Saturday, December 3, 2022

Game 477: Monsters and Magic (1988)

After writing this game, the author went on to designate congressional districts in North Carolina.
Monsters and Magic
United States
Independently developed; published by T&D Software
Released 1988 for TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started: 30 November 2022
Date Ended: 30 November 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Sometimes I imagine I'm trapped in a blank room with absolutely nothing to do except for a computer and a single game. Would I be grateful to have that game? In the case of something like an Ultima or Might and Magic title, the answer is not only "yes," but, you know, I actively fantasize about it. Nothing to do, no responsibilities, just a blank room, a comfortable chair, and NetHack. Sign me up. Delve lower on my list and something like Curse of Vengeance or Tygus Horx might not hold up very well against the many other things that are also within my reach in the modern adult world, but I'd still prefer them to an empty room. If they were the only games on my hypothetical computer, I'd still be grateful to have something to do. Almost anything is better than nothing.
Thus, it's a rare game that offers such an unpleasant experience that you'd literally prefer doing nothing to playing it. Monsters and Magic is alas such a game. If I were trapped in a room and it were the only game on my computer, I'd probably pass time testing the taste of the paint on different sections of the wall, or maybe taking apart the computer. When I used to get bored before smartphones, I'd sometimes pick a random large number and try to figure out if it was prime. A few hours of that beats Monsters and Magic.
My army is doing well here. It won't last.
The game was written by Mike Snyder, whose website is currently the only source for the game (thanks to Busca for pointing me in the right direction). It's great for Snyder to offer his games for free, and I'm sure he's a great guy, but his page lists over 50 games for the Color Computers 2 and 3 written between 1988 and 1990. I don't care how prolific you are, you can't write 50 playable games in 3 years. You can't even write 15 playable games in 3 years. There are probably a couple of truly excellent games on his list--ones that his players still remember with fondness and he still remembers with pride--but by the laws of physics alone, the rest have to be unplayable headaches. Monsters and Magic is one of the latter.
Snyder's own site calls it a "unique graphic RPG." It is the only one of his games so designated, and the use of "RPG" is wrong by most definitions. It is, instead, one of those "campaign"-style games that I struggled to label when writing about Fortress of the Witch King (1983). The ur example is Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979); the sub-genre includes Sword of Zedek (1981) and Braminar (1987). What these games have in common is that there's no primary character. You control an army of men that roams across the landscape, with events alternately serving to sap or strengthen your forces. Games of this sub-genre sometimes stray into RPG territory if they allow for experience and development on the part of the "general" or if you regard the army's statistics and equipment as the same as a single character's. In any event, and whatever its primary source, Monsters doesn't make even those nods to RPG status. Its mechanics have been stripped so bare that there's almost nothing interesting for the player to do.
Who is even saying this?
With no character creation, the game starts in the upper-right corner of a world map depicting a collection of countries, I guess. A river cuts the map into two pieces towards the western side. It annoys me how the river was clearly drawn after the outlining of the kingdoms. so that the borders continue on the other sides of the river. From this, we're left to conclude that either the countries extend their borders across the river despite the lack of bridges--and despite the fact that major rivers usually serve as borders--or that the countries on both sides of the river just happened to draw their borders in such a way that they would meet if the river weren't there. I don't know why this part bothers me so much, but it does.
The player starts with an army of 100 men. The character has a health score of 50, a sword power of 1, and no gold. These are the game's only variables. The player's stated goal is to destroy the five "outlaw armies" that plague the kingdom.
A handful of visitable locations are marked on the map in white squares. All but one of them are towns, and all the towns are exactly the same. The one exception is a "dungeon" in the upper-right corner. Because the game gives so little else to report on, I'll tell you that the names of the towns are Sparon, Erumis, Triolar, Arrolio, Haversham, Flaavar, and Vriiar.
The town menu in every town.
There are a lot of problems with the game, including the absolutely bare-bones variables and mechanics, but the most important is that nothing ever good happens to this army. Usually in a "campaign" game like this, the army has a variety of encounters as it crosses the landscape. There's an earthquake, and some men die. They meet some friendly centaurs, and a new unit joins the army. A particularly good hunt boosts morale by 2 points. A rainstorm destroys half of the food stores. And so on. In Monsters everything that happens is bad. Troops die in storms and mutinies. "Land pirates" sometimes attack and kill soldiers and steal gold. Sickness saps your hit points. My (least) favorite is when individual soldiers just "quit." The game makes you acknowledge each of these events by hitting the ENTER key. When I'm trying to cross a world with an army of 3,000, I don't need to stop and acknowledge individual soldiers quitting.
"Bandits," maybe? "Raiders"? "Guerillas"? "Marauders"?
The second major problem is that the only way to replenish hit points and soldiers is to purchase them in towns. It costs 10 gold pieces per soldier and 20 gold pieces per hit point. The only other way to "develop" is to pay a magician 5,000 gold to increase the "plus" on your weapon. These are only "problems" because of the third issue. There are only three ways to make money: fight in the arena (every town has one), explore the dungeon, or gamble. The arena pays around 100 gold for a successful victory, but a loss ends the game. Exploring the dungeon (more below) is completely random and might give you 100 gold pieces per 5 minutes of exploration if you're lucky. To be viable, an army needs to have around 300-500 members and the character needs a health score of at least 250, both of which could deplete to 0 from about 10 minutes of exploration. Do the math. To get even a modestly viable army, you need around 8,000 gold pieces, which in turn would require 80 successful arena combats or 7 hours in a dungeon.
Monster battles in arenas and dungeons.
That leaves gambling. It's a simple die game in which winning doubles your money and there's no maximum bet. Thankfully, it works. In fact, the odds are so favorable that you can make tens of thousands of gold pieces in mere minutes. I often won 5 or more times in a row and never lost twice in a row.
It helps that I "didn't win or lose" even when I clearly lost.
The game would be awfully easy--just gamble until you have a million gold pieces and buy more health and soldiers than you'd ever need--but it has one final middle finger to offer. If you get an army of more than a couple thousand men, they start to die en masse from "disagreements among your troops." If you amass more than 10,000 gold, "a strong magical wind carries half of it away to some far, unreachable place." And if you have so much health . . . well, here, the author didn't try to come up with even a ridiculous explanation. Just that "you have so much health that it actually causes damages to you."
Even "you have so much health, your own troops throw stones at your head out of sheer spite" would have been better.
So "gameplay" is basically several hours of marching across the landscape, acknowledging one awful thing after another happening to your party, then retreating to a nearby town to gamble and replenish everything--but not too much.
Why are you marching across the landscape in the first place? You have to find the five "outlaw armies." But they're not marked, so you have to explore every square until you stumble into them. There are about 6,000 squares on the map, and it takes about a second (era-accurate speed) to move between them, not counting the messages you have to acknowledge occasionally in between. God knows why, but rather than BRIEF the game and get it off my list, I actually played it to the end, stepping on every square, albeit at "Warp" mode in the emulator. In the event that for some insane reason you want to do this for yourself, here's a shortcut:
  • Army #1 is in the top row near the northeast corner.
  • Army #2 is near the river in the southwest corner
  • Army #3 is in the top row just west of the river
  • Army #4 is in a line south of Flaavar on the west side of the map
  • Army #5 is in the second row from the top in the northwest corner
Only one of the five armies is on the east side of the river, which takes up the majority of the map. That means all that space is essentially for nothing. I can't begin to tell you how boring it is to just walk across the map in rows, having to run to a town for replenishment every few minutes.
The armies range from a few hundred members (#1) to several thousand (#5). To defeat the last one, you have to load up your own army with about 5,000 troops and then hope you don't lose too many on the way to the battle. The battles against other armies take a long time as you watch messages scroll by indicating how many soldiers were killed round after round, but there's no real tension to them. The player has no options, and the relative size of the army is the overwhelming variable in victory.
Even in "Warp" mode, this takes a while.
To get to the west side of the map, the player has to build a bridge across the river. This is accomplished by entering a forest in the southeast part of the map and cutting down some trees. The problem with this is that you have to hit the SPACE bar in the right part of the map to make this happen. The SPACE bar is otherwise only used to enter cities and the dungeon, both of which are clearly marked on the map. The player wouldn't know to just randomly hit it in a blank part of the map. The only reason I found it was sheer luck.
If you have wood, the bridge appears as soon as you touch the water.
If you touch the far western border of the map, the game crashes.
There's no final victory message after you defeat the final army. I searched the program code to verify this. Weirdly, you can encounter the fifth army an endless number of times (after defeating it originally) in the northwest corner of the map. However, after its first defeat, the army has no soldiers, so your victory is automatic. 
Having destroyed five or more "outlaw armies" is the only way to prove that I've "won."
Let me talk more about the dungeon. Allowing for dungeon exploration in a game like this isn't unique--Clardy's Odyssey did it--but it is unusual. It could have been an interesting part of the game. Unfortunately, it's completely random. When you enter, you're told how many tunnels are available to you (a random number). You're supposed to choose one by typing in the number, but the meaninglessness of this action is reflected in the fact that you can type any number no matter how many tunnels there are supposed to be, and you still get a valid result. You're taken to another random room description with a random number of exit tunnels. Some of the rooms have pools, also activated by typing a number, which produce a random result like increased or decreased health. Sometimes creatures join your army. You sometimes randomly encounter a monster (e.g., troll, gargoyle, evil gnome), against which combat is as bereft of tactics and tension as the army battles. (The game already has almost no magic; aside from these creatures, it wouldn't have any monsters, either.) The key variables are your health and weapon power. You might get a small number of gold pieces from the battle. Since gambling is the only plausible long-term approach, the dungeon is ultimately meaningless, particularly since it's located in the upper-right corner, and you can't really linger in that area.
Wasting time in a dungeon.
Monsters and Magic could have been saved with a little more thought and balance. Eliminating gambling would have been the start. Force the player to make money through combat and dungeon exploration, and increase those rewards. Add a few more variables to combat, and allow some positive things to happen during exploration. It still wouldn't be a great game, it might at least become better than nothing. My scale doesn't actually go into the negatives, but anything less than 10 is pretty painful, and Monsters gets a 7. It manages to survive on a series of 1s that by tradition I give to having anything in some of the categories.
Mike Snyder was clearly capable of better games, and this, admittedly, was one of his early ones. He seems to have been reasonably talented at interactive fiction, for instance. He created an interesting-looking text adventure/Breakout hybrid called Spore in 1991. In the 1990s, he established Prowler Productions and produced, among other things, Lunatix: The Insanity Circle, a text adventure with graphics set in an insane asylum. But in his Color Computer days, he seemed more interested in quantity than quality. Part of that may have been the demands of his publisher, Michigan-based T&D Subscription Software. T&D was owned by a man named Tom Dykema and seems to have stood for "Tom and Dykema."
I announced in a recent comment that I was having trouble with motivation lately, and it might be natural to suggest that, given such, I drop or at least BRIEF some of these recent additions to game databases, often questionable in their use of the RPG label. Some commenters have suggested taking a break. What's important to understand is that playing something like Monsters and Magic is, counterintuitively, such a "break." It may be a bad game, but it's an easy blog article. It requires no effort to emulate, no translations, no interpretation of another country's conventions. The time it takes to play may be unpleasant, but it's over soon, and there's no dreading what comes tomorrow. Thus, I think I'll save most of my 1980s backlog for times like this, when I don't want to play something complex that requires me to repeatedly ask help from my readers.
Will at the Adventurer's Guild is sick, and I don't want to get too far ahead of him with BloodNet, so it might be a while for the next entry. I'm still having issues with Die Odyssee and may not be able to muster another entry on it. I will be continuing with SOTE, but alternating with more quick games like this. When I'm ready to commit to an "upcoming" list again, I'll probably just put it back the way it was rather than draw new games.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Game 476: SOTE: Shadow of the Evil (1993)

I'm glad they put this disclaimer. I have a friend who went into a cave with his girlfriend and got sucked into another dimension where he had to battle orcs and ghosts, and I was thinking the authors might have based the game on him.
SOTE: Shadow of the Evil
Ultraforce Software Team (developer); Markt und Technik (publisher, via 64'er magazine)
Released 1993 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 24 November 2022
SOTE: Shadow of the Evil is an unfortunately-named diskmag game from Hungarian authors Csaba Tóth & Viktor Szenczy. Working out the title twisted me in knots. The German language version gives it as Der Schatten Des Bösen ("The Shadow of Evil"), which makes a lot more sense. But the acronymic main title and the English title screen don't give us a lot of room to maneuver. The magazine in which it appeared, the December 1993 64'er, calls it Shadow of the Devil on the cover.
Shadow of the Devil frankly makes more sense.
I originally found two versions of the game, one labeled "English" and the other labeled "German." The English version had an odious "cracktro" screen (I hate to validate it by even using that stupid term) but gives the option to go to a configuration menu after you click past it. But I couldn't get the introductory cinematic to load. The German version had the cinematic but was in German. Thanks to Busca for helping me realize that they were in fact the same version, and you just need to hit SPACE during the loading process on the "German" version to switch to English. 
The cinematic starts with someone surveying the landscape from a castle rampart.
The cinematic offers a modern-day framing story. You play Troy Perkins, who has accompanied his girlfriend, Eve, to a dinner party at the house of their friends, Bob and Sheila, somewhere along the English Channel. After dinner, Troy and Eve decide to go for a stroll along the beach.
Ah, yes, the snow-capped peaks of the Kentish coast.
A ground tremor forces them to seek shelter in a cave, where some kind of whirlwind picks them up and carries them away. Troy awakens on a dirt floor at the feet of an old man who introduces himself as Larome Lan L'Ore ("the arch mage of the northern half"). He explains that the lovers have been sucked into the world of Corlon by Harcon, "arch-mage of the southern half." Larome has managed to interfere and rescue Troy, but Eve is being held prisoner in a castle. Harcon intended to sacrifice the couple to his god, but apparently his god will only accept a double sacrifice, so Eve is safe for now. Larome teleports Troy to the castle with instructions to rescue Eve and return with Larome's stolen Ring of Power, which he can use to send them back. Larome teaches Troy a few spells, then teleports him to the forest near Harcon's castle, instructing Troy to blow a whistle when he's found Eve and the ring. Troy walks to the castle and squeezes in through a crack in the stones.
My confusion often kills my acts.
Gameplay begins in a niche on the other side of that crack, which mysteriously doesn't appear from this side. Immediately, you are confronted with the absolute worst interface in CRPG history. On the right-hand side of the screen are all the game's commands, including some intriguing ones like "Hide" and "Disguise." To activate these options, you don't use keyboard commands. You don't arrow through them and hit ENTER on your chosen selection. You don't use a mouse (which is rarely required for C64 games, though the platform did support it). Instead--I can't believe I'm actually typing this--you use the joystick to move the cursor over the commands and hit the button. Yes, it's just as difficult and annoying as you might think it is for buttons that small. The only saving grace--and the only reason I'm even writing about this game--is that you can map movement and inventory to keys of your choice. [Ed. I owe the author an apology here. Although the joystick is the default interface, as Busca points out, it's possible to change to a mouse in the "Settings" menu. I just overlooked it.]
You'd better believe it.
Once you get past the interface issue, you seem to be in a boilerplate Wizardry or Bard's Tale knock-off with maybe a couple of nods to Dungeon Master. You explore a textured environment. You don't see enemies until combat begins. Combat is turn-based. Yada yada. But slowly, the game reveals some innovations that make it at least slightly more intriguing than the average clone. These include:
  • A long set of interesting options in combat. In addition to the standard regular attack, aggressive attack ("Fiercer"), and defensive attack, plus spell options, you get "Frighten," "Mock," "Mislead," and "Talk," as well as a "Measure" option that gives you a summary of the creature. I wonder if the game was at all influenced by Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) and some of its similar encounter options.
The "Measure" option tells you something about your foe.
  • The game brings up the "combat" menu for non-combat encounters, too, so you have full access to dialogue and persuasion options even with NPCs. Or you could kill them if you're of such a bent.
  • The aforementioned options to "Disguise" and "Hide" while exploring. Admittedly, I haven't found any use for them. There's also a "Switch" option, which I assume will be used to activate wall switches and such.
  • You can look (straight) up and down. So far, all this has shown me is ceilings and floors, but I didn't try it on every square.
Looking down at the floor.
  • Even though you can't see enemies in the exploration window, it appears that the game spawns them at fixed locations and tracks them from there. You can "hear" them (via textual alerts) as you get close. If they catch your scent, they'll move to intercept or chase you.
  • There are hints of more interesting puzzles than the usual clone. So far, there have been no generic messages on walls. Instead, there have been unusual encounters with clues.
  • The resting system. The game asks you how many hit points and spell points you want to recover, then makes you wait as time ticks by. You recover points at a rate of about one every six seconds at normal speed. Full recovery from starting hit points takes about two minutes. I like this. Too many games make resting and healing too easy. If you're going to offer such a mechanic, it ought to come with some kind of risk or penalty. Usually, this is done through risk or penalty to the character; I'd like to see more games that make the player suffer the penalty. Of course, emulating the game, it's easy enough just to "Warp Mode" through it, but I'll try not to do that.
  • The message window keeps an ongoing log of everything that happens from the moment you load or reload a game. As long as you don't have to reload, you can scroll backwards and re-check messages and dialogue that happened hours ago.
The first level is 18 x 25--at least, the initial part (see below)--with a fair amount of dead space. I bashed most of the walls around the dead space for secret doors, but I don't even know if the game has secret doors that can be found that way. Maybe I'm supposed to "Search" every square instead.
The first level--so far.
There are maybe a dozen enemies of three different types: things that look like monstrous guards, things that look like wolf-men, and dark one-eyed things with catlike ears. I mostly used physical attacks on them, but I tried a couple spells. You start with "Shield," "Read Magic," "Flame Column," and "Magical Violence." I assume you get more later. None of the enemies is individually difficult, but you need to rest after two or three.
I think the authors meant "phew."
Slain enemies drop items, and one of the game's quirks is that you have to watch the little rectangular symbol between the two scroll arrows to the right of the message window. When it changes from blue (or whatever the regular color is) to white, that means there's something on the floor. You go to the inventory window to see and distribute it.
The inventory window is designed in a way that I've never seen before. It has four major sections. The top left shows items on the floor. The bottom left shows equipped items, like helmets, boots, gauntlets, armor, and cloaks, each of which adds to your defensive rating. There are five "belt" slots below the equipped items, but the only thing I've been able to put into the slots are keys. In the upper-right, you have your left and right hands and a "bags" slot for any backpack or bag you find. The items in containers appear in the "Carry" section in the lower-right. Moving items between the areas is accomplished the same way as using the menus: Use the joystick to move the cursor over the item and hit the "fire" button to pick it up, then move and hit the "fire" button again to put it down.
My inventory about halfway through the game.
You start the game with only a lighter in your right hand and a whistle in your left. For a while after the game starts, you have no bag, so you have to drop those items somewhere if you want to pick up a weapon or shield. I did find a single bag on the first level, which allows for eight inventory slots. There's more space in the window, so I wonder if different containers offer more slots. Besides weapons and armor, items I found on the level include a stick, a bag of 5 gold coins, a needle and thread, two unknown potions, a flask of water, and a hammer.
The level is full of locked doors, most of which open to simple gray keys. I found at least three of them on the bodies of monsters. One door required a gray key of a different design. I also found a gold key but I didn't find a use for that yet. There's a "doorbreak" option with an unfortunate message when you attempt it, but I couldn't get it to work on any door. There's a chance it may break your weapon.
Well, the door is to the east.
There were a few interesting encounters on the first level. At the end of one corridor, I found a plaque with some glyphs. The "Search" menu allowed me to read the plaque, and it gave me an odd little poem:
The way is double
Somewhere else,
Ohh! You can't know
How to go,
Use your brain to 
Find which tells
"Worthless is
the better, so."
I don't know if that's deliberately cryptic or just bad English. As you've undoubtedly noticed, English translation wasn't the strongest skill of the developers.
Another corridor ended in a mosaic of symbols. It was dark at first but activating the lighter with the "Use Item" menu lit it up. It depicts a 5 x 6 grid of symbols, many of them repeating. 
It could be a giant version of Concentration.
In a locked room at the top of the map (although the game offers no sense of orientation), I met an old man in what looks like a prison cell. He introduced himself as Woford'Ne'Lions, former prince of Bergisa. He thanked me for his release and gave me a number (25) to "use where [I] can."
Note that I have all the same options as in combat.
There are three exits from the level. In what I mapped as the southwest corner, there's a pentagram that will teleport you to a new area. In the northeast corner is a gateway to a new area. And in the southeast corner, there's a door for which I haven't found the key. It may open a new section of this level or lead to a different one.
One of the three ways out.
Overall, I found my first session intriguing and relatively satisfying. I haven't had the best of luck with German diskmag games, but I'm willing to play it as long as I can find things to do. I still don't know if there's any real character development, however. You have five attributes--attack, defense, magic, speed, and body (hit points)--but the only thing to affect their maximums has been finding new equipment. There's no hint of experience points or any other type of leveling. However, the "Rest" menu lets you specify more hit points than you start with for healing, so I assume max hit points must increase eventually.
The authors of the game are given as Csaba Tóth and Viktor Szenczy. There are a couple of plausible Csaba Tóths out there; I've reached out to two, but with no responses yet. I know I've asked a lot of my German readers this month, but if any of you could read over the three pages in 64'er from the game's original release and let me know if I've missed anything vital, I would appreciate it.
Time so far: 3 hours

Monday, November 28, 2022

BloodNet: Metaphysical Streets of the Physical Town

It's not hard to imagine there's no heaven.
Ransom Stark is a vampire, slowly losing his humanity to his bloodlust. He wants to cure his condition and get revenge on the vampire lord who gave it to him: Abraham Van Helsing. As a bonus, Van Helsing is on the board of Stark's former employer, the totalitarian TransTech, which seeks to control both regular space and cyberspace. Somewhere along the line, Stark hopes to rescue his friend, Deidre Tackett, who created the neural implant that saved Stark's life. She appears to have been kidnapped by Van Helsing. Stark keeps meeting other people who hate TransTech and/or who want to kill vampires, but he's having a tough time actually accomplishing anything for them.
As this session begins, I take stock of my open quests and leads. This is the type of game where you want to do this frequently:
  • I'm still a vampire. I have no specific leads to cure that.
  • Van Helsing is still alive. I haven't tried returning to his penthouse. Maybe I could just bring the fight to him?
Spoiler: This is a bad idea.
  • Deidre is still missing. Her followers, the Lost Kids, are somewhere in cyberspace, protecting a hacking program called Incubus from discovery by TransTech. "Someone must find them in cyberspace before Van Helsing does," Deidre's journal said.
  • I previously visited the Flux Riders, and the leader wouldn't talk to me because I had a cyborg named Nimrod in the party. Now that Nimrod is gone, I should try again.
  • Vampires are killing people in Central Park. A nun named Mother Mary may be able to help me stop them. She wants me to meet her at St. Patrick's.
  • Cyril Thorpe can help me overcome obstacles if I place a material object belonging to "whoever is at the root of the difficulty" by his body.
  • The Kafka Conspiracy, a gang on West 23rd, wants to meet with me.
  • Rymma Fizz, one of my companions, wants us to swing by Electric Anarchy and pick up her husband, Garrick. Electric Anarchy may have some information about vampires.
  • I've got several pieces of Charlie Flyer's mind, found in cyberspace, but no quest to go with them.
  • Sabaccatus St. Aubens, leader of the Autonomy Dogs, wants me to kill the leader of the Hard Metals. I'm not sure I want to do that, as St. Aubens is a racist jerk. I could at least visit the Hard Metals, though.
  • I have the consciousness of a hacker named Elvis in my decking unit. He's looking for a cyborg body. I do have some cyborg parts.
  • A hacker named Paula DiMigglio asked for help freeing her friend Banks Verbatim, from a TransTech "data cage." I'll need a data cage key from TransTech's headquarters. See the next item.
  • Kimba West, "mayor" of the Central Park shanty town, wants some fiber-optic cable from TransTech's headquarters. I need a security badge before I can finish my burglary there.
  • A girl in Central Park wants Psilo Blossom. I don't know where to get it.
  • I need a toolkit so I can start building things.
  • A bunch of modern-day knights inhabit the Cloisters in north Manhattan. I'm able to visit some of them if I put on some makeup first. One of them, Sir Helveticus, wants me to find his younger brother.
Yikes. In addition to all of this: I'm carrying way too much stuff. I decide to tackle that one first. I start clicking on triangles across the city until I find something promising: "Vince's Munition Emporium" on East 96th Street. It's exactly what I needed. For the first time, I'm in something that looks like a proper CRPG buying/selling screen. Not only do I get rid of a bunch of stuff, I'm able to buy an extra vial of Instapigment, and a jury rig toolkit. 
With the toolkit, I'm able to consolidate even more space by assembling a flame thrower. (You know you're a CRPG veteran when the thing you're most excited about upon acquiring a flame thrower is that it's now taking up only one inventory slot instead of four.) It needs jellied gas to run, but I have some of that. I'll probably save it for special occasions.
Just like Santa Claus.
That leaves me with 16 quests. Approaching the list organically, I still think raiding TransTech's headquarters takes priority. But where am I going to get a TransTech security badge? I guess I could start with people who hate them. That means checking out the Kafka Conspiracy and/or Electric Anarchy. I go with the Conspiracy first and head to their place in Chelsea.
Like everyone else, the Conspiracy members are hanging out on a street corner. I speak to the leader, Coover Tristan, who is fond of quoting famous poets and writers, including Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, Roland Barthes, and my third-favorite poet, Wallace Stevens. (To answer the obvious question: Pablo Neruda and T. S. Eliot.) Tristan explains that the group is targeting TransTech's infrastructure. He won't tell me any of the group's secrets or offer any help unless I bring them a multichannel transmitter from a group of pirates on 96th Street called the Icon Robbers. Moreover, he wants me to steal it stealthily, with no violence. Instead of solving a quest, I got yet another one. 
Call the roller of big cigars.
Another Conspiracy member, Chrysalis, tells me a "tale that is told in cybercircles of late." It's clearly about Tackett's Lost Kids. Apparently, four of them entered cyberspace permanently, but a fifth stayed behind to destroy their bodies. "He waits for you, Stark," she says, without offering any information about how to find him. A cyborg member named Words Blanque offers nothing helpful, but I note with amusement his unique dialogue, which has him defining random terms in the middle of his sentences.
I head up to Electric Anarchy in the Bronx. There are a bunch of them. Phracktle K. Oss offers to pay me $10,000 to assassinate the security director of TransTech at their headquarters. He probably has a badge, but I need to get into the building first, so that's no help. Phree Thaught wants a Dragon Soul Box; she promises "a phreaky way to get rid of TransTech pigs"--specifically, a powerful sleeping gas. Auntie Matter offers to trade a powerful weapon called a Wrath Ray for . . . a TransTech security badge. But of course she has no idea where to get one. Garrick Fizz, Rymma's husband, joins my group.
Having accomplished nothing but adding more quests to my list, I settle on a new strategy: systematic exploration. I'm already at the top of Manhattan. TransTech's headquarters is at the bottom of the map. I start working my way down. In order, I try:
  • Van Helsing's Penthouse on West 125th Street. Some vampire named Anastasia congratulates my boldness on walking "right into the lion's den." She attacks with what I'm guessing is one other vampire (since I can't kill him) and three non-vampires. My party makes short work of them, but every time one of the vampires gets down to 0 hit points, they rebound with half their health. I reload and try equipping stakes first, but I hardly ever hit with them. Bottom line: I need more tools and experience fighting vampires--maybe one of the knights' soul blades--before I can prevail here.
  • The Cybersurgery Group on East 125th Street. A freaky lab. A guy named Steve Austin (ho, ho) offers "cut rates" on cybergenetic limb attachments. I have options to get the Ude Utsukushi 66 arm, an ocular implant, and an aural implant attached. I decline for now, as his "reasonable rates" are in the tens of thousands of dollars, and I've been spending like a sailor.
I'll come back when I have $6 million.
  • Doom Pilots on East 125th Street. Another gang. Like the others, they don't like TransTech. Scream Wipe, who has a history with Stark, gives us the password TTheat to access TransTech's security records. Ghost Walker tells me that a woman named Madame Mescal on 96th & Broadway deals in Vasopressin and Psilo Blossom, both of which make cyberspace navigation easier. Sis Konfigg will give me the cyberspace address of the Bank of New York for a Level 4 cloaking chip. HoloGraham and Stive just have some friendly words and banter.
I notice a couple of things at this point. Time doesn't seem to pass on screens unless you deliberately rest. If you do rest, Stark's bloodlust goes up 1 point per hour. It goes up as you move between areas, so the game must be calculating transit times. To avoid increasing bloodlust too fast, you probably don't want to go to too many unnecessary places.
  • Madame Mescal on West 96th. Another dealer operating out of the trunk of a car, and what do you know? She has a TransTech security badge, just sitting there for purchase. I purchase that, plus a backup canister of jellied gas and another tube of Instapigment, but she doesn't have the promised Psiolo Blossom. 
I figured I'd have to solve a quest to get hold of this.
I abandon my systematic exploration at this point and head for TransTech's headquarters. But once again, the Entry Drone says: "Check for clearance badge is negative. Admission to headquarters denied." What the hell? It takes me a while to figure out what's going on. A character needs to equip the badge to get by security, but the badge only fits in a slot for which Stark already has a cybernetic arm, and I can't remove it. I have to have Rymma equip the badge.
TransTech HQ has a creepy statue.
This time, the Entry Drone lets us through and offers a summary of the Star Chamber's executive report. (The Star Chamber is TransTech's governing body.) I avoid the employees and head to the elevator, which gives me options for Security and the Nanotech Lab. I'm here for three reasons: fiber-optic cable, kill the security chief, and find a cage key. It feels like "Security" is the answer to two out of three of those things. 
Chief Daryl Paine is in the office by himself. He orders me out, and when I don't leave, he attacks. I try to bite him, but my fellow party members gun him down before I have the chance. We loot a Security Cloak and several weapons. 
It's not exactly a fair fight.
A search of the room reveals Wrath Ray Plans, a Dragon Soul Box, Deidre Tackett's Essence, a list of Tackett's associates, and a "Cyber Crackdown List" that includes people I've already met or know of, including me, Tackett, Hakim Maghsoudi, Garrick Fizz, Lenora Maor, Sis Konfigg, Zeus, Elvis, and Charley Flyer. The one exception is a Lazlo Greene.
But no cage key or fiber-optic cable. I take the elevator to the Nanotech Lab. There are two employees working, but they both assume I'm from company management. I search the lab and find a Nanoblast, 4 Nanoblast Micromissiles, a Buzzsaw (automatic weapon), Blood-Producing Nanotech, a Wireless Effector, and a Service Nanomachine. There are way too many arcane items in this game. Even with the manual open beside me, I can't keep track of half of the junk this game throws at you.
Unfortunately, still no cage key or fiber-optic cable. There is, however, a little triangle indicating another exit from the room. It's in front of a door with a control panel. When I walk over to it, a message says "the door is locked." I can't find any way through the door. I previously noted that one of the items you can jury rig is "Electronic Lockpicks," which I suspect I need here. I'm worried that having murdered the security director, I won't be able to return to the headquarters once I leave, so I reluctantly reload from before I visited, having accomplished nothing.
Every adventurer's bane.
Electronic Lockpicks require a Lock Database, a Lockpick Casing, and a Diagnostic Unit. I got the Lock Database in a previous session in Central Park. I have no idea where to get the other parts, but I assume I'll find them eventually.
  • Icon Robber's Studio on West 96th Street. I'm supposed to get a multichannel transmitter without hurting anyone. There are four Icon Robbers in the place, and I can't search it with them present. There's no stealth mechanic in the game that I'm aware of, nor any stealth object, although who knows with all this junk I'm lugging around? I try talking. Members named Cody and Rigginbotham just tell me to leave. Squid wants my permission to use my likeness in videos. Ludes Moshe mistakes us for actors. I don't have any options that help. Maybe Phree Thought's sleeping gas would help here? I need to get the Dragon Soul Box out of TransTech first. For now, I leave.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art on East 86th Street. As we enter, a guard indicates that the museum is closed to the public. Rich folks are allowed to have soirees in the evenings. A guy named Montgomery Taylor says he used to be a member of the Hellfire Club, but he's gotten uncomfortable with how "scary" and "perverse" things have gotten lately. He offers me his invitation to a club party at the Plaza and suggests I look up his associate, Emily Esaki. An obnoxious couple named Dauphine Dmitri and Damean Tocque have just had a baby, and they want to implant her with the Babel Code. Dauphine offers me $25,000 for it. I don't know if I'm done with it or not, but I take the chance and sell it. I later note that Will at the Adventurers' Guild hated the couple so much he decided to feed on them to reduce his bloodlust. 
That was a nice top-up.
  • Strawberry Fields on West 79th Street. This turns out to be the home of the Black Aggots gang. They've enclosed the Imagine mosaic and turned it into a fighting ring. After Stark exchanges some threats and insults with the leader, Shock Maraud, he tells me that the gang has been contracted by Abraham Van Helsing to kill someone; they're just waiting to find out the name of the target. They'll forget the contract if I can bring them what Van Helsing has promised: a drug database located at a cyberspace address called ANTIBODY. Since they're probably going to be contracted to kill me, it's probably best if I got ahead of this. 
  • Flux Riders on West 79th Street. Hondo will talk to me now; he just doesn't say anything I understand.
Just when I was thinking I could come to enjoy cyberpunk.
  • Hard Metals on West 66th Street. A gang that fetishizes cybernetic body parts. Members are named Markus Piston, Clank Sprocket, Tempered Steel, and Liquid Nails. Sprocket wants a cybernetic leg; I missed what he said he'd trade for it. Tempered Steel will join the party for $10,000. Nails takes $2,000 to tell me about a guy named Strongarm Tacktick who sells technology on West 66th Street. I don't know which of them is the leader, but I'm not going to kill any of them for the Autonomy Dogs.
Strongarm Tacktick is on the same block as the Hard Metals, so I visit him next, and here I find what I need. He sells implants, Doppelgangers, cyborg body parts, other crafting items, and the two items I need for the Electronic Lockpicks. He also has Kevlar Helmets. They're expensive, but I buy one for Stark. He doesn't sell quite enough cyborg parts to finish an entire body for Elvis, so I don't buy any of them for now.
I jury rig the Electronic Lockpicks and head back to TransTech. I try to repeat what I did before, only this time two security guards are waiting in the Security room. I'm not sure what changed. After I kill them, the chief appears, apparently unaware that I've just killed his associates. Rather than wait for him to attack us again, I have Stark preemptively bite him, since my bloodlust is back up to 68%.
Are these (electronic lock) picks or electronic (lockpicks)?
In the Nanotechnology Lab, I pick the lock on the security door--or, more accurately, using the PAL system, Slash does. I find a Praxis 3000 decking unit, a Level 4 cloak, fiber-optic cable, and an Azrael Soul Box (second only to the Dragon). I still can't find a damned cage key. More guards attack as we leave the room. I'm annoyed because my inventory is so full I can't pick up all of the stuff they drop.
Because of our visit to the Metropolitan Museum, I guess, we have a third elevator option: Emily Esaki. Her office is empty, but a search reveals a lapel pin with a "fierce sword insignia." Oddly, I already had one of these from somewhere, but I don't remember where I got it.
I'm not sure Stark has what you would call "lapels."
We get the hell out of there and return to Tackett's Lab to plan our next move. I figure I'm going to at least use the Dragon Soul Box before I give it away.
This game is getting complicated. It's starting to feel like I'm making choices that I can't walk back. I suppose if I have to start over, I have to start over, but we'll see how long I can keep it going until then. 
Time so far: 11 hours

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Game 475: Curse of Vengeance (1992)

The game is more creative than you'd expect given that the author was named Scott McNab and he named his company "Mac-Nab."
Curse of Vengeance
United States
Mac-Nab Software (developer); published as shareware
Released 1992 for Macintosh
Date Started: 23 November 2022 
Date Ended: 24 November 2022
Total Hours: 4 (unfinished)
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I've always liked text adventures--not as much as RPGs, of course, or else this would be a different blog--but I'm also not very good at them. I like the process I use to play them, which is to systematically map everything and annotate puzzles and dead ends as I find them, then make a second pass, trying to solve the puzzles. This system usually carries me through about three-quarters of the game, but it only works so long as it's clear there's a puzzle to solve. One by one, locked doors and rusty grates give way to the keys and oil I've found in other places, but eventually there comes a time in which there's still something to do and yet I've run out of obvious puzzles. This is where some adventure games expect you to make what seems to me a superhuman leap--to recognize that you must fiddle with some random rock, or search a blank wall, or climb a specific tree that looks like every other tree.
Curse of Vengeance is such a game, or at least it seems to me such a game. It was written by Scott McNab of Davenport, Iowa (home of Bix Beiderbecke, which I'm throwing in for absolutely no reason, but at least I'm doing it in parentheses) using an interactive fiction kit called TADS: the Text Adventure Development System. The kit, written by (then) CalTech student Michael Roberts, was first made available in 1990. (For more on TADS, read Jimmy Maher's 2017 article.) The kit is still being used, with version 3.1.3. released in 2013. It supports some limited RPG mechanics, although most games created with the kit seem not to have used them. Curse is the only TADS game that is also an RPG listed in the Macintosh Repository database, where I found it. MobyGames lists one more: Magocracy (2004) for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS. I know that some kits will eventually pose a challenge regarding when to say "enough," but TADS doesn't seem to be one of them.
The backstory text.
Curse casts the player as an unnamed mercenary who's heading to the village of Drakkar to meet a resident named Fallon Shires. Shires has sent the PC a note asking for his help. The character starts the game with no possessions, as he's recently been robbed by other mercenaries, although he somehow has 500 gold pieces.
Gameplay begins in a forest square near the village of Drakkar. The scant documentation that comes with the game only gives you a few tips on commands, but it's easy to figure out. TADS may be its own thing, but it's part of the Infocom hegemony: You can toggle descriptions with BRIEF and VERBOSE; the "I" key brings up inventory; "G" repeats the last command; "Z" causes you to sleep. You WEAR and HOLD armor and weapons, LIGHT lamps, TAKE or GET objects on the ground, and so forth. There's even a grue. I never had any issues figuring out the right commands. The parser supports entering multiple commands at once with commas in between.
My map of the game has 173 screens; the author says in the accompanying text file that there should be about 200. Going from screen to screen is generally a straightforward process of typing one of the eight cardinal directions. Only a handful of times do you go UP or DOWN, and the author only rarely messes with directionality by having you, say, exit one area from the east but arrive at the next from the south.
My Trizbort map of the game world. You should be able to zoom in to see details.
Area descriptions are brief and contain few unnecessary details. About 80% of the areas have only a few words of description, like "East-West Path" or "North, South Passage." Usually, when there's something to do in an area, it's immediately obvious; SEARCH, OPEN, and READ handle the vast majority of your interactions.
There are a lot of sections in the game like this.
The game's RPG credentials center around random monsters such as giants, kobolds, and ogres, which you can encounter anywhere except the town of Drakkar. The system is extremely basic. All you can do in combat is attack or try to flee. The character has an attack rating and armor class based on currently-equipped items, and you and the enemy simply whittle down each others' hit points round after round. Critical hits are possible. 
Defeating an enemy and leveling up.
Successfully slaying an enemy gets you gold and experience points. Amassing experience points causes you to level up at regular intervals, increasing your maximum hit points. As you earn more gold, you can afford better weapons and armor in Drakkar, although the best items are found rather than purchased. Hit points regenerate slowly, but you can heal more quickly by drinking water from the fountain in Drakkar (you need a flask to FILL it) or by finding a hut west of the city, where the residents sell healing potions for 200 gold pieces.
Tip: the expensive stuff is a waste of money.
The game consists of four major sections: the city of Drakkar, the southern caves, the southeastern path to a wizard's hut, and the northwestern castle. Most of what's in between is filler--long strings of nondescript paths and passages to give the sense of size. It is mostly open from the beginning, although you can't enter the caves or castle until you have been "marked" by the southern wizard. The sequence of plot events goes something like this:
1. Visit Drakkar and stock up. There's an armory called Dirten's Weapon Emporium; I can only hope it's named after the Pool of Radiance NPC. It also has a general store, where you find most of your standard adventuring gear (rope, lamp, oil, flask), a watering hole, and a tavern.
2. Meet Fallon Shires in the tavern. He tells you that an evil sorcerer named Kryptic (who "lives in the caves to the north") has kidnapped his daughter. He gives the player a coin, which he says is cursed. It will not allow the player to leave the area until his daughter is rescued. He recommends that the player go to the southern wizard (not the evil one) for aid. Promising great reward if the quest is successful, he scampers off.
Fallon Shires sounds like a gated community outside San Francisco.
A desk drawer in the tavern's office has a note written by a warrior named Throckmorton, "the only mortal to ever fight and almost win a battle with the Evil Sorcerer." It says that the player will have to "master all three of the magical items" to win.

3. Visit the southern wizard. To get to his hut, you have to tie a rope to a tree to swing across a ravine. The wizard tells you that you'll need three jewels to defeat the Evil One--one shaped like a star, one shaped like an eye, and one shaped like a triangle. He casts a spell that "marks" you with the face of the cursed coin and gives you the star-shaped gem. He also tells you there are powerful items in the Great Palace in Darkkar and that a "keeper," who lives in town, has the key.
Jeton is a new vocabulary word for me. I'm going to use it instead of "challenge coin" from now on.
4. Loot the Great Palace. Technically, you could have done this earlier, but until you meet the southern wizard, you'd have to make some leaps of logic. The Great Palace is behind a locked door in Drakkar. The only person who lives in town who could possibly have the key is a villager living south of the watering hole. He attacks when you enter his hut, and if you kill him, you're led to believe you just killed an innocent villager for no reason. Knowing that you need his key makes it only a little better. Once he's dead, you have to PUT OUT the fire in his fireplace with a flask of water, then SEARCH it to find a clump of ash, then WASH the clump of ash with more water to reveal a bronze key.
I was proud at how quickly I figured this out.
The bronze key opens the door to the palace. In the main hall, you find a painting signed by someone named "Hawking." It depicts the palace and calls it "Basilica." Upstairs, you find a silver key, which unlocks the door to the armory, where you find a suit of armor--the best armor in the game.
5. Explore the southern caves. You can't even enter the caves unless you've been marked by the wizard. You need a lamp to get around. There are two major things to do here. The first is to kill a magician who's set up a laboratory in the caves. He has a Shield of Ogre Strength (between it and the armor, you can't get a lower AC) and a book that gives you the information needed to safely cross a set of pillars in another section of the caves.
Crossing the pillars puts you in front of a statue. He asks you the name of a great ancient warrior; if you searched the tavern, you know that the answer is THROCKMORTON. The statue drops the eye-shaped jewel in your hand, and you're back in town.
Throckmorton is also a city in Texas, west of Fort Worth.
6. Explore the northwestern castle. As with the caves, you need to be marked to even enter. In a bedroom in the castle, you find a Sword of Burning Dragons, a ridiculously powerful weapon. Until you find it, the best weapon in the game is the long sword, which has a weapon rating of 6. The Sword of Burning Dragons has a weapon rating of 100. Once you have it, enemies basically die in one hit.

A trap door leads to the attic, where you find a beholder. He asks the name of the palace (BASILICA) and then gives you the triangular jewel. Again, a flash, and you're back in town.
A palace and a basilica aren't quite the same thing.
This is where I'm stuck. I have all three jewels, but I can't find the supposed "caves" in which the Evil One lives. An obvious place would be near a beach northwest of Drakkar. There are nine interconnected squares here making up the beach, but I can't figure out anything to do here. Unused items include a flask with an explosive liquid, a pouch with red powder, and a bunch of sand. The most obvious thing would be to throw the explosive bottle at the cliffs north of the beach, perhaps causing the cave to open. But the game doesn't recognize the word CLIFF and just throwing the bottle generically doesn't do anything.
A close-up of Drakkar.
Let's cover somer oddities and bugs of the game:
  • There's a fatigue system, but it's weird. You don't get tired until about 600 turns into the game. Assuming that the game doesn't take much longer, whatever I have to do, you could probably win in fewer turns. The game warns you repeatedly that you need to sleep. If you ignore it, you eventually pass out and wake up with all your inventory gone. You can only sleep on beds, but there are only a few places with beds in the game. If you find one and sleep, the game says you wake up refreshed, but it doesn't seem to actually reset the fatigue meter. You keep getting messages that you're exhausted and eventually pass out. You end up having to drop all your inventory, pass out, then pick it up again to avoid this problem.
Sleeping for hours and hours only to still be exhausted is the type of thing I play games to escape from, not experience.
  • There's also a hunger system, but I didn't get hungry until turn 1,200. There's only one food item in the game, so I guess 2,400 turns is the limit.
  • The game's parser gets confused when it comes to items with multiple words. The general store sells both Stone Oil and Lamp Oil, but if you try to BUY either of them, it tells you that it doesn't know what you're talking about. If you just BUY OIL, you end up buying the Lamp Oil. I can't figure out any set of commands that lets you buy the Stone Oil. Maybe that's crucial to winning. Similarly, trying to refer to any of the jewels is difficult, as the screenshot below shows.
And this is how Chester became an atheist.
  • In the room where you find the Sword of Burning Dragons, you can TAKE it, but the game doesn't register it as gone from the room. After taking it, if you don't leave the room immediately, it disappears from your inventory.
  • To wield a weapon, you have to HOLD it. To unwield it, you have to UNHOLD it. But if you DROP it without UNHOLDing it first, the game registers it as gone but not unwielded. From then on, you can't wield any more weapons because you didn't unwield the previous one, but you also can't unwield the previous one because you dropped it. (This remains true even if you pick it up again.) Clearly, the "something is wielded" flag is distinct from the specific item that is wielded. But you retain the weapon rating of the previously-wielded weapon even if you drop it.
My inventory at one point in the game.
  • The game has a scoring system. For most of the game, no matter how far you progress, the score remains stuck at 0 ("itsy-bitsy ant doo-doo"). Then at some point around Steps 3 or 4, it suddenly goes up to 10,100 ("scrawny") but never budges from there for the rest of the game.
  • In general, TADS supports a lot of commands that the game doesn't use. In particular, Curse has no way to interact with NPCs. The game gives you generic responses to things like YELL, SAY, DIG, TURN, PUSH, and so forth, which might make some players assume those commands have some utility in this specific game.
If there's nothing useful to PUSH or DIG, then the game should just tell you, not string you along.
I'm tempted to record this one as "not winnable" under the assumption that some bug is preventing me from finding the endgame, but I suppose that's a bit dishonest. Plus, it would interfere with the glorious streak of "Nos" in the "won?" column that I've amassed this month. I have reached out to the author, who promised a map of the world and a hint booklet for the $10 shareware fee, so hopefully he still has that, and I can append an addendum to this entry after turning it into a win.
For a GIMLET, I'm giving it an 19. It has a couple of serviceable puzzles, though I would have liked to see more, and of greater complexity. It's about the right length for its mechanics. It doesn't do well in most standard RPG categories, including combat, character creation and development, and NPCs (all 1s). I'm still awaiting a truly great RPG/text adventure hybrid, but an occasional shareware effort helps keep the torch alive.