Monday, July 26, 2021

Game 425: Tower of Doom (1987)

Tower of Doom
United States
Mattel Electronics (developer); INTV Corporation (publisher)
Released in 1987 for Intellivision
Date Started: 12 July 2021
Date Ended: 12 July 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: User-defined
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)   
As longtime readers know, I am color blind. Among the many disabilities one can have, I suppose I was blessed. But it can be annoying. First of all, no one understands it. When I tell people I'm color blind, they always want to test me by asking what color something is. "What color is my shirt?" Color blindness doesn't mean that everything looks monochrome or black and white (except for a very small percentage of people who have monochromacy), but sometimes I wish it did. That way, I could just say, "I don't know--the same color as everything else." It would be easier to explain.
Asking a color blind person the color of your shirt makes about as much sense as asking a blind person how many fingers you're holding up--not because he can't tell (not every "blind" person is 100% sightless), but because the answer doesn't prove anything. If I guess "blue" and get it right, it's just because that's a color I can see, or you just happened to wear an uncomplicated shirt. If a blind person gets it right with "three," that doesn't mean his vision isn't a major disability in everyday life. You've just identified one situation in which it doesn't apply. 
A typical shot from Tower of Doom. The upper-left shows the level map as I've revealed it so far. The lower-left has my inventory (spear, axe, food, two potions, bow, key). The lower-right has shields representing my max health. A serpent is coming for me in a room with a trap to my right and a magic ring slightly above me.
I'm a Strong Deutan, which means I primarily can't distinguish reds and greens, but it means more than that. It means that color in general has diminished importance for me. Even when I can distinguish two colors I don't necessarily internalize the distinction. Colors don't make an impression; they aren't part of how I visualize something in my imagination. Put something teal and something turquoise in front of me, and sure I'll be able to distinguish them. I might even be able to assign the right names. But make me close my eyes, take one away, and present the other one in isolation, and I probably won't be able to tell you which one it was. Color is not a part of my regular language or thought process. I cannot off the top of my head tell you what colors my state uses on its license plates, or the official colors of the university I teach for, or the hair or eye color of the people who work in the same hall as me. I don't perceive two "clashing" colors as not going together, or two complementary colors as synchronizing particularly well. I have to write symbols on the tags of my clothes to remember which of them "go."
I think in shades. Things are dark, medium, or light to me. I will sometimes use colors, but only in the bluntest way, like the way a southerner uses "Coke." If he says it, you can be sure he wants soda, but not necessarily what type. I will use "blue" for things that you call not only navy blue, azure, sapphire, and indigo, but also things you call purple, mauve, and violet. To me, pink, light gray, and cyan are all in the same color "family" because they're all light shades.
A poor choice of a potion has made me temporarily blind. Among my items in the lower-left (which don't include the question mark or the arrow), I can distinguish three colors. I just can't name them, and when they're not on the screen, I won't remember them.
My color blindness affects how I perceive and judge the world. Camouflage works extremely well on me. If you showed up at my house having just murdered someone, your shirt covered in blood, I might think you spilled a milk shake on yourself. The idea of separating laundry is absurd, because I can't distinguish or care about the difference. I throw away bread and cheese the moment it hits its expiration because I can't trust my senses to call attention to mold. If you color-code the rows in your Excel spreadsheets, even using colors that I can distinguish, instead of just putting a column with a data value in it, I think you're a child. How could you possibly prefer color to a hard-coded value? And when it comes to the visual arts, including film, paintings, and games, I'm immune to a lot of things that you would consider vast improvements. I could not functionally tell the difference between the original and special editions of Skyrim. Or maybe I could, but without really putting my mind to it, I wouldn't be able to articulate what those differences are. More important, I wouldn't care. Readers have told me numerous times about those Enchroma classes that are supposed to fix or ameliorate some kinds of color blindness. I'm sure I'll try them some day, and they'll probably improve my perception of the fall foliage, but they won't re-write nearly 50 years of language, perception, and habit. I appreciate that a lot of modern games have color correction for various forms of color-blindness, but even they don't get at the root issue. If some element of an interface requires an assessment of color, even if I can functionally tell the difference, my brain will refuse to register it as "important" unless I force myself to focus on it. A letter "P" is a much better indicator that I'm poisoned than a red dot.
Sorry--long screed. I was motivated to write all of this by Tower of Doom, the last RPG (only one of two, by my definitions) for the Intellivision. It's a good game, almost a roguelike for a second-generation console, but for me its fatal flaw is that everything is color-coded. You have to learn for each game which potions are safe to drink and which magic items are safe to use. You will perceive the colors (web sites tell me) as gray, cyan, orange, brown, pink, lavender, green, and magenta. If you give me those eight colors and ask me to assign those words to them, I'd probably get at least five right. But show me any one of those colors, and make me choose the right name, and I'll probably have at least five possibilities. This makes it extremely hard to keep notes on what does what.
In melee combat with a skeleton.
Tower of Doom began as Mattel's third Dungeons & Dragons game, but Video Game Crash of 1983 caused the company to sell its entire electronics division to a former vice president, who started INTV Corporation. The Dungeons & Dragons license agreement did not survive the dissolution. Development continued at INTV without the D&D stamp, but ironically the authors managed to produce a game much closer to Dungeons & Dragons (while, admittedly, still not being very close) than the two previous efforts. TSR would later allow Capcom to produce an arcade game called Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom (1993).
The game might have started as a D&D licensed product, but someone had clearly played Rogue or Hack. Tower of Doom is a quasi-roguelike. Some players might even dispute the "quasi." I include it because Tower has far simpler inventory, combat, and command systems than full roguelikes. It's also not turn-based, and it has an action component to combat. But there's clearly a roguelike ancestry. It features (usually) randomly-generated dungeon levels that are slowly revealed as you explore, color-coded gear, hunger and food, and permadeath. There isn't even any saving, which is somewhat absurd for the size of some of the dungeons.
As you start a new game, you get to choose from 14 length and difficulty settings. The easiest scenario is "Novice," which has only six fixed levels and does not randomize the assignment of colors to items. The only objective is to exit the sixth floor with as much treasure and experience as you can amass. The hardest are "Wizard Hunt" and "Grail Quest," which are always 32 random levels with a fixed objective--to kill a wizard and find the Holy Grail respectively. In between are "Tower," "Catacombs," "Fortress," and "The Challenge," which are between 6 and 32 levels.
Selecting the difficulty level at the beginning of the game. I know it's a minor thing, but finding the Grail isn't what the "Grail Quest" was about!
In addition to the dungeon difficulty, you also have a difficulty based on your character "class," which like NetHack is really just a starting set of attributes (strength, stamina, diplomacy, max hit points) and equipment. Classes are novice, warrior, archer, knight, trader, barbarian, waif, friar, warlord, and warlock. The hardest class is the waif, who starts with the lowest attributes (6 each) and the lowest max hit point "shields" (1.5) and is the only class to start without a weapon. The warlord starts with the highest max HP (5.5 shields) but only 9s in his attributes. Warriors and traders start with the highest strength (13) but only moderate max HP.
Gameplay looks the same for everyone. You're dropped in Level 1 of the dungeon of your choice, and you begin running around fighting monsters and collecting treasure. The control scheme is unintuitive but relatively easy to master. The little panel in the lower right has three rows. The second and third rows are your inventory (8 items max); the top one is action icons that include checking your stats, switching your active weapon, opening a door, and going downstairs (the latter two only appear when at doors and stairs). Whether using an item or activating an action, you hit one button to get into the panel, another to activate an icon, and a third to drop an item.
There are a bunch of things to find in the dungeon:
  • Weapons. There are 11 types of weapons in the game including both melee (dagger, hammer, small sword, mace), missile (bow, wand, dart), and those that serve as both (spear, axe). Missile weapons have limited uses, as indicated by color. Colors are supposed to tell you the power level of melee weapons, too.
  • Treasures, including bracelets, piles of coins, gems, and necklaces. These simply add to your treasure score, though you can also use them to bribe monsters (more below).
  • Magic items, including books, cloaks, potions, rings, and scrolls. These have a variety of effects as determined by color. Most are positive, including boosting attributes, improving defense, increasing speed, making you immune to traps, healing, and temporarily increasing maximum health. But a lot are negative, including sapping levels, freezing, slowing you down, and making enemies invisible to you. This is naturally where I had the most trouble.
When you use an item, you get a little message indicating what it did.
  • Traps, which can cause confusion, paralysis, hit point loss, hunger, and teleportation. They're always visible, but they often block the corridor and there's no way to disarm them.
  • Keys, which are color-coded to traps and let you walk through them without penalty.
  • Food, of which you need about 1 meal per level (if you explore exhaustively) to avoid losing health.
There are 13 monsters. In order of difficulty, they are giant rats, serpents, stirges, skeletons, stag beetles, axebeaks, giant scorpions, owlbears, wraiths, hydras, beholders, dragons, and wizards. As you can see, these all come from the Dungeons & Dragons bestiary, although they don't really have special powers; the higher-level ones just hit harder. They do have different speeds and vastly different experience point rewards, from 10 (rat) to 10,240 (wizard). The monsters are introduced at a rate of one per two levels unless you play "The Challenge," in which case they come at one new monster per level. So a player in a six-level dungeon never faces anything harder than a skeleton. One of the things that I like about the game is that the dungeon level adjusts the maximum level of monsters, not the minimum or average. You can still meet giant rats on Level 32, and in fact if you do, it's often more useful to avoid them (they're slow) rather than fight them, since no other enemy will appear on the same screen as long as they're around.
I don't remember any other CRPG to feature an axebeak. This would be a perfect corridor to use a missile weapon if I had one.
There are two modes to combat. You can shoot missile weapons down corridors, hoping to kill enemies before they reach you. This is tough in twisty corridors or with fast enemies. If the enemy reaches you, you're taken to a special combat screen where you exchange melee blows.  
Firing a spear at a skeleton, who is blocking the stairway down. I have a bunch of spears.
One oddity of the game is that enemies don't always rush to attack on the melee screen. If they hesitate, it means they're open to a bribe. You bribe enemies by dropping items from your backpack. You can stack multiple items for bigger bribes. You lose anything you drop whether the enemy accepts or not. If he accepts, he goes away and your diplomacy attribute increases, which makes it more likely that you can bribe future enemies. It's a cute idea, but I didn't find it very useful in practice. Enemies that go away can be immediately replaced by other enemies, for one thing.
This character has no weapon, so the best I can do is bribe the serpent with a pair of boots. Or flee.
Hit points regenerate on their own, but quite slowly, and in general it's not a viable strategy to wait around for them to improve on their own. You get a little help that way, but enemies can attack and undo your progress. You really need a potion.
Although you earn experience, levels, and max HP from fighting, and a variety of benefits from finding items, hunger is always nipping your heels, and I generally found it was best to go down as soon as I found the stairs. Once down, you cannot go back up. Surviving is otherwise a matter of knowing when to fight, when to fight only with missile weapons, and when to flee. Dragons are best fought with missile weapons, as they're powerful but slow. Wizards, beholders, and hydra are best avoided entirely.
Right before I turned around and went back the way I came in.
There are lots of tricks you'd learn only from experience. I read most of them on the StrategyWiki article for the game. For instance, traps only work against you if no sound is currently playing, so you can avoid them by forcing the game to play a sound. One easy way is to "use" a treasure, which converts it to points and plays a chime for a couple of seconds, long enough to run through the trap. Stairs are never behind doors. You should try potions on full stomachs because food eliminates some of their effects. Mortars and pestles are more likely to be cursed than other magic items.
I started off on the "Catacombs" dungeon with 12 levels and a warlord character. I was just learning the ropes with this one. I made it to Level 4 before a skeleton killed me because I had accidentally used up my spear and didn't have a backup weapon. During this process, I took save states to facilitate screen shots but only reloaded if I died because I was fiddling with a screenshot. Later, I figured out how to pause the game (although it darkens the screen) when I wanted to take a shot.
My "novice" character heads for the nearest bar.
And his pathetic, but legitimate, score.
I moved on to a "novice" adventure with a "novice" character. It was no trouble at all. The enemies were easy. It took me less than five minutes per level, and I was out of the dungeon in less than half an hour. I took save states every level or so, but I didn't need to reload once.
I then decided to try the hardest possibility: the Grail Quest (32 levels) with the waif. I didn't get more than a couple of corridors into it. The waif starts with no weapon, so you can't fight any monsters. But the only way out of the starting area was through a paralysis trap, and monsters kept attacking me while I was stuck in the trap. I'm sure with a different random configuration, the waif is survivable, but a lot depends on how quickly you can find a weapon.
My waif is stuck in a paralysis trap while an enemy lurks nearby.
For my third try, I did Grail Quest again, this time with a knight. I made it to Level 15 legitimately before I died at the claws of an owlbear after I drank a potion that froze me in place. I thought it was the same color as one I'd previously drunk that healed me, but . . . [gestures to the first four paragraphs]. I wanted to experience the end of the adventure, so I reloaded a save state. I had to do this probably six more times before I found the Grail on Level 32. (Wizards were responsible for half of those deaths, including once where I tried to kill one with a wand but missed and the wand bounced back at me; wands are almost too dangerous to use.) Using the Grail automatically ends the game.
A grail win, but with some cheating.
Traps were a constant problem for me, and again my color blindness played a major role. If you have a key that's the same color as the trap, you're supposed to be able to hold it in your hand and walk right through. Being a strong deutan doesn't prevent me from looking at the color of a key and matching it to the color of a trap and getting it right most of the time. The issue is more that my mind refuses to attach any importance to color, so I kept forgetting to make the comparison. I never found a key to avoid the most annoying trap, the "confusion" one, which causes you to blunder in random directions for a few seconds. As often as not, you wander back into the trap and get caught in a perpetual loop.
If you meet the objective of the scenario, the game shows your character exiting the front door of the Tower of Doom and running away. You then get a final screen showing your scores. Maximum experience and wealth are 650,000, so I had a long way to go.
Tower of Doom is a pretty solid second-generation console game, one of only a couple that I would call an RPG unequivocally. It won't rate terribly high on my GIMLET, but my GIMLET is meant primarily for computer RPGs, and as I've often pointed out, I look for different experiences with console RPGs. This is the sort of game that you want to play when you come home from work, dog tired, and collapse on the couch.
On the GIMLET, it earns:
  • 0 points for the game world. I wouldn't have minded if the manual had at least tried with some kind of framing story. I suppose the lack of one is another way in which it's similar to roguelikes.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Your choices make a big difference in the first few levels. In addition to traditional experience and leveling (and increases in max hit points), the game has several attributes with multiple ways to increase.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. There aren't any non-combat encounters, but I'll give a point for traps, which pose a unique challenge. Monsters are D&D standards without the D&D special abilities.
Dragons are tough, but they can't breathe fire.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There's no magic except what you get from items, and combat is pretty basic, one of the reasons I hesitate to call it a full roguelike. The bribe system is almost worth another point, but I can't imagine that anyone seriously uses it.
  • 3 points for equipment. You have to figure out what to prize and what to avoid by color, which adds a fun challenge for players that don't have my particular problem. There's a lot of stuff to find and use.
A potion significantly increases my max health (temporarily) just in time to get attacked by a bat.
  • 1 point for an economy that mostly just contributes to your final score, though see my comment about the bribery system above.
  • 2 points for a main quest for each scenario.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are clear and functional if a bit ugly, and there's a nice set of sound effects. I have to criticize it a bit on the input system. It strikes me that it would have been a trivial matter to reconfigure the inventory/command pane a bit to make better use of the number keys on the Intellivision controller, which aren't used at all. That said, I didn't find the existing controls hard to master.
  • 5 points for gameplay. It's hard to complain about too many things here when the game has so many choices for length and difficulty. There's a lot of replayability with different scenarios and classes. I don't know how contemporary players handled 32 levels without the ability to save or pause, but that wasn't a problem I experienced.
That gives us a final score of 21, which puts it at the top of the list of the four RPGs and "RPGs" released for second-generation consoles. The problem, of course, is its release date. By 1987, the NES had already been available outside of Japan for two years. (So had the SEGA Master System, but it didn't have any RPGs yet.) Tower of Doom would have been a great 1984 game, its intended year of release before the crash. In 1987, I can't find evidence that anyone took any note of it. I'm not even sure that there was any magazine left to cover it. 
"For color TV viewing only." That was a nice warning to include.
I want to thank my Patreon contributor (P. S.) for suggesting the game, and commenter Kearuda for insisting on helping me get the game running in MAME despite my open and repeated contempt for his favorite emulator. I'll never play all the other console RPG offerings, but at least I can say I was comprehensive on the second generation.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Game 424: Empire III: Armageddon (1983)

The long-awaited third game in the series.
Empire III: Armageddon
United States
Peachtree Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1983 for Apple II
Date Started: 11 July 2021
Date Ended: 20 July 2021
Total Hours: 10
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
The Empire series comes to a conclusion with this final entry from David Mullich. It's been a strange ride. I've previously documented my experience with Empire I: World Builders (1981) and Empire II: Interstellar Sharks (1982), both of which--primarily in their documentation--offer some of the same uncomfortably bizarre ambiance as Mullich's The Prisoner (1980). The first game chronicles the early years of an Earth-based interstellar empire, and the lives of the colonists who establish outposts on various planets. Interstellar Sharks is set at the height of the empire, with the player taking the role of a stock trader, diplomat, or pilot, ultimately trying to find his way to the imperial home planet of Triskelion. In both games, the manuals present the Empire chiefly via propaganda. The player is manifestly meant to understand that beneath the veneer of the materials, and their portrayals of the ruling Lazur family as the "apex" of civilization, lies a mysterious and corrupt bureaucracy. The enigmatic "Lord of Light," godhead of an outlawed religion, makes some cryptic appearances.
Empire III is in many ways the most obscure of the trilogy. Copies only made their way to the Internet within the last few years, and they do not include the game's documentation. I was looking forward to the manual most of all, but no one seems to have posted it, and those who claim to have a copy have been stubborn about responding to calls to scan and share it. Part of the problem is that it was released just as Edu-ware was being acquired by MSA, which ultimately only cared about educational and business software and sold the few remaining game titles in plain boxes with "educational" labels (hence the Peachtree imprint). The date of publication is in question, too. Some sites say 1983, some 1984, but the game was being sold in catalogs as early as June 1982. The title screen for the version I played has a copyright date of 1983 but a release date of 1984; however, it is a later edition. I settled on 1983 as the most likely but far-from-certain year.
The lack of documentation hurt my efforts to explore this title. The previous two games did a great job explaining the games' vocabularies and when you would use certain words. For this one, I was able to extract about 115 words that it understands via hex dump, but there's nothing about the context in which they're used. In particular, there is a potion-crafting system and a mining system that I've been unable to explore, in the first case because I think the manual offered recipes for the potions, and in the second case because I have no clue how to mine. As we'll see, this is keeping me from winning the game.
This is a reagent for a potion-crafting system I don't know how to use.
Both Empire I and Empire II blended role-playing elements with a kind of life simulation. You had to enter multiple commands in a precise order to accomplish even mundane things, like growing and harvesting crops, mining and selling minerals, or taking a ship from one planet to another. Empire III ditches most of the simulation elements and provides a more straightforward graphical RPG/adventure. This change is most acutely felt in the game maps. All of the titles have featured some movement around cities or landscapes, but usually more as concepts than actual geographies. The planets of Empire II were all linear geographies, for instance, in which all key encounters occurred along straight roads. Armageddon offers standard first-person RPG maps in which LEFT and RIGHT don't move you between nodes but actually turn and face you in those directions.
The city and wilderness maps. This is the only game in the series to feature areas that you can map like this.
Character creation is much as in the previous game. The game randomly chooses your sex, and then one-by-one rolls values from 3 to 18 in dexterity, constitution, strength, aim, senses, intelligence, willpower, charisma, speed, and psionics. ("Psionics" has existed as an attribute in all three games, and in none of them has it been overtly called upon.) You choose your background from three classes: aristocracy, technocracy, and "fremarket." Unlike the other two games, I didn't see any places here in which the choice of background made a difference.
Character creation. Trust me: you're going to want to roll a high speed.
Each character starts with identification, 1 credit, 10 food, 10 water, and 100 units of currency in an unnamed city. Character creation (and also hibernation, where you can save the game) is revealed to have taken place in a building called the "Pyramid Club." Other buildings surround you, but most of them turn out to be unnamed "tenements."  Entering them usually produces an encounter with an NPC who says, "Please leave at once," or, "Please don't hurt me." No commands really allow you to interact with NPCs. I suppose you could kill them for their meager goods.
The city is mostly "tenements."
Moving around the game is slow at the default Apple II speed setting. It takes a few seconds for the screen to draw each step. The only review I was able to find complained about this. I had to jack up the emulator to about 5 times the normal speed to make it tolerable.
The city runs to 14 x 14 coordinates and besides tenements and the Pyramid Club contains the following buildings, most of them just a single screen:
  • United Ores. Here you can buy and sell ores like obsidian, onyx, and "omnimium" and buy mining-related equipment like drills, picks, and shovels.
  • Chemist. He sells four things: a spraygun, a "watercart," a "basecart," and an "acidcart." I have no idea what these things are for, but I suspect it's related to the game's potion system.
  • Hybrid Foods. Here you restock food and water, which are consumed at a rate of about 1 every dozen steps, but only in the wilderness outside the city.
  • General Mercantile. Buy and sell knives, ropes, torches, lamps, and compasses.
This is supposed to be a sci-fi game. I hope those are at least British-style "torches."
  • Medi-Sci. Get a current scan of your attributes and injuries, and pay to heal injuries.
  • Hedonistic Services, described below.
  • Neurotech, described below.
The Hedonistic Services building sounds like the place on Denieves in Interstellar Sharks, where you could gamble, buy drugs, and hire a prostitute. Here, however, it simply opens into two sub-rooms, a bedroom and a shooting gallery. Searching the bedroom produces a Medallion that various empire officials seem to wear. I put it on, but it never explicitly did anything for me. The shooting gallery, instead of allowing you to shoot anything, simply offers hints for the game:
  • "Pull the plug." I have no idea what this was referring to.
  • "You must rise and then descend." This refers either to the mountain or the Pyramid.
  • "Seek the mountain man." More on him in a bit.
  • "She is but an image." This refers to the empress; more in a minute.
  • "The second password is ERGO." You might recall that I got this same hint as my "prize" for winning Interstellar Sharks. That didn't turn out to be much of an advantage unless you missed it here.
The Neurotech building is a fully-explorable dungeon. It's dark when you enter, and you need a light source to explore. It leads you to an encounter with a secret society that, if you make a charisma check (a roll of 1d20 against your charisma), invites you to join a plot to overthrow the empress. If you agree, you get a "field disruptor" and can then be trained in lock picking, chemistry, technical traps, or firearms. Training in each of these subjects takes one year and requires passing an associated attribute check. Passing the skills gets you a bomb, glyceride, a "damping" (which turns out to be a type of armor), and a dartgun in that order. I'm otherwise not sure what good the skills do for you. They don't appear on your character sheet.
The "Mechanics" enlist me in their cause.
Once you're done with the city, you can go outside, onto a 14 x 14 wilderness map in which trees create "corridors." A river bisects the map and requires a dexterity check to successfully cross (or you drown). As you explore the outdoors, you randomly find reagents like mako, palmna, hymlik, and holly, which I assume are part of the potion-crafting system.
Drowning in the river.
Aside from the city, there are three destinations in the wilderness map: a mountain, the ruined Nyrf Tram Station, and the imperial Pyramid, home of the empress. The mountain requires a lot of climbing, during which you have to make regular dexterity checks or take injury. I got a rope and grappling hook at some point but couldn't figure out how to use them to help with the mountain. At the top is a mountain man who tells you, "The first password is COGITO," something that Deano figured out back in our Interstellar Sharks discussion.
I approach the old man on the mountain.
The Nyrf Tram Station is like the Neurotech building: another dark maze for which you need a light source. Like the other building, it takes you to the headquarters of a secret society that wants to overthrow the empress. This one is called the Apox, and they follow the Lord of Light. They teach traps, stealth, climbing, swimming, knives, propaganda, garrote, and camouflage, and again it was rare that any of these skills came explicitly into play even when doing obvious things like climbing the mountain or crossing the river. At best, maybe they provided bonuses to the attribute checks. Most of the skills didn't provide any items, but I did get a knife and a garrote.
Nobody seems to like the empress.
That leaves the Pyramid, which took me longer to explore than the rest of the game combined. You have to have a field disruptor to get through the energy field surrounding it. Once inside, the pyramid is 13 levels up and at least 2 levels down. As you ascend, the levels get smaller until the top level is just one square. Every level has separate "up" and "down" elevators, but oddly you always arrive in the northwest corner of the level, not in the position of the associated elevator.
Every time I thought I must have reached the top level, there was yet another elevator.
Guards appear randomly in the rooms as you explore. When they do, you have one round to act before they order you to halt. On the first level, they mostly just greeted me and let me pass (because of the Medallion?). On the others, they often searched me and figured out that I was a spy. When this happens, you have to make a speed check to "escape" back one room. If you fail, the game is instantly over, as the guards doom you to death in the Arena. This happens so often that sheer probability dictates that it will happen to every character, no matter how high his speed. I used save states to reload, of course, but there must be some mechanism or set of commands for players to avoid this fate that I'm not seeing--maybe the potion system, or some command that I've overlooked that calls camouflage or stealth skills into play. You can choose to FIGHT the guards in your one round, but one battle is hard enough let alone multiple times per level.
 A speed check determines if I escape the guard or die.
There are also a lot of traps in the Pyramid's corridors. Some of them you have to LOOK to find. They include heat sensors, sonic sensors, and light sensors, and in all three cases, they seem to serve as "spinners" in the typical grid-based dungeon, pointing you the wrong direction and occluding some doors. There are other traps like tripwires and pits that require a skill check--either dexterity or senses. Again, I can't help but think there must be some mechanism or tool for disarming them, especially given the "traps" and "technical traps" trainings, but I could find any combination of verbs and nouns that did anything. 
The game checks to see if I can avoid a trip wire.
Among the 15 levels of the Pyramid, I otherwise found the following encounters:
  • On Level 1 is an audience chamber in which the empress delivers a one-line speech ("I must leave you now" or "There is a traitor among us") before she disappears. The code suggests that she's just a projected image (consistent with the hint above), but I can't quite figure out how to reveal it. When she leaves, an official remains behind in the room that you can fight and kill for his weapons, armor, and medallion.
You can't really do much in this chamber.
  • Levels 1 through 3 have multiple storerooms in which you can find items like compasses, lamps, and earmuffs.
The first level of the pyramid.
  • The two basement levels have multiple shelters which can also be searched for items, including a gas mask and absorption armor.
  • Level 2 has a kitchen, where there's food and water.
  • Levels 2 and 8 both have steel doors that you can open with USE BOMB. If there's another way, I don't know it. The one on Level 2 has weapons inside; the Level 8 one is empty.
  • Levels 4 and 6 have vapor traps that you must be wearing a gas mask (found in the basement) to pass.
  • Level 5 has a trap that causes paralysis; you have to be wearing absorption armor to continue.
  • Level 6 has both a library and a laboratory. The library has a book that reads: "To pass through the computer door, you must make an explosive of onyx, corbomite, and mustard." I'm not sure about the laboratory, but I suspect it's used to either make that explosive or potions or both.
The "library" has only one book worth reading. I look forward to The Elder Scrolls series, when I'll lose hours in a room like this.
  • Level 6 also has an observatory with a book that reads: "The white rock has great powers; do not use it near the computer." You might recall the mysterious white rock in Interstellar Sharks that got me through the planetary defense shield. I stole it from a priest of the Lord of Light. The observatory also had a pair of goggles. 
I'm not sure what to make of "the old imperium," which isn't mentioned in the documentation of the previous games.
  • The upper levels all have force fields that you need a field disruptor to get past, but you needed one to get into the Pyramid in the first place.
  • Levels 10 and 12 have harems, including "harlots" with medallions.
Alas, this is the harem of an empress, not an emperor.
  • Level 10 of the Pyramid has a door that leads to a weird area with green corridors, seemingly not part of the level's standard level space. I found nothing in these corridors despite searching every square and bumping into every wall.
  • Level 11 also has a steel door that the bomb won't work. I suspect this is the "computer door" described by the library book.
On Level 13, you can enter a room with the empress herself. It takes you directly into combat. While the empress is wielding a lasgun, she has no armor and is easily killed. She has the white rock on her.
Combat uses the same system as the previous two games, where you can FIRE with a missile weapon, close the distance and HIT with fists or STAB with a melee weapon, or take a round to AIM. Both you and the enemy have individual hit points and disabilities on various body parts. It's a strong system, but you fight so rarely that it's tough to master it.
I didn't expect to fight her one-on-one. I have no idea what that thing to the right is.
The empress's death doesn't seem to change anything. You get no victory screen, and returning to the secret societies gives you no new messages. I suspect that the issue is that I must get into that computer room with the explosive. The problem is the need for "corbomite." Onyx is sold at United Ores and mustard can be found in the wilderness, but I suspect corbomite must be mined, and I have no idea where. The only places I've found where mining tools work is that odd set of caverns off Level 10 of the Pyramid, but whether I use the drill, pick, or shovel, in any of the rooms, the game simply says that no minerals are found.
The only message I get, no matter what I do.
There are a number of other mysteries that may have something to do with the solution:
  • The potion-making system, for which I can only assume the recipes must be in the manual.
  • On the second basement level, there's a room that produces endless combats with rats every time I try to move through it. (There's no chance to enter a command after they appear and before combat.) I don't know how to beat them once and for all. I wonder if the manual didn't give some recipe for rat poison as part of the crafting system.
  • The game's code references a torture chamber that I never found. Perhaps it's on the other side of the rats. You can apparently be caught and tortured, and there's a chance that you'll spill the beans on the Mechanics or the Apox.
  • The code also references a "kennel" that I never found.
  • The economy in general is a mystery. Everyone refers to the game's currency as "credits," but you start with only 1 "credit" and 100 "money." Purchases are deducted from "money." You never find money anywhere, not even on slain foes, so the only way to make any is to sell items to the stores. But stores only buy what they sell, so you can make a few bucks selling extra compasses or torches, but there's no store that sells weapons and thus none that buys them. The only way I could make enough to afford mining equipment was to GET water in the river and sell it for 3 credits each at the food shop, but that takes a long time. Meanwhile, United Ores sells "Omnimium" for about 6,000 credits. I have no idea how you'd make that much or why you'd want it.
  • Verbs and nouns I never found any use for (and that don't seem to be part of the potion-crafting system or buying/selling): CAREFULLY, CUSTODIA, DEXTER, DRESS/UNDRESS, GARROTE GLYCERITE, GIVE, JADE, LOAD, LOCK, NOTE, PROJECTOR, PUDEE, ROCK, STASIS, STEAL (it doesn't work in any of the shops), WAGER, WOOD.
  • There are also creatures listed in the game's code that I never encountered, including bandits, drunks, pilgrims, dogs, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and bandersnatches. These might be leftovers in the code from World Builders. I did discover that trying to "enter" the trees can get you attacked by a bear.
You want to avoid walking too close to trees.
Based on what I was able to experience, I would give this game on the GIMLET:
  • 2 points for the game world. The story has a lot of originality, but the game never really feels like it's set on the capital of an empire. This will probably go up if I had the backstory in the manual.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. The creation process is RPG standard. I can't say much for development, as the series has no experience and no mechanisms for leveling except the skill-learning parts of this game, which seem to do nothing.
Learning skills is one of the few ways to "develop," but I'm still not sure what it did for me.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. They exist, but of all the commands the game offers, you'd think some kind of GREET or TALK option would be available.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. I give most of this to the variety of encounters that require an attribute check, although the accumulation of them makes the game too hard for the player not using save states.
  • 3 points for combat. As I mentioned above, it's a good system; it just isn't used all that often.
Fighting an official of the empire.
  • 2 points for equipment. Most of it is for puzzle-solving.
  • 2 points for the economy. Maybe the manual will untangle some of the mystery and bump up the score.
  • 2 points for a main quest. No side quests, no options.
You could say I "won" in that I accomplished my misssion.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are serviceable, the sound non-existent. The text parser works okay but could use some Infocom-style shortcuts like "G" for "repeat the previous command." I might lower this to 0 if I played at era speeds, which would have been a dealbreaker.
  • 3 points for gameplay. The challenge and length are good, but it's more linear than its predecessors and I don't see much replayability. 
That gives us a final score of 22, a bit lower than the 29 I gave Interstellar Sharks, which I thought had a more compelling plot and more interesting character options (again, however, I had the manual for that one).
I suspect the manual will show up eventually, or we'll otherwise figure out the answer to the endgame, but rather than take that chance, I'll simply describe the ending as I understand it from an inspection of the code: If I could find or mine the corbomite and craft the explosive, I can blow open the door to the computer room, which I believe is the one on  Level 8. There, I would encounter the "Empire III Computer." I would have to enter the two passwords: COGITO and ERGO. (SUM oddly does not appear in the code and is not recognized in the vocabulary.) The final message only seems to appear if you have the white rock:

"Build a world" and "sharks" are references to the subtitles of the previous games; this final message seems to be a suggestion that everything is cyclical and you're supposed to start over at the beginning. It's a slight let-down for all the build-up that the series has been doing. For instance, I went into this game thinking that the empress was a puppet and I'd probably have to rescue her rather than kill her. There's no evidence of language to support this idea, though, and there's no pause to enter a command when you enter the empress's room before she attacks.
I've spent a number of years baffled about this series. I'm slightly appreciative of games that offer something new and unusual, but also slightly confused as to what the author was trying to accomplish. Were we supposed to understand references and subtext in this plot? Was Mullich articulating some kind of philosophy or just telling a story?
I failed to remember that I had the answers to some of these questions in a 2014 e-mail exchange I had with Mullich. I never reported on it because he didn't respond to the e-mail in which I asked his permission to do so. Nonetheless, looking over his answers now, I can't believe he'd mind if I reported on at least some of the insights that he sent me. First, when Edu-Ware asked him to make the trilogy, they gave him the three subtitles. His goal, he says, "was to create scenarios that were appropriate to each title." His influences included Asimov's Foundation series, Star Trek, and Robert Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973). He said that despite common belief, he had never read Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light--something that Zelazny himself apparently inquired about. Most important, he reported that he had nothing to do with the manuals, which were written by Edu-Ware's marketing director. (I don't know whether the marketing director was Steven Pederson or Wendy Peterson, both of whom have manual credits on the series.) Thus, what I perceived as an intentionally bizarre contrast between verbose manual and austere game seems to have a mundane explanation.
I'll update this entry if we ever get the documentation. Until then, let's continue clearing out some of these early 1980s titles.

Friday, July 23, 2021

BRIEF: Dungeon (1993)

You get the backstory in a text bubble on the main screen.
United Kingdom
Independently developed; released through Budgie UK.
Released 1993 for Atari ST
If I wasn't rejecting it because it isn't an RPG, I might reject it based on its name. The last thing the world needs, particularly as late as 1993, is yet another game called Dungeon. To Google it, you have to do something like:
"Dungeon" "1993" "Atari ST" -"Reaping the" -"Dungeon Master" -"Dungeon Hack"
And you still get a lot of dross.
If not for the title, I would probably reject it for its all-mouse control scheme, which is a lot worse than "all-mouse" suggests by itself. But more on that in a minute.
Beware how boring it is.
Dungeon was the creation of London-based T. C. Basset, who had previously created a strategy game called Overlord using the same creation kit. That kit was Talespin by Mark Heaton, published by MicroDeal in 1988. It's meant for adventure games with a fair amount of text and dialogue, without much regard for combat. To make a dungeon crawler out of it, Basset had to essentially model combat as a violent "dialogue," complete with clicking options in text boxes.
For the graphics, Basset turned to the Fantasy Graphics Disk from Deltronics, created specifically for the engine, published in 1991. One might assume that with an engine from one kit and graphics from another kit, Basset would simply offer the game as freeware, but instead he charged £6.99 for the game and £9.99 for the game plus a manual. The only versions I was able to find are demo versions.
Whether to attack aggressively or defensively is the only choice you really make.
The quest is given on the title screen by Shaa, "Keeper of the Crypt and centre-forward for Gillingham." You're to explore the dungeon, defeat Malik Abdul Aziz the Necromancer, and recover the Great Orb of Thoth. This makes me wonder if Arab RPG developers name their villains things like "Peter Cunningham." You choose from warrior, fighter, cleric, mage, and thief classes, which are differentiated solely by their starting equipment; for instance, warriors get a sword while clerics begin with cloth armor and a healing potion.
You open the door to a very linear dungeon and immediately begin encountering monsters. Every move, every choice, every combat round is followed by a few seconds of loading while "zzz..." appears on the screen. This is even true if you set the emulator to 400%. Everything involves a billion clicks.  You have to click on messages even when you have no choice. To fight, you have to click on one button to make an "aggressive attack" or a "defensive attack," then wait a couple of seconds. Then, you have to click on the sword icon to see the results of your attack, and acknowledge it by clicking on the message. Then you have to click on the shield icon to see the results of your defense, and acknowledge the message by clicking on it. You do the sword and shield again. Every click has a pause for a couple of second after it.
I love the insignia on the skeleton's shield.
After combat, you find a chest. This is how you open a chest: 1) Click on the "hand" icon, which causes a bubble to appear telling you how much the chest has. 2) Click "Get gold" in that same window. 3) Click on the same hand icon to now get a message that the chest is empty. 4) Click "Click here to continue." 5) Click the arrow on the GTFO panel to go back to the main dungeon screen. Why couldn't the author just have the image of a chest appear with words indicating how much gold you've found, and then automatically take you back to the dungeon window, no clicking required?
Why do I have to click "get gold"? Is there some reason I wouldn't take it?
In addition to gold, you can find potions and scrolls in chests. Potions heal you; scrolls instantly kill monsters.
The first dungeon is only about a dozen forward steps and four combats. Then some stairs bring you up to a town, where you can have a drink in the tavern, spend your gold at the armory, or deposit it in the bank. If you're extremely wounded, a helpful woman in a chainmail bikini shows up to give you a healing potion. You have to speak to the bartender to get access back to the dungeon.
It turned out that these prices were meaningless, as we'll see.
I don't know if every dungeon trip is randomized or if they proceed in a specific order, but generally it's just a straight corridor with one or two T-junctions. Eventually, you always come to a stairway back up to town. In a couple hours of playing, I never found anything but combats with the same four monsters: skeletons, murderous thieves, vampire bats, and zombies. 
What the game lacks is any kind of character development system. You have no attributes, no levels, no experience. The only way you get better is to find better equipment or to find more gold and buy it. Even that doesn't really seem to work, as after I bought some leather armor, nothing I did would get the blacksmith to take my money for anything else. I kept trying to buy shields, armor plating, and weapon improvements, but the game just acted like it did something and no money was subtracted from my purse and my character portrait never changed. Maybe that's because it's a demo version.
You can view your character in town. Nothing ever change no matter what else I tried to buy.
Anyway, it fails my definition of an RPG twice over. There's no character development, and combat is based solely on equipment and luck. It's basically a group of nice fantasy images strung together with a minimum of mechanics. I'm grateful I can reject it, because after a couple of hours, my hand hurts from all this clicking.