Sunday, April 18, 2010

Phantasie: Plugging Along

I continue to only vaguely understand why the colors had to be so bad in the DOS version of this game. I'll try to educate myself, but if someone wants to summarize it in a comment, I'll owe you one.

I think Phantasie is the first CRPG to introduce the convention shown in the above screenshot: hiding the map and only revealing it as you explore. No, scratch that. Rogue did that first. Well, Phantasie is the first non-"Roguelike" to do it, and the first for outdoor areas.

I believe we're also seeing the first "side quests." I received a mission in a dungeon to rescue a priest from some lizardmen. This could be part of the main quest, so I don't know just yet if it's a first. Either way, it's fun to see the elements that now come naturally in CRPGs introduced game by game.

A neat feature of the game is that as you explore new areas, you find scrolls that help explain the area, provide hints to your quests, and flesh out the stories. For instance, the scroll below talks about the cave where I am to find the uncle of Lord Wood.

Alas, it did not end well for the unfortunate uncle:

The game is progressively getting more difficult (although it hasn't really become "hard" yet), with battles against numerous tough foes, including spellcasters and legions of undead.

I have already slain four Black Knights, and from what the scrolls suggest, there are only nine of them. I suspect they do not stay dead, however. They are quite difficult to kill, and 8bitjeff's comment in my first Phantasie posting about needing the Fireflash IV spell turned out to be rather prophetic. It's really the only thing that does any serious damage.

My biggest problem at this point is gold. It costs thousands and thousands to level up my ogre fighter, dwarf fighter, and hobbit thief, and I never seem to have enough. Several of my characters are two or three levels below where they could be if I just had sufficient funds. I hope dungeons coming up bring more riches.

It's also fun, in a vaguely annoying way, to see how these older games protected themselves against piracy. The Bard's Tale would make you answer questions from the game map when you leveled up. Now as I explore the Phantasie dungeons, the game periodically stops to ask me questions from the manual, like this one:

The game makers, of course, didn't anticipate flatbed scanners, OCR, and the Internet.

That's about all there is to cover right now. I'm definitely going to continue with this one until the end.


  1. Why were colors so bad in old DOS games? Because PCs (IBM compatibles) used CGA, which was more limited than the graphics for other systems. Keep in mind that IBM computers were mostly intended to be used for businesses, and games were a secondary concern.

    In particular, take a look at "Palette 0" from this section of a Wikipedia article: Now take a look at the screenshots above and see if you can recognize the colors. :)

    In the bad (worse?) old days of computers, there was a tradeoff between resolution and color depth. The highest resolution in CGA only allowed 2 colors (monochrome), the middle road allowed 4 colors (what you see in most DOS games). This is a lot less meaningful these days when we have graphics cards with more power than the whole computer did back when these games were released.

    Now, you might ask why they didn't use the more powerful EGA adapters? Well, they were still very new and most people wouldn't have one for their system. So, it made sense to go for the lowest common denominator in order to appeal to a larger possible audience. Supporting both was a hassle as it meant coding almost two entirely different games at the lowest levels.

    Hope this helps. Keep up the good work on the blog!

  2. Brian, thanks a lot for this comment, which probably hardly anyone will read. It does help, and adds to my growing (if somewhat useless) knowledge of different graphics standards.

  3. No problem. I've been having a blast reading through the archives, so others might get around to reading it.

    I'm a game developer and an avid amateur game historian myself. Feel free to drop me a line (email address is in my bio on my site) if you ever have any questions.

  4. CRPG Addict, don't underestimate your readers! We can "Search" the recent comments column and, if it fails, we can cast "Detect secret" :-)
    Seriously, the recent comments column helps but a feature that let's us search for comments by date (say, in the last week) would be much appreciated.

  5. Arcanum, you're confusing me with someone who actually knows how to code rather than someone who just uses the widgets Blogspot provides. Seriously, if anyone knows how to implement Arcanum's suggestion, I'll owe you a drink.

  6. Indeed, I was wondering if there was such a widget since I do not use Blogspot

  7. To put it a little more clearly, CGA had two four-color modes: black, white, cyan and magenta and black, red, yellow and green. Those were the only two modes available. Thus, Phantasie's title screen, main map and dungeon screens are all in black-white-cyan-magenta, while its combat screen is in black-red-yellow-green.

  8. The DOS version of this game beats the much prettier Amiga version in one regard - it has a Run Utiliy Program option on the starting menu, which means you can reset the game.
    Resetting the game means that only the first two overland maps will be already explored. All the (obviosuly cracked) Amiga versions I've tried (at least four different ones) have fully explored overland, which is a bummer. :-(

    1. This sounds like motivation to track down an Amiga copy of the game to release it online yourself!

  9. Yes. I sometimes wish newer games had that option. Not to reset the encounters, but just to clear the map.

  10. In looking at your screenshots, I can now really see the "SSI Connection," in that the company re-used all the same fonts for the later gold box games.

  11. You could actually get much more out of CGA, with the right conditions. Namely, running it in composite mode on a composite monitor gave you 16 distinct colors, instead of the normal four, using composite artifacting. King's Quest for example allowed 16 colors even with CGA. However that technique relies solely on the NTSC encoding/decoding, and isn't available on an RGBI monitor, and neither is it emulated by EGA, VGA or modern graphics adapters. Not sure if dosbox can emulate it someway though...

    1. There also was a rarely used (and undocumented) "lo-res 16 color" mode, which actually was a hacked text mode.

      And, quite unbelievably, some guys recently achieved 1024 colors on the Color/Graphics Adapter:

      And yes, this does work on the original hardware, not just emulators. Absolutely amazing.

  12. Dosbox emulates composite, but this was incomplete for a long time; there was some work done a relative short time ago that resulted in proper support I believe, but I don't know if this was officially included as of this time.
    I don't recall Phantasie being one of the games that benefits from composite though. They could have used more CGA palettes than the standard ones - look at the early Sierra games and their blue/brown palette.
    Some other SSI games like the Roadwar series give you actually a very wide combination options when using CGA RGB, and also support more colors using composite.

  13. Just for fun, there is a semi-complete list on NerdyPleasures (as well as an explanation):

    My personal favorite, however, is a video from The 8 Bit Guy, who has a detailed explanation, using real hardware, in under twelve minutes:

  14. The *full* reason why early IBM graphics looked the way it did. It all has to do with early 80's manufacturing technology.

    Inside a RAM chip there is a array of bit cells. They are laid out in rows and columns just like an excel spreadsheet. Each cell stores exactly one bit of information. Due to the digital nature of the device, the most efficient size is when there is both a power of two number of rows, and a power of two number of columns. So the early RAM chips were made as 64x64 arrays, then 128x128 arrays, and then later as 256x256 arrays. Each RAM chip generation increased the capacity by a factor of four (i.e. 64x64 = 4kbit RAMs, 128x128 = 16kbit RAMs, 256x256 = 64kbit RAMs).

    Since 8-bit computers needed eight 1-bit chips to get a full 8-bit byte, this is also why the 8-bit computers shipped with a minimum of 4K (TRS-80 model 1), 16K (TI-99/4A), or 64K (Commodore 64) of RAM.

    IBM's first two video cards followed the same pattern as the early 8-bit computers:

    The text only Monochrome Display Adapter (MDA) had a 80 x 25 text mode where each on screen character used an 8-bit symbol, and an 8-bit attribute. 80 X 25 X 2 = 4000, meaning the card design could use eight previous generation 4K RAM chips.

    The IBM Color Graphics Adapter (CGA) supported a 320x200 4 color mode. Each 4 color pixel takes 2 bits of storage meaning that you can fit 4 pixels in a single byte. 320 X 200 / 4 pixels per byte = 16,000 bytes. This meant that the CGA design was ideal for 8 of the 'recent' 16kbit RAM chips.

    At the time, if IBM wanted* to offer more than 4 colors in bitmap mode, the engineers would have needed to put 16 RAM chips into the graphics card, which would have significantly driven up the cost of the video card.

    So... why did the CGA have bad 4 color graphics? Because in 1981 the manufacturing technology sweet spot was able to cheaply make a RAM chip with a 128 x 128 internal matrix.

    Why did the IBM engineers choose such an awful set of 4 colors? To this day I have no clue.

    (* And before anyone says it, yes with a composite monitor the CGA can output much better color, and yes, I know about the 160x100 mode 16 color trick, and yes IBM should have gone all the way and offered a 320x200 attribute plus bitmask mode where each 8-bit pixel group can have a unique foreground and background color)

    1. In the 'you can always learn something new' department... I found out the other day how the IBM engineers came up with such a hideous color palette for the CGA graphics modes.

      The IBM color monitor was unusual in that instead of having a continuously variable Red, Green, and Blue color signals, it had digital 'on/off' signals for the 3 primary colors. It also had a 4th Intensity signal. With four signals, there were 2*2*2*2 = 16 possible colors the IBM monitor could display. These are the same 16-colors used in later Tandy/EGA games like Starflight and Sierra's Hero's Quest.

      As I explained in my earlier comment, when using eight 1-bit 16K RAM chips, IBM had enough RAM for a 320x200 display, with 2-bits per pixel. But 2-bits is only enough for 4 colors, and the monitor can display 16 colors, what were they to do? This is what they did:

      R = Each pixels bit0
      G = Each pixels bit1
      B = User selected palette (0 or 1)
      I = User selected Intensity value

      So Palette 0 was
      Color 0 (00 in binary) becomes ???? in RGBI = Background (Black by default)
      Color 1 (01 in binary) becomes 0100 in RGBI = Green (only green is on)
      Color 2 (10 in binary) becomes 1000 in RBGI = Red (only red is on)
      Color 3 (11 in binary) becomes 1100 in RGBI = Brown/Yellow (Red+Green = Yellow)

      and Palette 1 was
      Color 0 (00 in binary) becomes ???? in RGBI = Background (Black by default)
      Color 1 (01 in binary) becomes 0110 in RGBI = Cyan (Green+Blue)
      Color 2 (10 in binary) becomes 1010 in RBGI = Magenta(Red+Blue)
      Color 3 (11 in binary) becomes 1110 in RGBI = White (Red+Green+Blue)


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