Sunday, January 5, 2014

Game 130: The Caverns of Freitag (1982)

The Caverns of Freitag
David Shapiro (developer); MUSE Software (publisher)
Released 1982 for the Apple II 
Date Started: 4 January 2014
Date Ended: 4 January 2014
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at Time of Posting: 12/131 (9%)

Every once in a while, in a game like Skyrim, I'll be trying to get away from some vampires or bandits, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I come to a switchback in the dungeon. I figure if I can take the corners fast enough, my enemies will lose their direct route to me and they'll give up. More often than I care to admit, I'm surprised when they come charging around the corner anyway while I'm in the middle of trying to cast a healing spell. I often forget how much sophistication the modern era has brought to pathfinding.

In the 1980s, things were different. Exploiting primitive pathfinding was often the only tactic you had at your disposal. It allowed you to take on hordes of monsters one at a time in games like Ultima and NetHack, or to draw them to you in smaller groups as in the Gold Box games. Enemies' failure to navigate around walls is all that kept me alive in The Land. Gamers of this era developed an almost instinctive feel for enemy behavior around obstacles--to know just how many steps they could walk in some direction before the enemy would "click" and decide to round the corner.

This dynamic is exemplified in The Caverns of Freitag, a 1982 offering from MUSE Software, best known for Castle Wolfenstein from a year earlier. It's also the first game written by the colorful David Shapiro, AKA "Dr. Cat," who would go on to work at Origin and contribute to Ultima V and Ultima VI. He appears as an NPC in both games (an innkeeper in Paws) and the dragon Freitag's skull is one of the exhibits in the museum in Ultima VI. My understanding is that almost all the NPC characterizations in that game come from his imagination. I look forward to playing it soon.

The Caverns of Freitag is basically an arcade game with some RPG elements. The setup is that you're a "Thechu Warrior" from the "Enchanted Islands," a land that an evil dragon named Freitag has held in his grip for 300 years. Freitag keeps his lair deep in a series of caverns on one of the islands, surrounded by evil monsters, and your mission is to travel through the caves and slay him. I'm obliged to note that "Freitag" is the German word for "Friday," making him one of the more lamely-named RPG enemies.

The game takes place on a map of around 75 x 75 squares (the passages are all twisty and it takes too long to count precisely). The player starts at an inn in the far west and the dragon's lair is the far southeast corner. The only character creation options are the name, the difficulty level (from 1-9), and the "game speed," which is basically how long the player has to act each round before the game records a "pass."

After this, the game begins, and there is no way to pause or save. If you want to use the bathroom or grab a drink or something, you need to find a safe corner and hope no enemies generate where they can find you. You move through the dungeon with a keycluster centered on "H" ("Y" is north; "J" east; "B" southwest) and attack enemies with the CTRL key plus the appropriate direction. You switch between bow attacks and sword attacks with the SPACE bar.

Shooting at an electric moth. Those enemies in the lower left will remain around the corner until I reach the opening.

Each kill provides experience, and leveling up is pretty rapid. You can reach up to Level 10 before killing Freitag. Every level confers another 100 base hit points (you start with 125) plus serves as a damage multiplier for attacks. (The best I can figure, the damage done by each attack is 1d10*the level. I didn't notice any difference when I got a magic sword +2.)

My character is Level 5 in this shot, so he must have rolled a 6.

There are treasure chests in the dungeon. A few of them hold +1 or +2 sword or shield upgrades; the rest have gold, which you can use back at the inn to purchase either arrows or additional base hit points. Thus, gold never stops being valuable in the game. Returning to the inn automatically restores all hit points and levels you up if you've amassed enough experience. Unfortunately, the inn is in an inconvenient location, so you have to plan your expeditions carefully.

There's only one magic spell: by hitting the ESC key, you can turn into a bird for a few turns and flutter away at twice your normal movement speed. It's useful for escaping in a jam.

The enemies are original to the game. There are about a dozen of them, and some have special attacks, defenses, and AI. For instance, "electric moths" are the only enemies capable of attacking you on the diagonal; "coldcrystals" do very little damage but have a very high number of hit points; "invisoids" are invisible, and you can only return their attacks by testing random squares. There are mimics who look like treasure chests. Perhaps the most annoying enemies of all are the evil wizards, who zap you with lightning bolts from afar and backpedal away when you approach them.

I've got him cornered now!

Both monsters and chests respawn, but the game seems to prohibit this until you're a few screens away. I never had anything respawn on the active screen.

Plotting a successful mission is very much about luring enemies into favorable terrain, using walls and treasure chests as blockades, and trying wherever possible to get them into a situation where you can hit them on the diagonal but they can't hit you. (This is, in fact, a nice inversion of what we see in the early Ultima games, where the monsters can attack you diagonally but not the other way around.)

As long as I don't pick up that chest, they can't hit me. I just need to lure them to that little corner one-by-one.

Perhaps the most admirable innovation in Freitag is the three approaches to the map interface. Switching among them is as simple as hitting the numbers 1, 2, and 3 on the keyboard. The first interface simply shows you yourself, treasure chests, and enemies as icons. It's the one you've seen multiple times above.

The second interface shows your character sheet, with a small area map in the upper right corner. Monsters are cued as letters, much as in a roguelike game.

The third interface is the large-scale map. Here, you can only see yourself and healers, but it gives you a much stronger sense of the terrain of the surrounding dungeon. You can move in all three interfaces and attack in the first two.

Note the lower-right.

Once you hit Level 5 or so, it becomes pretty easy to stay alive as long as you don't mind retreating to the inn when your hit points drop; this can be a long and boring process since the mazes are so twisty. Freitag himself isn't so hard; the difficulty, rather, is getting all the way to his lair without other enemies depleting your hit points. Random "healers" appear occasionally, but you have to chase them down and corner them to move into their squares and have some of your hit points restored.

Timing my movement to avoid his breath.

Freitag is a large, unmoving creature--called, for some reason, a "dwagon"--who breathes flames every three turns, so you have to carefully plot your movement during your approach. Once you're next to him, he hits pretty hard, but I managed to kill him with only half my hit points lost. He flashes a couple of times when he dies and then just disappears. You get elevated to a new rank of "Dragon Slayer."

The last step is to return across the map to the inn, chased by his angry minions.

These guys aren't happy with me.

You get a little victory screen with fireworks, after which you can try again on a higher difficulty level. I think the difficulty only affects the type and number of monsters that appear. At lower levels, you get more serpents and moths; at higher levels, more phoenixes and wizards.

As this description indicates, Freitag barely qualifies as an RPG under my rules, with some extremely limited character development, combat based on one attribute plus random rolls, and no inventory. Nonetheless, I wanted to play it for its history. It only took about two hours to figure it out and win one game (admittedly on a low difficulty level).

Shapiro did an AMA on Reddit last year and talked a little about the origins of this game:

Back in 1982, a typical way into the field was to make an entire game all by yourself--programming, art, animation, writing, sound, music, game design, everything. Then put it on a 5 1/4" floppy disk and mail it to one or more publishers and get a publishing deal. That's what I did, with Muse software, publishers of Castle Wolfenstein.

It was a strange choice for MUSE, since they never published any other RPGs. (The company went out of business in 1986.) This is Shapiro's last credited game before the Origin titles in the late 1980s. His stint at Origin wasn't very long--five or six years--and according to his AMA, for the last 20 years he's been working on MMORPGs, particularly one called Furcadia, which has been online since 1996.

Freitag is a minor title, even for 1982, and it only earns a 15 on my GIMLET scale. Its economy, creatures, interface, and quick gameplay are worth a few points. I think it's impressive what Shapiro was able to accomplish as a young developer working alone, but I'm glad we're in an era in which the success of Wizardry started producing CRPGs of greater depth and complexity.
Edit: A commenter below linked this article that directly ties Freitag to the Japanese Dragon Slayer, which became the basis for the Japanese action RPG sub-genre. Freitag thus left a greater legacy than I hinted in this entry.


In list news, we've had a bit of a massacre this week. After some investigation, I've rejected the following titles as RPGs:

  • Crypt of the Undead (1982). I read the manual and watched a gameplay video on youtube. It appears to be a timed action game. Hit points alone don't make an RPG.
  • Xenomorph (1990): I couldn't find any evidence of character development, and combat seems to be based solely on weapons. It feels like more of a proto-first-person-shooter.
  • Battle Master (1990): This one was always iffy from the start. Only GameFAQs classified it as an RPG, and when GameFAQs conflicts with MobyGames, it's usually the latter that turns out to be correct. I played it a little; it's a squad-based strategy game.
  • Dungeon! (1982): I can't find any evidence that this game actually exists. It was supposedly published by TSR in 1982, perhaps based on their long-running board game, but I can't find any links to it, and it doesn't show up on lists of TSR games.
  • Cadaver (1990): Appears to be an action-adventure game with a thief protagonist in which the main gameplay element is box-stacking puzzles. Might be fun, but not an RPG. MobyGames used to list it as such but has since rescinded.

I've listed them all as "rejected" on my master, but I'll reconsider them if anyone wants to make a strong case for their RPG-ness. Just keep in mind my three criteria: character leveling/development, combat based at least partly on character attributes, and an inventory that's not simply about puzzle-solving.


  1. I often forget how much sophistication the modern era has brought to pathfinding.

    Is this the same Skyrim that allows players to burglarize stores in front of shopkeepers as long as the players carefully place cauldrons over the shopkeepers' heads first?

    1. Consider what you just said. Skyrim is a game that allows you to steal things by covering the _eyes_ of the items' owner. I think that's pretty impressive.

    2. It would be more impressive if the items' owners actually reacted to you dumping an iron cauldron over their head.

    3. Absolutely, but isn't it great that you can cover the part of the character mesh that's wrapped in the part of the texture that looks like the NPC's eyes, and the game takes away the character's ability to see? Maybe I'm easily impressed, but to me, that's great attention to detail.

    4. I see it in the opposite way. It's a poorly implemented mechanic that has the nasty side-effect of letting the player steal from the entire world with no repercussions at all.

      It could be the most amazing thing, but when it breaks the game it comes off as cheap and stupid. Skyrim is full of great ideas with poor implementation...which is pretty much my opinion of the game overall.

      Maybe I'm being too critical.

    5. So would you prefer that they would still be able to catch you stealing even with their buckets on? ;)))

    6. It might be a good idea to do a ray cast from the shopkeeper's eye to the item you try to steal. But it is really stupid not to check if the shopkeeper's head is covered. It is so bad that I would just remove that ray cast and assume that the shopkeeper can always see you.

    7. I was talking about pathfinding, which is entirely different from the ability of NPCs to see the player. I agree with Daniel: such detailed line-of-sight is impressive in itself. There are so many innovative things going on with that engine that you can't fault the developers for not thinking through every potential interaction.

      If the HAD anticipated it, how would they have done it? There would have had to have been some physics rule that NPCs react with hostility to either a) being touched with an object; or b) a blocked line-of-sight. Either way, players would be howling with frustration every time they accidentally knocked a cheese wheel into a jarl.

      It's hardly a game-breaking mechanic anyway. Until fairly late in the game, you have extremely limited options for selling all the loot you might steal from a shopkeeper's store, and anyway you find enough loot and money in the regular course of adventuring that you hardly need to steal. I'm much more bothered by how easy it is to get rich, and how rarely you ever need to buy anything, than whether the shopkeeper reacts to my putting something on his head.

    8. The moments that I enjoy most in games come when I think up with a novel solution to a problem based on my understanding of the game world and the game's engine rewards me for it.

      If it had occurred to me that I might be able to cover the eyes of a shopkeeper and loot his/her store - and it worked, I would have been ecstatic. It didn't occur to me precisely because most programmers in most RPGs do exactly what the anonymous commenter above said: just assume the shopkeeper can always see.

      If I had thought to cover the shopkeeper's head with a bucket, and the shopkeeper reacted normally to thefts, I would have been disappointed, but not surprised. Instead, when I saw the bucket trick on youtube, I laughed for a few minutes and then started up Skyrim to see what else was waiting to be discovered.

    9. Its because you are bucketheadborn, a legendary figure who can put buckets on people's heads without them complaining or being able to take the bucket off.

    10. Think about it from the shopkeeper's point of view. The legendary Dragonborn comes into the shop wearing Daedric gauntlets, dragonscale armor, and the mask of one of the dragon priests. He puts a bucket on your head. Are you going to take it off?

    11. That scenario should find its way into one of the books in the next Elder Scrolls RPG!

  2. There is a warrior in Ultima 6 who is said to have slain a dragon named Freitag. Interesting to know this is where that originates.

    Regarding Cadaver, it does have RPG elements, but very light ones. Your maximum health increases after completing a level. There is an experience statistic which increases with killing monsters and solving puzzles, but that appears to be purely a score tallying mechanism.

  3. I'm obliged to note that "Freitag" is the German word for "Friday," making him one of the more lamely-named RPG enemies.

    At least you didn't encounter Robinson Crusoe.

    And now I look forward to you playing a real RPG after these almost-RPG:s.

    1. "And now I look forward to you playing a real RPG after these almost-RPG:s" - Since the next game on the list is Elvira, it won't happen just yet ;)

    2. I only briefly played elvira but I seem to recall that was an action adventure rather than a rpg but as I say I didn't really play it for long to be certain :)

    3. Oh, it fits all of Chet's criteria quite all right. It's just very simplistic mechanics-wise.

    4. I was more thinking of Angband two games down the line, but anyway. :)

    5. Dark Designs is also looking like a purist's RPG.

    6. Call me a snob, but I don't think a game with no story whatsoever counts as a "purist's RPG" :-P

    7. Well, many "old-school" gamers look down upon the newer games that tell stories with lots of cutscenes, beautiful graphics and voice-acting but without any finesse when it comes to combat. I get the feeling that It's not the story that appeals to purists, but the meager presentation and the focus on numbers.

    8. Nah, that's not RPG purists but rather roguelikes crowd ;)
      There is a kinda loosely defined "golden standard" for what elements a full-blown RPG should have, which is reflected for example in the Addict's rating system (though there are other ways to put it). And that implies both decent story and decent combat, among numerous other things.

    9. "Full-blown RPG?" What you're describing is holistic, not puristic.

    10. Being a non-native speaker it's hard for me to tell the exact difference between the two. Anyway, the thread is originally about "real RPGs" vs "almost RPGs", which calls for an inclusive definition rather than exclusive one.

  4. Did the Apple II have a dedicated pause key? If my memory serves me many older computer systems had one that would halt the clock, thus a hardware solution to bathroom breaks could have maybe been assumed?

  5. Dr.Cat has an interesting contribution to the introduction sequence for Ultima VI. And by 'interesting' I mean a poster of an 80's rockstar half-naked zebra centaur woman on a stripper pole wearing a saddle.

    Never quite understood why.

    1. Over the past four-five years, I've learned that almost everything I disliked about Ultima VI can be traced to Dr. Cat.

    2. Dr Cat apparantly is a furry hence his fetish (if you can call it that) for animal-human hybrids. If you need to Google that, feel free :)

  6. Hmm, such a rare game...
    You'll probably end up rejecting quite a few more games, especially after including the other platforms.

  7. I remember there was an NPC in Ultima VI that said he slew Freitag the dragon. Makes sense since Dr. Cat worked on both Caverns of Freitag and Ultima VI.

    1. LOL 2 people already posted about Dr. Cat and Ultima VI above me? And why was he such a bad contributor to the game?

    2. It depends on your perspective. As I'm going to discuss in my opening Ultima VI posting, the "sin" of that game is that, for some gamers, it made too many things concrete. In Ultima IV, the Avatar was plainly YOU, and your companions were generic NPCs to whom you could, in your imagination, attach any motivation or personality. Starting in Ultima VI, the Avatar became a long-haired white guy with a painting of a pole-dancing centaur in his house, and all the NPC companions developed distinct personalities--for both good and ill.

    3. Now that I think about it, I agree with Chet's analysis, but I was going to say that Ulltima 6 introduced too many internal inconsistencies. Some characters had strange and inexplicable accents, while a few retained the traditional Britannian "thees" and "thous". None of the NPCs seemed to agree on the amount of time that had passed since the series began or the basic history and lore of the world. Pop culture references and in-jokes were far too common. The scale of the world changed as well. Britannia in Ultima 5 felt like a big place with a lot of wild space between cities. In 6, you could walk from Buccaneer's Den to Britain in the city's sewers.

    4. First I will say that Ultima 6 was the first Ultima that I ever played and my favorite one, so I am probably biased.

      One of the things I didn't like about it is how they retconned Ultimas 1,2 and 3 and made it that the person who eventually became the Avatar was the stranger who appeared in those games. It was pretty explicit in the intro to Ultima 4 that you had never been to Britannia before and I thought it was even implied that the strangers from the first 3 games were 3 completely different people (Ultima 3 had 4 strangers I guess?). Though they do thematically justify the retcon by saying that you are atoning for all the raping and pillaging that you did in the first 3 games. But it is still a retcon that I don't like.

      I dont think there are too many references and jokes. I mean Ultima IV had Paul and Linda McCartney (the unofficial motto of the game "In another world, in a time to come" is from a McCartney song), Buddha, Short Round, etc. There are some in U5 as well, but it definitely is darker and more internally consistent.

      I can see how it does seem like they really start to define the Avatar as this specific Aryan-blonde dude instead of "your avatar" starting with U6. I think U6 is one of the worst Ultima covers actually. U4 is the best. One of the best videogame covers of all time. Even though the blonde guy eventually became the official Avatar I don't think that was the intention at the time. You can still be a male or female Avatar and pick your portrait. In fact included among the male portraits that you can pick are ones that match the cover guys from U4 and U5 (From the covers of U4 and 5 it's supposed to be ambiguous if the person is male or female I think). At the time I:m pretty sure the U6 cover guy was just another possible Avatar that could be, kind of like a "hero with a thousand faces" type thing. Though they did spoil it a little by showing the face.

      And I think one of the best parts of the game is how all your companions have personalities. I mean this was the first game I ever played that you can actually talk to your party members. And they say interesting things! They're not random people you conjure up out of thin air like Wizardry or any game like that, they're living breathing people part of a living breathing world that you, enter. "We create worlds" afterall. When I played U5 for the first time I spent a bit of time trying to figure out how to talk to my party members, then I realized you can't. Now you can finally see how Iolo is the Avatar's best friend. I mean they didn't say anything to each other in the last 2 games really and the only descriptions of him previously were "You see a bard" (or something like that) in U4 when you meet him, and the pic of him at the beginning of U5.

      I thought the amount of time in the series was relatively consistent. Except for maybe a few NPCs. The date was listed at the bottom of the screen in U6 and is consistent with the ones in U4 and 5. And the world did shrink a bit, but that is because the world became more developed, with bigger towns and such. There is still plenty of wilderness though.

      I'd really like to know more about Dr. Cat's specific contributions to the game. He hinted at it a little bit in his Reddit AMA but didn't go into too much detail.

    5. I'm sure you're right that Ultima 4 had more pop culture references than 6, but I think 5 and 7 probably had substantially fewer.

      What I was trying to get at was that it seemed to me as if 6 had been written in large part by people who hadn't played earlier Ultimas. You mention the huge retcon of making the Avatar the protagonist of 1-3, but there are so many others...

      Who was Zog and why are his bones in the museum? The Avatar killed hundreds of dragons, why is some guy famous for killing one? Why does the woman in the mint claim her mother saw the Avatar at a party after the codex was raised that the the Avatar could not possibly have gone to? How did Britannia suddenly acquire a whole other side when I had been cheerfully circumnavigating the globe for 3 entire games?

      The problems with 6 are mostly minor, but there are a lot of pretty major problems with it that presage the disaster that was Ultima 9.

      I guess I loved Ultima 5 because it took the world and lore established in Ultima 4 and treated them very seriously. Ultimas 4 and 5 were the first (and for a long time last) games that I played that made me think about their content in the way that I would think about a book I had read. Ultima 6 felt like kind of a slap in the face after those games. The moral dilemma at its core was trite and obvious from the very beginning. The majority of the game was an extended hunt for a pirate's treasure map. The resolution didn't bother to solve the major problem that was motivating the gargoyle invasion...

      ...And the NPC portraits are some of the worst video game art in the history of video game art. I hope Chet docks points for that.

    6. U7 had the Kilrathi ship as well as the entire population of Serpant's Hold modeled off of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though in U6 all the pirates were supposed to be executives from Electronic Arts (Hawkins = Trip Hawkins, Old Ybarra = Joe Ybarra, etc).

      Ultima V is my second favorite Ultima. I remember that I first played it years after I had played U6, U7, UW, and playing it felt just as fresh and fun as when I played U6 the first time. Origin really knows how to build a compelling world, add interesting people and quests, puzzles, etc. Ultima and Might and Magic were the two games that really did this "scavenger hunt" style gameplay well. I.e. you travel around the world picking up random clues until you find the places you can use the clues or people to talk to.

      U7 would be my 3rd favorite Ultima. I like it less than the others because they went back to the "kill the baddie" plot which is basically every RPG. U4 would be 4th or maybe even tied with U7, since it is really primitive, especially Britannia. But it is still an amazing concept and no game even to this day has really attempted such a thing.

      Though it would've been cool for an alternate evil ending to U6 where you slaughter all the gargoyles and win the game via genocide. I wonder if some players actually tried that.

      I see what you mean by all those lore inconsistencies. One of the best things about the Ultima series is the lore. But it was my first Ultima so I never noticed it. Also, I bought the book "Ultima: The Avatar Adventures" which is walkthroughs for Ultimas 4-6 done like novelizations. That really made Britannia seem like a living, breathing place. I highly recommend that book, though assuming you are an adult now you might not find it as deep or engrossing as I did when I was 12.

      And the U6 portraits are AWESOME!!!

    7. @Daniel -
      Q1. Who was Zog and why are his bones in the museum?
      A1. You'd have to watch Dr. Who to get that pop-culture reference.
      Q2. The Avatar killed hundreds of dragons, why is some guy famous for killing one?
      A2. Because the Avatar is not just famous. He/she is worshipped like a living god while that guy is just known as a dragonslayer who took out a dragon by himself.
      Q3. Why does the woman in the mint claim her mother saw the Avatar at a party after the codex was raised that the the Avatar could not possibly have gone to?
      A3. The Avatar NEVER went to that party.
      Q4. How did Britannia suddenly acquire a whole other side when I had been cheerfully circumnavigating the globe for 3 entire games?
      A4. I think you are talking about the Ethereal Void (, no? It had always been there but its presence expanded after the fall of the Shadowlords (who were all able to manipulate it, if you recall their battle scenes) as the Void spun out of control from the sudden and vacuuming loss of the counterbalancing forces of Hatred, Falsehood and Cowardice.
      This is why, in U6, the theme of the game was about balance and acceptance (that there are two sides to every coin- symbolized as the Codex Coin, two races in Britannia, and exists both an over & underworld).

    8. Q1: Never watched Dr. Who, but a friend told me it was a reference - and that bugs me. I feel like references in fiction to other, non-related fictional worlds should be done with a bit more subtlety.

      Q2: In Ultima lore, dragons are dangerous monsters, but not the caliber of creature that would create a hero out of its slayer. Dragons infested Destard, which was supposedly a proving grounds of sorts for fighters.

      Q3: My point exactly!

      Q4: In U6, I think you can float the balloon over the void and land in Gargoyle World. IIRC, this meshes with what NPCs say and explains how you can descend into a dungeon and come out in Gargoyle World - their world is the other side of Britannia.

      I don't remember anything about the void spinning out of control, but I haven't touched U6 in probably a decade. As I recall, the Gargoyle World was destroying itself because the underworld had collapsed because British was rescued from Doom (whatever hell sense that makes...).

      I think the Codex Coin was the tchotchke for Ultima 5, not 6. Six came with a glass moonstone, didn't it? The idea of good intentions have unpleasant consequences really fits 5 better than 6. I think you're projecting backwards: the whole "imbalance destroys the world" thing didn't come into the series until U7 part 2.

      In any case, I think I've been too hard on 6. I'll give it another shot. My undying love for 5 probably came from the fact that it was my first Ultima (*sniff*) and I didn't play a game that I could say was more intelligent until Planescape: Torment.

    9. You guys are totally stealing all my thunder from my Ultima VI post series.

    10. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Your first Ultima was V and mine was VI. Great games, great series. That's all I'll say.

      Chet, when are you doing U6? It was next on your list before you added a bunch of other games.

    11. My first Ultima was III, so I was spared from playing a space-fighter arcade game as we couldn't afford a PC prior to the early 80s.

      @Daniel - Okay, I guess we'll have to bring this over to Chet's U6 postings on a later date else it escalates further. I'll just briefly flesh out my answer for Q3: "Her momma lied." XD

    12. Oh goody, we're talking about Ultima. I've played U1, U3, and U7 (the best). I somehow skipped U2, even though we had it, and then lost the series until the seventh installment. Had the first Ultima Underwold as well, but never got very far. I'm starting U4 up on console this weekend. We'll see how that goes.

    13. Ok, we pause for a few months while we wait for 6. It's telling how amazing the series is though that it inspires such passion in people more than 20 years after its last good installment was released.

    14. I was kidding. Talk all you want, but when my first U6 posting repeats half the stuff in this thread, don't think I plagiarized it. I already have it half-written.

      Steve, I don't know. I've basically been plucking a random game when a slot comes up on the list. This process has had the effect of delaying games that I know I'll like, which is a good thing. It helps ensure that the end of the year isn't a bunch of wading through garbage.

  8. Funny thing, for a moment I though the David Shapiro in question was this one and went all wtf ;)))

  9. Love what you are doing with this blog. Reading through it has brought back so many memories of my childhood. Growing up as a kid I had a c64, so all of my games came from this system. Now as I go and start to look for these games to play myself I am finding that most of them come in DOS based systems.

    If I have a game in both systems, say Ultima 5, which is better DOS or C64? I have the game from GOG and it runs in DOS box, but I am wondering if there is a noticeable difference in the game based on the system.

    You have mentioned several games that suffered in DOS but that was compared to the Amiga version I think.

    Another total random thought, what are the odds of playing a game out of order? Now that you have added c64 games to your list there is a game that I have memories of playing that I would love to see you take on. Deathlord. 1987 I think based on your list. It looks like Ultima but based on feudal Japan.

    Anyways, thanks again for the blog. I love your take on games and writing style. I look forward to each new entry.

    1. Very early games (pre-1988 or so) almost always looked much better on the C64 because PC games were largely targeted at CGA graphics. C64 also had much better sound. There were a few early PC games that used Tandy graphics (16 colors) that could be comparable or sharper than the C64. After this time frame you see more PC games using more graphics modes and support for PC sound cards.

      But almost all PC games had much faster disk access, support for hard drives, etc. that the C64 did not. For example, I played Pool of Radiance on both my C64 and my friend's PC XT and the graphics were very limited on the PC XT, but my goodness did the game and game areas load faster!

      Once PCs games started supporting EGA and VGA graphics they surpassed most all competitors (I had an Amiga in my teen years so there were some exceptions).

      So yes there are definite differences.

    2. So, if I wanted to go back and play Pool of radiance, it would be best to download and use a c64 emu? In this day and age of dos box, would you even notice a slower load time?

    3. Personally I would play it on an amiga emu instead, better than either pc or c64 of the times :) I'm not sure when Pcs caught up with c64s but they lagged behind amigas until they shook off the horrible combo of CGA and pc speaker. The game will lag on saving/loading via an amiga emulator, whilst playing the pc version via dosbox you won't have any lag (some messages may actually be too fast).

    4. Bulldawg, you can compare the graphics of each version here:

      And Boroth is correct, the best looking version was indeed on the Amiga.

    5. To me, superior graphics and sound are outweighed by the stability that DOS provides, the ability to inspect the individual files without some special utility, and just understanding the OS overall. Despite everyone trying to get me to do otherwise, I will almost always play the DOS version if one exists.

      Then again, graphics and sound (particularly music) don't mean as much to me as they do to most gamers.

    6. Jason, thanks for your kind comment, and to answer your original question: things are confusing enough where I'm going in chronological order off two separate lists. I probably won't be jumping around in my chronology at all.

    7. Thank you for taking the time to reply, I do appreciate your incite and advise. I knew the Death lord thing was a long shot, I am just glad it made it on to your updated list.

      Let me know if for some God forsaken reason you end up in Wichita KS, I will buy you some gimlets to help drown out the memory of your visit.

  10. Dungeon! was probably a mistake as the only TSR-sanctioned video games of the early eighties were Cloudy Mountain and Treasure of Tarmin.

    I beat Tarmin at my best friend's house as a kid and it certainly was a blast, though lacking a lot of RPG conventions (no quests, no NPCs, etc.) There were some interesting touches regarding gates and treasure chests that made it a lot fun.

    Playing it today is more a testament to what programmers could accomplish with the meager resources of the Intellivision - 1.5K of RAM and 8K of ROM.

  11. Actually, TSR developed and published both Dungeon! and Theseus and the Minotaur for the Apple II. They're real, live games, albeit that go for high prices among collectors. They were the usual zip loc bag-style games of the time, with the typical beautiful TSR cover work. The only other TSR computer game (albeit licensed) prior to the Gold Box games was Treasure of Tarmin for the Mattel Aquarius, which Mattel also released for the Intellivision. All other TSR licensed games were for the Intellivision or LCD handhelds (again, by Mattel). Anyway, Dungeon! is based on the board game, and Theseus and the Minotaur is a maze game. (I'm basically repeating a footnote I inserted in my upcoming book, Vintage Game Consoles, so believe me, I've researched this--those two early TSR games are fairly poor)

    1. Correction, I misremembered. These came in traditional boxes. See here: and here:

    2. Ah... Dungeon!... I fondly remember being slain by Purple Worms as my fellow adventurers pillaged and teabagged my corpse.

  12. I haven't played the computer versions of Battle Master/Battlemaster, but the Sega Genesis version (which I think is similar) is right on the edge. I believe it passes criteria #2 and #3, but #1 is a harder sell. It's somewhere between an action RPG and a RTS, I guess, with henchmen so willfully uncontrollable it's almost impossible to get them to reliably do anything.

    (This isn't meant to be a "strong case" for the game, but I am slightly surprised it didn't make the cut. OTOH I don't think it's very much fun, or at least the port I've played isn't.)

  13. I remember playing Freitag for a bit on my Apple II.

    Crypt of the Undead has a bit of an interesting history. It certainly isn't an RPG, it's more of an adventure game with a few rpg elements. It was written by Marc Benioff, who is now better known as the CEO of Salesforce (a very large tech company).

    Benioff wrote a series of similar games, all written in Basic - Escape from Vulcan's Isle, King Arther's Heir, the Nightmare (I played and finished this one - it was terrible). He also wrote a number of games for Crystalware, a game company which was known for publishing horrible games, many of which could not be completed due to bugs.

  14. Chet - just emailed you the Apple disk image for Dungeon.

  15. Okay, everyone. My Googling skills have apparently degraded as quickly as my proofreading skills. I was 100% sure I had searched both the Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History and the Asimov site for any mention of "Dungeon!," but somehow I missed it on both. I'll re-add it to the list and take a look.

  16. Chet, i'm sure you are already tired of these kind of advices, but you should try to play the Amiga version of Elvira. The much better music and sound make all the difference.

    1. They don't make all the difference to me. I've never played a bad game that I thought would be good with better graphics and sound, and I've never played a good game that I thought would be bad with reduced graphics and sound. In any event, the graphics and sound in the DOS version seem good enough.

  17. >> Freitag is a large, unmoving creature--called, for some reason, a "dwagon"

    ...And now I'm imagining that this game helped inspire Erfworld somehow. :P

  18. This game does look a bit similar to Dragon Slayer. They both share the concept of a little guy bumping into monsters, as well as the idea that establishing an inn in the middle of a dungeon is a lucrative business opportunity. I wonder if there's a connenction? Yoshio Kiya was familiar RPGs developed for the Apple II at the time, though he never mentioned having played this one.

    1. I came here specifically to see whether anybody had made this connection after reading this article:

      Seems like it was a direct influence.

    2. Thanks for sharing that. I missed the opportunity to "scoop" this one because I played the two games far appart, and thus didn't have Freitag on my mind when playing Dragon Slayer. The fact that you become a "Dragon Slayer" in CoF should have been an obvious link.

    3. Just checking in to verify the link had been made, in wake of the article, but I should never have underestimated the rigor of the Addict and his audience!

  19. You may already know this, but in case you didn't, I stumbled across a review of Caverns of Freitag in the August 1983 issue of Electronic Games Magazine.

    Also, the U6 NPC portraits were great. Ahem.

    Arnie Katz writes: "Caverns of Freitag makes excellent use of elements from a variety of gaming genres, including the action adventure and maze-chase. It has a surprisingly decent excitement level while providing the player with a definite, singular goal to attain. So let's gather around the battered oaken table of the inn and raise a toast to David Shapiro, the designer who has brought one more mighty dragon to heel."

  20. You can find a complete disassembly of the game here:

    The commentary includes a full map, monster list, and explanations of various game mechanics. For example, skill level affects more than monsters: setting the level to 8 or 9 blocks a couple of passages near the Inn. You can also see the monster graphics that didn't make it into the game (see SKETCHZ).

  21. Pointless trivia, but the algorithm most games use today (with varying amounts of bells and whistles tacked on) is called A* (pronounced "ay star") and it was first published in 1968. It's very versatile, but would have been quite memory-intensive in the 80s and even 90s, hence why most enemies seem a bit brain-dead in regards to obstacles.

    1. Not pointless at all. This is an area of programming that really interests me. I was just playing Assassin's Creed: Odyssey trying to figure out any logic to the enemies' search patterns when you're in hiding.

    2. Yeah, pathfinding stuff is really interesting. I implemented a rudimentary A* algo to help with NPC schedules in a retro RPG I'm working on. (The unvarnished version has some problems, like there is a lot of road-hugging and road avoidance when NPCs pick the shortest possible path.)

      I still wonder exactly how the schedules in U5 were implemented. The paths from one location to another seem to be hard-scripted, but you also have to account for the fact that the NPC's starting square is not always going to be the same, because they are doing a random walk while they are in the same location. My best guess is that some kind of pathfinding gets them to a 'start' square and then they do a scripted path to the next location. Purely naive homing wouldn't be good enough even for that, because the NPC could get stuck on furniture.

      The pathfinding on world monsters in the Ultimas (at least through V) seems to have been pretty simple. I'm not sure any of them ever developed the capacity to walk around an obstruction to get to you. I think they were smarter in the combat mode screens, though. In fact, introducing all that terrain in combat mode in Ultima IV may have introduced some new pathfinding challenges.

    3. The environments in U5 are small enough that they could possibly get away with using Dijkstra's algorithm, especially if your theory about pre-scripted paths is true.

    4. Incidentally, I meant to say 'wall-hugging' above, not 'road-hugging.' Rough edges aside, it's quite fun to watch your NPCs tool off to their next destination when the right hour comes along.

    5. If they were VERY clever, instead of random movement, they could have used a movement algorithm of some sort that *looks* random, but would always return them to the same position at the same time each day. That would save them the space of having both pathfinding and random movement code.

      A simple example: At the start of each hour move 1 N, then 2 S, then 1 E, then 2 W, then 1 E, then 1 N.

      Looks random, but you end up back where you started. But in a randomizer on which direction you start with, and which order the moves in, and start the move between locations after it ends, and you saved yourself the work of pathfinding. (and of course, there are many much more fancy algorithms that would do the same thing rather then hardcoding a series of steps.)


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