Friday, December 31, 2010

Game 37: Mission: Mainframe (1987)


Mission: Mainframe
United States
Independently developed and released as shareware
Released in 1987 for DOS
Date Started: 31 December 2010
Okay, first off: I'm still not done with Le Maitre des Ames, especially now that I have a translated manual. But this hotel has the worst Internet connection I've experienced in a long time, and I keep losing my access to Google translate (which I still need for the in-game text). I'm writing this blog entry in Notepad on Thursday, but I can't imagine I'll be able to post it until I get home Friday night. Second, I really need my second monitor to effectively play Maitre, what with the need to have the game, my notepad, the manual, my map, and the translation screen all open at the same time.

So I'm moving on temporarily to Mission: Mainframe, a roguelike that MobyGames lists as a 1987 offering, but whose own title screen shows that the first version was from 1983. I had heard that it was a roguelike, so I was basically expecting Rogue in a futuristic setting, so I wasn't prepared for all of the variations that this game includes.
Was just a wrecking ball out of the question?

The backstory is that a malevolent computer mainframe has taken over an office building, corrupting employees and causing all kinds of havoc. You must ascend up to 30 floors of the office building (i.e., dungeon levels) to find the computer (i.e., Amulet of Yendor) and return with knowledge of its location to the lobby. On the way, you must deal with hostile employees (monsters), keep up a supply of junk food, increase your levels and statistics, find office supplies (weapons), learn different strategies for dealing with different employees, and collect chips and bytes (gold).

You would think the programmers of this game would know that bytes are not actual objects.
The game offers a very long, detailed tutorial instead of a physical manual, which is unusual for the era (you also have the option to print out the tutorial). Character creation is a process of choosing a name and class (commando, secret agent, detective, or private eye) and then rolling some random stats until you get the ones you like. Supposedly the classes offer stat bonuses (e.g., commandos get extra strength and stamina), but the values seemed random to me, no matter what class I chose.

I don't think any state licenses private investigators as young as 18.
You start off in the building's lobby (i.e., town), where you can purchase from a variety of odd weapons (pencil, pen, paperclips, file folder), fill up your food supplies, go to the gym to increase your stats, visit the library to purchase strategies for dealing with employees, and get healed. Of course, all of these things cost money. The lobby is also the only place to save your character. In the tradition of Rogue, you can only save for later play; death is permanent and your save game is deleted when you die.

Trapped file cabinets? There ought to be a "call OSHA" option.

Moving around the game world is reminiscent of Wizard's Castle, which I reviewed back in July. Each floor contains 64 rooms (8 x 8) in which you might find employees, file cabinets with money, potions (the game doesn't even try to come up with a modern analog for that), and other objects. You might also get sucked up a computer-controlled air vent and delivered to another floor. The lights might abruptly go out. And so on. The level of detail that you see ahead of time depends on the difficulty level that you choose at the start of the game.

When you encounter employees, you have a number of options for dealing with them: you can try to (d)eal or trade, (b)attle them, employ a (s)trategy that you've learned from the library, (t)rick them, (e)vade them, or make a prank (p)hone call to distract them. These various moves have a chance of success or failure based on the type of employee (accountant, janitor, secretary, file clerk, etc.) and your statistics. If it comes to battle, the employees are mercilessly lethal. (The first time I read, "You have been done in by a SECRETARY!" was a bit of a downer.) No matter what you do, success rewards you with experience points towards another level.

I imagine it goes without saying that you die lots and lots in Mission: Mainframe, just like any other roguelike. I haven't been able to keep a character alive more than about 15 minutes. Death wipes out your character and your saved game and forces you to start completely over. Lots of people find this fun, apparently.

The video above shows a few minutes of gameplay, so you can get a sense of the different types of encounters and such (it's hard to read on the size of this screen, though; you might want to go directly to the YouTube site). I managed to make it without dying, but just barely.
I was curious about the developers, Brian J. Shankman and Jerry M. Plemons, who want me to send them $15 if I enjoy it. Shankman has a LinkedIn profile; he apparently used to work for Sabre, the company that owns Travelocity. He mentions the game in his profile. Plemons now owns a photography studio. LinkedIn wants me to upgrade my account to contact Shankman, and I otherwise can't find an address for him, but I have Plemons's studio address, so I'm going to send him the $15. I wrote a book about 15 years ago and it's always a thrill when I get a tiny royalty check; I hope Plemons feels the same way.

Now, here's the difficultly. To paraphrase a quote from Roger Ebert: this posting is like a piece of cheese. Now that you've read it, you know everything there is to know about that cheese except what it would be like to eat an entire block. If I play this game all the way to the end, what am I going to blog about that I haven't already told you? Roguelikes don't reveal new bits of story as you play. They don't offer NPCs. They don't do anything different than you see in that brief video except get harder. And the last (only) one that I won, Rogue, took me four months. These are important questions, because Nethack is coming up right after this (well, after Le Maitre des Ames anyway). I figure my options are:

  1. Don't blog for weeks until I win
  2. Blog what I'm doing, no matter how repetitive or boring
  3. Come up with a lot of special topics postings as I play
  4. Play roguelikes side-by-side with non-roguelikes, only blog about the latter until something interesting happens or I win
  5. Just do one or two postings on the roguelikes and move on

Since I still have Le Maitre des Ames on the burner anyway, I think I'll try #4 and see how it goes.


  1. #4 sounds good, as long as you get some enjoyment or at least distraction out of playing the roguelike. otherwise i think one or two postings for nethack and similar games should be plenty.

  2. Unless you find a lot of enjoyment in playing a roguelike, I suggest you just drop it and move on.

    Nethack, and games of that pedigree (A.D.O.M, some Angband variants, etc) are very different from Mission: Mainframe in that they are the result of decades of ongoing coding. This means they're full of tricks and hidden gameplay you're meant to discover by playing the game over and over again.

    You're wrong to think that these games do not offer new experiences as you go along. M:M probably doesn't given its 1983 release, but Nethack's going to throw sokoban levels, themed quest levels, miniquests, underground forests, undead cemetaries, the astral plane... a huge amount of different stuff on you. Of course it's going to be abstracted and symbolized, but there's a lot of space there for your roleplaying to give it life.

    You won't survive the journey, of course. You will die again and again in this game and maybe 2-3 years from now if you love playing it, you'll finish it on your own. Or in significantly less time if you play with internet spoiler guides, but where's the fun in that?

    It comes down to whether roguelikes go well with your personality. After some time with Nethack, you'll know so you will know for certain what to do with more similar games on your list in the future. I say this because Nethack is arguably the deepest roguelike there is (I trust you'll play the most recent version).

    Also if you just want to see the game through, I'm sure it offers a 'Wizard Mode' where you do not die and you can keep on exploring lower and lower.

    Also, happy new year! :D

  3. I vote #5.

    Rogue-likes are called rogue-likes because they're so similar, so there's no need to tell us a lot about each of them, just anything interesting that comes up...

  4. I think any plan needs to be fairly nuanced. I would love to see a "tactics" post on this game (I found the second post on Rogue much more interesting than the first, since I already knew what Rogue was but had no idea how to beat it) but I'm fairly sure there's not enough depth for a whole slew of posts.

    Don't presume "no plot" means it isn't possible to dig deep, and there's no "implied" story. (I found your implied story on Rogue quite interesting.) Nethack in particular has had volumes written about it, and I'm sure an outsider could find lots more to say.

    As far as if you should keep playing a particular game, just keep doing what you're doing: keep going if you enjoy it, drop it if you don't. If that means you have a long-term "background" game to noodle with once in a while that's fine.

  5. I vote #5.

    Question - if Nethack has been continually updated, is it really appropriate to have it next? I mean, the latest version (3.4.3) was released in 2003...I'm skeptical the experience would be the same as its early release. Could it even be considered the same game? Something to think about as the time nears.

  6. #5.

    I love roguelikes but they're a whole other ballgame. I'd suggest just quickly covering the basics and then moving on. If people want to read more about them I suggest John Harris' excellent @Play column.

  7. #5, unless it really grabs you.

    It is true that the roguelikes you have encountered thus far provide no NPCs, no subquests, et cetera. However, this is not at all true of the genre as a whole- I think you'll be surprised how much there is to the descendants of Rogue.

    However, it's also true that the very best roguelikes were the versions that came much later- to play Nethack 3.2 is to play a 2003 game, not a 1987 game. I'd suggest trying out the earliest released version, for at least the six hours, then when you hit the year of the latest version, try that too. If it does not hook you, move on. If it does, and you want to complete it, I think simultaneously playing another game, or doing special topics as you go, would both be excellent ideas- perhaps some mixture of both to keep yourself from getting bored.

    I'd hate to see the whole genre discounted as unworthy of specific attention, because there is a lot going on in that genre to interest an addict of RPGs. However, the permadeath issue makes it a fundamentally different kind of proposition to complete one- most CRPGs a gamer can expect to complete eventually, but most roguelikes, to complete it is a badge of achievement. To move on from a roguelike game without finishing it is not the same as moving on from a CRPGs that allows saved games- so while I'd encourage you to play roguelikes alongside the other CRPGs, attempting to complete them all would be an entirely different sort of challenge than the one you've set for yourself.

    So I'd say, play them as long as you're having fun, or have anything interesting to say about them.

    If this is of interest to you, there is a very well done column about roguelike games, called "@ Play".

    It's well written and genuinely interesting to read- I'd recommend anybody who is at all interested in roguelike games read through it from the beginning.

  8. Jordan7hm said it better. And shorter. Heh.

  9. I appreciate the corrections on "NetHack." I shouldn't have assumed that just because it was a "roguelike" that it didn't improve upon the gameplay experience of "Rogue."

    Jason, I'm not sure what you mean about my "implied story" on "Rogue"; I just told the back story as it exists in the game manual. But either way, I guess the problem with "Mission: Mainframe" is that it doesn't try to play it straight. It has you spending literally years in an office building, living on junk food, killing hapless corporate workers with office supplies.

    As to your question, Andrew, Ryan (Pipecleaner) hooked me up with a 1987 version of NetHack so I'd be playing the authentic thing. I'll probably dip into later versions as they would have appeared--they are, after all, in effect separate games.

    Thanks to Ryan and Jordan for recommending John Harris's column. I keep meaning to get together a "special topics" posting on other CRPG blogs.

  10. The luck of the draw turned out to be my salvation. On my umpteenth try, my character found both a ring and an ID scroll on Level 1. The ring turned out to be a Ring of Slow Digestion, which greatly decreased the need for constant food. With this need out of the way, I could linger on levels, slay more easy monsters, and increase my level (and hit points) faster. I could also afford to take the time to search for traps and secret doors where before my life had been a constant race to find the next bit of food.

    While this isn't as gripping as a Dwarf Fortress story, I consider it a generative story of sorts. (Not quite as good as your Wizardry I story where the stupid, stupid thief accidentally teleports you into the boss room, but a story nonetheless.)

    re: if the game is impossible, I'm not so certain. I remember thinking Wizard's Castle was impossible when I first played it, but a couple years ago I gave it another whirl and devised a strategy that allows a win most of the time. Roguelikes can be like that.

  11. Thanks for teaching me that you can use HTML in comments. I suppose I'm a bit of an idiot for not realizing it until now.

  12. I'm a fairly new reader of this blog, but I'd personnaly say #5 if you want to keep up with your long list of games to play. If ever you get addicted to a particular roguelike, then #4 looks good too...

  13. "I keep meaning to get together a "special topics" posting on other CRPG blogs."

    Definitely a good idea. In terms of CRPG focused writing I'm only aware of this site, the @play column and a handful of primarily design oriented blogs. It would be nice to see what else is out there.

  14. looks more like a hunt the wumpus variation. meh.

  15. This will probably sound like heresy to some fellow crpg fans, but the more I read about you playing roguelikes the more I loose any interest to even play a single one. I have to say I'm also one of perhaps two people on the world who didn't like Diablo. I just find no motivation in playing something without any story and that high amount of randomness.

    1. I think there are plenty of CRPG fans who don't like roguelikes as well as the other way around. This one isn't a very good example of a "roguelike," and as I cover later under Wizard's Castle, I don't even think the term applies well to this sub-genre. There ARE roguelikes with better stories and less randomness, although SOME randomness is inherent in the genre.

    2. I don't think Diablo was as universally beloved as you imply, either -- sure it was popular, but there were and are plenty of people who don't like it. Personally, I love CRPGs, but I've never had any interest in Diablo. Or Roguelikes. (Or World of Warcraft, for that matter, speaking of popular CRPGs...)

    3. I hate how the randomized equipment render money pratically useless.

  16. Well, this is certainly a blast from the past. Brian Shankman is my uncle, and I remember playing this game as a kid (probably around '87). I'm pleasantly surprised to see that it's still out there and reviewed favorably!


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