Wednesday, April 14, 2021


It's been over three years since I've done one of these yearly transitions, which you'd think would be proof positive that I'm "losing ground"--unable to cover a year's worth of games in a year's worth of blogging. While this is almost certainly true, I've accidentally confounded the issue by making so much of my playing recursive. In the same three years that I covered 46 games from 1992, I also covered 77 games from earlier than 1992, not even counting the BRIEFs. 
As I review 1992, it's worth recalling something I said about the then-forthcoming year at the end of 1991:
If 1991 was a disappointing year, 1992 promises to be the absolute opposite. I'm practically giddy at the list before me. Every franchise had a release this year. We get the final D&D Gold Box title (aside from the Unlimited Adventures construction set) with The Dark Queen of Krynn. The Ishar series begins. The Realms of Arkania series begins. We get the second Interplay Lord of the Rings title. We get the third Magic Candle title. We get a Might and Magic, a Wizardry, a Quest for Glory, and two Ultimas! And in between these surefire hits are a ton of titles that I feel like I've heard good things about, among them Amberstar, Black Crypt, Darklands, Four Crystals of Trazere, and Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace. Surely, one of these games is destined to unseat Ultima V at the top of the list.
My feelings at the end of the year are more tempered. I found a lot of the titles listed above disappointing. The Dark Queen of Krynn, Quest for Glory III, Crusaders of the Dark Savant, and Ultima VII performed as expected. Only Amberstar and Darklands really exceeded my expectations. In the same entry, I wrote that to start the year:
I've chosen Ultima Underworld. It's a groundbreaking game that makes us feel that we've stepped into a new era, but parts of it haven't aged well, and I thus doubt it will be the highest-rated game of a very competitive year.
I was wrong: Ultima Underworld ended up with the top rating for the year. So in many ways, 1992 was all downhill, more the last vestige of a previous era than the beginning of a new one. 
Ultima Underworld was the first game to make it feel like you were exploring a real place. Unfortunately, it was the only game of the year to do that.
And yet we saw the glimmerings of a new future in 1992. Ultima Underworld is the most significant example technologically, with its continuous movement in a truly three-dimensional space. But there were other positive developments, none appearing here for the first time but all appearing more frequently than in previous years. These include:
  • More freedom. "Open world" was this year's default. Ultima Underworld, Darklands, Crusaders of the Dark Savant, Star Control II, Ultima VII, Ragnarok, Amberstar, The Magic Candle III, Realms of Arkania, Legends of Valor, Challenge of the Five Realms, Ishar, Lords of Time, and Planet's Edge were among the games with open worlds. It's easier to count the ones that constrained movement than those that allowed for freedom.
There were things I didn't like about Realms of Arkania, but the open world wasn't one of them.
  • More interesting encounters and side quests. These days, plentiful side quests are the norm in CRPGs. They've even become the norm in action-adventure games. But before 1992, a lot of franchises didn't really understand the concept. You had a mission, and your only "quest" was to get strong enough to complete that mission. This is the first year in which side-quests became the norm.
One of the complex encounters of Darklands.
  • More interesting endings. For a game to culminate in a simple combat with the evil wizard is by now so 1980s. It was startling to see it again in Clouds of Xeen. 1992 gave us rituals (Ultima VII, Ultima Underworld, The Magic Candle III), epic encounters that change the rules (Darklands, Realms of Arkania, Ragnarok), and other non-traditional choices. Again, not for the first time, but for the first time usually.
  • More plot complexity. This is the first year that the average game made us pay attention to what was going on. Even Dungeon Master derivatives like Black Crypt and Abandoned Places introduced a certain level of plot complexity not found in predecessors. 
Black Crypt tried to provide an actual story with its Dungeon Master gameplay.
The year did have the highest average GIMLET rating, at 36. This means that for the first time, the average game crossed my "recommended" threshold. That's nice to finally see. The question is, which one deserves the reward?
Game of the Year: Ultima Underworld
Yeah, sorry about the lack of suspense, but there's no way to even pretend on this one. Ultima Underworld changed all the rules. From the moment it appeared, every developer working with tiles and static views knew that it would have to shape up or ship out. (I'm not suggesting that tiles are always hopelessly obsolete, or that good games can't be made with them. They represent one technique, and you can still make excellent games with that technique the same way you can still make excellent black and white films. It will just never be the norm again.) But as I noted in my entry, the game doesn't just win because of its technological innovations. Although it could have rested on those laurels, instead the developers offered a fantastic experience on multiple fronts, including a realistic dungeon ecosystem, memorable NPCs and NPC dialogue, interesting quest stages and puzzles, and strong system for combat, magic, and inventory. And yes, I will defend what I just said about combat; anyone who describes it as "simple hack and slash" is not thinking hard enough about all the possibilities inherent in a game that uses the same mechanics and interface for combat as it does for exploration.
My only complaint about Ultima Underworld is that it's an Ultima game. It has no business being set on Britannia or involving the Avatar, and if there's one thing that I can't stand about ORIGIN is how they've come to insist that the Avatar is involved in everything. ORIGIN should have had the confidence to let their motto--"We Create Worlds"--stand on its own without implicitly adding "and then shoehorn the Avatar into them."
I am not insensitive to the fact that four of fourteen "Games of the Year" are Ultima games, and I looked for any reason to make it not so, but there's no helping it. If it's any consolation, Ultima Underworld isn't really an Ultima game. It wasn't developed by ORIGIN and the setting on Britannia is so obviously a late edition that the Ultima part is just so much marketing.
Game of the Year: Second Place
Considering "Game of the Year" for 1992 is like trying to name the greatest American composer. Of course it's Duke Ellington. But ask me to name the second greatest composer, and I'm lost. There are at least 30 names that seem equally worthy--Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers, John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, John Williams, Danny Elfman, and John Cage are those that spring to mind without my even having to really think about it--for different reasons. 
1992 is similarly full of worthy runners up that would make it an extremely difficult contest if not for Underworld. Not all of them got high ratings, but remember that "Game of the Year" is more about ratings; it's about the trends that the game helped establish or solidify. With that criteria in mind, here are a bunch of titles that I find almost equally worthy:
  • Amberstar: Probably the best example of the "Disassembulet of Yendor" approach that we've seen. By modern standards, the game didn't do anything great, but it's rare in not having done anything bad. Together with Challenge of the Five Realms, it also pioneers the "create-a-main-character-and-enlist-NPCs" approach that we need a better name for.
  • Challenge of the Five Realms: Spellbound in the World of Nhagardia: Although the lowest-rated of the nominees, Challenge established a template in the way it handled exploration, sub-quests and side-quests, and NPC interaction (and enlistment) that anticipates later, better titles.  
Challenge of the Five Realms had 10 NPC slots.
  • Darklands: A fantastic blend of Pirates-like simulation, random encounters, and real-time-with-pause combat in an RPG setting. 
  • Legends of Valour: Unlike Underworld, it didn't give sufficient attention to core RPG elements. Otherwise, it has many of the strengths of Underworld and some of its own. The way it treats survival, factions, and the exploration of a living city will become open-world standards.

Valour's world needed a little work, but the concept was good.
  • Ragnarok: For me, the apex of the roguelike sub-genre, at least so far. It shows that a roguelike game can be a good commercial game. I guess I can't claim that it had a lot of influence, though.
  • Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters: The game needed to work on its RPG elements, but the title is notable as one of the earliest series to start as something other than an RPG and then become one, something we'll later see in everything from Assassin's Creed to Grand Theft Auto. It also has one of the best game worlds of the era.
Star Control II: tactical ship-to-ship combat in an RPG world.
  • Ultima VII: The Black Gate: Even if Ultima Underworld didn't exist, the series would be a strong contender for GOTY with this entry, although I didn't love it as much as some people do.
  • Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. If Ultima Underworld was the herald of a new era, Crusaders is the zenith of an old one. Its approach to character development, combat, and magic have never been better in the first-person, tile-based genre.
A few potentially-worthy titles, including The Dark Queen of Krynn, Quest for Glory III: Wages of War (I still think about how inviting that inn/tavern looked), and Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen are off the list simply because I already gave the prize to predecessors that were better games. But they all rank high in objective quality.
I suppose that in the end, I'm mostly torn between Darklands and Legends of Valour simply for the originality of their approaches, but I could honestly be persuaded on almost all of these. What interests me more is the sheer number of titles that I felt at least some urge to put on the list--not because they had any honest chance of winning but because they did something interesting enough that I know I'm going to be thinking about them for a long time. These include Defender of Boston: The Rock Island Mystery (I think that game may have honestly messed me up a little), Spellcraft: Aspects of Valor (despite my failure to finish), The Legacy, UnReal World, and even SpellJammer: Pirates of Realmspace.

Superlatives and other notes:

Games have been getting longer but slightly better.
  • I covered 46 games for the year, winning 43 (I left Legend, Spellcraft, and Shadowlands unfinished). That's a completion rate of 93%. (One game remains open.) I rejected only 2 games and marked 2 as "not playable." Three others are waiting for a BRIEF that will cover all three. Around 10 games that were originally on the list got deleted (their original sources having repudiated their RPG definitions), merged, or shunted to other years.
  • Strategic Simulations, Inc. was the real factory of the era. They published 6 games. MicroProse was second, with three.
  • The highest rated games were Ultima Underworld (62), Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (60), Darklands (56), The Dark Queen of Krynn (52), Star Control II (51), Treasures of the Savage Frontier (51), and Ultima VII: The Black Gate (50).
  • Crusaders of the Dark Savant took the longest, at 108 hours. Average time to finish was 28 hours.
  • On the GIMLET, I didn't give a single 9 or 10, just lots of 8s. Only two games got two 8s: Ragnarok (equipment and gameplay) and Darklands (economy and gameplay).
  • The most erratic games (highest standard deviations in GIMLET scores) were Star Control II and Challenge of the Five Realms. Both games did a few things very well and a few things very badly. The most stable games, in contrast, were Sword Quest 1: The Search, and Shape Shifter, which did almost everything uniformly badly. 
  • There was no "bad game with a good category" this year. Anything I rated low was low across the board. 
  • I didn't rate any game harder than "hard." 
  • The average completion time for a completed game was 29 hours, lower than the average of 34 in 1991, although that number is heavily influenced by Fate: Gates of Dawn.
Looking Ahead
1993 offers 74 games--more than any other year until 2012--on the preliminary list. I have played only a few of them: Ultima Underworld II, Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen, Quest for Glory IV, Ultima VII, Part Two: The Serpent Isle, and Warlords II. I don't remember much about most of the ones I have played. I've heard great things about a lot of the ones that I haven't played, including Angband, Betrayal at Krondor, and Dark Sun: Shattered Lands.
1993 not only has the highest number of RPGs (until 2012), but it's also the first year that offers more games I won't play than ones that I will.
1993 is also a milestone for offering, for the first time, more games with an "N" on the playlist than those with a "Y." Consoles have a lot to do with it, of course: there are 39 Nintendo exclusives (SNES and NES), 8 Sega exclusives, 12 TurboGrafx exclusives, and 4 handheld exclusives. There continue to be a lot of games for Japanese PCs that never received an English translation. Korea enters the market for the first time with two DOS games that I'm hoping will eventually be translated. Taiwan offered its first title in 1990 and offers three more in 1993. Again, it would be nice to eventually attempt some of these.
There are a lot of sequels on the 1993 list, but I can't really say I'm looking forward to many of them. While not remembering much about them, my recollections are that Ultima VII, Part Two and Ultima Underworld II have the great engines of their predecessors but are too long and bloated. Abandoned Places wasn't that great a game to begin with. Neither was Bandor, Ishar, Ormus Saga, Stone Mist, Sword Quest, or Ultizurk. I know the reputations of Eye of the Beholder III and Dungeon Master II.
But I still have the next NetHack entry, Ambermoon, and Quest for Glory IV to look forward to. We'll have to see about the rest. In general, I expect my enjoyment of 1993 to be carried by brand new titles than new entries in venerable series.
SSI will offer five RPGs this year. The only other publisher with more than two is Sierra, which unexpectedly comes charging in with four--the biggest RPG year for the company. Germany and the United Kingdom will remain heavily represented among companies, and we'll see our first RPGs from Hungary and Austria.

The elephant in the room is the plan I announced over a year ago, on my tenth anniversary, to allow myself to move forward in the timeline without necessarily completing a year. When the time came to do that, I chickened out. It just felt wrong. Now that I stand on the cusp of a year that seems destined to take me at least three years to cover, I feel conflicted. All things being equal, I'd rather just continue with my original chronological plan. But every year that passes brings a slight probability of my own death or incapacitation, the end of blogging as a medium, the loss of reader interest, and the collapse of civilization.

I guess my inclination is to delay making a decision until I clean up the backlog. I still have 42 pre-1992 games to cover, many of which are destined for a BRIEF or a single entry. When I've caught up on those and have only present and future games to play, I'll assess what kind of progress I'm making and consider allowing some forward movement. This will naturally take a while, but a journey of a thousand games begins with the next entry. On to 1993!

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Game 408: The Dungeon Masters Assistant (1985)

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


Thursday, April 8, 2021

BRIEF: Courageous Perseus (1984)

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

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Mission: Thunderbolt: Wrong Place, Wrong Time

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

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

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

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

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