Friday, December 19, 2014

Dragon Sword: Won!* (with Final Rating)

Oh, my...we'll just let it go, shall we?

Dragon Sword
United States
Brian Tieman and Tim Musa (authors); PC-SIG (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 30 September 2014
Date Ended: 18 December 2014
Total Hours: 32
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 31% (53/169) 
Ranking at Game #457: 185/457 (40%)

When I last wrote, I was bothered about whether to finish Dragon Sword given that it would take another 24-30 hours, at least, and I felt I'd already experienced all there was to experience about the game, with the exception of mapping 12 more levels. Yet I didn't want to leave the game unfinished, break my winning streak, and miss the opportunity to be the only one online with a winning screenshot. Most of you encouraged me to quit.

Fortunately, Santa Claus came early, in the form of a wonderful Belgian reader who chooses to remain anonymous. He studied the code on the data disks, figured out how it worked, and used it to automatically create the entire series of dungeon maps in Excel, with each square numerically coded to the type of encounter found there.

The final level of the game, courtesy of my own Sinterklaas.

Freed from having to map the rest of the levels, I simply walked--or, in many cases, cast "Open Wall" or "Teleport"--to get from fixed encounter to fixed encounter. The fourth dungeon ended up having 9 levels total. The primary purpose was to get the Staff of Stone, one of six artifacts needed (in some nebulous way) to defeat Oijngate. I had found three others--the Dark Wand, the Ebony Dagger, and the Ring of Mithral--in the other three dungeons. A final one, the Golden Armor, remained.

The chesspiece monsters encountered in the Tower o' Fun turned out to have a thematic purpose. One of the levels had a chessboard theme, with various statues speaking single-word messages that ultimately told me to seek out the black knight and ignore everyone else. I found him in the appropriate place on the chessboard, and he gave me a clue about a puzzle involving keys and color-coded doors--a puzzle I skipped by just teleporting to the next message square. Yes, my last hours with this game were a little pathetic.

Thanks for trying.

The ladder to the final dungeon, The Lair, was found in the center of the city of Bralka, and I had to cheat to get to it. The game's own code indicated that my silver key should open a locked door, but the door wouldn't open despite having the key. I ultimately hex-edited my party to the other side of the door. I'm not sure if it's a bug or if I just overlooked something.

The Lair was another 9-level dungeon full of tough monsters like stone golems, bone devils, earth giants, evil mages, black unicorns, and margoyles. Without the map showing the locations of magic-regenerating squares, battles would have been a huge pain in the neck, but knowing the locations, I was able just to spam my best spells and teleport to healing at the end of the battle. A battle on Level 2 produced the golden armor, the last of the artifacts. Level 3 or 4 had an amusing encounter in which I first received this message:

One wonders if developer Brian Tieman's future wife, who wrote the game music, inspired this sentiment.

While I admired the creators' wisdom, I figured this was just a bit of doggerel--until I found a man and woman fighting.

They demanded I pick a side. I chose WOMAN, and the woman gloated as the pair of them disappeared. I have no idea what this did for me. No future encounter referred to it.

Throughout the level, various encounters suggested that a paladin named Jodvar had previously tried to defeat Oijngate with the Dragon Sword but was converted to evil by the dragon. A tapestry depicted their battle, and a book told the paladin's tale. It became clear that I would have to defeat Jodvar to win the game. On Level 7, I entered the room containing the Dragon Sword...

 ...and was attacked by Jodvar and his minions: 2 stone guardians, 1 "flightstalker," and 1 quasit. I found the battle considerably easier than many of the random battles on the level, and in short order I whittled them down and killed Jodvar.

This text followed:

And finally, the mighty Dragon Sword shall be yours. You have defeated all of Oijngate's minions. A terrible blight has been lifted from the land. You look at the carnage about you and are amazed at how much you've been through just to get to this final moment of victory. With a confident, steady hand, you reach out for what victory has brought you.

Your hand fits smoothly around the handle. The sword's weight feels good in your hand. "Victory!" you scream. But your scream is cut short as the ground beneath your feet gives way to a long tunnel of darkness. Your victory is wretched firmly from your grasp as you spiral down a chute of darkness. And then, suddenly, the ground smashes into you. You know not how long you've been falling, or where you are, or what to do, but you regain your composure and look about you. You will not have your victory stolen!

But I got the Dragon Sword, so that was something. Oddly enough, just like the Golden Armor, Ring of Mithral, and the other artifacts, the game wouldn't let me actually equip it. I guess just having it in my possession was enough to defeat Oijngate.

Then what's the point?!

It was two more levels to Oijngate, and the encounter was anticlimactic. He attacked me by himself, with no minions, and went down in the first round. I didn't even get a screen shot. There was some business at the beginning of battle in which each of my characters "resisted the effects," and I suspect that having the various artifacts in my possession protected them from some significant damage that otherwise would have made the battle tougher. Anyway, the endgame text:

Oijngate, knowing it is doomed, casts one final spell of destruction. A white ball of flame bursts from the dragon's hide, consuming it in the process. A gigantic explosion rocks the caverns and you see pieces of the roof caving in. Then all fades to black as you fall unconscious under the brunt force of the explosion.

You awake an indeterminate amount of time later. You are, miraculously, in the guild in Bralka. The dragon, Ojingate, lies dead many levels beneath the town. Bralka is still overrun by evil forces and you know your job here is not yet done, but you grasp the Dragon Sword firmly in your hand. The handle is still warm with power. You know you could not have won without it, and yet, you feel as though you've only scratched the surface of its mighty power--and only just begun a long and treacherous journey.

Everyone got 1 million experience points and the ability to keep wandering around Bralka fighting Level 1 thugs. I used the experience to level my party to the max, heal up, save, and quit. I was disappointed that there were never any endgame graphics. Even a poorly-drawn shot of Oinjgate would have been welcome.

So, obviously, I cheated to win, but it was a kind of cheating I'm comfortable with--one that mostly just saved time. I would have gone through the same encounters eventually, but it would have taken another 24 hours instead of 4.

Let's wrap it up with a GIMLET:

4 points for the game world, perhaps the one part that Dragon Sword does better than Wizardry. The basic structure of the world isn't bad, with five dungeons branching from a common town, and the frequent messages and bits of lore kept things mildly interesting.

The game's attempts to build a history and lore are welcome breaks from endless combat.

  • 3 points for character creation and development. There's nothing beyond the Wizardry template here. Moreover, characters level a bit too fast, achieving maximum spell levels before the game is halfway over and thus giving a sense of limited progression for the rest of the game. Starting attributes end up being irrelevant since, thanks to the practice of awarding 1 attribute point per level but capping all attributes at 18, everyone ends up with 18 in everything before long.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The sheer number of enemies offered in the game is a bit ridiculous, and the game tells you nothing about them--but in some ways, figuring out each enemy's special attacks and defenses is part of the challenge. I give some credit for the various navigation, logic, and password puzzles in the game. None of them were terribly challenging or interesting, but they were more than the typical wireframe dungeon-crawler.

One of the "boss" battles with an incomprehensible selection of monsters.

  • 4 points for magic and combat. Dragon Sword evokes the letter but not the spirit of Wizardry, and although the combat options seem very similar, the nature of the game--particularly the frequent magic-recharging squares--makes the combat less nail-biting and tactical. The sheer number of battles is annoying beyond belief, but I'm punishing the game for that in the last category. The spell selection was interesting and in some cases original.

My cleric casts "Protection from Breath" in the first round of the battle with Oinjgate.

  • 3 points for equipment. It started out good, but the game stopped providing upgrades about halfway through. The artifact items were unequippable, and in general there just wasn't enough variety here.
  • 1 point for economy. It started out good, but after you have enough healing spells and have bought everything of interest in the stores (about 5% through the game), there's no point to collecting gold. There's no point to the game's vault at all.
  • 2 points for a standard main quest with various steps along the way. No side-quests, no role-playing.

The penultimate moment.

  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, both of which go to "interface." The wireframe graphics, with no monster portraits or any other graphic feedback, don't deserve even a single point, and the occasional beeps and horridly-rendered music (from an original composition that I'm sure was beautiful on a real instrument) don't do anything for me.
  • 1 point for gameplay, and that's for its moderately-pitched difficulty level. The game is entirely linear, non-replayable, and way, way, way, way, way, way, a thousand "ways" too large and too long. It's like all five of the first Wizardry games at once, with quadruple the frequency of random encounters.

The sum is 25, but I have to subtract 2 points for the many bugs, including one that constantly brought up the "game over" screen in the middle of combat and exploration, forcing me to reload and re-cast all my buffing spells. This final score of 23 is well below what I would recommend and well below the 37 I gave to Wizardry, the game Dragon Sword seeks to emulate. I admire what Mr. Tieman and Mr. Musa accomplished programmatically--particularly the dedication to create and populate 30 levels and so many different encounters and monster types--but making the game so big and long also made it boring and unbalanced.

But let's not be too harsh. It was a shareware title, and not even a very expensive one. The developers weren't intending to create great art. In a long e-mail to me, Brian Tieman said that the path to creating Dragon Sword started when they hacked data files for The Bard's Tale so they could give characters 256 strength and such. Later they did the same to Wizardry. They started to understand the code and adapted it to their own game, patching and jury-rigging when they had to, learning code as they went along. (Tieman thinks many of the freezes and crashes I experienced are due to the interrupts he used to keep the music playing at a steady tempo.) "We were bored," he says. "We didn't party, we programmed--at a time when programming wasn't cool." He denies, in fact, that they even "set out to make a consumable product," and he's a bit baffled by its persistence. "Why the hell is this piece of s****** software two people wrote in obscurity 24 years ago still out there someplace today? How the hell did it even get ONTO the Internet? We didn't put it there!"

As my master list goes forward, we are seeing an increasing number of independent games. In the last year alone, we've looked at Stone of Telnyr, Fallthru, and Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation, and we still have Quest for the Unicorn, Angband, Wraith: The Devil's Demise, and Dungeon coming up before the year is out. The typical independent RPG of the era is scoring around 20-25, so Dragon Sword is an average representative of a nascent subgenre that I expect to get better as the 1990s progress.

I'm glad to have found a middle path through the end of Dragon Sword, and now I can move on to MegaTraveller with a clear conscience. Next!


  1. I think the cheatcomplete was an appropriate compromise, and hats off to the code boss who exported the maps to excel.

    I look forward to reading about (the somewhat infamous) megatraveller, the P&P version was very popular back in the day, though the recently kickstarted edition received poor reviews.

  2. Well, I am glad in the end that you did finish it, and I thank anonymously your benefactor- awesome of this person. I wish I had what it takes. I haven't even started yet :) Thank for you scratching your itch. Peace out, dude. Peace out.

  3. If you consider the complete 32 hours of gaming time it is more than fair to rush/cheat the last part of the game. With this amount of gaming hours it has the lowest rating in your ranking list. Therefore hats off for your effort!

    Never heard about Megatraveller (P&P and the game) but I like SiFi settings. Looking forward to it.

  4. Congratulations, I hope you're mind is at peace now.

  5. Not that it matters, but I completely approve of this style of cheating - it's exactly what I would do to finish a game that's gone on for far too long. You would have found the proper key eventually, but why spend hours doing that just to see a text-based ending screen? Since you're going to be hitting a lot of poorly-made shareware games now, go ahead and hex-edit your way through the worst of them!

  6. Congratulations on finishing the game. Even though I think this kind of work is wasted on playing bad games when we could all benefit from your time reviewing better products.

  7. Nice job Chet, a good compromise between abandoning it and not getting the winning screens.

  8. You constantly amaze me! And you have a particularly devoted and talented set of readers!

    Reading my previous message, I realize it might have come off as too negative to the creators, but I think I was onto something when I said they had looked at Bard's Tale and Wizardry and had a casual approach to the game. The devs comments are hilarious.

    But I still question the commitment to take on all shareware titles! I can see the reason for Dragon Sword, since you had already plunked 30+ hours into this game. But all future shareware CRPGs? I personally wouldn't mind if you skipped some.

  9. Brian's reaction to discovering Dragon Sword on the Internet is pretty amusing. On the Internet everything is available and nothing ever truly disappears.

    It'll make elections a lot more interesting in twenty years or so.

    1. ...and now it will NEVER go away:

      If you think the music was horribly rendered in DosBox...wait til you hear it rendered through a web browser that's running DosBox :)

    2. Oh, god. Winning this in a browser, with no ability to save, would require something like 50+ hours of constant play. Good luck to anyone who tries that.

      I'm glad it made the cut, though.

      As for Raifield's comments on elections, I don't know. The availability of information extremely readily and quickly has not stopped a large percentage of the populace from continuing to believe staggeringly idiotic things.

    3. This reply has aged wonderfully. Stupid internet ruined everything! (Not that things were ever really better before. )

  10. I recommend that you do NOT play the Amiga port of MegaTraveller, even though it may look nicer. But you weren't gonna do that, were you? I did, in the nineties. Nice game I thought, but after 3-4 hours, every time I played, it started glitching out on me, by preventing me from landing on planets. Instead, the screen would just blink and leave me adrift in space, thus making the game unbeatable.

  11. I was considering an idea for a blog: A series about obscure sequels and spinoffs, trying to find some that expatiate the original. Can you please give me some hints about how to do such a blog? I did make a blog before, but it was nothing like this or what I am proposing.

    Sequels I am curious to examine: Elder Scrolls: Battlespire, Little Men, Saladin III, Megami Tensei 2, Shin Megami Tensei if, Earthworm Jim 3D

    Sequels I am loathe to try: Quest for Glory 4.5: So You Thought You were a Hero, The Tortellis. Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Vacation, CHUD 2: Bud the CHUD, Fountain of Dreams, Bubsy 3D

    Can you please give me some advice, and do you have any ideas? Should there be any interesting computer games to put there, is there any possibility of getting a guest post? I do have experience with computer games, like Sierra, Lucasarts, Legend, Infocom, Origin, the good years of Bioware, Gold Box, etc, but I usually play Japanese games and you have a lot more experience and knowledge in the platform.

    1. Best advice - just do it. Don't expect a massive audience at first. Keep writing. Listen to people as they show up. Keep writing. Don't expect other people to plug you for at least several months worth of work. Keep writing.

    2. QFG 4.5 has surprisingly a lot going for it.

  12. Also, the thing that makes you prove your legitimacy after creating your post is getting more annoying and awkward, and you are still getting spam. Is there any alternate to that?

    1. I don't think so. If I turn it off, I get 5x the spam that I get now. I might still be getting spam, but it's a manageable amount of spam.

  13. Congratulations to the Addict, and many thanks to the anonymous wonderful Belgian!

  14. Congratulations! I was hoping you'd find a way to the end of Dragon Sword. My thanks to the anonymous individual who helped out, and to the game developers for their candid comments.

  15. I guess since everyone else is congratulating you for cheating your way to the end of the game, I'll be the lone voice of dissent :) There didn't seem to be anything wrong with this game, and since it allows saving I would probably far prefer playing it than Wizardry. I always cheer along vicariously as you conquer these games, and jumping to the end leaves me feeling hollow (somehow, I'll get over it though). My suggestion for games like this that are playable but longer than you like is to break them down into manageable segments: one level a week, for example, with occasional quick updates on your progress at the bottom of posts about other games. Anyway, I'm slowly but surely catching up and in a few months will at the present!

    1. I guess it's because most of us are here as observers - just spectators looking at an archaeologist digging up a site and providing his own insights on what he has unearthed.

      Whatever way he did may not be to the liking of everyone but we do appreciate him taking the time to dissect them in a cogitative and organized manner. He might have broken a few of them to see what is inside them but it usually is done because it takes too much time to pull the contents out since there are way too many other more interesting artifacts to inspect.

    2. Well, I appreciate the perspective. I can't imagine that the posts would have been very entertaining if I'd kept playing honestly, but it might have felt more like a victory. Overall, I think Kenny's response sums up my feelings.

    3. Week 454: Killed another freaking ogre. See you next week.

  16. this was an absolutely crazy, roller coaster ride.

    especially at the end, there. kudus to the person who did all that sleuthing and provided you with the maps.

    props to the developers also, who - as teenagers - dreamed up this game.

    but yes, absolutely. sometimes games just go for TOO long and this was very much one of them.

    glad to see a won post for dragon sword, either way. even if you had to have a giant asterisk beside it.

    onward! [in my case, to 2015 of your blog. :)]


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