Friday, July 25, 2014

Ring of Darkness: Won! (With Final Rating)

Becoming the bearer of the Ring of Darkness doesn't exactly feel like "winning."

The Ring of Darkness
United Kingdom
Wintersoft (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for Dragon 32, 1983 for ZX Spectrum, 1985 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 19 July 2014
Date Ended: 22 July 2014
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 55/151 (36%)
Ranking at Game #403: 183/403 (45%)

I ended the last post wondering whether Ring of Darkness had an original bone in its body. It turns out that it really doesn't. It lifted almost everything from Ultima, including the basic plot outline, the names of most of its monsters, the types of equipment, and just its overall ideas of how such a game should work. It is an RPG made by people who seem to have played only one other RPG, and didn't realize that its quirks were specific to that game, and not universal conventions of the genre.

Ring of Darkness takes place in four main chapters, all of which have direct mirrors in Ultima. In the first, you're just trying to get your character competent, stocked with food, and capable of withstanding more than a few minutes in the wilderness. In the second, you do a series of quests for regional kings, some involving visiting signposts and similar special locations, some involving killing specific monsters in the dungeons. Four of the kings reward you with rings of silver, bronze, gold, and copper--direct analogues of the colored gems you receive from the Ultima kings.

Ultimately--and I found this out only through trial and error--you have to descend to the 10th level of one of the dungeons and slay a "gorn," at which point your class changes to "gorn-slayer"--this game's analog to achieving the "space ace" credential in Ultima.  In the third act, just as in Ultima, you kill the hapless jester for his key, slay all the guards that attack you in consequence, and rescue Princess Xandra from her cell. (Just like in Ultima, the same princess is present in all cities.) Instead of giving you a time machine, she directs you to a special dungeon called "Xandra's Quest."

Leading Princess Xandra out of her cell.

There, where Ultima had you battle Mondain, losing almost all your hit points, before you could approach his gem, Ring of Darkness has you battle "Gron," a servant of the "Evil One," before you can get past him and take Shedir, the One Ring.

I teach classes for a couple of universities, and I often catch my students plagiarizing from their sources by copying text directly but using a thesaurus to change a few words here and there to avoid exact phrase-matching in Google or TurnItIn. This game does something similar with its monster list. Ultima's gelatinous cube becomes a "jelly cube"; an invisible seeker becomes an "invisible slayer" (with a separate "seeker" monster type, no less); a balron becomes a balrog and a zorn a "gorn." But the developers didn't even bother to find alternate names for some of the others, like the "tangler" and the gremlin who steals a bunch of your food with each successful attack.

Aside from its blatant plagiarism, Ring of Darkness does do its job by serving a basic, primal CRPG need: fight monsters, improve the character, amass gold, buy better equipment, fight more monsters. As you increase in levels, better equipment becomes available at shops. (I can't remember if Ultima did this, or if the equipment was entirely dependent on geography and gold.) Again, just like in Ultima, the best armor was a "reflection suit" and the best weapon was a "blaster," though we went past a "light sword" on the way. In transportation terms, a high level results in the ability to buy a "hovercraft," although Ring of Darkness's doesn't come with lasers.

Let's look at a few quirks specific to this game:

  • The entire game has exactly one dungeon level map. The 24 x 19 map is used for all levels of all dungeons. The locations of secret doors and traps remain unchanged. The only things that change are the locations of up and down ladders and randomly-placed barriers.

The only dungeon map you'll ever need.

  • The game offers some additional spells that Ultima doesn't have, and without exception I never found a single use for them. This includes "Bridge," "Remove," and "Create." Since spells only work in dungeons, I cannot for the life of me figure out what "Bridge" would have done. Throughout the game, I only used "Up Ladder" and "Down Ladder" to make dungeon navigation easier.
  • Some enemies, including all sea creatures and "hidden archers," can only be damaged by ranged weapons, which you don't get until you reach Level 4.
  • Wilderness encounters are useless throughout the entire game. In the early stages, they're too deadly; in the latter ones, they take up too much time for too little reward. The game has a moronically simple method for determining how many enemies you face in each "stack"--either one, or once, twice, or three times your current level. When I hit Level 10, I would either meet 1, 10, 20, or 30 "evil rangers" in a single stack. Spending 30 moves killing an entire stack one-by-one would have been an absurd waste of time, and you spend most of the game brushing by wilderness encounters like annoying gnats.

Taking time to kill 13 bandits is more trouble than it's worth.

  • Trying to open a chest in a dungeon (they start to show up on Level 2) has a chance of generating a monster appropriate to the level.
  • The "transport" shops in towns, which are oddly labeled "smith," offer an option for selling equipment but then bark at you that they don't buy second-hand mules and such. Why offer it, then?
  • Throughout the entire game, despite using it everywhere I could think of, I found no function for the (S)teal command.

I spent an insane amount of time on the game. For a while, I couldn't figure out how to get to some key locations I could see on the other sides of mountains (it turns out you have to buy a hovercraft and fly it down a particular river pass). In desperation, I actually tried mapping the game. Have you ever tried mapping a tile-based iconographic game? I discovered it was something like 84 x 110 in size, but I kept missing tiles and screwing up the proportions, so eventually I abandoned it.

A partial, but mistake-ridden, world map.

Character development throughout the game is mostly through the accumulation of hit points. In the last post, I said that delving dungeons rarely rewards you with more hit points than you lose fighting monsters. This is true in the early game, but as you get better equipment, you can often come out ahead. This is good, because you can only spend a maximum of 50 gold pieces per transaction with the kings, netting you 125 hit points each, or about one-fifth of the amount of damage done in a single attack by a balrog. It really is extremely annoying to stand in front of the king and type (T)ransact, (G)old, and "50" hundreds of times in a row.

Hit points are awarded upon leaving dungeons based on the number and level of enemies you killed.

Eventually, you get to the point where you get tens of thousands of hit points (from a starting 250) and can delve to the bottoms of dungeons and shrug off attacks from balrogs, gorns, and other fearsome creatures, including a "mind reaper" who does direct and (as far as I can tell) irrecoverable damage to your intelligence.

As I said, the game comes to an end after you perform the quests for the four kings that give you rings, descend to Level 10 of any of the dungeons and kill a gorn, thus becoming a "gorn slayer," and then rescue the princess from one of the castles. She tells you to go to the special dungeon, Xandra's Quest. Earlier in the game, this is just a regular dungeon, but if you visit after hearing from the princess, you get a special cut screen where you unlock it with the four rings. This is a direct parallel to a screen in Ultima where you put the four gems into the time machine.

You then get a bit of text:

Five hundred years ago the Evil Sage called forth the Darkling Ring. T'was then the Wizards forged the Four to seal it from the minds of men. Five hundred years has darkness slept in is tomb of stone. Yet now strange forces come to play . . . and SHEDIR stirs again.

You must enter the Gate of Mist. A sense of evil and foreboding surrounds you. Then the mists begin to clear . . . 

You're taken to a chamber with the ring on a pedestal on the far side. An evil minion of the Dark One called Gron leaps to his feet and intercepts you as you try to reach it.

Mondain tries to stop me from reaching his gem.

Gron is a tough customer. At the beginning of the battle, he does over 1,000 hit points damage per hit and you do less than 100 to him. Spells only make him stronger, so you need to fight in melee combat. As the battle wears on--dozens of (A)ttacks--the ratios slowly even out, then reverse, and finally he falls to the ground , and the game says, "Gron is DEAD!! Or is he??"

Well, of course he isn't. He springs back to life immediately, and you have to kill him again. You have to kill him about eight times before he stays down long enough for you to maneuver around him to the ring and (G)et it.

Even then, the game isn't done screwing with you. You get a message that "AHHHHG! It's HOT!" and half your remaining hit points burn away. This happens several times before, just when you're on the brink of death, the game allows you to take the ring and the end-game screens appear.

The penultimate screen has you telepathically contacted by the "people of Ringworld" who charge you with returning the ring to their planet "from whence it was taken by the Evil One," promising that this story will be told in Ring of Darkness Part 2. This game was made in 1984; it's titled Return of the Ring, and it wasn't on my master list until now. Judging from screenshots, it's a text adventure rather than an Ultima-style RPG, but I'll check it out to see if it has RPG elements.

In its last act, the game manages to draw from Tolkien and Larry Niven as well as Richard Garriott.

As I mentioned in my first post, if I was a young RPG player in the U.K. in the early 1980s, computer stores bereft of any offerings for my platforms, I would have greeted Ring of Darkness like the holy grail. Even in 2014, aside from occasional moments in which my mouth was agape at its blatant thefts from Richard Garriott, I didn't hate it. It offers just enough character development to give you an occasional shot in the arm, and by not making you go into outer space and fight TIE fighters (I assume the developers didn't know how to program it or couldn't fit it), it actually has a more sensible plot than Ultima. In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 3 points for a bare-bones game world.
  • 3 points for a character creation and development process that offers a few options and does make your character feel notably stronger as time passes, though the different "classes" don't seem to have any point (again, something it shares with Ultima).

My main character, late in the game. Some kind of mind reaper has irreversibly drained my intelligence.
  • 1 point for extremely limited NPC interaction with kings, the jester, and the princess.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The various creatures, most stolen from Ultima, are distinguishable mostly by how hard they hit. Some of them have special attacks: jelly cubes dissolve armor, gremlins steal food, and mind reapers drain intelligence.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. The "purchased spells" magic system is nothing new, and combat offers few tactics, though once you have a ranged weapon, you can try to use chests and pits to your advantage, as enemies won't cross either.

Keeping an object or pit between you and the enemy is really the only "tactic." Unfortunately, there aren't many such objects.

  • 2 points for equipment, including transportation options.
  • 3 points for an economy that's vital in the first third, but you soon amass much more gold than you need. Having the king only accept donations in 50-gold-piece increments really puts a damper on what you can do with 20,000 gold pieces.
  • 3 points for having a main quest with steps the player (in part) has to puzzle out.

Solving part of the main quest by killing a jelly cube.

  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The sound actually isn't bad for 1982, the graphics serviceable. The keyboard mostly makes sense except for the QWOP movement keys, though I got used to them surprisingly fast.
  • 4 points for gameplay, which is open, mostly non-linear, challenging without being too frustrating, and over before long. I wouldn't call it "replayable" in any way.

That gives us a final score of 25, not bad at all for the year, though still under-performing Ultima by 9 points.

At no time in the game does this happen.

Do I subtract points for being such an obvious (but unlicensed) copy of Ultima? I guess not. I've never docked points for such a reason. I'm just a little surprised that no other reviewer has noted it. Dragon 32 and ZX Spectrum reviews of the time were generally positive (links to samples) but don't say a word about Ultima; in fact, the only suggestion I've found that anyone noticed the connection is an incredulous Reddit poster. I suppose the easy answer is that Ultima didn't make it to European PCs until long after Ring of Darkness was published, and the game just never gained enough traction for anyone to remember it years later.

There was some discussion on my last post about whether the developers directly copied the Ultima source code. Without knowing much about programming, and how the code might translate from the Apple II to the Dragon 32, my guess is they didn't. I'm certain they played it. I suspect they had, or had access to, an Apple II and continually referenced the game as they developed Ring of Darkness. But I also suspect they wrote their own code rather than directly copy Ultima's. Things work just differently enough in Rings to suggest they were working around things they didn't otherwise know how to program.

Since I've tossed around words like "ripoff" and "copy" and "plagiarism," though, I want to make it clear that we don't really know what happened. This is still in the Dark Ages of RPGs. For all we know, Humphreys and Briskham got permission from Richard Garriott to use Ultima. Perhaps they licensed the "look and feel," just like Questron would famously do in 1984. The developers certainly did something unimaginative, but unless we hear from either them or Garriott, we don't know whether they committed a tort.

Wintersoft was located in Enfield, Middlesex, founded by John F. Humphreys and David A. Briskham, both credited as the developers of Ring of Darkness. I can only find evidence of four games from the company: Ring of Darkness (1982), Return of the Ring (1984), Operation Gremlin (1984), and Juxtaposition: Barons of Ceti V (1985). MobyGames doesn't have any of them. Judging by screenshots, it's possible that all of the latter three are pure text adventures, which makes Ring of Darkness the odd one out.

I made an effort to locate both Humphreys and Briskham, but their names are more common than you might expect, and I couldn't trace any of the potential matches back to Wintersoft. It's probably for the best: it would have been an uncomfortable conversation.

Let's see if we can finish Quest for Glory II and a couple others before the end of the month.


  1. Did you try casting bridge over the pits in the dungeons, or does remove get rid of them?

    1. No, I wasn't clear about the pits. They're only dangerous if you can't see them. Once you use (I)nform and Search to find them, you can just walk right over them (if you want to descend, you use (K)limb), so there wouldn't be any need for a spell.

  2. "Let's see if we can finish Quest for Glory II and a couple others before the end of the month."

    I noticed that Captive is next on your list, and that reminds me...
    Play the Amiga version. It's the original, and the PC port is broken in many ways. For instance, the XP gain is broken, which makes the PC version far harder than it's supposed to be.

    1. It's not your fault, so this isn't directed at you, but I'm really sick of hearing that the DOS version of every game in the early 1990s is screwed up.

      If that's the case, then I'll look for the Atari ST version.

    2. In this time period, the Amiga was king. Not much to be done about it. DOS didn't hit its stride until 1993-95. IMO that was the golden age. Most PC users had Hercules cards in '91. An EGA card was a luxury.

    3. Captive is interesting.

      You should be fine with the Atari ST.

    4. A few quick non-spoilery notes about Captive to pre-emptively reduce frustration/confusion:

      - You can try to push walls by right-clicking on a movement button. You need this information to progress past the first ten seconds of the game, and IIRC the manual didn't communicate this fact very well.

      - In order to land on a planet, you need to click on the tiny dot (island). Clicking on the planet itself lands you into the ocean.

      - Write down front door's code. You will need it on the way out.

      - Captive has a non-random character creation that's AFAIK unique: your stats are calculated from the character's name by some algorithm. The same name will always give you the same stats.

    5. Also one weird thing about Captive that you may find useful with your impaired color vision is that the game allows you to edit its color palette in the option screen. I recall the graphics being quite garish in places, so if you have a hard time seeing something you may want to tinker with that and see if it helps.

    6. "In this time period, the Amiga was king. Not much to be done about it. DOS didn't hit its stride until 1993-95. IMO that was the golden age. Most PC users had Hercules cards in '91. An EGA card was a luxury."

      What country were you living in? I don't mean that as an insult, just curious, because in America, the Amiga was never king, just sort of an also ran (in terms of popularity, I mean, not capabilities). By 91, EGA was already falling out of favor and VGA starting to take over (our first PC, a low range Packard Bell, was bought in 91, and it had VGA, as did all the other machines we saw in stores while shopping around). And Hercules was never particularly popular here. In 91 if you didn't have EGA or VGA you probably had an old CGA clunker or maybe MCGA if you had an actual IBM. But it certainly could have been differently elsewhere in the world. I believe the Amiga was much more successful overseas.

    7. Europe = Amiga/ST were kings (C-64 before them), PC was for business use only and nonexistent from gaming perspective until 1992 or so (and advent of Soundblaster and cheap VGA cards)
      USA = PC used for games from start, Amiga/ST almost nonexistent
      Japan = All of the above nonexistent, MSX is everything

      That's it in a nutshell.
      Source: I was there.

    8. I have to disagree with the Europe part. There are many different countries in Europe and at least in Spain the king was the Spectrum, there werr some Amstrad CPCs, C-64 and MSX (I had one) and later one Amigas and ST but not as many as Sprectrums.

    9. I don't understand how discussing whatever was the dominant platform addresses my annoyance with developers. I don't care when DOS "hit its stride." It had been around for 10 years, and clearly there was a base of users who wanted to play games. That it wasn't the predominant gaming platform doesn't excuse the fact that every port for it is half-assed or horribly bugged.

    10. There was certainly a vicious circle going on. I was an European DOS gamer and I knew that Amiga ports were bad news. That couldn't have been good for sales, which would lead to smaller porting budgets, etc.

      Though the situation improved quickly in the early 90s, as developers started to code increasingly large parts of their games in C rather than assembly, which made porting much easier.

    11. I think DOS was just too complicated and fragmented to port to properly. Atari and Amiga had basically one model each, the difference was mainly if the game used 512 kb or 1 mb of RAM. Also both machines were similar enough to get away with a half-assed port, using the worst of both worlds (Atari graphics and Amiga sound).

      PCs had lots of different sound- and graphiccards, so you had to add a lot of compatibility. I think the first proper gaming PC was a 386 with a VGA card, but it never had a market share large enough to specialize on. It took much longer until there was a quasi standard with 486s, SVGA cards and Soundblasters - that was the moment I ditched my Atari.

      But even as a simple user, I had a couple of boot disks with different setups, which was already kind of complicated (actually it was fun, but I'd hate it nowadays). Porting a game to such a complicated environment surely wasn't easier and half-assing wasn't enough.

    12. Yeah. During then, playing an action game on anything else other than a console is maddening.

      Which is why our fondest memories of any PC game in the 70s & 80s were all turned based games (strategy/RPG/adventure). I still remember my first flight sim game. Terrible piece of shit.

      And Bethesda's pre-Dagger Scrolls 1st-person RPG game: Terminator.

      Aaand... although it looks like crap with today's standard, The Terminator released in the same year for Nintendo looks a lot better.

    13. One thing that caused problems for DOS games was that DOS relied heavily on BIOS code. (For the non-technical, that's code that's on a memory chip on the computer's main board and knows how to do things like beep the speaker, put letters on the screen, and read from the keyboard.)

      All of the computer systems had an equivalent to the BIOS, what made the PC different was the "clones". Basically, IBM built the PC from off-the-shelf parts and programmed their BIOS to make them work together.

      Enter the clone-makers. The off-the-shelf part combination used for a PC can be gleaned by reading the labels. So all they needed was the BIOS. Which was copyright IBM. So they wrote their own that did the same job.

      Which is where lots of programs (particularly games) fall down. Most clones were "IBM compatible". By that they meant that the officially-published parts of the BIOS could be counted on to do the same things as the IBM BIOS. But the precise way it went about doing those things might be different.

      Games (especially in that era) generally need to squeeze every last bit of power out of the computers on which they run. So the developers of games often did things for speed that made use of the precise behaviour of the IBM BIOS, ranging from relying on certain things being done in precisely the same order to finding unofficial, internal functions in the BIOS code that did what they wanted. The end result was that, if the game were played on a non-IBM machine, sometimes things didn't work quite as intended.

      If the developers of the game in question were poor and didn't use an IBM machine, it gets even worse, and you end up with a game that runs perfectly on a Compaq something-or-other, buggily on an IBM machine, and not at all on a different clone-maker's.

      And, when you load up your DOS emulator, you're not running IBM's BIOS. They still own the copyright on that. So you're essentially running yet another clone. It is, at this point, a really darn close clone, but it's still not exact. So some games (especially ones that pushed the computers of the era to their absolute limits) might have random oddities. And people who play it on actual hardware may well notice different bugs depending on what hardware they use.

    14. Don't think you are right there Laurence. Everything I've read about the BIOS is that its job is done once the OS loads and handles input/output itself.

      Also; none of these strike me as compatibility errors. These all strike me as math errors and other computer bugs. If they were compatibility errors they'd behave differently on various platforms and emulators, these all seem consistent.

  3. In spite of your praise for it, in light of all the things it yoinked from Ultima I really can't see this game deserving anything beyond a bronze star sticker that says "YOU TRIED".
    Then again, shamelessly cribbing off Ultima seems to have made it more fun to actually PLAY than some of the more 'unique' games you've written up here. Imagine if this had caught on? I'm trying to imagine a world where Ultima clones were as prolific as, say, "Doom clones" in a certain part of the 90s.

    1. I wouldn't call what I wrote "praise," exactly--just a recognition that the game adequately passes the time and was the only decent RPG available for this platform in this year. "A bronze star sticker that says 'you tried'" is basically what a rating of 24 is.

    2. I think it's very clear and well written - as usual :-)
      I like how you find as many good things as possible and assume good intent, you surely are a good teacher. The odd rant might be funny as well, but needs to be well dosed.

  4. Congratulations, I guess....
    Well at least, here's a clear case of the huge impact of the Ultima series.
    You want to finish "a couple of others" this month? Well, I guess you can stop playing Captive whenever you feel like it. Keys to Maramon is short. The other games on the list appear to be completely unremarkable, so good luck!

    1. Oh, and for Keys to Maramon, don't camp the monsters at the tower door. It may be effective, but it's game breaking.

  5. I love the rating criteria in the ZX Spectrum magazine: Difficulty, Atmosphere, Vocabulary, Logic, Debugging, and Overall Value. I wish modern games were more debuggable.

    1. I remember being amused to find that SSI's early IBM games were really un-compiled BASIC games with an .exe "hook" file that called your computer's BASIC interpreter to run the game.

      You could edit the game's .BAS file directly, but with no comments and only single-character variables it was a very headache-inducing affair.

    2. Raifeld: Was it ported from C64? It was really limited in the variables it could use, to one letter (or arrays).

  6. I notice the sample commands for Return of the Ring include STOP USING THE LASER LANCE.

    (Only way I see of getting a download is from buying the Dragon 32 Universe DVD, though.)

    1. I can guarantee that I've never typed those words in a CRPG, so it sounds like they did something highly original for the sequel.

  7. I had a Coco in the 1980s and I would have happily played this game (had I been aware of it). There were lots of text adventures, but very few RPGs -- really, only Dungeons of Daggorath and some stuff written in BASIC.

    I was not aware of the Ultima series until many years later, so it would have been an "original" game. It, obviously, did not get any coverage in the Coco magazines, and none of my friends with other systems had it.

  8. Captive is one of these games on the Amiga that fired up imaginations that still burn to this day. I can't talk about its late game, but the premise, presentation and first couple of dungeons made quite an impression on young & impressionable Helm.

    I have no idea if the Atari ST version is in any way impaired. Hope not!

    1. Guru That Did Not MeditateJuly 25, 2014 at 9:03 PM

      I've had very similar experience - and that's from the ST.
      Did never see the Amiga version, though - and it's been
      years and years.

    2. Amiga and Atari ST versions of Captive are basically identical. Only thing missing with a 'vanilla' ST is stereo sound - and if you play with an STE, you get that too.

    3. Atari ST version of Captive is basically identical to the Amiga version. Only thing missing is stereo sound - and if you run it on an STE, you get even that.

  9. A lot of these monsters that these guys "borrowed" from Ultima were themselves taken by Garriott from (sigh) that ol' bugbear, D&D. Just take a look at a few D&D monsters under their original names: gelatinous cube, invisible stalker, xorn, mind flayer, etc. Sound familiar? (I'm ignoring the more generic stuff, like ettins, skeletons, Tolkien's balrog, and the "fearsome creatures" that you didn't list.)

    For all that this game ripped off of Ultima, Garriott himself didn't have any legal grounds when it came to exported monsters, at least. If this game is watered-down Ultima, then Ultima is watered-down D&D, just as D&D is watered-down Tolkien, and Tolkien is watered-down pagan legends from northern Europe.

    And yet, in spite of that, Tolkien's estate still managed to win a lawsuit against TSR. Not that the plaintiff truly deserved to prevail in that case, but at least that was poetic justice, considering what a vexatious litigant T$R used to be. So D&D had to rename hobbits "halflings", ents "treants", and so on -- whereupon a ton of early CRPGs ripped off D&D's new names. Go figure.

    1. Yes, I get that Richard Garriott didn't create all the creatures, but the quality of the ripoff isn't quite the same. Garriott selected those creatures for his Ultima dungeon from a huge list of possibilities and did introduce some original monsters of his own. Ring of Darkness, on the other hand, not only uses Garriott's exact list (with those minor changes) but has the same monsters appearing on the same levels--more akin to if Garriott had adapted Ultima from a single D&D module.

      I'm not saying that the developers of RoD should be sued for copyright violations because they used "jelly cubes"; my accusation is simply that they had no imagination. In designing their dungeons, populating them with monsters, making their equipment lists, figuring out how overworld navigation and combat worked, and drawing the broad outlines of their plot, they showed no ability to think beyond the Ultima template.

    2. "[M]y accusation is simply that they had no imagination."

      Obviously they *showed* none, but you can't rule it out that the Wintersoft guys simply saw no *reason* to be imaginative. Since this was their first game, they may have taken a flyer on writing it in the first place, as an adjunct to their day jobs. Here are three possibilities, which aren't mutually exclusive:

      A lot of people wrote barely-commercial shovelware so that they could write their fancy new computer off as a business expense on their taxes; any "ashcan" game would do, and spending time being creative was wasted effort. This may have been such a game, where innovating beyond Ultima was unnecessary. (Had there been more CRPGs around, it would've been easier for them to cover their tracks by ripping off multiple games, but as it is, it's pretty obvious.)

      Or maybe this was a hobby project for which they didn't have lots of time to think about ways to improve game design and originality. Guys like Garriott had lots of free time in which to mess around with their games, and these guys might not have had that luxury, due to having to work for a living at something more bricks-and-mortar.

      Finally (and this is most likely), I think that they saw an opportunity to rip off a game that was unknown in the U.K., but making pretty big bucks across the pond. So they hewed closely to the formula because they didn't understand how or why it worked, only that it did.

      The omission of the outer space nonsense may have been due to the reduced space on the original platform (32K!) and on tape, plus a lack of ability to code it, due to graphical limitations (Dragon 32 barely had lower-case letters), and maybe also personal limitations (ahem). I think that, if these guys could've thrown in the space ace stuff, they would've. Other sci-fi artifacts from Ultima are still in RoD.

      OTOH, you see similarly shameless derivativeness with many game producers, even today (not to mention film producers), where everybody's copying the last big splash. Ten percent innovate, the rest imitate.

      Regardless, I assume that these guys saw the game while visiting the U.S. and coded their own version without having access to source, but they certainly didn't license anything. Notably, they picked the most primitive platform readily available in the U.K., so their users were least likely to know of Ultima or to expect a fancy game.

    3. By the way, I looked at the monster lists for Akalabeth, Ultima I, and Ultima II, and every monster is in D&D. You cited tanglers/reapers as being original to Ultima. Well, those are D&D treants, which is to say LOTR Ents, which is to say the oracular trees of Greek mythology, with a little bit of the Great Birnam Wood from Macbeth.

    4. If you're suggesting that copying the names of monsters from a list is the same as copying the entire structure and mechanic of a game, I simply can't agree. I don't think we're looking at anywhere near the same level of plagiarism. Also, I think it's disingenuous to suggest that Garriott had no original ideas just because some of his creatures (tanglers, vipers, mind wippers, zorns) were simply similar to those found in D&D. If we use that as a yardstick, hardly any game has anything original.

      Garriott's games, even if they did copy the basic RPG premise and MOST of the monsters from D&D, offered original plots, settings, and game mechanics. There's no evidence that he played a single CRPG prior to Akalabeth, and thus he had to figure out how to program all of this on his own. That he went to D&D for some of the monsters shouldn't detract from his highly-original achievements.

      I would bet $5000 that the developers of this game didn't simply play Ultima a single time on a visit to the U.S. If they did, they would have had to a) play all the way to the end; and b) take extremely detailed notes. I would bet that they somehow acquired an Apple II and the game and referenced it constantly as they designed Ring of Darkness. "So they hewed closely to the formula because they didn't understand how or why it worked, only that it did" aligns with what I think happened.

    5. Well, I wasn't trying to say that monster-copying is as cruddy as mechanics-copying. A lot of monsters are archetypal and/or nightmare fuel, and there are only so many good ones, and D&D filched every one that they could, leaving rather little left over; I'd find it hard to design a game with only strictly original monsters. Stealing mechanics, however, is less excusable.

      As for those, I can't really say how much of RoD is from Ultima, or how much of early Ultima is from D&D, without going code-diving. The surest way would be to find out how the games adjudicate to-hit rolls based on level and armor class. I know that a lot of early CRPGs use D&D mechanics without much alteration, so I wouldn't be surprised if early Ultima combat was based on similar or identical mechanics.

      As for the rest of early Ultima's originality, no comment. But I would say that very, very few games offer novel twists on the same old thing, and there's nothing truly new under the sun. Ultima IV, V, and VI are among the few, at least.

      I think you're right that Wintersoft got an Apple ][ somehow and played the hell out of Ultima 0/1/2, reverse-engineering them that way. And yes, their level of plagiarism greatly surpasses young Garriott's, unquestionably.

    6. Thanks for digging that up. I try to do reasonably comprehensive post-game searches about the developers and companies, and I don't know how I overlook so much stuff.

      Not a peep about the Ultima influence in the article, of course.

    7. Because it's not "influence" if you're copying the entire shit wholesale, apparently. You wouldn't pass any undergrad who tried the same stunt with you, would you? XD

  10. your class changes to "gorn-slayer"--this game's analog to achieving the "space ace" credential in Ultima.

    I know a space ace who defeated a Gorn...

    1. God, that's just painful to watch.

    2. Well yeah, it's [in]famous for being one of the worst fight scenes in television history. Now you'll understand the references to it that pop up now and then in geek culture.

  11. That gives us a final score of 25, not bad at all for the year, though still under-performing Ultima by 9 points.

    1. That was supposed to be a quote, where I then said that it however outscores Ultima 2 by 4, which probably reflects more on U2 than anything.

    2. Indeed. I still see U2 as a major step backwards from U1.

  12. Ultima I scored that well? Surprising considering it's complete lack of...everything.

    1. I had fun with Ultima, and I certainly consider it a "recommended" game, but I probably did rate it too high. It's one of 10 games I played before developing the GIMLET, so when I rated it, it was only in the spreadsheet and that was about a month later. In particular, the scores for both "Quests" and "Gameplay" seem higher than what I developed as my general standards over the years.

      I don't want to get into the business of retroactively changing ratings, though, so we'll just have to live with it.Ultima III also feels a bit too high, especially where U4 only scores 2 points higher.

    2. Clearly you need to start doing a 'retrospectives' series, where you start reviewing games you've already reviewed ;)

  13. "...I often catch my students plagiarizing from their sources by copying text directly but using a thesaurus to change a few words here and there to avoid exact phrase-matching in Google or TurnItIn."

    When I went to college (20+ years ago), getting caught for plagiarism was an automatic F in the course, at minimum. It disturbs me that you say you OFTEN encounter such bad behavior. Kids, these days...

    That being said, I don't see anything tort-worthy in Ring of Darkness (speaking as a non-lawyer, of course).

    Sure, they lifted some basic RPG and plot concepts, but it doesn't seem like they copied code (the most incriminating form of computer plagiarism), or proprietary artwork, or used any Ultima characters, or copied any Ultima quest text.

    1. I blame Wiki. Then again, I myself scored pretty well BECAUSE of Wiki. Since it was still in a pretty infantile stage and my prof was really techno-phobic (kept prophesying that "The Internets" will kill the written word) to touch a computer to find a similar article online. =P

    2. I'm a little more lenient. I fail the student on the assignment the first time, on the entire class the second time.

      I've had plenty of students do even worse, including copying directly from Wikipedia.

  14. Oh man, as soon as I read "It is an RPG made by people who seem to have played only one other RPG, and didn't realize that its quirks were specific to that game, and not universal conventions of the genre." I knew what this is: You've discovered a CRPG Fantasy Heartbreaker. This term is used in the tabletop RPG community for a game produced by someone who appears to have only ever played D&D, and, convinced they can do it better, puts out a game without stopping to check if other RPGs exist. Often they will think of ways to fix D&D and implement something they think is groundbreaking (Hit locations, spell points) that they think will make people flock to the game, when in fact there have been stacks of games using the system they thought up since oh, the late 70s or early 80s.

    1. I already mentioned joy to key in the other blog but its a good program to get to change keystrokes to gamepad.

      I did find a few sites that might help on those other games by this company:,_Cassette)_Wintersoft_-_1984_UK_Release

      HOpe this helps out some.

  15. Hi! Just stumbled onto your blog recently and working my way through. Really enjoying it!

    Anyhow, I think i can shed some speculation on Ring of Darkness which I played on the Oric-1, which I think is the original version of Ring of Darkness. The "weird" QWOP movement keys will be completely familiar to an Oric-1 owner -- the keyboard has 4 cursor keys, 2 each on the left and right of the spacebar. The cursor keys (from left to right) is left down up down, which I guess is what the developers are trying to achieve by the QW ----- OP arrangement.

    Wintersoft was started off as a game developer for Oric-1 (but i think they move to other platforms when Oric-1 ran into financial difficulties and died in early 85).

    Operation Gremlin (for the Oric-1) is actually not a text adventure, but an interesting mix of action and CPRG. You control 8 characters, stuck in a space station overrun by gremlins, and must find a way to get to the escape pod. The characters are separated, and you can jump to any character at any time. The game is real time -- so the gremlins will move, lay eggs, and try to kill your characters. You can defend yourself by picking up items which can be used as weapons. Although it has some RPG elements (hit points, items, etc), it doesn't really qualify as one but it was one of my favorite games.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Eugene. I don't have many British readers with experience with these games during the era, so it's nice to hear from the few who have original recollections.

    2. Operation Gremlin sounds a lot like a video game implementation of The Awful Green Things From Outer Space (1979)

    3. The original version was for Dragon 32 in 1982, but they ported it to Oric 1 and ZX Spectrum at the same time in 1983 (they announced both versions for november 1983). The original version uses arrow keys, If ZX Spectrum does not have them, I suppose the programmer making the ports reused the Oric 1 arrow keys configuration for the ZX Spectrum port (Dragon 32 arrow keys configuration was not an option because it would be Q:up, A:down, O:left, P:right, but the A key was for attack).

  16. Hi There,
    I played Ring of Darkness, Return of the Ring and Juxtaposition on the Dragon 32 back in the 80s.
    Memories - RoD was too hard for 10 y/o me to work out, beyond the first couple of quests. Going into one of the dungeons always seemed like a suicide mission due to falling down a pit. The general slowness also discouraged repeated attempts. I have vague memory that I accidentally overwrote some of the source code on the cassette because the copy protection tab hadn't been punched out. I met Wintersoft at the 6809 Show in London, explained the situation and they gave me a free replacement copy!!
    RotR - this was another graphic/text adventure as far as I remember. I don't remember too much more about it other than not getting very far!!
    Juxtaposition - this seemed to be AMAZING! Dragon User published a hand drawn map of the Ceti V planet that the game was set on, and in a subsequent issue the published a high level walkthrough. So, this was one of the few games I completed!! I don't recall any combat though.

  17. I'm not sure if anyone mentioned this yet, but maybe the transportation shops being labeled Smith was a nod to Smith the Horse?

  18. This is a good article and well written. I enjoyed playing Ring of Darkness back in the 80s, on a Dragon 32. Of all the games I tried on various home computers, this was probably the best. If Xroar worked properly I would play it now.

    There was something about the game play that was compelling. The multi-tape format and the ability to save games was a breakthrough at the time. And the dungeon graphics, although very simple, were strangely atmospheric.

    The idiosyncrasies detailed in the article brought back memories too, although the Dragon 32 version did feature a complete terrain map, so no need to get the pen and paper out. I was intrigued to learn that the dungeons were all based on the same layout.

    Never knew until now the game was based on Ultima, (which wasn't available for the Dragon in any case).

    Thanks again, Jim.


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