are completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't played the same game. Tell a non-NetHack player how you were steps from victory but you ate meat from a tin to cure hunger and it turned out to be cockatrice meat and you turned to stone. Or how you made it to the castle only to have a lich curse your flute at the last second, so you couldn't get the drawbridge down, but just as you were turning to leave, an elf captain showed up and zapped at you with a Wand of Cold, which missed but froze the moat behind you, allowing you to cross. You might get a "cool story, bro," but no real understanding of how tragic or awesome that moment was.
It's worse with Mission: Thunderbolt because the game only has a few fans. I'm full of stories that only Ground_Gainer will really understand--stories about how I was carefully laying mines along a corridor for the dreadnought, but he just blew open the wall next to me, detonating the mines while I was still standing in them. Or about how I spent three hours reclaiming a level from an icky lump infestation by closing off areas with holocubes. Or how I managed to clear a warren of about 20 enemies while my character was confused and stumbling around randomly the entire time. But those of you with roguelike experience will basically get it. There are roguelikes that don't allow for this kind of storytelling--that adopt some basic mechanics of Rogue or NetHack but never do anything with complex item or creature interaction or environmental randomization. I would consider them bad roguelikes.
My little storage area on Level 4, near the reclamation center. I cleaned up the level by selling absolutely every object to the center, even if it wasn't worth anything.
Mission: Thunderbolt is a good roguelike--perhaps even a great one (though I speak from somewhat limited experience). That doesn't mean I always loved it. I nearly quit about 20 times. Having won, I feel about its author the way I felt about my drill sergeant at the end of basic training: I'm grateful for the experience, but did you have to be that much of a dick? It's much harder than NetHack, except that it allows saving and NetHack doesn't. I shudder at the thought of trying to win this one with permadeath.
Despite its science fiction trappings, Thunderbolt is a lot like NetHack. Success comes from learning the strengths and weaknesses of each enemy, from learning how to explore the dungeon safely, and from fully exploiting your inventory. The manual tells you very little. You have to learn through trial and error that you can create a super-bomb by filling up a crate with grenades, activating one, and then hucking it at an enemy, that you can bash through walls with a crowbar, that "snagglepusses" steal your stuff, that you have to stand next to utility bots if you want paint or slime cleaned off you, that damage to your strength and dexterity can be cured but damage to your constitution cannot, and so on. There are web sites and FAQs to help, of course, but not nearly as comprehensively as NetHack or some of the other titans of the roguelike genre. 
I don't even know how to structure all of the notes and issues I have with the game, so let me just do it in bulleted fashion.
  • Services. Life is good when you're close to a bank, AutoDoc, library (which tells you what unknown items are), vending machine (particularly with healing pills), and reclamation center. In the reclamation center, you can drop off unneeded equipment for money, although not everything is worth something. When I was dithering around trying to avoid a dangerous area, I spent a lot of time sweeping through previously-explored areas, picking up everything of any value and taking it to the reclamation center. Sometimes these service locations are wonky and damage you when you try to use them, but I found you can repair them with the sonic screwdriver. One huge complaint: AutoDocs only work based on cash-in-hand, rather than all the money you've been putting in your account. Thus, an AutoDoc is useless without a bank (or cash source) nearby.
A "reclamation center" buys things you can't use.
  • Penalties. Even though I don't really care about my score, just about winning, the "bonus" and "penalty" statistics are oddly motivating. I probably could have won faster by saving and "saving as" a lot more, but you lose hundreds of points every time you save, and it's discouraging to see that penalty statistic racking up. Some of the other penalties are mysterious to me. You get a penalty for every "kiddie kommando"--easily the most annoying enemy in the game--that you kill. You get a penalty every time you try to use a crowbar or sonic screwdriver to disable a trap. Why?
  • Alarms. Every once in a while, usually when you arrive on a new level or force your way through a door or wall, the game rings a cacophonous clang, clang, clang accompanied by a "red alert" or "yellow alert" warning. This was so annoying that it made me want to scream. On the final level, where both you and the enemies are bashing doors open left and right, it sounds repeatedly. It's usually accompanied by CyberCops, enforcers, or sentinels bent on killing or capturing you. 
Every time this happened, it pissed me off.
  • Captured. I noted this in a previous entry. Some enemies--CyberCops, enforcers, sentinels--don't always kill you; they just knock you down to one hit point. You wake up with no equipment in a cell, tied to a chair, with a 10,000-point penalty. I did what someone recommended and played through the scenario. You can free yourself from the chair by repeatedly bashing it into a wall, and then get out of your cell by repeatedly pounding on the door. From there, you can find some basic equipment until you find a footlocker containing all your old equipment on the west side of the level. Yay. But what that commenter didn't tell me is that every time you get imprisoned, your bank account is frozen and you can no longer access any funds you've deposited. I had built up $5,000 in that account. That was a dealbreaker.
  • Traps. Worst part of the game. There are these corrosive mist traps that wipe out half your equipment, gravity traps that won't let you go until you drop everything, traps that give you diseases that sap your hit points until you die. You want to have "auto-search" on to find them, but just about everything turns off "auto-search," so constantly monitoring it is about as annoying as just manually searching. Searching even multiple times doesn't always find every trap, either. I didn't discover until late in my final session that you can disarm traps with crowbars and sonic screwdrivers, but it takes multiple attempts, and they damage you--sometimes massively--while you're making those attempts.
  • Warrens. Warrens are un-numbered areas accessible from the main levels through long tunnels. They tend to feature just one or two types of creatures and often have some kind of theme. They're usually a few levels harder than the one you access them from. I found some useful items in warrens, but generally they were recipes for death, like the all-fangwing warren (see next point) or warrens full of radioactive waste.
Falling into a biohazard in a warren. I later learned you need a special suit to survive here.
  • Poison. A lot of stuff is capable of poisoning you, particularly these awful enemies called fangwings that move too fast for you to avoid or outrun. Once you kill them, you have to spend a few minutes walking or resting to determine if the poison is going to kill you or wear off. It almost always kills you. I'd say, "Good. I killed the fangwing when I still had 100 hit points left. Surely it won't last long enough to erase 100 hit points," but of course it would. Your only hope is a pill of neutralize poison, but these are rare and go fast. I can't tell you how many characters I lost to fangwings.
  • Power. So many things depend on power, and there are so few power devices until the last couple of levels. A laser pistol fires about six shots before it has to be recharged. A light globe lasts about 20 steps. A sonic screwdriver is good for one or two uses. A "forcefield pack" might last 12-15 actions. All of these things need to be recharged. I did not find nearly enough powercells to make the regular use of even one of these devices viable, let alone all of them. And that's without the infuriating random energy drains that happen as you walk around.
  • Icky lumps. These goddamned things are like slimes in Ultima except they divide all on their own, not just when you hit them. Once you see one of them, you'd better kill it fast, because if you let them spread, they can easily take over an entire level or more. They're so horrible that you could be forgiven for thinking that clearing them is the point of the game. If the level is one with a lot of doors, you can clear them by closing most of the doors and killing one room at a time faster than they can replenish. But if the level is more open, with multiple ways to expand, it's hopeless. I had to abandon entire levels, some with useful stuff, to icky lumps. Two nights in a row, I had nightmares about them. The only good thing is that they drop a lot of cash.
I'm slowly reclaiming this level from icky lumps (little yellow blobs) by compartmentalizing them.
What gets me most about the game is how quickly everything can turn to complete chaos. You might arrive on a new level perfectly healthy, feeling well-equipped and ready for anything. You've got your light globe going so you can see more than one square away and react appropriately to approaching enemies. Your laser pistol is in hand. Suddenly, a mysterious power drain puts out your light globe, so you're only able to see one square away. "Splat!" A kiddie kommando hits you in the face with a paintball, and everything goes blank. You try to wait out the effects of the blindness. In the meantime, a prickly orb comes up, hits you, and makes you clumsy. You drop both your main weapon and your reserve. You try to make it back to the stairs, but you fall down a hole, dropping more stuff. You manage to recover your laser pistol and your vision clears just in time to see a snagglepuss coming down the hallway. You fire your laser pistol, but it explodes in your hand, causing you to drop your crowbar. The snagglepuss rips your Kevlar suit off your body, leaving you with no armor, and runs off. Suddenly, an invisible CyberCop is attacking you from some direction, but you don't know which. Trying to get away from him, you step into an electrical trap and die. All of this can take literally 20 seconds, during which the messages are flying by so fast that it's easy to overlook something.
My winning character was named PFC Chang. As I played him, I allowed myself to save every 20 minutes. I literally set a timer. I nearly gave up on Level 12 when for four straight hours, I was unable to get to the 20-minute mark so that I could save again. That is, I kept reloading from the same save point and dying before I could make it 20 minutes past that. 
There are few online resources, none comprehensive, about Thunderbolt, but on some message board that I looked at, I got the impression that late in the game there would be a need for a large amount of money, like $20,000. So I had Chang spend a lot of time running around collecting items and taking them to the salvage depot. I established a little safe area on Levels 4-6, where collectively I had all of the services including a Transmat Booth (teleports you to any other level that also has such a booth). I cleared out a space to dump items that I wasn't sure I needed, or excesses of munitions. I returned regularly when I needed some device or pill identified. 
The level that nearly made me quit was Level 12, which had a lot of enforcers. I could only beat them by activating a forcefield pack, but it was constantly running out of power. More important was a unique enemy called a "terrorist collaborator" who was capable of just detonating any wall in between him and his goal. I spent hours trying to set traps for him before I got lucky and managed to kill him with a couple shots from a laser rifle.
It was around this level that I started encountering "shimmering hazes," one of two non-corporeal enemies--the other is vampire mists--that permanently damage your statistics and cannot be hit with melee or laser weapons, only blasters. I had to abandon levels when I encountered them, but ultimately I found a blaster and everything was fine.
I lost Levels 13 and 14 to icky lumps, but fortunately there were Transmat Booths on both Levels 14 and 15, so I could still get around. Level 15 was the penultimate level and I figured I should explore it comprehensively. It offered a plethora of Zytts (the alien enemy), enforcers, and sentinels, plus this incredibly difficult unique enemy called a dreadnought. Like the terrorist collaborator, he was capable of just blasting his way wherever he wanted to go, so all my attempts to lay mines or use grenades were for naught. I eventually led him to the Transmat Booth--risky, because the booths can be destroyed--and settled into a pattern of fighting him until I was nearly dead, then warping back to an earlier level for healing, then returning. After about 10 rounds of this, I started to question whether the game even remembers damage done to enemies after you leave their levels. I had to change my strategy.
By this time, I started to get the sense that I wasn't going to need $20,000 for anything, so I allowed myself to splurge at the vending machine. If I'd done this earlier in the game, it would have gone a lot easier (although the endgame might have been harder), because the vending machine sells both healing pills and power cells. When you purchase healing pills, you usually get a regular healing pill that has a chance of restoring anywhere from 1 hit point to maximum health. But there's a small chance you'll get a rare pill like one that boosts your attributes, or one that boosts maximum health. So after about an hour of trading my money for pills, I not only had a few dozen healing pills but also near-maxed attributes.
However, at some point, the vending machine ran out, and it was the only one I found. I ended up needing all those pills on the last couple of levels, so perhaps it's a good thing I didn't allow myself to use it earlier.
Anyway, with about three dozen pills at the ready, I just beat on the dreadnought until it was dead and I was down to about eight pills. Icky lumps had taken over the level while we were fighting, and clearing them was hard because the dreadnought had blasted open a bunch of walls and doors. Nonetheless, I forced myself to do it and got a decent supply of late-game equipment.
I trade blows with the dreadnought while icky lumps slowly take over the level around us.
Level 16 was the last level. It consisted of three sections, each with a set of concentric square hallways, and these were full to the brim with Zytts and "giant tentacular horrors." I basically needed to keep my power shield going and use my blaster constantly, but the level was also generous with power cells, and if necessary, I could go back to the vending machine for more. Alarms went off constantly, bringing invisible CyberCops with them. Still, the area was more methodical than actively difficult. I died only about 12 times, mostly because I was hesitant to eat my limited supply of pills unless it was truly necessary.
At the center of the first set of corridors was a "Giant Zytt." I couldn't find any secret door; I had to pound my way into his little room with a crowbar. He was about as hard to kill as the dreadnought. I expected he would have the L.A.M.B. (large anti-matter bomb, the object of the game), so I was frustrated and disappointed when I couldn't find it. That's when I realized that what I had originally taken as one small level in fact had the same configuration replicated three times, side-by-side. None of the three areas had connecting doors, so I had to bash my way between them.
Fighting one of three big bosses. I don't know if I'm accidentally fighting with my crowbar, or if I just took this shot before I swapped it out for my main weapon.
After a few hours, I had finally killed all three Giant Zytts, but I still hadn't found the L.A.M.B. At that point, I realized that the L.A.M.B. was probably one of the two "strange devices" that I had with me, and that it would have to be identified like the others. I might have even found it after the first Giant Zytt. I'm not sure.
The game had one last annoyance for me: I couldn't get back up to Level 15 because the icky lump infestation had returned, and they were blocking the stairs. For a while, I wasn't sure what to do. You can't hack holes in the floors or ceilings of Level 16. There were no Transmat Booths. You can't fire upwards in the stairwell, killing the enemy above. But eventually the lumps cleared that one space and allowed me upward. I had to cleave my way through hundreds of them to get to the Transmat Booth, but they weren't hard, just annoying. From there, I warped back to Level 5 and identified the L.A.M.B. It turned out the other strange device I had was a "Jaunt Box," which I think allows you to teleport around at will, so maybe I could have used that to get out of Level 16. I was out of power, though.
Standing amidst the detritus of the final level, trying to get back up to the previous one.
The game is like Rogue, where the levels get easier as you go up and there are no special enemies trying to kill you with the Amulet of Yendor. (NetHack, of course, famously gets harder after you have the Amulet, even on the upper levels.) It was thus relatively easy to return to the entrance and get out for the winning message. It was probably the greatest sense of relief I've felt since winning NetHack eight years ago.
You gain three levels when you win the game.
Like I said, Mission: Thunderbolt is a good roguelike, and it improves with experience. I didn't really learn how to use most of my equipment effectively until the last couple of levels. I didn't use flares at all until Level 14, and then kicked myself because I could have been buying them cheaply from the vending machine all along. (You throw them ahead of you to see what's there.) I didn't learn that I could disarm traps or fix service machines until the last quarter of the game. And there were plenty of things I never explored, such as feeding food items to monsters to make friends (the game has no hunger system, so that's all food is good for). I never learned what a radometer, gravbelt, or stimmer was for. I never ate a corpse; I assume there must be some benefit to some of them, but I didn't learn it. Ultimately, Thunderbolt is probably fairer than I'm making it out to be. You just have to develop the expertise.
On a GIMLET, I give the game:
  • 2 points for the game world. The sci-fi framing story is okay, but the game is too goofy most of the time and doesn't take its own story seriously enough.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. You have limited options during creation. Development occurs via leveling (which mostly increases your max hit points) and finding pills to improve attributes. There is no sense of character class or role-playing, however.
  • 1 point for NPC Interaction. I'll give that point to a couple of friendly robots and the ability to "tame" some of the creatures.
These bots may be blocking me in, but at least they killed a giant ant for me.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. There are no puzzles in the game, but the list of monsters is original and memorable in the variety of their attacks and defenses.
  • 6 points for combat. It doesn't offer quite as many options as NetHack, but it otherwise has a roguelike's complexity. Mastering the use of terrain, positioning, different types of weapons and devices, munitions, and other creatures is crucial. Sometimes, you have to know when an area or foe is hopeless and just avoid it. 
  • 7 points for equipment. The game really shines in this area, not only with a large variety of weapons, wearables, and digestibles, but some creative ways that the items work in concert. It does not rise quite to NetHack's level of interactivity, but it's better than most RPGs on the market in 1992.
I never did learn what the scanner scans for. Traps?
  • 5 points for the economy. You need money for healing, equipment, and use of the Transmat booths, and while money is plentiful, it's also work to earn it. I didn't really cover this, but coins have weight, so with your other equipment, you can maybe carry 50 of them at a time. Even on levels with plentiful coin, you have to spend hours shuffling it bit by bit to the bank.
  • 3 points for a main quest with no alternatives and choices. It also has no side-quests, but it has some side areas that are almost as good.
  • 5 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are a little small, although the game allows you to zoom in with the "Detail" window. Sound effects were fine but a bit sparse. Where the game really shines is its interface. Not only are the windows user-definable and arrangeable, you have multiple ways to execute commands, including the menus, the keyboard, a command list window, and a button window. You can also click on the screen to move and do obvious things like searching, picking up items, and attacking enemies. I mostly did everything with key commands, and I generally found them easy to master.
  • 5 points for gameplay. It has a bit of nonlinearity in the warrens and Transmat Booths and just the overall size of the levels. It's definitely replayable. Every time you start a new character, you're going to get a slightly different experience. As for difficulty and length, I'm giving it half-credit, but I suspect those figures would grow with experience and push the game towards a 7 or 8 in this category.
That gives a final score of 41, well into "recommended" territory, and definitely quite high for a Mac game. But as with Dungeon Master-type games, my GIMLET doesn't serve roguelikes that well. Roguelike fans generally aren't in it for the story or NPCs, and thus Thunderbolt would be closer to a 50 for roguelikes specifically. If I'd known about this game in 1992, in my only Mac-owning period, it would have certainly affected my college performance.
Amusing aside: the current Wikipedia article for the game has an image supposedly of the game's cover. It is in fact a poster for the 1983 Hong Kong action film of the same name. The actual cover, for which I have not been able to find a good image, has a female protagonist surrounded by aliens on it. (It's the same as the game's main title screen.) It just now occurs to me that you cannot set your sex during character creation, but all of the robots call you "Ma'am," so I guess the hero of the game is canonically female.
I covered the history of the game in my first entry. Suffice to say here that it didn't sell well despite positive reviews from Mac magazines, possibly because Casady & Greene didn't really specialize in games, possibly because you don't purchase a Mac if you're into hard things. A few years later, author Dave Scheifler re-released it as shareware with upgraded graphics, a JauntTrooper master title, and a sequel: Mission: Firestorm (1995). That's on my list and I look forward to it--but I'm not sorry that it's a few years away.