Saturday, February 16, 2013

Chaos Strikes Back: Final Rating

Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back
United States
FTL Games (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for Atari ST, 1990 for Amiga, FM Towns, PC-98, and Sharp X68000. Ported to Windows in 2001 by Paul R. Stevens
Date Started: 17 January 2013
Date Ended: 13 February 2013
Total Hours: 38
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 45
Ranking at Time of Posting: 67/82 (82%)
Raking at Game #455: 404/455 (89%)

I've mentioned before that in addition to a "CRPG Addict," I'm also an avid crossword puzzle solver. Like most American cruciverbalists, my favorite site is The New York Times crossword puzzle section (there are a few outliers who prefer The L.A. Times or The Wall Street Journal, but they're as deluded as people who prefer the Stormcloaks in Skyrim).

My rules for completing crosswords aren't terribly dissimilar to my rules for completing CRPGs. I give myself a minimum time limit, so I can't give up in frustration too quickly; aside from doing today's, I work through a list of past crosswords in chronological order; and I don't allow myself cheats or spoilers. The moment I realize I need Wikipedia or a dictionary to progress, the crossword is "done"; I record my time, count my blanks and errors, and log my score. Then I use Wikipedia and the dictionary to teach me something new.

The New York Times crosswords get progressively more difficult from Monday to Saturday. (Sunday is a special, larger puzzle pitched at a Wednesday-Thursday difficultly level.) My favorite days are Wednesday and Thursday. They provide enough of a challenge to stump me momentarily, but I almost always complete them. Monday and Tuesday are just about speed; there's no question I'll finish them, so I just try to beat my average time. Saturday is a "given" for the other reason: I've logged more than 500 solving times and errors in a spreadsheet, and I have never--not once--completely filled in a Saturday Times crossword without help. [Ed. How much changes with practice. Nearly 10 years after I wrote this, I routinely complete Saturdays, and now I look forward to Fridays.] So I do it just for the challenge. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday: I love them all for their own reasons.

But not Fridays. If I was a Battlestar Galactica character, I would call them "Fracking Fridays," so you can imagine what I really call them. My solve rate is about 35% with them. Every time I open one, it sits there, mocking me, making me wonder how it's going to beat me, how it's going to make me feel stupid, how it's going to highlight my inadequacies as a solver. It might lure me in with an easy top right, in which I quickly fill in every square, and then smack me across the face with a bottom left in which I can't get a single clue. I've never had it tested, but I'd bet my pulse and blood pressure rise whenever I even think about firing up a Friday. It's so bad that in the roughly one-third of the time that I finish it, I'm almost pissed at the puzzle, like it let me win.

Come on! You're not even trying!

Chaos Strikes Back felt like a Friday puzzle. By my third posting, I began to seriously question whether I would be able to finish it. Did any of you notice that I was padding the hell out of my postings? Both "A Spot of Violence" and "Lessons in Maneuverability" represented a couple of dozens squares of actual movement, so I framed them in all kinds of philosophical stuff--I even repeated a lot of the material from the first in the second--just so I'd have something to put out.

Eventually, I got over the hump, but throughout the game I was dreading the final area. I kept thinking, "If the puzzles are this hard on the lower levels, what's the top level going to be like?" and I'd have to go take an antacid. When I finally ventured up there, it was about 23:00 on Wednesday, about time to go to bed, and I told myself just move one square at a time, take notes, map carefully, and you can call it a night the moment it gets frustrating. Only it never did, and I won the game about 30 minutes after arriving on the top level.

This last area was essentially the only area where combat tactics saved the day. Fortunately, I'd been hoarding my magic boxes, bombs, poison potions, and other goodies, and I decided to throw them in abundance against the enemies. At the time, I was figuring I'd just get past them to map the area beyond, check things out, and reload so I wouldn't have wasted all my magic on a dozen enemies. Little did I know that I would soon find a key, open a door, and win the game.

Some of my inventory before the final area.

Thanks to my commenters and some walkthroughs, I realize that I missed a lot of the challenge of the top level, and there was a very creative and difficult puzzle that would have made this area both harder and easier. But when you're playing the game blind, there's no sign that says, "Hey, go this way for a more challenging but more satisfying experience!" So when I won, it felt a little like a Friday puzzle that didn't really try.

Rating the game is going to be difficult. In a 2004 review, Roger Ebert tried to explain his star rating system with a quote that seemed perfectly sensible to me:

[T]he star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if "Hellboy" is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to "Mystic River," you're asking if it's any good compared to "The Punisher." And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if "Superman" (1978) is four, then "Hellboy" is three and "The Punisher" is two. In the same way, if "American Beauty" gets four stars, then "Leland" clocks in at about two.

And that is why "Shaolin Soccer," a goofy Hong Kong action comedy, gets three stars. It is piffle, yes, but superior piffle. If you are even considering going to see a movie where the players zoom 50 feet into the air and rotate freely in violation of everything Newton held sacred, then you do not want to know if I thought it was as good as "Lost in Translation."

Because you were curious.

But in my blog, I've generally adopted the opposite approach: my rating is meant to reflect, as accurately as possible, my relative enjoyment of the game, and I rank 1978 low-res games alongside modern masterpieces. I don't give games the benefit of the doubt based on the technology of the times, I don't give them points for being "a classic," and I don't give them points for achieving exactly what they set out to achieve. Beyond Zork set out to be a goofy text-CRPG hybrid, and succeeded wildly, but it lost points with me for a) being goofy; and b) having no graphics.

When I reviewed Dungeon Master, Georges called me on this. He wondered why I couldn't give an "N/A" instead of a 0 to the game in the "NPCs" and "Economy" categories, reasoning that "a non-existant element is not necessarily a badly implemented or designed one." It's a fair point, and constructing the GIMLET to average, rather than sum, the scores would have accomplished what he suggested. I thought about doing that. I thought about doing it again while playing Chaos Strikes Back, but I couldn't justify it when I took the idea to its logical extreme. What if a game featured only one of the GIMLET categories but did it exceptionally well? I'd have to give it a high final rating based on an averaging system, but it wouldn't be a great CRPG.

Thus, in defense of what is to follow, I offer my reply to Georges at the time:

The purpose of the scale is no more and no less than to rank how much I,personally, enjoyed the game as a CRPG. In the [GIMLET posting], I tried to outline the elements that would make a "perfect" CRPG if the game scored a 10 in all of them. By your proposed revision, a game could get a perfect score even if it didn't have these elements, but without them, to me, it wouldn't be a perfect CRPG. Thus, if Dungeon Master had featured ANY NPCs, even bad ones that resulted in a very low score, it would still be a better CRPG (to me) than it is with no NPCs at all.

I still think this is true. If Chaos Strikes Back had featured even one NPC--Lord Chaos--and there had a been a few dialogue options with him when you encounter him on the top level, I think it would have enhanced the game. But I realize it would have been contrary to the developer's purpose, so before I begin the GIMLET, let's be clear about one thing: Chaos Strikes Back achieves precisely what it sets out to achieve, and it achieves it perfectly. If you read my entries on the game and you thought, "This sounds like the kind of game I would enjoy," you should absolutely play it. Chaos Strikes Back is the unbeatable example of a Chaos Strikes Back-style game.

A "Chaos Strikes Back"-style game being the type of game where you have to figure out how to use a keyhole, a coin slot, and a teleportation field while simultaneously fighting respawning eye-ghosts.

Whether it's a great CRPG is a different story. The game isn't even much like its predecessor. Instead, it uses a CRPG engine to offer a very different sort of gameplay experience. In this, by the way, it is also a perfect game. There are only so many things that the Dungeon Master engine allows, but Chaos Strikes Back uses all of them to construct its puzzles. Once you know the possibilities of the engine, you have all the information you need to suss out the solution to the puzzles. This is in contrast to a lot of modern games that suddenly introduce new code or a new interface for their puzzles. I got annoyed when Dragon Age: Origins suddenly introduced a puzzle involving sliding floor tiles, for instance, since nowhere else in the game can you fool around with moving items on the ground.

All right, let's do this. Since so many aspects of the game are similar or identical to Dungeon Master, it might make sense to read my final rating of that game, too.

1. Game World. Chaos Strikes Back is one of those games that technically has a framing story, but it plays so little role in the game that you could easily construct a completely different story and have it fit logically with everything you encounter during gameplay. Drakkhen was another recent one (in fact, with that game, you essentially had to construct your own story). But with Dungeon Master, the developers at least tried to have the story make sense, while in Chaos Strikes Back, they dropped all pretense. "Here's some nonsense written by my wife; just go play the game," seems to have been the attitude. In-game, there's nothing to distinguish the story from a hundred other dungeon-crawlers, but I suppose I should give it points for at least having one, and making things like "the four paths" and the Corbum ore clear at the outset. But the one really good thing about the game's "world" is that it's persistent,and every change you make--moving items, killing enemies, opening doors, solving puzzles, and so forth--lives on. Score: 4.

Even the Amiga animation showing Chaos "forging" the "ore" doesn't make any sense.

2. Character Creation and Development. I utterly fail to understand Dungeon Master's system of "reincarnating" or "resurrecting" existing heroes rather than just creating your own characters, and the process suffers a little more in this game than the first, because you have such a weird variety of bestial characters to choose from (contradicting the previous game). The skill-use-based development system, on the other hand, remains very good. Although leveling doesn't come as rapidly as in the first game (my characters gained maybe 2 or 3 wizard levels, 1 fighter level, 1 priest level, and no ninja levels) if you import characters, it's extremely satisfying when it does, and there are nice rewards in terms of statistics. I like that you can choose to make characters specialists or generalists this way. This game introduced a new element by aspecting the paths to these various skills, making it rather important to have an experienced wizard on the DAIN path and competent fighters on the KU path. There are still no real role-playing choices, but I was otherwise very satisfied with this area of the game. Score: 6. (Note: I realize I gave Dungeon Master a 7 in this category, but in retrospect I feel like I ranked it too high. Read the bullet points in the original GIMLET posting to understand why.)

Not bad for an old man.

3. NPC Interaction. Still none, which still makes it a lesser CRPG if not necessarily a lesser game. Score: 0.

4. Encounters and Foes. Dungeon Master bucks the usual trend of the era (the D&D games being a notable exception) by introducing extremely memorable enemies who have a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses. You develop visceral reactions to the chortling of Gigglers, the screech of Couatls, and the clanking of Death Knights, and you gear up for the right strategy the moment you see any of them. It has some old "favorites" from Dungeon Master but also introduces some new ones. There were places I didn't regard their respawning as bonuses the way I often do, but they certainly gave you plenty of opportunities to grind.

On the "Encounters" side, the game doesn't really offer any good role-playing encounters the way I described in the fall. But as with many games, the puzzles serve as a kind of "encounter," and this game does better than Dungeon Master by even giving you a few choices in how to solve them. They're not role-playing choices (based on characters), exactly, but they do allow you to play in a certain style. Score: 7.

5. Combat and Magic. I was less enchanted by it in Chaos than in Dungeon Master, mostly because the game didn't really seem to expect you to engage in it with a straight face. There were too many places in which creatures endlessly spawned, too many creatures that were essentially undefeatable without screwing around with dodging and stair-scumming. But I gave the category a high score in Dungeon Master and I have to give it a high score here. Although the game is real-time, it offers real tactics in its combat, from deciding the right attack with a particular weapon to adjusting the formation of the characters to, yes, actually moving around and even using the environment (the right maneuvering means that enemies pound each other with fireballs instead of the party). Some creatures could be taken out by turning the dungeon's own traps against them. On the magic side, though, I wish there had been some new spells. I guess there was in the Amiga version. Score: 7.

6. Equipment. The game has much that I like in this category: a wide variety of weapons and armor items, including many places to equip and wear them; many magic items to use; puzzle items; and items partly randomized throughout the dungeon. There are logistics associated with item weight and balance, but not so much to be annoying. But it loses many points with bafflingly dumb elements, including the inability to determine (in-game) the armor class of certain items or the uses of others. Even the relative damage and speed of weapons needs to be determined through careful observation and recording. And since this game twists around on itself, you can't be sure that a weapon you find on Level 8 is better than one you found on Level 3.

The spoiler list for the items shows that things are even worse. A falchion dropped at one location will open a door at another; a cape dropped at one location will activate a teleporter at another. Leather boots in the inventory hold open a wall. Another item improves luck, which you can't even see. Random items prevent the spawning of some enemies. If you have to crack the source code to see this kind of thing, then I'm sorry, but it's stupid. Score: 4.

7. Economy. This gets one better than Dungeon Master by having a slightly more robust economy. There's no "cash," but you do find individual coins as inventory items, and you can use them to get a selection of items at a couple of locations. It's not as good as a real shop, but it's better than nothing. Score: 2.

 8. Quest. One fairly nonsensical main quest; no side quests. Unlike Dungeon Master, there isn't even an alternate ending. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, Interface. There's nothing new to say about this. Both the graphics and sound are very good--not just for the era, but good in general--with enemies making unique sounds in both movement and attack. Many of the animated creatures look very cool. I still hate all the clicking. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. Before Chaos Strikes Back, I didn't think a nonlinear dungeon crawler was even possible, but wow, does this game blow that notion out of the water. Not only can you take the four paths in any order, but even within the paths there are so many stairways, hallways, doors, and pits, that it's virtually impossible to visit every square in the game. (I think I missed about a quarter of them.) This, plus the randomness with which the game deposits your characters after leaving the junction of the ways, and the ability to solve puzzles using different means, makes Chaos Strikes Back enormously replayable in a way that Dungeon Master wasn't.

My GIMLET bullets for this category say that for a perfect score, "Game has the right level of difficulty: challenging without being exasperating." On one hand, I want to say that the "right" level of difficulty needs to be interpreted a different way for this game. The developers intended to make an extremely challenging game; players love the game specifically for that reason; and without the challenge, it wouldn't be Chaos Strikes Back. On the other hand, there are a couple of puzzles that seem extraordinarily unfair. On a third hand, the game really helps you out of those situations with the oracle--if you're standing on the right square when you consult it.

I'm going to give it a high score here but not a perfect one, for one primary reason: I don't like games that force me into a choice between reloading a lot or wasting a lot of time. The game "rewards" too many risks by dropping you down pits and teleporting you back to the starting area or the "Junction of the Ways," and at that point only the most masochistic players would suck it up and wander all the way back to where they were--only to likely have it happen again. Score: 7.

This produces a final score of 45, slightly below Dungeon Master's 47, but look: I don't care how much you love this game, I think you have to agree that Dungeon Master was better as a straight "CRPG."

They really played up the hint oracle.

Extremely hard CRPGs were a rare exception in this era, so I was very curious to see contemporary reactions to the game. Computer Gaming World from May 1991 features a mostly-negative review. The reviewer notes that:

The monsters, traps, and puzzles presented within are all of the most heinous, unforgiving sort, and will surely crush the bones and spirits of all but the dungeoneering elite. Chaos Strikes Back is a game which allows for only two types of players, the "quick" and the "dead" (p. 39).

This is true, and not necessarily a negative thing as we discussed. But he spends most of the review bemoaning how nothing has changed in the game engine since Dungeon Master, which drives me crazy. Using the same engine to tell a new story is a longtime staple of games, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it as long as the engine is good. Chaos Strikes Back fans will especially love this paragraph, which seems to forget that the review is covering a 1989 game in 1991:

This gamer cannot help but to chastise Software Heaven and FTL Games for this long awaited rehash [his emphasis] of the original Dungeon Master. The "living dungeon" approach to RPGs is fast becoming commonplace, with titles like Bane of the Cosmic Forge, Captive, Bloodwych, and Eye of the Beholder improving on the Dungeon Master system...One wonders how long Dungeon Master and its chaotic sequel will survive before sinking into the mists of software history.

Yeah. It's a good thing I was here to blog about them, or probably no one would know about these games any more.

Most other reviews, however, were more positive than I expected, with Advanced Computer Entertainment calling it "ahead of its prequel," "unreservedly recommended," and "well worth every minute of the wait" (was waiting three years for a sequel really that long in the 1980s?). The One said that "it's enthralling, exciting, original, and unique. Another classic." Zero actually recommended that players go back and play the original, just to have characters for the sequel. The reviews have far fewer obscenities than I would have expected.

Our adventures in...whatever setting the Dungeon Master games supposedly take place...aren't over. Dungeon Master II: Skullkeep comes along in 1993 with an updated engine and the ability to explore outdoors, but otherwise the same look and feel as the original. I may pop in to Return to Chaos (2001), which updates the games to Windows and presents all three of the previous games as modules. I will not be playing Dungeon Mater: Theron's Quest (1992) for the TurboGrafx console or Dungeon Master Nexus (1998) for the SEGA Saturn console.

What mystifies me are all the fan-made remakes of both Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back. I can understand updating games that have great stories (e.g., Ultima IV, Ultima V) to modern engines the same way I can understand remaking great movies with modern settings and special effects. But when a game is all about mapping and puzzles and has virtually no story, why remake it? Why not just play it in its original engine? Or create a new game with similar gameplay to the original, as an homage?

Not that I'm anxious for many more games like this. I'm looking forward to a significant change of pace with a couple of RPG/adventure hybrids, starting with Tangled Tales.


  1. CSB might not have received the highest rating, but I feel that this GIMLET posting is one of the best you produced so far. It's a suavely written piece that satisfyingly wraps up what was ostensibly a very mixed-feeling experience for you. Looking forward to your upcoming adventures!

    1. Thanks! I might hit you up for a back-cover blurb.

    2. Yeah, that was very nicely done, both the post and the review.

  2. I went to that hint oracle website and told it to show everything it had. I wanted to see the monster descriptions. I couldn't find them as they were lost in PAGES AND PAGES of puzzle solutions. Seriously, you can hold down the PgDn key for a while and you will not reach the bottom of the web page. There are THAT MANY puzzles in this game.

    That being said, CSB would be one of my least favorite games ever. A pity, as I enjoyed DM so much. Puzzles are OK but don't overdo them, and when they're the focus of a game then I won't play. I used to hate when I started a perfectly good CRPG only to find out too late that all that statistics rolling and combat stats meant nothing when the game sets you to figure out how to get a monkey to stop guarding a key you need. Ugh. Nothing wrong with those kinds of games, but when they're like CSB and disguise themselves as RPGs that's when I start groaning.

    1. It was a unique idea, and amazing that they managed to fit all of the hints, along with the programming code, on a single floppy disk. I thought about giving it extra bonus points for the oracle, but ultimately, I settled for not taking them away from the "Gameplay" category for difficulty.

      CSB "disguising" itself as a traditional RPG didn't bother me overly because, with 24 years of hindsight, I knew exactly what to expect from it. I suppose that wasn't true of the gamers of the time, and if a player was looking for an experience similar to DM, I could see why CSB would be a disappointment as an RPG.

    2. Disagree with the second paragraph. CSB was everything DM was, just harder, more extreme and less linear, but then it was designed for experienced characters and players both. It wasn't any less of a CRPG than DM, but it crammed in much more content in the same space.
      The only significant difference in my opinion is that CSB revolves more around the mapping challenge. And I guess that's the great divider between those us use who loved CSB and those who disliked it, despite both groups liking DM.

    3. To elaborate: in DM you could mostly waltz through the game at a brisk pace, and there was little danger in getting lost, almost like an FPS. In CSB it paid to be slow, cautious and methodical in most areas, something for which not all players have the patience.

    4. Patience has little to do with it. Rather, if one dislikes solving illogical puzzles (or at least absurd puzzles; absurd in the sense that there is no rational back-story on why they exist in the game universe ) while fighting endless re-spawning monsters, then playing CSB is painful.

      Endlessly re-spwning monsters has caused me to quit many CRPGs; I just hate them. The puzzles I can deal with.

    5. Regarding the puzzles and no rational backstory, how is that significantly different from DM? One could argue that they were put there by Chaos, though.
      Anyway, CSB is not meant to be a "simulation" or about a story, but is a challenge of a more abstract nature. This was more common in older CRPGs, like Wizardry, Bard's Tale and Might&Magic, where the dungeons don't make much sense, what with their puzzles, clues written on walls, weird dungeon "ecology" and maps that wrap upon themselves etc. CSB is no worse in that regard.

      Later games that tried to present a more "realistic" world with a fleshed out backstory, like Eye of the Beholder and Lands of Lore, lack the challenge, the intricate puzzles, the dynamics and the level design of CSB, being more about killing monsters in a static environment, with very little tactics involved and no way to use the dungeon (traps, pits and such) against the monsters. In other words, with the lack of any real time tactics (except the two step dance) they failed to utilize the strength of the real time engine, and could just as well have been turn based. It's like the designers didn't quite "get" Dungeon Master and CSB, but tried to make the same old games using the DM style.
      Especially Eye of the Beholder would have been much better turn based, I think, since I don't think the AD&D rules and real time mix very well.

      As for respawning, I can't play the Bard's Tale game anymore due to the extreme respawning (in real time!), and my pet peeve about many games I otherwise like is having to fight the same random encounters over and over again.
      But respawning didn't bother me that much in CSB, since it's limited to a limited amount of areas. If you thought respawning was bad in CSB, you should try Lands of Lore.

    6. "...amazing that they managed to fit all of the hints, along with the programming code, on a single floppy disk."

      I don't know about the Atari ST version, but on the Amiga, one disk was the "utility disk" - dedicated to the intro, portrait editor, and hint oracle; and the other disk was the "game disk." In order to use the hint oracle, one would have to save their game, swap the disk, and then start the Utility Disk. You'd get your hint, then swap back to the game disk. I'm pretty sure these disks were bootable only, so you'd have to reset the machine twice in order to do this.

      I wouldn't be surprised if the ST version was the same, and the port you played had all the code included in one program.

    7. Petrus touched upon something here that I think serves as an explanation for the dungeon's design: Lord Chaos made it. In a sense, this game is chaos. What else would you expect?

    8. While not having quite the same regard for the game as he does, I generally agree with Petrus. Complaining about lack of realism in early CRPGs is fairly futile. There isn't any game that's very realistic with its dungeons in this era.

      But it's perfectly acceptable to prefer a different sort of game, as I do--one with a more sensible story, a more compelling quest, interesting NPCs, and so forth. I do like occasional puzzles, but I'd rather they were of a more intellectual variety, and not the kind where you have to push a button on the wall, then hunt around to see what door it might have opened.

    9. I think Petrus has a good point. In DM and CSB, you spend 100% of your time puzzling and fighting and that is done extraordinary well. A short wall text or hint scroll tells you everything you need to know and sometimes it was even another puzzle to get this hint.

      Most DM clones just did not get it. In Lands of Lore or EoB, you have (bland) NPCs instead of scrolls and wall texts, resulting in maybe 10% story and 90% puzzling and fighting - but neither the fights nor the puzzles can hold a candle to DM. And that are some of the better clones. Especially the regions outside of dungeons are very boring, I have yet to see a dungeon crawler with an interesting wood or city.

      Also few games got the pacing right, for example Stonekeep still had tile based movement, but introduced half-steps for realism's sake or whatever stupid reason, emphasizing the CRAWL in dungeon-crawler.
      Being able to play at your own speed, however fast it is, helped getting and sustaining an insistric motivation to beat the game (and then again). I never felt like needing a NPC or a questlog to push me forward in DM/CSB.

      Still, there is no argument that a dungeon crawler isn't the best medium to tell an epic story.

  3. The mention of Bane of the Cosmic Forge got me excited, but I see that it's still wayyyyy down the spreadsheet.

    I see that Starflight 2 is on the horizon now, though, which I'm also looking forward to.

  4. I would never do crosswords your way, with a time limit. I love leaving them overnight and seeing how many clues i have solved in my sleep.

    1. I compete in tournaments, so my style of solving is geared towards maximizing my performance under tournament rules. Although it removes some of the "fun" from solving them, it makes it feel better about putting crosswords on my daily "to do" list.

    2. There's such a thing as crossword tournaments? O_O
      It's an amazing world we live in ;)

    3. I'm not so old that I've forgotten POG tournaments, though I've been trying to erase those memories every day since 1998.

    4. Did you have your own "pogtainer"?

    5. Man, those were huge when I was in grade 1 or 2. I used to watch all the older kids play them and try and figure out the rules. As the uncool younger kid, I got in just as everyone else was getting out, and still have my collection.

  5. "Slightly worse than DM" sounds about right, with the caveat that DM is a 99/100 game and CSB is only 98/100.

    Alright, that may be a little bit exaggerated. One can certainly look at these games and see lots of little things that would have improved them, such as giving items a verbal description viewable with the eye icon (which I suspect they wanted to do but couldn't find the disk space; one crazy thing we often forget about the Old Times is that even ASCII text would fill up a disk pretty quick - part of the reason so many RPGs made you look up chapters in the manual instead of showing them on screen). But that sort of thing misses the big picture. Back in 1987 when DM came out and in 1989 when CSB did, these games pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible for home computers. They were not just cutting edge, they redefined cutting edge. DM was so advanced that in the years between it and CSB, no clone came even close to it. Eye of Beholder, released a year after CSB, still had to leave out things like dynamic lighting and greatly simplified some other aspects of gameplay. It took until 1991 and EoB2 until DM got a competitor that didn't have to walk with its head bent in shame. Four years in the fast-moving computer business of late eighties. That's crazy.

    Dungeon Master 2 I view as a misstep, and a sad swan song for the proud legacy of FTL. It has some concrete improvements such as outdoor areas, some things that I suspect the blog owner will like, such as actual shops (which I hated), it may even get a higher score due to the quirks of his scoring system. But I regard it as a pitiful, wretched game that doesn't nearly live up to the originals.

    1. "They were not just cutting edge, they redefined cutting edge." I think that in saying this, you're thinking of "cutting edge" and "advanced" in just a couple of narrow categories, like graphics and sound. These achievements are impressive, but they aren't necessarily what defines a good CRPG.

    2. I beg to differ. DM/CSB were a complete package, combining innovation and superb execution in all aspects, including UI, stat/level system and spell system. It is true that there were some things they didn't even attempt to do, things you count as failures of the game (lack of NPCs, shops, minimal "story"), but those omissions were surely deliberate, and anything that was in the game was masterful.

      The part I really appreciate the most is how the game world is like clockwork, all the pieces interacting seamlessly. You described a telling moment in your own postings - how you dropped a monster through a trapdoor, and he landed on top of another monster on a lower level, killing both. In what other game is a thing like that even possible?

    3. Many of you are essentially arguing that one must judge CSB based on what it tried to do (and not what it failed to do through lack of trying). This is not a valid argument; one should judge an effort based on what it achieves, not what was intended. (This is true for literary criticism and msut be true for CRPGs too.) In this light, CSB is a very incomplete CRPG; it does well in a few narrow areas but it lacking overall.

    4. I disagree. Games, as well as literature, should be judged on their own merits, not based on some formula.

    5. "one should judge an effort based on what it achieves, not what was intended."

      Nonsense. Is Usain Bolt a poor athlete because he didn't do a decathlon while he was breaking all the records on the 100m dash? Why, he only played one sport out of hundreds! Surely his success, if any, is all due to low aspirations rather than any real talent.

      That's what I hear here. DM/CSB getting pooh-poohed because it was merely a perfect game and didn't also pull a song-and-dance number on top of that. Only thing it fails at is fulfilling our host's personal definition of CRPG, a definition which is frankly arbitrary. And while he is entitled to it, of course, you must understand that not following those specifications doesn't mean there is anything actually wrong with the game, neither overall nor as a representative of its genre. There are other definitions.

      Finally, "few, narrow areas"? DM/CSB excel in everything except a few, narrow areas. Their strong points include almost all the points, their weaknesses sparse and easily forgotten.

    6. My overall point is that CSB is a great GAME; it's just not a great CRPG. I don't understand why this statement is so controversial.

      If you want to call my definition of a CRPG "arbitrary," you're welcome, but I didn't just make it up.

    7. Anonymous is missing my point. It is perfectly fair to criticize Bolt as not a decathlon expert. It may be that this criticism is uninteresting, but it is not invalid. It doesn't take away from Bolt's other accomplishments, but if one is reviewing decathloners, then one cannot rate Bolt highly because he didn't try to be one.

      I agree with Chet that CSB is not a great CRPG (as gleaned from his reviews; I'm unlikely to play it). It may be a great something else; and it may have intended to only be that something else. But as Chet is reviewing CRPGs as he defines them, he must evaluate CSB accordingly.

      I don't understand where Petrus's "formula" come from, so I'll let that comment pass.

    8. "DM/CSB were a complete package, combining innovation and superb execution in all aspects, including UI, stat/level system and spell system."

      That's the reason why I feel so angry with DM. The spell system was so promising, and you end up having just LO FUL RA prewritten, cause in the fight you had no time to prepare anything else.
      The leveling system with title from "adept" to "MON master" sound so cool but nobody ever call you those awsome title
      The progress through use was so new and perfect for PC game(compared to the dumb xp system taken from D&D), I could not forget it serve nothing, cause you better run around the mobs.
      Same goes for the item perk accessible through leveling: Superb but practically useless.

      All the CRPG aspect of DM is awesome, promising and original. I wanted to love it, except it serve no purpose in a game about solving puzzle in a maze and clicking as fast as you can while you run around.

      It's like you were given the best hammer ever, and you had to eat soup with it. Very frustrating.

  6. Would you say you enjoyed DM a little more as the score reflects?

    1. No, not at all. I thought it was challenging, and interesting, and I'm glad I overcame the challenge, but there was pretty much no point during gameplay that I had a smile on my face.

  7. Congratulations on finishing another game I'd never be able to get through. Reading your posts makes me feel like I have, however, which is an immense pleasure. Thank you!

  8. This is indeed one of your best written reviews: it's fair, well argumented, true to your rating system and managed I think to show every reader how CSB is a unique kind of game.

    What's not to like?

    Thanks for the great coverage, it was a wonderful read, an I'd head straight to to another replay if my gaming allocation of time wasn't too busy with Legend of Grimrock modding in addition to a personal RPG/Dungeon Crawler hybrid project I started coding (you'll probably hear more about it later this year).

    1. The review was indeed well written. I wonder if the review quality was due to the author's ambivalence about this game? In forcing himself to sound positive, perhaps Chet is developing his thoughts further than usual.

    2. If you think I forced myself to sound positive or that I'm "ambivalent" about the game, I left the wrong impression somewhere. I feel about it like you might feel about Schindler's List. You recognize it as a seminal work, but you don't leave the theater with a smile on your face, and it's not a movie you're anxious to re-watch. But you're not sorry you saw it.

    3. George's mention of Legend of Grimrock reminded me of it's origins - It started life as a Dungeon master clone (Escape from dragon mountain - there's a screenshot of the early version over at dmweb).

      Clones are different from remakes of course, but you could argue that if you take the dungeon (the map and the puzzles) out of a dungeon crawler it makes it a different game, not a remake of the original.

      I suspect the desire of most remake authors is to make a game the enjoy accessible to a larger audience; One that won't put up with 16 colour palettes and clumsy interfaces, without damaging the core elements.

      On a side note - Knights of Legend? That's going to be rough one. Lots of ideas like the icon interface, the combat system, the dressing doll equipment screen, and the (unreleased) expansion disks that didn't quite work out.

  9. Just another small note about Tangled Tales, it came with a story book that outlined the back-story. If you can't find a copy I will try to summarize it for you in your first posting.

    1. If you mean the "A Young Wizard's First Journal," I managed to get hold of that.

  10. Something I just now realized, looking at that advert pictured above: the eponymous "dungeon master" must be Lord Chaos. Think about it. The dungeon in both games is made by him. That means he's the one who set up the puzzles - and wrote all the clues on the walls.

    The games don't do much to characterize him as anything other than this vague blob of evil, but he does seem to have a sense of fair play at least: after all, if he built the place, what's to stop him from just sealing the way forward with solid rock? But according to the ad, he's actively inviting the people who foiled him the first time to try and do it again - and to make sure they answer the call, he makes his own defeat possible.

    He's like an assholish DM on D&D.

    1. Maybe he was based on Michael Cranford of Bard's Tale 2 fame?

    2. He's also someone who can "in his unreasoning mind" plan in detail a revenge after his imminent defeat.

      If that's lack of reason, I'll have some!

    3. Good point. I guess I was thinking the title referred to the PC, but that doesn't make sense since there's four of them.

    4. What Anon above said was almost true. The dungeon in Dungeon Master was made by the Grey Lord, and Chaos took it over. Chaos wanted the Firestaff, but didn't know the spell to remove it with. You play as Theron (who can be seen as the Dungeon Master in DM), who guides the four adventurers in freeing the Firestaff and defeating Lord Chaos.

    5. The Dungeon in CSB is shown to be arranged, tile-by-tile by Lord Chaos in the Amiga intro, I do believe. It's hilarious!

  11. I was looking forward to this GIMLET, and it did not disappoint. This might be one of your best posts ever, and that's saying something given the high quality of writing on your blog. You not only perfectly explained the mechanics of your rating system, you captured the essence of this game (and thanks! I'll be skipping this one, as it did not seem fun at all, and I'm a guy who enjoys challenging games), and even waxed philosophical. I love it. If the quality of writing on your blog is indicative of how your book will be, count me as a future buyer.

  12. It's quite interesting to read these comments, almost moreso than the (well-written) review and followings of the game - because people feel so bedamnably passionate about it. I think that an even keel is often what draws such things out of people - and I have a slightly different suggestion to offer to people.

    While in the day it was released, games were let out at a ridiculous schedule but were expensive enough that the majority of people were grabbing them at a slower schedule (where one game was supposed to last an awful lot longer than modern ones do now), people may well have taken the time to really plug through what seems at first as inane. I know several more people that would not have.

    If this is a perfect game, and you played it, and decided it was perfect.. would the same person who enjoyed Baldur's Gate but found it a touch difficult do so?

    If this is a perfect game, and you played it NOW, with a back catalogue of fifteen other games (and not the thousands facing Chester!), and ran into some trouble with the opening ten minutes requiring you to punch worms into oblivion.. would you stop and give it its chance, or would you never have discovered the true interests and intrigues? For that matter, if you all hadn't pestered him and peppered him with clues, and this was just another Wizardry 2, for example.. would he have continued on with it? Even if a game is the most fantastic thing in the world ten hours in once you've worked everything else through.. if you're forced to grind your fingers to the bone to find that out, you're probably not going to find it out to begin with. If you're looking for a flaw with this game, even if you don't believe it exists.. well, there it is. If I had to play ten hours of roulette to get to chapter 5 of Baldur's Gate, I would not have played through Baldur's Gate. Very interesting read overall though.. glad it wasn't me!

  13. You mention '...On a third hand...' in your blog here. That should be referenced '...On the gripping hand...' to be proper. To get this reference, read the sequel to 'The Mote In God's Eye' by Pournelle and Niven.

    That's it. My entire blog comment.

    1. I'd never heard of those books, which seems odd, since now that I Google it, "on the gripping hand" shows up everywhere.

    2. I've never heard this expression either, while "on the third hand" in common in my experience.

    3. A high school friend of mine was impatient with people (like me) who "bought time" in conversation with phrases such as "on the other hand..."

      He would interrupt me at that point and say, "... she wore a glove!" Forced me to think a little more about what I was going to say before I said it. :-)

    4. I don't think it's a "buying time" phrase at all. If I say, "On the one hand, I'm trying to save money; on the other, I could really go for a Sazerac in New Orleans," you're indicating that you're weighing two variables. Without those phrases, you end up with, "I'm trying to save money. I could really go for a Sazerac in New Orleans," which doesn't make any sense. Slap your friend for me.

  14. I plan to play Theron's Quest one of these days. I briefly tried it, but the lack of mouse controls is really going to hinder the flow. I fumbled around for a bit in the hall of heroes before deciding I had enough.

    I'm glad you were able to see this one through. I didn't really notice the padding, but I did get the feeling it was really slow going in the beginning.

  15. Oh my lord...
    that box art!


  16. Took me a long time to read the entries on this game... I wonder if this game is better described as a puzzle game with occasional real-time combat than an RPG. On the other hand, maybe it's just a different sub-genre, the dungeon-crawler. Roguelikes would be another subgenre. On the gripping hand, no, I have nothing left to say. Thank you for playing these games so that we don't have to.

    1. I wouldn't quite characterize it that way, particularly since, in terms of the engine, it's the same game as Dungeon Master. In CSB, the creators maximized the puzzle-like capabilities of the DM engine, but at its heart, it's still an RPG.

      There really aren't many games like it. My recently-played DarkSpyre is the only other obvious example I can think of.

  17. The way you write about your Fracking Friday puzzles, I get the feeling you secretly like them a little. :)

    1. I like the beginning of them, when I get a few clues in a row and there's a hint of potential. I inevitably hate them by the end.

  18. Most of the remakes you find have two goals in mind. One is to fix some of the interface quirks that made the original maddening (by auto-quivering throwables, allowing for identification of items, and adding popups for the names of the runes). The other is to write them in ways that are platform independent and won't become obsolete or require emulators to run in the future. Combine these two goals with the fact that most of the projects also include a scenario editor and you'll find that there are a lot of dungeons available for play ranging from hack-n-slash heavy ones to ones that are almost entirely puzzle-oriented.

  19. Hey Everyone,

    First, I wanted to congratulate Crpgaddict for his awesome blog. The in depth reviews of older rpg games is always fun to read.

    Mr. CRPGAddict and fans, I want to invite you to play a game I spent many months developing. I even used the advice and criticism from this blog to make improvements to it! :)

    My game is called, Dungeon Guild. It uses a dungeon master like game engine that has been greatly upgraded with new graphics, music, sfx, story, mini games, puzzles, scoring, etc. It is a science fiction based dungeon adventure game like no other you have played.

    It is free to play and is my gift to the gaming community. So far nobody has been able to complete the first mission. Will you be the first?

    Thank you,

    Commander Brody

  20. this isn't my cup of tea at all [rpg's - to me - should carry some kind of story that isn't just exposition, and they should definitely have at least /some/ npc's. having an economy can be ok, but if the game is generous and gives you items as you play, then that sometimes cancels itself out.] - but i'm glad you played this and wrote about it, forewarning me about it.

    plus, the real time nature of it is just not something i'm very much a fan of. arpg's/real time rpg's work best for me if it's a single character and not a group. i've never felt comfortable [or adept] at the dungeon master clones that want you to click spam real quickly and in short succession to get anywhere.

    having said that: dungeon master is a game i've tried off and on for years, and it's maybe even a game i could try to complete, but chos strikes back - even just using the template of dm - isn't a thing i would have been into then [or even now.]

    congratulations on the win, and i think your gimlet is reasonable. [and as others have pointed out, i think this is a very concise and well thought through gimlet, in particular.]

    very intrigued by the upcoming hillsfar [a game i was dimly aware of, but never seriously tried.]

  21. In one of the entries for CSB, you were talking about dropping monsters down a pit and how it normally kills them. I'm in the middle of a DM replay and I dropped 2 Rock Lobsters down a pit. You can imagine my surprise when one of them suddenly appear beside me because it had wandered into the teleporter out of the pit!

    Ken Brubaker

  22. Though I would never have the patience to make it through this game, I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your (and the commenters) impressions of it, and am super impressed with the amount of effort that went into designing the levels and puzzles. Feels super ahead of its time!

    An another note, I'm going through a difficult divorce right now, and being able to read a little bit of this blog every night before bed has a been a great source of consistency and comfort during a tumultuous time. Thank you for all the effort you put into making your posts so informative and entertaining.

    1. Thanks for commenting, smisk. I'm glad my entries have helped you take your mind off things. Best of luck with the rest of that process.


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