Saturday, April 10, 2021

Game 408: The Dungeon Masters Assistant (1985)

Nothing about this screen fills you with confidence.
The Dungeon Masters Assistant
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1985 for DOS
Date Started: 7 April 2021
Date Ended: 7 April 2021
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
You learn to recognize certain "bad signs" when you're a CRPG addict. Confusion over the name of the game is one of them; grammatical errors in the game's name is another. The Dungeon Masters [sic] Assistant has both. The file names and the documentation that come with the game suggest that it's called Dungeon Quest. The title screen says otherwise. After that, the game can only improve, and the good news is that it does, a bit. It's not commercial-quality software, but it's a reasonably good amateur take on the Dunjonquest system using mostly Original Dungeons and Dragons rules.
The game begins with a character creation process that seems to draw primarily from OD&D. The game rolls 3-18 for the standard set of attributes (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma) with no re-rolls. If you don't like what you got, you have to finish the process and delete the character later. You choose a class, and here dwarf, elf, and halfling are listed as "class" options along with fighter, cleric, magic-user, and thief. After choosing class, you sometimes get an option to raise the class's prime requisite by one point by sacrificing two points of a less-important attribute.
What if I want an elf magic user?
You name the character and choose from lawful, neutral, and chaotic alignments, then get to see your saving throws against poison, magic wands, paralysis, dragon breath, and rods, staves, or spells.
Created characters then venture into "the supply shoppe" where they must accept or reject one thing at a time, including armor, weapons, backpacks, lanterns, torches, tinder boxes, oil, rope, and a stake and mallet. The store's implementation of classic D&D restrictions is a bit haphazard, although I admittedly don't know the specific rules in OD&D. There are a few weapon restrictions, though not many, and there do not seem to be any armor restrictions at all.
I could have my mage in plate armor wielding a battle axe.
Characters can then enter "the quest," which is a random selection of 9 small, single-screen dungeons. Up to 6 characters can enter at a time. Their icons are given as numbers from 1-6, and they each take turns moving around the dungeon and performing various actions. You can play them cooperatively or competitively. 
Offering independent turn-based movement for six characters is something that even commercial RPGs rarely do (the "blobber" style is more common, even in third-person views), so it's an impressive bit of programming. Unfortunately, it doesn't work very well. Games that implement such a system really need a method of assigning an "active character" in case there's only enough stuff for one person to do. This one not only lacks such a system, but it doesn't even have a command to terminate the remainder of a character's movement for a particular turn. If there's nothing for one character to do, you have to just have him pace back and forth until his turn ends.
A single character fights a roomful of ghouls.
Programming is also moderately impressive when it comes to lighting. The game implements a "fog of war" effect in which the dungeon is only revealed slowly as you explore it--but only if you have a torch or lantern, oil, and an ignition source. This effect is assigned at the character level, so one character with no light source ends up in a room on his own, the room goes dark. The game otherwise automatically uses flint, refills the lantern, and so on, so you don't need to micromanage your light source. You just have to have the items.
Here, I have three characters exploring at the same time. Character #3 is in a room, but he doesn't have a light source. The other two do.
The game stocks the dungeon with monsters appropriate to the characters' levels. You meet ghouls, skeletons, rats, kobolds, and goblins at Level 1 and gorgons, dragons, and vampires at higher levels. The game offers about 50 monsters total, with hit points, special attacks, and weaknesses drawn from the D&D bestiary. Ghouls can paralyze; werewolves can only be harmed by magic or silver weapons; trolls can only be killed by fire (a torch works, but not a lantern). Combat is just a matter of hitting A)ttack and watching the results.
Enemies can have gold and items, and treasure chests are seeded in the dungeons. There's no winning condition for the levels. When you're done exploring, you simply exit the dungeon and Q)uit to get back to the main menu, at which point the game calculates your accumulated experience and gold, automatically leveling up a character who earns enough experience.
The only things I have to do are pay taxes and die . . . and I can evade death.
It's not bad as a bare-bones dungeon crawler, but it lacks anything more interesting, like quests, puzzles, and special encounters. Options during exploration are limited to attacking, searching, casting a spell, opening doors, and a variety of inventory actions.
Unfortunately, it has a couple of things that are either bugs or just unimplemented bits of programming. Spellcasters are supposed to be offered spells in the store, but they aren't. Items you find in the dungeon don't seem to remain in your inventory when you return to the main menu. Since spells are all cast from scrolls in this game, this means that spellcasters never have any spells. Doors often taken four or five tries to open and they don't stay open, so every character who wants to pass through has to open it independently (a feature the game shares with the commercial SpellJammer). Combat is a bit too easy; I had no trouble clearing a dungeon with just a single fighter.
Grabbing the treasure after clearing the dungeon.
The name of the game seems to come from a couple of customization options. You can create your own items to add to the store, plus edit the ones already there, and the manual offers instructions on how to create or modify dungeon files. I think maybe the creator intended that the game be used to accompany tabletop gaming, with the computer handling the mechanics of character creation, inventory, and combat, and the dungeon master making up more interesting descriptions, quests, and encounters. It works slightly better in such a scenario than as a single-player game, but not much. I think any good DM would still chafe at its limitations.
My character sheet after a couple successful explorations.
As for the GIMLET, the game suffers for a lack of game world and backstory, NPCs, and quests (0s), but it doesn't do bad with character creation and development (3), and it programs some of the complexities of Dungeons and Dragons foes (2). While I can't give much to magic and combat without the magic (1), it otherwise does reasonably well for equipment (2) and economy (3). The graphics are nothing to look at; there's no sound except an error beep; and the interface has some rough spots (1). Overall gameplay can be as swift as you want, but it lacks challenge and depth (2). That gives us a total of 15.
The creator was named Bill Chelmowski. He wrote it in GW-BASIC, I was unable to find any information about how he distributed it in 1985, but he would have wanted to stay under the radar because Strategic Simulations, under a license from TSR, released its own title of the same name in 1988.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

BRIEF: Courageous Perseus (1984)

I have no idea why the title screen asks for your birthday.
Courageous Perseus
Cosmos Computer (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for PC-88 and FM-7; 1985 for MSX and Sharp X1
After 11 years and over 400 game, it's hard to use superlatives with any degree of confidence, but I'm pretty sure that Courageous Perseus is the worst game I have played or attempted to play since starting this blog. It is a pointless anti-game, requiring no skill, featuring no story, giving the player the relief of neither luck nor brevity, offering no rewards even for the player who wins, which I would maintain is impossible on the MSX version.
Released in the same year as Hydlide--possibly even before it--Perseus offers superficially the same type of early-Japanese-action-RPG gameplay. You run up to monsters and wave your sword until they die. As you kill monsters, your attack and defense values go up and your energy goes down. The trappings are superficially Greek, with the monsters meant to represent centaurs, griffins, satyrs, pegasuses, and other creatures from mythology. It's hard to imagine that Clash of the Titans (1981) didn't have some influence on the content.
The game begins on the ocean in a raft. The game world wraps, so all directions lead to land.
If that was all there was to the game, it would just be incredibly boring. What makes it uniquely hateful is that of the 15 or so regular enemy types in the game, you can only kill one or two at a time, usually one. When the game begins, you're only strong enough to kill these grey fighters. You have to wipe them out to amass enough strength to kill the next tier of enemies, which is either unicorns or satyrs (they became available to me about the same time). Then you have to kill all of them before you're strong enough to defeat centaurs, and so on.
There are several problems with this approach. First, each type of enemy is not conveniently grouped in one area. The game world consists of 120 screens, arranged 8 x 15, and while enemy types tend to be concentrated by screen, their screens could be scattered anywhere in that grid. The screens make up a long maze that winds its way throughout the island and takes about 15 minutes to run from beginning to end if you don't stop to fight. You have to make multiple loops through this map looking for your current enemy to kill, ensuring that you get every one of them or else you can't move on to the next enemy.
Despite the title, I did not spend a "brief" amount of time with this game. I took the time to stitch together all these screen shots.
Second, there's no way to tell which enemy is next in the order. (I suppose it's possible that the manual told players; I haven't been able to find a copy.) You just have to periodically test yourself against them, letting them whack away your energy, until it's clear that you can't defeat them yet. 
Third and worst of all, there simply aren't enough foes in some tiers to move on to the next tier. Repeatedly, I was unable to move on to any enemy. Fortunately, there is some limited respawning in the game--too rare and unpredictable to actually "grind," but if you run around long enough some low-tier enemies inevitably reappear. Only through a couple hours of finding them one at a time was I finally able to advance a couple of times.
These grey fighters are the only enemies you can kill when the game begins.
But you can't spend forever dithering about the game world, looking for enemies to kill, because even outside of combat, your energy depletes at a rate of roughly 1 per second. You can find five magic items (they look like signs) that boost your energy by 1,000, but even with all of them, the game will be over in less than two hours even if you take no damage from any enemy. Even with liberal save-scumming (reloading if I took too much damage or spent a while in fruitless exploration), I couldn't find enough enemies to advance fast enough.
"Enemies" ought to be in quotes, incidentally. I don't know what the back story is supposed to be, but none of the creatures in the game actually attack Perseus. Indeed, they seem to actively avoid him. You only take damage if you bump into each other. Trying to fight them is actually quite frustrating, as they move randomly around the screen, can walk on terrain that Perseus can't walk on, and don't do you the courtesy of staying in combat range when you're trying to attack. As the game progresses, Perseus slowly depopulates the island of non-hostile fantastic creatures.
Perseus prepares to massacre two satyrs and two unicorns.
The goal of the game has something to do with collecting signs of the Zodiac. These appear occasionally as you slay monsters, and in the MSX version, they're recorded on the game options screen. In the PC-88 version, which has much nicer graphics, they're on the title screen. To get them all, I believe you have to kill essentially all the monsters in the game, including Medusa and a dragon.
The menu screen shows me what Zodiac items I've collected.
The PC-88 version may not have the same problems as the MSX version. There's a YouTube video of someone winning it, at least. I couldn't find that version of the game for download. I wouldn't be above a little hex editing just to see it through, but I can't figure out how to hex edit blueMSX save state files (even if I decompress them, I can't find any of the hex values). I refuse to carry this as a loss, and since my rules say that I can BRIEF a game if it doesn't meet my definition of an RPG, that's what I'm doing here. The game has no inventory.
The winning screen of the PC-88 version.
Despite how much I hated it, Courageous Perseus had some interesting analogues to a game I've been playing this month on the console: Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (2018). Aside from the Greek theme, both feature enemies that are hard-gated by character level, something that the Assassin's Creed series seems to have adapted from The Witcher 3. This level-gating is my least favorite part of these otherwise-good games. If you're not familiar with how it works, basically you functionally cannot prevail against an enemy more than 5 levels higher than you no matter how much you're willing to work at it. To put it mathematically, say you have a Level 20 character who can normally kill a Level 20 enemy in 10 hits. A Level 22 enemy, being harder, takes you 12 hits. A Level 25 enemy takes 15. So far, so good. You thus might expect a Level 30 enemy might take as many as 30 hits to kill. Except it takes more like 300, or even 3,000. Once the enemy is more than 5 levels above you, the normal math goes out the window and the game drastically escalates both his offense and defense far out of proportion to the actual level variance. 
There are a couple of islands and secluded beaches you need a raft to reach.
Odyssey also features what may be the most morally reprehensible character in the entire series. The game takes place during the Peloponnesian War, and the main character by default happily takes contracts from both Athens and Sparta, gleefully slaughtering officers in both armies, destroying their resources, and pillaging their ships. You could role-play it so that you only accept one or the other, but unlike every previous Assassin's Creed title, there's no "evil" side here. The character comes across fort after fort, camp after camp, house after house, and mercilessly slaughters soldiers and steals valuables for no other reason than the game offers such acts as "area objectives." Here again, we have an analogue to the clearly monstrous protagonist of Perseus.
Odyssey, incidentally, has taught me that the pronunciations we generally use for Greek figures are all wrong. It's The-SAY-us, not THEE-see-us. Pi-tha-GOR-as, not Py-THA-gor-as. I assume that Perseus is similarly Per-SAY-us. Come to think of it, that would make Courageous Perseus almost a rhyme. 
Compared to "real" and "adventure," "courageous" is quite difficult to spell. I'm impressed they got it.
Getting back to this game, I'll allow that it's possible I missed something. The game tracks an "S" value and a "P" value. I don't know what either is, but "P" never got higher than 0, so maybe there was something else I was supposed to do to get stronger. I tried all the keys to no avail, but maybe there's some other combat action or command that I missed. I'm open to taking another look if the manual turns up. Otherwise, this one is best left forgotten.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Mission: Thunderbolt: Wrong Place, Wrong Time

If this alert is for the aliens, why is it in English? If it's not for the aliens, who is it for?
Among all the games I played for 1992, it's hard to imagine a worse contender for "last game of the year" than Mission: Thunderbolt. Like most roguelikes, it demands a certain amount of patience as you learn its particular conventions and tricks. Unlike most (or at least many) roguelikes, it isn't well-documented online (there are a couple of woefully inadequate FAQs), meaning that I truly do have to learn those tricks on my own. Recall how long it took me to even get comfortable with NetHack, let alone win it, and you'll understand why you don't want to schedule such a game right when you're trying to wrap up a year. To try to finish Thunderbolt under such circumstances would be horribly unfair to the game, so I think what I'm going to do is wrap up 1992 in a forthcoming entry whether I've finished or not. While there are things I like about Thunderbolt, there really isn't any chance that it's going to vie for "Game of the Year."
Two bots trap me in the corridor and misunderstand my attempts to shove them away.
I played a while longer with my first character, but I eventually ditched him. By the time I made it to Region 6, he was riddled with conditions I didn't understand and couldn't cure, had two robots following him around and blocking his progress constantly, and had lost a bunch of his items to traps. The only Auto-Doc I'd found was back on Level 1, and it was broken, meaning it injured me more often than it healed.
Worse, I kept running into creatures called "Fangwings" that poisoned me. I had no curing options--it's not even available in Auto-Docs--and if I tried to rest it off, I just died. Someone had opined that my strength was too low anyway, so I ultimately reloaded a new character, Lt. Brook. I held out for 18 strength, but I wanted relatively high scores in dexterity, speed, and constitution, too. It took me about 20 minutes of rolling to get a character with acceptable values in each, and even he had a fairly low constitution.
The rest of this brief entry is going to have to be miscellaneous observations about the game, at least until I started taking notes more seriously on Level 5.
  • Giant ants sap your strength and leave you "weakened." Giant centipedes sap your dexterity and leave you "klutzy." Both conditions can be cured at Auto-Docs, one point at a time, for quite a bit of money. I kept having to run up to the Level 1 Auto-Doc throughout the first four levels.

  • The ability to point, click, and run to a previously-visited position is a really nice feature. It makes the backtracking a lot less tedious. The pathfinding is smart enough to avoid traps. It automatically stops you if you meet an enemy or slip on paint.
  • Bashing a hole in a wall takes 10-20 individual "attack" actions even with 18 strength. It's boring, but often less so than going the long way around or spending turn after turn trying to shove a robot out of the way.
  • Traps are way too overpowered in this game. You can activate an "auto-search" function to try to find them, but it doesn't always work and it frequently shuts itself off. Teleport traps are the least of the bunch. There are gravitational traps that hold you in place and slowly deplete your health until you die, and blasts of cold or hot air that damage you and destroy your equipment. 
Failure to hit "search" means that I was blinded and lost 7 items. That seems a little unfair.
  • Enemies like to group on the other sides of doors, so you often find yourself facing half a dozen in a row after you open one. 
  • For melee weapons, I haven't found anything better than a crowbar yet. Ammo for missile weapons is so rare that you can't use them very often.
  • For armor, I progressed from a jacket to a leather jacket to an armored vest to a Kevlar vest.
  • Thunderbolt diverges from games like Rogue and NetHack in gating the power of found objects by level. I don't like that. I like that in NetHack, there's a chance that the first sword you find will be the best weapon in the game.
  • Even though I just care about winning, not the points, seeing my "penalty" increase every time I save still proves to be a deterrent to save-scumming.
  • That penalty increases for other reasons, too, although I don't usually notice when it happens, so I can't say for sure what the reasons are.
  • Thunderbolt has two different types of unknown items: pills of various colors and "strange devices" which aren't differentiated by any descriptors. As we discussed last time, pills are far too dangerous to experiment with just by eating them. If you do determine the properties of a pill, the game uses that descriptor (e.g., "Pill of Improved Hearing") instead of the color from then on. In a departure from most roguelikes, it appears that the same type of pill can have multiple descriptors (e.g., healing pills might be both gold and green).
  • Strange devices I've identified so far have included infrared goggles, light globes, grenades, landmines, and flares. The grenades and landmines are theoretically helpful, but so far light sources haven't been consistent and plentiful enough that I can reliably see enemies coming from far enough away to use them.
Lt. Brook's outing was mostly unstressful until I reached Level 6. When I arrived in the new region, an alarm immediately blared that there was an "intruder," and that someone should "detain and interrogate." Not long after, an invisible "CyberCop" beat me unconscious, and I woke up in a small detention room tied to a chair. I was ultimately able to get out of the chair by breaking it, but I had no inventory and couldn't figure a way out of the cell in multiple rounds.
This is the kind of situation that it's usually fun to just role-play and see what happens. The problem was that the game had subtracted 10,000 points in "penalty," suggesting I'd done something wrong in getting tossed into prison in the first place. After trying some more to get out of the cell, I gave up and reloaded.
This might have been interesting, but the -10,000 points deterred me from continuing.
Reloading didn't help much. The CyberCops were still invisible and able to knock me out in two hits. I was eventually able to kill three of them by leading them one by one to a narrow corridor and shooting them. Throughout my time on the level, the alarms and CyberCops kept reappearing periodically, usually resulting in a few reloads before I killed them.
Region 6 is otherwise uniquely constructed. I've only explored part of it, but it seems to have a large central area with four corner rooms. I started in one of the corner rooms and had to bash my way out of it. Others have doors. The level is full of traps. It also marks the first appearance of a library, a special room where you can have pills and devices identified for a lot of money. Fortunately, there are caches of coins in each of the corner rooms, but the library only takes money directly from your bank account, so I had to keep hustling piles of coins back to the nearest bank on Level 4, deposit them, then return to the library two levels down to use my funds.
Identifying items in the library.
The center of Level 7 seemed to have some kind of prison in which something was repeatedly pounding at a door. When I finally got the door open, I found myself facing a "Zytt," the alien enemy of the setting. He died in a few shots. I expected him to be harder.
Killing a Zytt.
Unfortunately, the fangwings made another appearance, and I still haven't found any pills that cure poison. Even if you're willing to reload a lot, it's tough to find a strategy that works against them. They lurk on the other sides of doors or walls that you bash, and they're quick enough to move and attack the moment they're free, so you can't see them coming and just shoot them. I accidentally saved right next to one of them and put myself in a walking dead situation that is going to require rolling a new character. 
I'll try again with a new character in a week or so, but for now let's wrap up 1992. There might be an intermediate posting on a random game while I get the transition entry together.
Time so far: 8 hours

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

I guess the likelihood of any two players getting a tie is pretty low.
Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 8 February 2021
Date Ended: 18 March 2021
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
The first half of the World of Xeen package showcases some of the strengths of the Might and Magic series, including its dedication to side quests, frequent character development, and open world exploration. The game uses an upgraded version of the decent Might and Magic III engine, a first-person tile-based blobber that supports six characters with a satisfying variety of race, class, and attribute options. The game world is a bit empty and silly and the plot is a bit too basic. Nonetheless, the sheer number of side quests and the relatively rapidity with which you clear maps and dungeons keeps you from ever getting really bored.
At the end of the last entry, we had rescued Crodo and found Lord Xeen's castle, but we lacked the special magic sword necessary to kill Lord Xeen. It was supposedly buried in the basement of Newcastle, which raises a lot of questions regarding why a special magic sword is needed to kill Xeen and how it got into the basement of a ruined castle in the first place.
I'm glad you understand because I'm not sure I do.
In any event, we returned to Artemus, the king's advisor, who gave us a permit to construct the dungeon. Emerson, the engineer, took another 5 King's Mega Credits to order the work done, which was fine, because we still had 18 of them. We ended the game with 13. I hope there's some use for them on the Darkside.
Actually entering the dungeon required a password, but that was written all over the castle as individual syllables on statues: LABORATORY. (I had overlooked one when I reported on it last time.) Sure enough, the dungeon had a special "Xeen Slayer Sword" on a pedestal, plus a few Potions of the Gods, which I have yet to try, but I'm guessing cure you of all ailments.
How does an ancient "Xeen Slayer Sword" exist when Xeen himself didn't exist until recently?
I had Saoirse equip the sword, and we returned to the clouds above Darzog's Tower to get to Xeen's Tower. At the front door, we were told that to enter Xeen's Tower, we would require a "cupie doll." If you want to know what that is, Google it under the proper spelling of kewpie doll. Carnivals offering kewpie dolls showed up in Might and Magic III and will recur in VI. It's one of those nonsense things that shows up in multiple Might and Magics that I usually excuse but for which I am now rapidly losing patience. Anyway, to win the doll, we had to first win a bunch of individual dolls by proving our accuracy, endurance, speed, and strength at various carnival tents scattered around the area. We had returned to the area fully buffed, so it wasn't hard.
Is there anyone who thinks there's even a germ of a good idea here?
Xeen's Tower was a quick trip up several floors guarded by "Xeen's Guards," which are clearly robots. The first floor had a bunch of traps, but we disabled them by destroying poison, fire, cold, and electricity generators hidden in the four corners of the level. There was also a "guard making machine" whose destruction prevented more guards from spawning.
Why does the "fire generator" need a curtain?
The top level had combats with a huge dragon called Xeen's Pet and Xeen himself. Again, we were fully buffed and hastened, so although we couldn't have lasted more than a couple of rounds with these foes, we didn't need more than a couple of rounds. The dragon died in three or four hits.  Lord Xeen was a bit tougher because only Saoirse could hurt him. Still, killing him only took two rounds, and all he managed to do to us during those rounds was knock Mica unconscious.
I'm guessing the king hasn't really spent any quality time with his brother for a while.
Near where Lord Xeen had attacked us, we found the Sixth Mirror. Only then did I remember that I'd forgotten to go seeking it in the lava area. Before we could do anything with it, Xeen's Scepter emitted a high-pitched whine and caused the mirror to shatter. This precipitated a chain reaction by which Xeen's entire tower crumbled and got sucked into some kind of portal.
Is that anything like fingernails on a chalk board?
A laugh emerged from the portal and a masked face appeared. "You have defeated my general, Lord Xeen, and foiled my plans to conquer this world, but the Darkside shall always be mine!" He then laughed as if he hadn't just, you know, lost.
Xeen's Tower didn't seem this elaborate from the inside.
"Later, at Castle Burlock," a title screen said before transitioning us to the king's throne room. There's a quick pan through the throne room that shows a number of different individuals looking at King Burlock, and essentially none of them are from the setting's known races. I don't know what to take from that. 
Who the hell are these people? What are these people?
"Congratulations, adventurers!" Burlock said. "Crodo and I are eternally grateful. Let us review your fantastic campaign." What follows is a two-minute video of the attack and "getting hit" animations of every single enemy in the game. I was then given my "final score" and encouraged to send it to New World Computing's headquarters in Hollywood, California, to be added to the Hall of Legends. I know New World Computing doesn't exist anymore, but I wonder if whoever bought their property kept the Hall of Legends intact. I'm picturing a grand, open room in a building next to the Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, in which you can find busts of all the players who won Clouds of Xeen.  
Crodo looks so unhappy I'm beginning to suspect he was secretly working with Xeen.
I remember those guys from 35 hours ago!
After the endgame sequence, the party appeared back in Vertigo. I guess it's time to hit the Darkside. A few final notes, though:
  • If you return to Castle Burlock, the king is still going on about the mirror. What was so special about the mirror, anyway, that you can't accomplish with a combination of the existing mirrors and "Town Portal" or "Lloyd's Beacon"?
If it helps, I still think you're fairest of them all.
  • King Burlock also thanks me for "rescuing Xeen from that foul spirit." If you'll recall, the back story has "Lord Xeen" starting out as Burlock's brother, Roland. So it sounds like we somehow saved Roland. Roland is nowhere to be found, though, and one wonders why Burlock is still referring to him as "Xeen."
  • My quest log still has finding the Sixth Mirror as an active quest. It also says I'm supposed to "free Celia from the clutches of zombies in the forest and return her to Derek"; I don't know how I possibly missed that. It also has that druid quest in there, which I'm pretty sure is never-ending.
  • The game tracks accomplishments for each character. "DEFEATED LORD XEEN" is now one of them.
I'm going to put that on my c.v.
  • No trainer on this side has the ability to train higher than Level 20.
  • I kept forgetting to mention it during individual entries, but I got into the habit of banking my excess gold and gems. I end the game with almost half a million gold pieces and 10,000 gems earning an interest rate of 1% per day.
I guess I could trust these guys after all.
I had expected more interactivity between the two sides of Xeen even as I focused on the Clouds material. Since this didn't happen, it makes sense to me to rate Clouds of Xeen as a unique game and then apply a separate rating to Darkside of Xeen later. 
Going into the preliminary rating, I would say that while Clouds certainly kept me busy, I didn't find it an entirely enjoyable experience. The engine is still modestly strong (albeit with limited shelf life since Ultima Underworld made its debut), but the content is weak--probably the weakest of the Might and Magic series. Xeen simply isn't a believable place. Although in literal squares it may be larger than some of the previous games, it feels absurdly small. Three of its five towns are in the hands of monsters. Except for the dwarves presumably living in the Red Dwarf Mines, there are no signs of any of the game's canonical races. The king, his advisor, his engineer, his tax collector, and the idiot dwarf who shows up every time you try to enter one of the mines seem to be the only permanent people in the world. The quests all feel imported from better games, and the game strays too often into silliness. The main quest is about as bare and boilerplate as it gets, and yet even within its limited content, it manages to make little sense. I thus expect the rating for this one to be comparatively low.
  • 3 points for the game world. I think there's something to be said for the Might and Magic universe, but none of it is on display in the first half of Xeen. Instead, it's just a cookie-cutter high fantasy location with unrealistically small biomes.
  • 5 points for character creation and development. This aspect of the series remains moderately strong. You get a fair number of options in creation, the choice of party members does make a significant difference, and the game rewards you continually in both experience and attribute boosts.
  • 2 points for NPCs. The game doesn't so much have "NPCs" as it does a bunch of faces who first give you a quest, then reward you for that quest. You have no dialogue options and you get no lore from the NPCs that you find. The loss of hirelings is also too bad.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. Also relatively strong. The enemies have a satisfying variety of strengths and weaknesses to figure out, there are contextual encounters everywhere, and the dungeons offer a few slight navigation puzzles. Only a lack of role-playing keeps this category from going anywhere.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The game has a nice variety of spells, but I hardly used any of them. Combat mostly comes down to buffing and whacking. Spells become obsolete awfully fast. I miss the huge mobs that offered nail-biting tactical combat in the first two games.
  • 5 points for equipment. Not much of it is that interesting, but there's a lot of it, and I liked how just about every dungeon gave me a pile of stuff to sort through. I like the sheer number of wearable equipment slots and the number of items that duplicate spells, which I probably used far more often than the spells themselves. The materials don't make any sense, and I could have done without the breakage system.
  • 3 points for economy. You need money for a lot of things, but the game is pretty generous. By the fifth hour, I was just depositing large amounts in the bank despite spending a liberal amount on training, item repair, healing, and item identification.
  • 5 points for quests. The series remains one of the few that actually understands the concept of "side quests," to the extent that it tracks them for you in a log. There are no role-playing options for those quests.
  • 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are perfectly nice; the sound is a bit overdone but otherwise fine; the interface has a number of excellent elements that I covered in the first entry. This is about as high as a game can score until graphics and sound get good enough that they're truly immersive.
  • 6 points for gameplay. It has about the right length, and I appreciate the open-world nature. It's maybe a bit too easy with all the buffing and a bit too hard without it. I wouldn't call it replayable except for mega-fans who want to try challenging party combinations.
On that last point, I might recommend replaying it with something like an all-knight or all-ninja party just to see how it goes. You certainly wouldn't abuse the fountains, since the only "Lloyd's Beacon" and "Town Portal" spells at your disposal would be from magic items. You probably would want to vector half of the attribute upgrades into a single character, since one powerful character is more important than a bunch of weak ones. 
Anyway, the final score is 43, still high enough that I think you could have some fun with it, but quite a bit lower than the 52 I gave to Might and Magic III and the 60 I gave to the first Might and Magic. This is a good time to remind readers that the 60 I gave to the original game isn't inflated out of consideration of its year. All of my rankings are meant to stand on their own and provide direct comparisons to games of different eras. I honestly had about 33% more fun playing the 1987 Might and Magic than I did playing Clouds of Xeen, and I thus recommend it 33% more.
Scorpia and I were in lockstep on this one. In the January 1993 Computer Gaming World--her first review of a Might and Magic since the third one portrayed her in grotesque parody--she approves of the new shortcut spells ("Day of Sorcery" and "Day of Protection"), several interface changes, and the lack of bugs, but she has the same complaints that I do about the threadbare plot and the emptiness of the world. She's particularly critical of the final battle with Xeen, noting (correctly) that average diamond golems and other enemies are a lot harder. In contrast, the reviewers in the March 1993 Dragon absolutely gushed over it, giving it 5/5 stars.
The good news is: by all accounts, Darkside gets better. We'll have a look after the transition.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Game 407: Mission: Thunderbolt (1992)

At least the enemies look as silly on the title screen as they do in-game.
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 
Re-released as JauntTrooper - Mission: Thunderbolt in 1995 for Macintosh
Date Started: 16 March 2021
Exposure to the roguelike subgenre is one of the best things to have come out of this project, and I'm always happy when I see a roguelike coming up on the list. It is, however, difficult not to think of them as variants of the same game. (I suppose that to some degree they are; hence, Roguelike.) If they don't offer enough new or fresh or original, I often find myself wishing I could just play Rogue or NetHack again. I imagine this will change as evolution leads roguelikes in very different directions and starts to introduce more complex plots and NPC interaction.
This leads to the fundamental problem with Mission: Thunderbolt. It's a good roguelike, no question. It just isn't as good as NetHack, and it doesn't do enough that's new and interesting, like Ragnarok, so at some point I wonder why I'm playing it except to catalogue its existence for my insane project. (These things are true so far, in any event.) But it's quite competent and fun if I force myself to stop comparing it to other roguelikes. Players who take more readily to science fiction games will rate it more highly. 
Like most roguelikes, Mission: Thunderbolt has complex characters, maze-like maps, detailed inventories, and a variety of statuses. Unlike most roguelikes, it has graphics.
Mission: Thunderbolt began on the VAX mainframe of Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts. Employee Dave Scheifler conceived of it as a multi-mission game with the overall title of Doomsday 2000. Operation: Thunderbolt was the first module, released in 1987, and it was followed by Operation: Firestorm and Operation: Quicksilver. Operation: Tsunami was planned but never finished. The game was such a hit with Scheifler's co-workers that he founded MegaCorp (of Natick, Massachusetts, famous as the eponym of becoming naticked in crosswords) to sell the game commercially. He ported the first module, Mission: Thunderbolt, for Macintosh in 1992 and published it through the California-based Casady and Greene. (The prefix was changed from Operation to Mission because of an action game from Taito called Operation Thunderbolt.) The game sold poorly, but Scheifler tried again in 1995, self-publishing an upgraded Macintosh release of Mission: Thunderbolt as well as Mission: Firestorm. For the 1995 releases, both games had the master title of JauntTrooper. A Windows 3 version of Thunderbolt happened somewhere in there, but sources differ as to whether it came out in 1992 or 1995. The 1995 version has long been the only one available online, so I was fortunate that a reader and fan of the game was able to provide a copy of the 1992 version.
The backstory is related in-game.
The setup is that in the year 2000, aliens spur mankind into a global biological, chemical, and nuclear war, then invade the wreckage. A small group of survivors forms a resistance group called "Operation Thunderbolt." Its first mission is to recover an anti-matter bomb from the underground research labs of MegaCorp International. Unfortunately, the team is wiped out by aliens early in the mission, leaving a sole survivor to brave the ruins and return with the bomb.
The default character is named "Captain Hazard," but you can change this. You also set a difficulty level on a scale of 4 options from "beginner" to "expert." (I'm playing on "Normal.") Character creation involves rolling values from 3 to 18 for strength, dexterity, speed, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. The difficulty setting determines how generous the rolls are. You begin with only a laser pistol (which only has a few shots) and a butcher knife.
Character creation.
The rest will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a roguelike, although the game is notable for how it deviates as much as for how it adopts the standards. Some examples: 
  • As you can see, Thunderbolt offers iconographs and a GUI rather than the ASCII characters and keyboard-only interface of pure roguelikes. The graphics are quite tiny in the main window, but see below.
  • There are several dozen commands using the full range of the keyboard, such as a)ttack, e)at, g)et, and o)pen. As with most roguelikes, many keys have to do double duty with the SHIFT key, as in the case of w)ield and W)ear. Unique to this game is the use of the TAB key to push letters into triple or quadruple duty, as in f)ire, TAB-f)ill, F)ix (something adjacent to you), and TAB-F)ix (inventory item). There are also menu commands for everything, and many commands can be executed by clicking in the map window; for instance, clicking on a door opens it and clicking on an enemy attacks it. I mostly get by with keyboard commands, but there is a particularly useful option to click a part of the map and have the character automatically proceed there.
  • Levels alternate between those with a fixed layout and those that are randomly generated. Even the randomly generated ones completely fill the available space, which makes it easy to find areas that ought to have secret doors.
  • As you kill enemies, you gain experience, which leads to occasional leveling.
Always a welcome message.
  • Unlike most roguelikes, you can save this one, but you're assessed a penalty to your score based on your level and how frequently you save. Various other blunders can cause penalties. The manual advises newer players not to worry about penalties and just save whenever they want. I've been limiting myself to once per level.
  • There is an economy. It runs on found coins. (I'm not sure what to do with equally-common "oddly-shaped" coins.) Instead of NPCs and stores, Thunderbolt offers ATMs, auto-docs, and vending machines. 
An ATM lets you deposit and withdraw funds.
  • Health doesn't auto-regenerate as you move, but you can retreat to a safe area and "rest" to fully restore it.
  • Weapons include both melee and missile options, the latter of which require ammunition. Armor options are jackets and helmets and such. The game has a "weapon class" statistic that helps you track the relative power of weapons.
  • Pills take the place of potions in fantasy roguelikes. Their colors are randomized for each new game. However, the penalty for eating a bad pill can be disastrous. Pills of Ineptitude permanently damage your dexterity, for instance. There are supposedly machines (I haven't encountered any yet) that tell you what pills do; I wouldn't think of taking one, except in a dire emergency, without consulting these machines.
  • There is blessedly no hunger mechanic in the game. You do have the option of eating corpses, but I'm not sure if this ever provides any benefit. The manual doesn't mention any.
  • Although the progression of levels is generally linear, there are occasional holes that connect across multiple levels, plus "transmat booths" that will move you from one place to another in the dungeon if you have a code.
So far, I've only survived up to Level 5 ("Region" 5 as the game has it). The early levels featured a lot of junk on the floor that appears to have no use, like rocks, broken bottles, and dirty rags. There were lots of pills and coins--so many of the latter that I was often in danger of over-encumbrance; fortunately, ATMs let you deposit coins for safekeeping. Enemies have included mutated animals like giant bats, spiders, ants, and rats, as well as aliens like eyeless things and hairy things. So far, the most frustrating (hostile) creature has been "slimy things," whose slime attacks destroy your entire inventory of pills, plus leave you "slimy," which prevents you from clicking to walk. There have also been "Kiddie Kommando Units" with paintball guns that blind you with paint.
The "fog of war" effect in this game is such that until you've explored an area, you can only see one square away. This makes missile weapons of questionable utility since you can rarely shoot at an enemy from a distance. Perhaps I'll find some device that lets me see across more squares and that will change. Melee weapons have included rusty pipes and crowbars; armor has included jackets and a cap.
Fighting a couple of enemies early in the game.
There have been lots of unusual events that I suppose I'll have to learn the significance of through experience--things like power drains, crackling of energy, getting drowsy after noticing the scent of violets, "unseen forces" that prevent me from accessing certain squares, and various noises in the distance of the dungeon.
By far, the most annoying creatures have been non-hostile automatons called utility bots. You start to meet them on Level 2 or 3. Once they acquire you, they follow you around mercilessly asking for information about where they should clean. They do perform some helpful services, such as automatically cleaning you of paint or slime. The problem I keep having is that they trap me in dead-end corridors and won't get out of the way. They're too dangerous to attack (and thus turn hostile). You can try to jump over them, but if you fail, you end up crashing into them--and they turn hostile. I lost a couple of characters to them.
A utility bot won't leave me alone.
Like NetHack, however, Thunderbolt offers a relatively complex set of interactions between inventory items and between inventory items and the environment. The solution to my utility bot problem was just taking the crowbar to the nearest wall and carving my own way out. These are the sorts of things that you have to learn through trial and error--or by looking at spoiler sheets. I've tried to avoid the latter so far, but some spoilers have been impossible to avoid; a lot of sites have them in the basic description of the game. Thus, I know that when you encounter a hazardous waste spill, you can dump rubble into it until a pathway becomes clear. Instead of throwing individual grenades at very hard enemies, you can store multiple grenades in a box and then throw the box at them. You can fill the same containers with radioactive waste and use them as missile weapons. Somehow, there's a way to tame animals. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that I'm going to be with the game long enough to develop true mastery of all of these options the way I did with NetHack. I realize that if I did, I would start to better differentiate Thunderbolt from other roguelikes and thus temper my first two paragraphs. 
One area in which the author is to be particularly commended is in the interface. The four default windows--character, status, messages, inventory, and the main view--are all movable and sizable. The status and inventory windows can even be dismissed. There are additional windows not activated by default that players might find helpful, including a command window that lets you play by double-clicking commands, a button window that lets you do the same with buttons, a zoom window that zooms out and lets you see the entire level, and a detail window that zooms in and shows you larger iconography for a smaller area. I confess I've mocked some Mac games in the past for being so obsessed with their individual windows, but there's something to be said about offering such customization to the user. Plus, at least Thunderbolt arranges its default windows tightly so you don't see the Mac desktop underneath everything. 
An alternate configuration of windows.
Things just got a little hairy for Captain Chet. Shortly after discovering that I could lure enemies to holes in the floor and let them fall, I fell down a hole myself. There was a horde of enemies waiting for me, so I retreated to a nearby hallway to try to take them on one at a time. Fortunately, I found a power pack for my laser pistol and was able to use it to good advantage. On the unfortunate side, my klutziness caused me to drop my pile of coins and my crowbar, and I was never able to get them back.
An enemy is swallowed by a hole--or something in the hole.
By the time I was done with the combat, Chet's status effects were "klutzy," "spotted," "slimy," "injured," and "paint-spattered." I saved the game and tried to experiment with some pills to see if I could get rid of some of those effects. Most of the pills turned out to be bad--forgetfulness, monster agitation, clumsiness--but one group turned out to be "pills of perception," which allow you to see the entire level map. That was helpful. I'd also been carrying two "strange devices"; activating one showed them to be light beacons. Between the two of them, missile combat (and simply avoiding enemies) became easier for the rest of the level.
I eventually found my way back to Level 4 and a utility bot who cleaned off the slime and paint. But shortly after I returned to Level 5, I got a sudden message that said "you briefly feel a bit lighter," and then found myself on an unknown level. I'll end there.
My first character didn't make it very far.
For those who have played this game before, feel free to be liberal with spoilers. I simply don't have time to learn all of the game's secrets for myself, so at least help me document it in the comments, and hopefully I can pull off a win.
Time so far: 4 hours