Sunday, October 12, 2014

Game 167: Saga (1990)

Lankhor (Developer and Publisher)
Released 1990 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 10 October 2014
Date Ended: 11 October 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at Time of Posting: 15/164 (9%)
Ranking at Game #457: 76/457 (17%)

Saga is a bafflingly bad game. I would expect this quality of gameplay from a title released in the early 1980s, or a shareware title, or a title released for some horrid platform, but not a) in 1990, b) from a major publisher; and c) for a perfectly respectable, if slightly aged, PC platform. Nothing about the game makes any sense whatsoever.
The Saga game windows. I'm only playing one character, so the right side says "player absent" for the entire game. I'm facing a human fighter and a werewolf, and the message window shows the damage they're doing to me. At the bottom  you can see my character class (elf) and attributes.
This is my first experience with an Amstrad CPC game, but I know the computer has some decent titles. In Europe, it was a legitimate contender to the Commodore 64/128. The Bard's Tale had a release on the Amstrad in 1987. So did J. R. R. Tolkien's War in Middle Earth, Bloodwych, B.A.T., and Dragons of Flame. I'm not holding any of these up as great games, but at least they were competent. Saga, is in fact, a late addition to the Amstrad catalogue; on my list, the only two games after it with Amstrad releases are the two HeroQuest titles.

It's not the developer. This is, admittedly, the only RPG on my list from Lankhor--perhaps the only RPG that Lankhor ever made--but the company was clearly not a bunch of amateurs. Wikipedia notes that the developer's first game, Mortville Manor, is the first game to feature speech synthesis. Here's what that game looked like, in 1987:

In short, the platform was capable of better, the developer was capable of better, and the nation of France was capable of better. Where did this game come from?

Saga is winnable in about 30 minutes, and not in the way some adventure games are, where if you know what you're doing, you can take shortcuts and buzz right to the end. There aren't any shortcuts in Saga; there doesn't need to be, because the entire game only takes up about 24 screens, and half of those are repetitive scenes in the "labyrinth." It has 5 combats and 3 other important interactions, and that's it. Although the interface suggests an adventure game, there isn't a single "puzzle" within it.

The even more amusing thing is that the game supports two players. Except for perhaps the initial combats, it isn't a challenge enough for one player, let alone two. I'm picturing two French youths running home from a computer store in 1990 and slamming this exciting-looking fantasy game into their Amstrad disk drive. One picks up the joystick while the other positions his hands on the keyboard. They spend about an hour creating their characters, exploring the available classes. Finally, after a lot of debate, a lot of laughs at the goofy character portraits, they finally settle on their choices. Excited, they swap disks, hit ENTER, and start exploring the game world.
Creating two characters.
Less than half an hour later, they're looking at each other, confused. "Je ne comprends pas," they say. "C'est fini? Ou sont les orques? Je veux tuer plus de mauvaises choses, s'il vous plaît." Defeated, they have nothing to do but go outside and play bilboquet or something.

Heprena has some troubles.
The back story is simple. In the "13th century," the character has received a message from his old mentor and guardian, Merlux the Magic Master, that "Heprena is dying." The character leaves his simple house in an enchanted forest and responds to Merlux's call. 

The player creates a character from one of six classes: warrior, magician, assassin, elf, paladin, and priest. Each has a different set of attributes (strength, dexterity, charisma, intelligence, hit points, magic points), a different set of weapons, and--for those capable of casting magic--a different set of spells. The player can then put 6 points in any combination of attributes that he wishes. Agility, intelligence, and strength all influence various combat and spell rolls, but I didn't see any place in the game where charisma made a difference.
Choosing from among 6 character classes.
Gameplay takes place on a series of static screens. The interface has only five inputs, whether using the keyboard or joystick: up, down, right, left, and execute. If using the keyboard, the movement keys are nonsensically mapped to:

,             .

Mimicking a joystick on the keypad was much easier.

Commands include "Move" (followed by the direction), "Open," "Look," "Use," and separate sub-menus for various things to do with items ("Take," "Give," "Drop") and other actions ("Attack," "Talk," "Cast a Spell").

For a while, I couldn't get anywhere with the game until I realized that commands apply to the location of a cursor on the screen. You use the movement keys to position the cursor over whatever you want to look at, open, talk to, attack, and so forth, and then choose the appropriate command. The cursor resets to the upper-left corner whenever you change screens.

As I mentioned, the game is quick and easy for the right sort of character. The only real difficulty is in combat; some of the classes aren't well-equipped for the game's 5 battles. When combat arrives, enemies start attacking in real time, doing 4-6 points of damage every 20-30 seconds or so. During this time, you're furiously positioning your cursor over the enemy, hitting SPACE or the joystick button to bring up the command screen, scrolling down to "Actions," scrolling down to "Attack," scrolling to the chosen weapon, hitting the button again to execute, and then hitting it a few more times to simulate the dice rolls. I found it extremely hard to get through this sequence without accidentally selecting one of the other commands, then having to cancel it, and taking extra unnecessary damage in the meantime.

Selecting commands to attack a gargoyle.

There are two places in the game where all of your hit points are restored. You have to survive 3 combats (2 with 2 enemies each) before that, and this is the toughest part of the game. When my first character, a paladin, was unable to get that far, I enlisted a warrior as a second character. Although I couldn't effectively control both at once, I could use the warrior as cannon fodder for the first few battles. When he died, the game maintained an annoying screen saying "your quest ends here."

Both characters stand outside the starting area and swap some items.

Assassins, who come with 5 poisoned blowdarts capable of heavy damage, and magicians, who come with spells, were promising, but their low hit point totals meant that I had trouble staying alive. I finally won the game with a high-HP warrior.

The combats technically give you experience points, and the manual promises that these make up a kind-of "character development," except that I never saw them doing anything. With only 5 battles in the entire game, it's hard to argue that experienced-based leveling is really necessary.

Combat, as primitive and annoying as it is, is probably the most sophisticated part of the game. Adventure games usually come with a lot of inventory puzzles. This game has 8 inventory slots, rendered all the more mysterious because there are only 4 items to pick up throughout the game, and you only ever have 2 at any one time. None of the uses of the inventory could remotely be called "puzzles."

There are a handful of characters to interact with, but all interaction is just a matter of putting the cursor over them and choosing "Talk" from the menu. Sometimes you have to do this multiple times to get all their dialogue.

I'll try to summarize the plot concisely. North of the starting house, there's a forest of mushrooms. Looking at the largest one reveals that it has a door. Opening the door finds you in combat with a man and a werewolf. Killing them brings you to "Malus the Crazy," who expresses astonishment that you killed his two companions, gives you a "male gzouzou," and tells you to leave before you make him mad.

A few screens later, you come to a gnome pointing to the right, saying "over there!" If you try to talk to him, he says, "Everything I have to tell you is in the bubble. No joke." Continuing, you find yourself in the "Labyrinth of the Gnome," a small maze that you don't really have to map. There are two battles in the maze, one with an animated sword and sickle, one with a giant bee. A note found in a well tells you to keep going east from there, which takes you to the exit. Along the way, you can release a genie from a bottle and get fully healed.

Fighting animated weaponry.

Outside the labyrinth, you move north a couple screens and find a boat. Boarding, a pirate threatens your life and gives you 1 minute to respond. The only way to appease him is to give him Malus's "gzouzou." This seems to be a creature that the pirate gives to his own familiar as a companion. As a reward, he sails you to Heprena.

Heprena is desolated, with all the residents fallen into a torpor. In Merlux's house, the old mage expresses gratitude for your presence and tells you that an "evil spirit" has taken control of the city and plunged everyone into a "sleep of nightmares." He reveals that the evil spirit, the "Eye of the Devil," is in a tomb in the graveyard, but he succumbs to the mystical sleep before revealing the name on the tomb.

In his house, you kill a gargoyle and retrieve a wooden stake (as far as I can tell, this is never used) and 10 gold pieces from a chest. A spellbook heals you. A crystal ball elsewhere in his house tells you the name on the grave: "Edgar Padpoe."

Looking for the final game area.

You give the 10 gold pieces to a coffinmaker in exchange for keys to the cemetery. In the cemetery, you look at the graves until you find the right one, then open it and descend into a dungeon. A tablet informs you that "evil born of evil perishes by evil." A room full of mirrors imbues your own eyes with "satanic reflections." You fight one final combat against a "guardian of the door," then enter and find the "Eye of the Devil." Defeating it, in accordance with the tablet, simply involves looking at it. 

Good lord. Where is the rest of him?

After a quick ending screen and an option to save the player, you're back on the desktop.

Always nice when NPC dialogue blends with interface instructions.

I was happy but surprised to find that the game had ended. I assumed everything to this point had been a prologue. My best guess, given the unused inventory screens and limited character development, is that Saga was meant to be a modular game, like Eamon, with the same character transferable among multiple "adventures." I suppose it's possible that there are others in the Saga line out there, but this game was pretty obscure on its own.

In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 1 point for the game world. There's nothing particularly notable about the "13th century" fantasy kingdom invoked in the back story except that it's full of weird characters and tropes that perhaps make sense in France.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. For the brevity of the game, the choice of character class does make a legitimate difference, but it's not long or complex enough to feel the effects of "development."
  • 2 points for NPC interaction--the handful of bland NPCs that give some information.
  • 2 point for encounters and foes, featuring generic monsters and no true adventure-game puzzles, even.

The last battle of the game.

  • 2 points for magic and combat, with some minor choices related to type of weapon and spells.

Casting a spell in combat. The mage's options are "Healing," "Petrify," "Invisibility," and "Dagger."

  • 1 point for the limited equipment, all puzzle-based, which means the game technically doesn't meet my criteria as an RPG.
  • 0 points for no economy. The 10 gold pieces found at one point are just another inventory item, not something that you can spend flexibly.
  • 2 points for a vague, unsatisfying main quest.
  • 1 point for barely-serviceable graphics, no sound, and an awful interface.
  • 2 points for gameplay that while linear, non-replayable, and bereft of meaningful choices at least has the decency of finishing quickly.

The final score of 15 is the lowest I've given to any game since 1983 with the single exception of The Stone of Telnyr, which was a shareware title.

From a recent eBay auction. It went for £36.

Lankhor was a French company that was around from 1987 to 2001. Their catalog consists primarily of action, sports, and racing games with a couple of adventure games thrown in. I think that Saga is the only title that aspires to RPG status, though I have to check out something called La Crypte des Maudits in 1991. The authors of the game, listed on the main screen, resolve to Regis Blazy and Guillaume Genty. Genty, at least, was a full-time Lankhor employee, dispelling any possibility that this game was an independent title that Lankhor charitably published. He is credited on a variety of racing games for both Lankhor and other publishers after Lankhor went bankrupt. Why he decided to turn his talents to a godawful RPG is anyone's guess. Blazy is a little more obscure; his last name is given as "Blazis" on a different site, but either way I can't find him credited on other games.

This is the second French game in a row to disappoint me, but the country will have some chances to impress me in the coming year, with Le Diamant de I'le Maudite and Tyrann both coming up in 1984. Eventually, I'm going to take second looks at Tera: La Cite des Cranes (1986) and Le Maitre des Ames (1987), as I didn't get far enough in either game during the first round to even rate them. The good news is that my French has vastly improved since 2010, and I didn't have any trouble with the text in this game. I had to use Google Translate for about half a dozen individual words, not the entire paragraphs that I had to plug in for Tera and Maitre.

Next we'll finish up the Warrior of Ras series and take a look at Hard Nova.


  1. There is an old german saying: for a french computer game, you need one hundred graphics designers and one author.
    Okay, admittedly, that's bs, but in the nineties, it was also totally obvious.

  2. Nice work on the language skills!

    It'll be really interesting to compare your second attempts at the French games to the first efforts.

  3. The CPC was decent enough for an 8bit system, its biggest problem was that so many games were just lazy Spectrum ports without any improvements.

    As for Lankhor, the only game of theirs I remember being genuinely good was Vroom (which also has the best name ever for a racing game). Their adventure games were mediocre at best, even if they looked really pretty.

    1. Vroom was my favorite on the Amiga. Better than Lotus Challenge almost!

  4. Tricky has played Mortville Manor:
    He didn't rate it too well and from I remember of the game (I have played a few hours back in my childhood), he surely didn't underrate it. It was strange.

    1. Yes, he rated it low, but certainly it wasn't as staggeringly bad as Saga. I didn't claim that Lankhor produced fantastic games, but it did at least produce competent ones. That's why I referred to this one as "bafflingly bad."

    2. Well, it was bad in a different type. There was some collecting of clues (which was awful by itself), but instead of actually using the clues and finding something out, there was a quiz somewhere in the game which asked for those clues. That's like removing the endfight from a crpg and replacing it by a door which can only be opened if you are at the level cap.

      Still, it looks like Saga is even worse, but at least it doesn't take that long to complete.

      Thanks for playing such awful games for us!
      To cheer you up: I googled Hard Nova and it looks like a gem! I wish for you that's true :-)

  5. Well, joie absent...

    It's as if Baldurs's Gate II existed of nothing but the underwater part.

    The key mapping is maybe for two hands, so two keys for the left hand, and two keys for the right hand.

    Ah well, I thought that after Captive, everything else from 1990 would be easy on your part. Either short games, or clones that don't require a learning period, or genuinely interesting titles (Gold Box, but also Hard Nova and MegaTraveller, which I am looking forward to.) I didn't expect DragonSword to be so long though.

  6. CPC stands for 'Color Personal Computer', yet this game is monochromatic. Very strange design choice.

    1. Not strange but obvious: Back then it was the fewer colors the higher the resolution. They either wanted the highest resolution available and/or didn't have color monitors to "develop" on...

  7. Its amazing that they were capable of creating a full-color CPC game before, and then decided to go with monochrome. The monochrome graphics mode has a higher resolution but it still looks fairly primitive.

  8. Good job figuring the interface out! I got far enough to move around and do stuff but I didn't have enough French to really play. Looks like I didn't miss much.

  9. A good CRPG on CPC is Fer&Flamme : And also in french, "Le maître absolu" is a sequel of "Le maître des âmes" which has a recent DOS version released in 2013.

    1. Fer & Flamme is on my list, so I look forward to it. I had no idea LMdA had a sequel, though. It looks like that was from 1989; I'll add it to my list.

    2. It's not really a sequel, it's in SciFi universe with the same game engine. Here the CPC links, the Dos version and a link of Lmda+ (remake 2013)

  10. YIKES. I've never used a CPC but this still triggers flashbacks of monochrome-era PC games. Amazed this scored as high as it did, really - feels more like a demo level for a shareware title.

  11. Strange that copy went for 36 GBP - the only copy I've seen on eBay US went for $708 earlier this year (originally sold for $2,425, but the winner of that bidding war clearly never paid).

  12. I'm pretty sure that that Mortville Manor screenshot *not* from an Amstrad (as it didn't have a graphics mode capable of both hi-res (for the time) and color. That screen would require an Amiga, Atari ST, VGA PC (some of the colors are outside the EGA palette), or Apple IIGS. My guess is one of the first two.

    EDIT: Just googled, and the Amstrad CPC had these modes:
    Mode 0: 160×200 pixels with 16 colors (4 bpp)
    Mode 1: 320×200 pixels with 4 colors (2 bpp)
    Mode 2: 640×200 pixels with 2 colors (1 bpp)
    Mode 3: 160x200 pixels with 4 colors (2bpp) (this is not an official mode, but rather a side-effect of the hardware)

    Since that screenshot is 320x200x16 colors, it can't be a CPC.

  13. Hm, I guess the movement keys aren't so silly -- you go up/down with the left hand and left/right with the left hand. The rest of the game, however, sounds pretty damn silly.

    1. This isn't as intuitive as it sounds, particularly with the need to move quickly in combat.

    2. In the 80s this kind of setup was fairly common. Certainly on the Spectrum, which didn't have a keypad, the "standard" gamekeys were usually QAOPspace or something similar.

  14. Looks like the Japanese Saga is the way to go if you absolutely must play a 24-25 year old RPG named Saga.

  15. Hard Nova coming up? Damn, it's been on my to play-list since I got it ... in the '90s :D

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Obviously. He's running it on an emulator. I know since I was raised... okay, have been using nothing but an IBM (& its compatibles) since the early 80's.

    2. No, you're probably right. I think it might be the Amiga version. The Amstrad versions, which you cam see here:

      are notably worse, but also notably better than Saga.

  17. Just why does this game sell for so much? Is it particularly rare or historically notable in some inscrutably French way? Are there only 7 working original copies left in the world because everyone who owned this game (understandably) decide that having a blank disk was more useful? Usually, 10+ year old games with significantly high aftermarket prices are either rare, popular, well-regarded, historically important/interesting, or have *some* reason for their price.

    1. I think that almost any RPG from 25 years ago, still in its original packaging, would go for at least £36. Certainly, game quality is no predictor of its collector status, as we've seen with Mt. Drash.

    2. Computer games in their original packaging aren't (usually) all that valuable just for being complete, though, unless they came with lots of manuals/extras/etc., were they? I'm much more familiar with console game collecting, and usually games this bad going for more than $10 or so have something else going for them, usually a low print run or occacionally some other oddity. (Drash has both an insanely low print run and a nominal attachment to the Ultima series to spur demand, not to mention low supply due to said print run.)

      Having said that, I do rather like the cartoony style that some of the art, like the characters, use. It's a shame they couldn't use it in a better game. (Aside from the presence of a two-player mode, and the fact that the game seems to technically function... for a little while... this may be all of the good that can be said about it.)

      Double Dungeons for TG16 had a similar two-player mode, and while the RPG essentials are incredibly simplistic, it moves very quickly and has huge first-person mazes that both players explore at once, which are something like 100x100 by the end of the game. In short, it works taken for what it is, and it seems like whatever the hell Saga was trying to do (the pretend "economy" and such doesn't count as "trying") had already been successfully done (on another system, but still.)

      Saga as it stands seems to be at best, a very poor demo of what could be a potentially great two-player hybrid CRPG/point-and-click adventure game that... doesn't exist. Features like an 8-space inventory with a total of 4 items make me wonder if it was a 5% complete version of said game. In this case, trying to really enjoy 5% of said hypothetical complete game is kind of like trying to drive 5% of a car.

  18. This one wasn't even marketed as an RPG, BTW:


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