Friday, February 27, 2015

Space 1889: Roleplaying Belloq

The five-member party bravely takes on the single member of a German archaeological team.

Space 1889 is turning into a giant treasure hunt in which one clue leads to another, and that one to another, ultimately to some distant goal that's left nebulous given that the party solves the instigating adventure within the first few hours.
When we last left the game, my party was in New York, which had an Army office, an inn, a pawn shop, a tavern, and a weapon shop. I found Hans Ogleby at the inn and gave him the "London Report." He told me that he was the wrong person to speak to, that Nathaniel Johanssan in San Francisco was the guy funding the expedition to King Tut's tomb. He suggested I speak to Johanssan to see if he would "permit me to join the excursion," which is not what I was after at all, but whatever. Ogleby gave me a letter of introduction to give to Johanssan.

In the Army office, I found a "Doctor Vincent Buembats," who offered to train me in medicine if I brought him a new doctor's bag. Since I had just purchased one from a pawn shop a few moments earlier, I gave it to him and was rewarded with a 1-point skill increase in medicine. This type of character development is probably all I can expect from the game, as you don't get any experience from combat or otherwise employing your skills.

Time to go to San Francisco! Let's check out the journey:

I just walked across the country in 10 seconds. Even in the game's internal clock, it only took 5 days to walk from New York to San Francisco. The entire North American continent is about 15 squares wide and consists of New York, San Francisco, Teotihuacan, and some random shops. At last, folks, we have a game that's less realistic in its geography than Ultima II.

San Francisco was indistinguishable from New York or London except that there were numerous entrances to caves. There, the game simulated the famous Gold Rush (of like four decades prior) by allowing me to interact with other miners (sample dialogue: "We don't need another gold-digger around here. Why don't you beat it?") and dig at random places on the floor for a cash reward.

Ah, the famous caves of San Francisco.
Nathaniel Johanssan said I was too late; he'd already funded the German expedition. But he gave me a map of the excavations and told me to head to Egypt.

Blowing open a wall with dynamite--the way real archaeologists do.
The "City of Egypt" contained a few buildings and an expanse of desert. At the far south of the desert, I found an entry into a tomb. I couldn't get very far into the tomb--just a couple of corridors--until it occurred to me to try using my dynamite on one of the walls. Even then, I kept blowing up my own characters with the dynamite, until I realized that a character with a high "Engineering" skill needed to be the one to set it off.

On the other side of the wall, I met some unhappy Germans.

I guess he's evil because he's a "henchman."
I had to kill about three of them in combat. Ultimately, one of them had a note indicating that we were in a "false tomb" and the real tomb was 14 paces south from "the Eye of the Desert." (Why were the Germans still in the false tomb, then?) Returning to the desert, I found a sand formation that could reasonably be called the "eye," walked 14 paces south, dug, and found the entrance to another tomb. (Given that there were people in it, why did I have to dig for it?)

What is this supposed to be? A hatch? A manhole cover?
Inside, I killed maybe 5 more Germans, including the leader of the expedition. Johanssan's map led me to dig at the location of a secret stairway to King Tut's real tomb.

There, I was rewarded with a pile of "King Tut's jewels" plus a stone tablet with a map of the solar system. This was a bit of a mystery.

Anyway, my party basically just ambushed and killed a legitimate archaeological expedition, blasted through ancient walls with dynamite, and stole priceless treasures that ought to be in a museum. We also stole a priceless mask from a museum and gave it to Heinrich Schliemann for $240,000. I don't think we're the good guys of this universe.

Heinrich, if you ever get to Troy, here's some advice: dynamite!

The treasure hunt continued. In Egypt, a woman named Mary needed a "fever serum" that I finally found at a doctor's office in London. She gave me a message to bring to Alfred Hobbs in New York. He, in turn, gave me a set of lockpicks that he had crafted to open a tomb in "one of the pyramids in Mexico." Off to Teotihuacan we went, where we solved a puzzle that would take longer to describe than it's worth in order to reveal the lost location of Atlantis, behind a wall that I needed to, you guessed it, blow open with dynamite. Yes, in this game, finding Atlantis is a small step in the main quest path.

My favorite part about this process was the "map of the Latin America shore." Unless I misunderstand the term, I'm pretty sure the "Latin America shore" includes both coasts of Mexico, Central America, and South America, not to mention several Caribbean islands. Of course, in this game, that's about seven tiles.
Preparing to blast a hole in a fairly obvious place.

It took me a while to figure out that we all needed to be equipped with "water-breathers" to reach Atlantis. Once I arrived, I was greeted in the most boring manner possible by the Atlantians.

I can't understand a German without a bunch of gibberish on the screen, but ancient Atlantians speak perfect English.

Somewhere in Atlantis, I found the tomb of Captain Alonzo Quinton, one of the "five legendary Red Captains," who must be a big deal in the tabletop game setting but aren't mentioned at all in the manual for the CRPG.

That's a lot of decomposition for two months.

The tomb wasn't ancient: the Atlantians releated that Quinton had visited them just a couple of months ago, looking for "a set of sacred manuscripts written by our remote ancestors" that "existed long before Poseidon punished [the Atlantians] for their arrogance and betrayal." Unfortunately, the captain died when he was unable to survive in the highly-pressurized oxygen atmosphere of the city, something that didn't seem to bother my characters at all. Quinton's notes said that if he could find the scrolls, "the mystery in Angkor will be solved."

The Atlantian scrolls, recovered from Quinton's tomb, translated the stone tablet I had found with King Tut. The translation refers to Tutankhamen as "God King of the Stars, sent to rule Egypt by an immortal race of supreme beings whose kinship to the Earth and its people is everlasting." It went on to say that since his job on Earth was finished, his spirit could journey to the stars and "once again drink from the Fountain of Immortality and Ultimate Wisdom" or some nonsense.

You don't suppose that the Fountain of Immortality and Ultimate Wisdom is the main quest of the game, do you?

The Atlantians turned hostile on the way out--they wanted us to stay and teach them about Earth or something. After a few pointless battles (all battles are pointless with no experience or character leveling), I just started walking past them and managed to reach the exit alive. They shot at me, but it doesn't really matter, since healing is so trivial in the game. You just enter the "Cure" screen, select a character to perform the doctoring, and select the patient. Sometimes, the action doesn't restore the character to full health, but you can immediately do it again.

Off, then, to Angkor, where the scrolls translated the carvings on a stone altar: "For the valiant in mind, body, and spirit, the secrets of life, wisdom, and immortality lie hidden in the bowels of the sacred companion of the Red Cyclops." I don't know what that means, but red is generally associated with Mars, and I've already explored everything on Earth. I guess it's time for the game to live up to its title.

Translating a stone tablet in Angkor. If you were going to pick only 6 cities to exist on Earth in 1889, one would certainly be the capital of Cambodia.

During this process, it became clear, in a kind of ex post facto way, that perhaps my merciless slaughter of the German archaeological expedition was somewhat justified. According to one NPC, the Germans "are out to conquer the universe." Look, I'm all aboard with making the Nazis villains of films and games, but I'm not sure it makes sense to demonize "the Germans," especially in a game set in 1889. Granted, the Second Reich was a bit imperialistic, but so was almost every European power of the time.

The funny thing is that the setting has some natural villains. Reader BronzeBob wrote with some additional information about the Space 1889 setting, including that the Confederacy won the Civil War after Lincoln died of an illness in 1862, so slavery was never abolished. The game's villains could have easily been CSA expansionists looking to extend the slave system off-world.

Using the water-breather lets us walk on the water.

In content, Space 1889 feels much more like an adventure game than an RPG, and not a particularly good one. Only a few puzzles have required more than a moment's thought, and almost all of them have been solved with dynamite. So far, I've seen little need for the various skills that the game assigns to the characters, but maybe that will change when I finally get to space.

Time so far:  7 hours
Reload count: 2*
*Only 2, but one was a whopper. I had just blown open the wall to Atlantis and didn't realize that one of my characters had been caught and killed in the explosion (I guess "detonite" is a lot more powerful than dynamite). It was several saves later before I realized I was toting around a dead guy, and the only other saves I had were from before visiting Egypt. I ended up replaying a huge part of the game. That's why I finished up in Angkor at 308 days when some of the earlier shots from Teotihuacan show me in the 400s.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Game 176: Space 1889 (1990)

Space 1889
United States
Paragon Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, Atari ST; 1991 for Amiga
Date Started: 22 February 2015
I have been trying without success to find articles, testimonials--heck, even rumors--that would explain why Game Designer's Workshop gave Paragon Software the rights to make computer games out of GDW's tabletop RPGs. Did the principals of each company know each other from college? Did Paragon just make a really good pitch? It was a non-obvious choice. Where the union of Dungeons & Dragons and SSI was a match made in heaven, and Flying Buffalo's decision to go to New World for Tunnels & Trolls was perfectly understandable even if the result wasn't fantastic, Paragon should have been far down on the list of developers to turn anyone's intellectual property into a CRPG. Their achievements prior to 1990 were Alien Fires: 2199 AD (1987), perhaps the weirdest (and not in a particularly good way) RPG of the 1980s, and the unsatisfying Wizard Wars (1989). The company got a license from Marvel to do X-Men, a couple of Amazing Spider-Man games, and The Punisher, so perhaps GDW was impressed by that.

Whatever the case, in my assessment, Paragon bungled the job. Traveller and Space 1889 are both interesting RPGs with fairly large fanbases, rich histories told in numerous associated publications, and solid, skill-based role-playing systems, none of which are well adapted in the computer versions. Good computer editions of GDW's properties could have greatly increased their popularity and produced long-lasting franchises, but instead they fizzled right out of the gate, offering nonsensical stories, bad game mechanics, and bafflingly poor combat systems. (I won't see until next year whether Twilight: 2000 continues the trend, but I'm willing to bet that it does.) Contemporary reviews of the titles are best described as "lukewarm," and the games are little-remembered today. While Paragon's efforts didn't cause GDW to go out of business in 1996, they certainly didn't help.

The cover for the tabletop Space 1889 rulebook covers several themes from Victorian-era society and science fiction.

As with MegaTraveller, the 86-page manual that comes with Space 1889 is the best part of the game, outlining the unique universe of the tabletop RPG. The setting uses an alternate history in which the ideas of Victorian-era science fiction writers (and, in some cases, scientists) are a reality. The buzzkill scientific discoveries of the 20th century (there's no such thing as aether; other planets are not only lifeless, but lack water and livable atmospheres; traveling through space is really hard, long, and dangerous) haven't happened, so in this setting, we have steam-powered ships sailing through the aether to colonies throughout the inner solar system, and humans interacting with the crab-people of Mercury, the lizard-men of Venus, and pointy-eared Martians. A key element of the universe is "liftwood," a plant that grows on Mars and has anti-gravity properties, greatly facilitating space travel.

In the computer version, the player controls a party of five characters, one designated as the lead. The five characters, all with some archaeological background, meet in London at an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts. They overhear two men discussing the recent discovery of King Tut's tomb and a forthcoming German expedition to excavate it. On the spot, the party agrees to beat the Germans to the tomb and its treasures. Somehow, we're going to get from there to Mercury and Mars.

From the opening screens.

The character creation process isn't as fun as MegaTraveller, but it's still pretty interesting, and as with MegaTraveller, I suspect it's destined to be one of the more enjoyable parts of playing the game. The process begins by choosing a sex, name, and portrait for the character from an all-Caucasian selection. While the male portraits do look like characters out of a Jules Verne adaptation, the women all have distressingly-1980s hairstyles.

Space 1889 uses six attributes--strength, agility, endurance, intellect, charisma, and social standing--each ranked on a scale of 1 to 6. Each attribute has 4 associated skills; for instance, strength has fisticuffs, throwing, close combat, and "trimsman" (the ability to "maintain a liftwood vessel in proper order") and intellect has observation, engineering, science, and gunnery. For each skill, the character can achieve a rank between 0 and his level in the associated attribute (e.g., a character with a strength of 4 will never go higher than 4 in "fisticuffs"). As with MegaTraveller, I have no idea which skills are going to turn out to be vital for 1889 and which are going to be useless.

Each character has a primary career that automatically assigns a selection of skills and skill levels. I loved reading through the list of careers. There are 27 of them (some with multiple levels) organized into 7 groups: government (e.g., army, navy, foreign office); exotic (big game hunter, adventuress, reporter); service (actor, governess, groundskeeper); mercantile (inventory, mechanic, seaman); professional (detective, doctor, scientist); and criminal (poacher, smuggler, anarchist). There are attribute minimums associated with most careers (e.g., you have to have an agility of 4 and an endurance of 5 to be a big game hunter) and some careers are only available to characters with low social standing. Sex plays a minor role: only women can be "adventuresses"; the career of tutor/governess changes title based on sex; and technically women who enter military careers are assumed to be passing for men.

You can choose a primary career and secondary career, or choose just a primary career and then assign other skills from a pool of points. One career, "master criminal," can only be taken as a secondary career by a character who has a primary career based in crime. You can even create your own career and assign the appropriate restrictions and skills!
I was briefly tempted.

Attribute rolls are random and not dependent on each other, so with a little patience it's possible to create a character with every attribute at 4 or above. For my team, I went with:

  • Griffin, highest attributes in social standing (6; making him a member of the aristocracy), strength (5), and charisma (5). He had a career as a navy officer and develped skills in eloquence, riding, piloting, leadership, observation, and fisticuffs. I used the extra skill points to bolster what he already had and give him ranks in "trimsman" and "bargaining," since no one else had those.
  • Prendick, who had 5s or 6s in everything but social standing (2). I made him a big game hunter and developed his skills in stealth, marksmanship, travel, and observation.
  • Perdita, the only character to whom I assigned two careers. She could have done almost everything with her 5s and 6s in the first five attributes, but her social level of 1 relegated her to the working class. She became a thief and then a master thief, developing high skills in fisticuffs, stealth, crime, travel, observation, eloquence, and theatrics.

Perdita got a pretty rad attribute roll, if you don't care about social standing.

  • Dejah is Perdita's opposite: a detective with 4s and 5s in all attributes. She duplicates some of Perdita's skills but also has engineering, a little science, riding, and medicine.
  • Julian is the classic Victorian gentleman inventor of the group. He has very low strength and endurance (2s) but high intellect and agility. He excels in mechanics, observation, engineering, and science, and has a little skill in gunnery.

The completed party. I'm on Perdita's statistics and attributes.

Character creation is fun, but after that everything goes to hell. The game starts at the British Museum exhibition, with a long journal entry from the main character (in my case, Griffin), where he concludes that "I became a skilled professional in the [navy] career. But, after seeing these priceless treasures, I fully realize that I cannot hide from my true identity--I am an adventurer!"

The intro goes on to say that the main character overheard a German named Claus von Schmelling talking about an upcoming expedition to the Valley of the Kings. Determined to get von Schmelling's map, Griffin rounds up the other 4 party members, all attendees at the exhibition, and with little trouble, persuades them to join him.

The opening narration.

After the intro screens, the game transitions to London--perhaps better referred to as "London," a small walled city of trees, grass, ample cobblestone walkways, about 5 buildings, and about a dozen NPCs. No need to grab a bus to Amesbury; Stonehenge is right there in the city limits. And if you head outside the gates, you can walk to Egypt in about 30 seconds. Who knew England was so conveniently-located?

The main adventuring screen. The portrait and statistics show the character currently in the lead. The bottom of the screen shows the available commands.

So far in the game, I've been to London, San Francisco, New York, and the "City of Egypt," and all of them look exactly the same. The game makes no effort to evoke the feeling or culture of these cities in the late 1800s except in the briefest of nods to contemporary stories like the Whitechapel murders. It's extraordinarily disappointing to see such bland results from what could have been the richest of settings.

London contains an archaeologist who will identify found artifacts, a cave that you can't explore until you get a light source, the British Museum, a food shop, an inn, a tavern, and several wandering NPCs. Most of them are generic folks who just say "greetings!" and whatnot, but there are a few named ones with side-quests and interesting things to say.

Outside the archaeologist's shop.

The main quest seemed to involve finding Claus von Schmelling, and it didn't take me too long to run into him, still walking around randomly two weeks later. He offered to sell the map, but I figured why bother to buy it when I had such a skilled thief in the party? I used the "rob" command to pickpocket his documents. They mentioned a Hans Ogleby in New York City.

I knew I brought a thief along for a reason.

Nearby, I found a gun shop and outfitted several of my characters with rifles, handguns, and associated ammunition. I discovered at this point that I started with a ton of money, probably enough to finance me for the entire game, thanks to the high social standing of several characters.

One of the wandering NPCs was Chief Inspector Doyle, who offered a reward for "the capture of the Ripper, dead or alive." It wasn't long before I found someone who looked like he fit the bill.

Although he warned me about the Ripper, his tune changed when I approached him with a female character in the lead. Again, we have what could have been an interesting sub-plot handled in the most ham-handed way.

This man has some issues.

This interaction triggered the game's combat system. It's quite bad, perhaps even worse than MegaTraveller. In it, you cycle through the characters and issue various orders: attack, change weapons, reload, move, block, and flee. You obviously have to move characters up to the enemy to engage in melee attacks; characters with firearms will shoot from a distance but have to have a clear shot (no other characters in between), so combat is a lot of micromanagement of movement and positioning, hampered by unintuitive keyboard commands. Jack the Ripper went down quickly, but I imagine larger combats will get annoying.

Fighting Jack the Ripper. The bottom part of the combat screen lists all characters; the letters at the bottoms of their sections annotate the 7 actions they can perform.

As I fought Jack, for some reason other NPCs in the area decided that they were part of the action and started firing on my characters. Fortunately, I was able to exit combat after killing Jack, but what the hell?

In any event, Jack's body revealed a knife and his scalpel, which I took to Chief Inspector Doyle for a $2,500 reward--barely a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands my characters already had.

That felt a little too easy.

Another side quest came along in the British Museum, where I encountered the famous proto-archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. Speaking in a kind of pig-German which might be considered a little offensive to actual Germans, he relayed that he would reward me for any artifact that proved the existence of Homer, the Greek poet. [Edit: Apparently, what's happening is the lead character failed a "linguistics" check, which causes random garbage to be interspersed with the actual letters. This was not an attempt to render German or to make fun of Germans. I apologize for the error.]

In the tavern, an NPC named James Alexander Grimes (not based on anyone historical, at least not as far as I can tell) sold me his blueprints for an "aerial flyer" called the Pride of Sussex.

At some point during my travels, I noted that the game kept telling me that the characters were hungry. The game has both a hunger and fatigue system. The former is easily addressed by buying hundreds of days' worth of food from the food shop; it barely costs anything and weighs nothing. As for fatigue, I don't really understand it. Time passes quickly and relentlessly in the game. Nothing pauses it except the "pause" command. Days blow by while you're walking down the street, buying items in a shop, or just looking at the party inventory. Given how rapidly time passes, I'm not sure what good it does to periodically rest for one night in an inn.

When I was done with London, I headed outside to go to New York City. I'm happy to say that the game doesn't let you walk there. Instead, you have to go to a harbor and rent a dirigible or boat for a fixed time period. I rented a dirigible for 30 days, sailed across the Atlantic, and returned it at the harbor on the other side, getting a refund for 17 days. The area was swarming with buffalo and Native American NPCs.

America at last! My zeppelin hovers outside the entrance to New York City. A pawn shop sits to the southeast, and a couple of American Indians wander nearby.

There was a pawn shop just outside New York City. It sold everything but weapons, so I stocked up on adventuring gear, including books (Conklin's Atlas of the Worlds and Handy Manual of Useful Information; Robb's Medical Companion and Household Physician), navigation instruments, tools, shovels, armor, lanterns, rope, and gunpowder.

Some of my new stuff.

I end the game having entered New York City, which is indistinguishable from London in its tree-lined cobblestone streets and expansive farmland. When I next write, I'll pick it up from my encounter with Mr. Ogleby.

Some random notes:

  • The manual doesn't say anything about the possibility of improving characters' skills. Like MegaTraveller, Space 1889 doesn't feature any experience or leveling, but at least in the tabletop version it's possible to acquire new skills and improve existing ones. I'm not sure it's possible in the computer version, making the game technically not an RPG by my rules.
  • In the 176 games I've played so far as part of this blog, I think maybe three have featured textual descriptions of inventory items. This game is one of them. I look forward to seeing more of this as the 1990s develop.

  • The British Museum was full of chests, but there doesn't seem to be any command that opens them, unless I'm missing something.
  • The pawn shop outside New York City sells a metal detector. The manual says it's supposed to weigh 100 pounds, but it actually weighs 1,000, meaning no one can effectively carry it. I bought one, but I sold it back when I saw the bug. Maybe I won't need it.
  • My dialogue with a Native American needs no embellishment:

I'm surprised they didn't just add "me smokum peace pipe" for good measure.

My initial experience with Space 1889 makes me want to play the tabletop RPG and stop playing the computer RPG. Let's hope it gets better or, at least, doesn't last very long.

Time so far:  2 hours
Reload count: 0

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Quest for the Unicorn: Lore Tour

Finally, someone has something to say about unicorns!

A few hours into Quest for the Unicorn, I realized two things. First, I had no idea where to go or what to do. Second, hunger comes upon you so quickly that it discourages random outdoor exploration. You burn all your food in minutes.

Needing some direction, I decided to travel around to the major cities via the "travel agent" and collect as much lore as possible. (There's a travel agent in each city; I'm not sure if the transportation is supposed to be magical or if I'm paying for passage in a carriage or something.) To fund this journey, I first had to spend a lot of time exploring the dungeons, picking up loot, and lugging it back to town for resale every time my pack got full. Fortunately, I didn't have any trouble finding dungeons. Every city seems to have one nearby, and there are around 60 total in the game.

Exploring a dungeon. I'm in the upper-right. To my left is a scroll (either lore or spell), an orc-like monster, and a cleric NPC. I don't know why NPCs can walk around unmolested by monsters.

Both The Land and Quest for the Unicorn have pretty good economies. It takes a long time to earn money, especially at low dungeon levels, and there are lots of wonderful things to spend it on--mounts, ships, skill level increases, lore searches, and magic items among them. I didn't really get to experience this in The Land because I used the broken "Die Square" gambling game to make hundreds of thousands of gold pieces in less than 10 minutes. But this game, lacking such an exploit, forces you to collect items for resale to get rich.

It'll be a long time before I can spend money on training.

The one major economic imbalance is that the cost of item identification is far greater than the item value. For instance, I currently have a "periapt" around my neck that costs 2,500 to identify but sells for only 784. Thus, I find myself selling lots of magical stuff (primarily weapons) without ever finding out what it is.

Selling my pack items. This spear is clearly magical, but it will cost more than it's worth to tell me exactly how magical.

The inventory system in this engine is reasonably good. You get a lot more equipped slots than the typical RPG, including four belt slots and four rings. I don't really like the way the pack works, though. Every time you want to eat (in dungeons or towns), read a scroll, or quaff a potion, you first have to get the item into the "up in air" slot, which means using the (t)ake from pack command and scrolling through the items one by one until you find the one that you want. I wish Mike had implemented some contextual filtering here, so that when you choose (r)ead, only readable items appear, and when you choose (e)at, only food and drink appear. Especially when your pack is loaded after a dungeon exploration, it's annoying to scroll through a bunch of pikes, spears, swords, shields, and armor to find the iron rations I want to eat.

Chester's inventory slots. I'm not sure what a Cloak of Elvenkind does in this game, but it seems like a good thing to have.

From NPCs in the dungeons and in towns, I've been able to expand my party to include a pixie, an acolyte, and a "prestidigitator." You get NPCs to join you by simply hitting "J" when standing next to them, though they don't always agree. I also bought a horse in one of the cities (only one city, I think, sells mounts), and he shows up as a party member. Party members have their own levels and hit points, and they earn experience from successful kills in combat. They control themselves when you fight.

My party member roster.

And the party in action, against a couple of orcs.

Based on Mike Riley's comments, I edited the configuration to increase the maximum dungeon level to 5. Since dungeons get harder as you go down, by having them only go to 2 levels, I was ensuring I'd always get easy combats and thus not progress very quickly. While I was editing the file, I also set the flag to go into "full combat mode" for all encounters. This forces the game to bring up the tactical combat screen even if I'm only facing a single enemy (by default, you fight single enemies on the main screen and parties on the full screen). This has a couple of advantages. First, it lets my party members participate in the battle. Second, it means that I'm not the only one taking hit point damage when we fight. Third, it allows me to hang back and fire ranged weapons while my party members swarm the foes. Finally, you can stand and wait on the combat screen after all enemies are dead, recharging hit points without passing time in the real world.

As I said, in between combats and dungeon visits, I visited the eight major cities of the land, in turn, via the travel agent, (t)alking to everyone I could find to amass lore entries. The first seven cities had mostly geographic and historical information ("Lake Quenar is located inside the Ring Ridges"; "Solat was once the capital of the Old Realm but is now only ruins"), but I hit the jackpot with the eighth city, called Nichorville. (Perhaps for this reason, it was the most expensive to travel to.) Almost every dialogue resulted in a piece of quest-specific lore, differentiated from the others by text color.

One of three pages of lore.

When I was done with my "lore tour," I knew that the game world is an island continent called Halkanar. Its capital city is Malduk, and the land consists of a number of provinces and regions, including the Northern Realm, Radon Valley (named after a wizard of the same name), the Great Desert, the Kobold Mountains, Marduk Vale, and the Enchanted Lands.

The unicorns disappeared a long time ago from the Valley of the Unicorns. They were apparently captured by someone named Eshter and taken through "the Gateway." I don't know where the Gateway is, but I know that three items are needed to enter it: a Talisman to find it, an "Aurafax" to activate it, and the Amulet of Yathun to enter it.

The Talisman was last in the possession of someone named Elanther. I don't know who he was except that he was "the builder of the Talning rod" and his followers built a series of temples. In a place called Elanther's Forge, he was defeated by someone. Elanther's Forge is in the Ring Ridges, which are in the Enchanted Lands, east of the Radon River. Since Radon River flows past the starting city of Radon, I have a basic idea how to start searching for this.

The Aurafax was last in the possession of Caldnar, a deceased mighty wizard last seen in the Northern Realm. His tomb reportedly holds a "mystical light weapon."

The Amulet of Yathun was last seen in Larkon, once a major city until it was destroyed "during the Caldnar Droughts." (During that event, or sometime before or after, will-o-wisps drove the people away from the city.) The ruins of Larkon are at the head of the Anjar River, north of the Enchanted Lands.

Lore also talks about:

  • A great sword that existed in the Old Realm. It might be the same mystical sword that was "once lost in Areth Knoll," a valley in the Coastal Mountains, which are located west of the Great Desert. I assume, therefore, this is on the west side of the game world, but I otherwise don't know where to go.
  • A "strange machine" that can be found under Lone Peak. It might be the same machine that's called the "picture machine," which only works at the bottoms of dungeons.
  • A "Triad of Might" consisting of a Crown of Might (last seen in the ruins of Solat, located northeast of New Solat, a visitable town), a Sceptre, and an Orb of Might (rumored to be in the Black Hole). You need all three pieces for their power to work.

There are a number of open questions, including the location of Caldnar's Tomb and the location of the Orb of Might, but these assembled facts gave me a little to go on, and I decided to head east from the Radon River and see if I could find the Enchanted Lands. So far, I've been stymied by a wall of uncrossable mountains, making me suspect that perhaps one does not simply walk into the Enchanted Lands. A pegasus, the lowest level of flying party member, costs 125,000 gold, so either I have to find a way around the mountains or start saving up for this mount. (The most expensive, a platinum dragon, costs 750,000 and sounds awesome.)

The automap fills in as I try to make my way east.
Lots of miscellaneous comments:

  • You find a lot of scrolls in dungeons. Some of them have lore similar to what you'd get in the towns; some are spell scrolls; some have gibberish. I assume the latter ones are lore scrolls but I didn't make a "Language" skill check.
  • One more level and my paladin starts getting spells.
  • I still haven't "proven my worth" to the Cavalier's Guild. I don't know what they want from me.
  • Five of the eight cities use the same map. This is great because the cities are quite large, and it's hard enough to memorize the store locations on a single map, let alone eight separate ones.
  • There's a snake-like creature in the dungeons that has a special attack that puts me to sleep. I don't know how many turns it lasts, but it lasts long enough for the creature to kill me every time.

A snake slowly kills me while I doze.

  • I have no idea why you'd pay for healing in a town. Hit points recover at a rate of one every couple of steps, and if you're already in a town, it's an easy matter to just regenerate by walking around.
  • When you're outside, the (e)at command selects food from your backpack automatically. When inside, it forces you to select the ration or drink from the backpack. I wish it just automatically selected your meal every time.
  • There's really good in-game documentation of icons--another reference to the game's roguelike heritage.

I like the engine and mechanics of Quest for the Unicorn, and I admire what Mike tried to do with such a large, open world to explore. Like a lot of early games (and shareware titles in particular), a lack of variance in the dungeons and an overall lack of content undermine the size and ambition of the game, but it's still reasonably fun. I do wish Mike still had the manual and backstory.

It seems likely that there will be a lot of grinding coming up, so I'll probably get started on Space: 1889 while I try to complete this game.

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 18 


Coming up, I've already started to play Space: 1889, and  you should see a post about it on Tuesday. Looking past that, does anyone want to try to convince me that Circuit's Edge is actually an RPG? It has RPG-like attributes, yes, but it doesn't seem to have any character development (aside from inventory-based development), and the entire feeling of the game is more akin to an adventure game. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Moria: Fly, You Fools (with Final Rating)

Braving traps and locked doors to get a piece of armor.

United States
Robert Alan Koeneke and Jimmey Wayne Todd Jr. (developers); open distribution 
Released 1983 on VMS systems; ported by various developers over the years to multiple platforms, including DOS, in 1988, by Don Kneller
Date Started: 23 December 2013
Date Ended: 18 February 2015
Total Hours: 74
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)*
Final Rating: 38
Ranking at Time of Posting: 77% (136/177)
Ranking at Game #458: 365/458 (80%)

*I originally rated the game as "very hard" (5/5), thinking only of my ability to find the balrog and end the game. I later reflected that in terms of general mechanics, improving the character, and staying alive, Moria is relatively easy (for a roguelike), so the new rating is a compromise between the two.

I'm giving up on Moria, version 4.873, as ported to DOS by Don Kneller of San Francisco in 1988, because I'm not convinced that it's winnable. Even if it is, it would have taken me longer than I was willing to invest, even with save-scumming.

After the last post, I slowly made my way down to Level 50, returning to the surface every 5 or so levels to spend my hard-earned gold, usually on Scrolls of Identification. (I eventually got the spell itself, but it failed so often, it was still worth the money to buy the scrolls.) During my explorations, the spell that did me the most good was "Teleport." Basically, every time I got into an untenable fight--particularly on the lower levels with dragons, liches, and vampires--I simply teleported myself away. If a level just seemed irredeemable because of too many of these foes, I used a staircase or a Scroll of Recall to get out of there permanently.

One thing I like about the game is that the dungeon level seems to adjust the maximum (or perhaps average) difficulty of the foes, not the minimum difficulty. Even on Levels 50-60, I'd still encounter creatures that I was capable of defeating, and thus continue to level up. I managed to make it to Level 30 legitimately.

Eventually, when I reached dungeon levels beyond 50, I settled into a pattern by which I would explore the level as much as possible. When I got to the point that I'd explored the whole thing, or as much as I could without rousing dragons, liches, and vampires, I'd go up or down at the nearest staircase and start a new one. Every so often, I'd use a Scroll of Recall to get to the surface, spend my money, figure out my items, and then use another Scroll to go back to a regenerated level.

Just after I used "Teleport" to escape a lich.
I was save-scumming quite liberally throughout this process, of course. I had to reload about once per level. I sometimes (shamefully) reloaded if a creature drained my experience too much, although I tried to keep potions to negate this. I never got to the point where I was able to defeat some enemies--primarily ancient dragons and liches--in a stand-up fight, despite being ranked "Superb" in fighting.

Towards the end of my playing, there were interesting dungeon constructs like this, but none of them ever held the treasure I was seeking.
Despite all my efforts, there were a number of things I expected to encounter on these lower levels and never did:

  • The Balrog. Sites based on later versions suggest that there's a 50% chance that he'll be generated on any level below 50. In almost 30 visits to levels below 50, I never found him. Granted, I was unable to exhaustively explore the levels, but still--you'd think I'd have run into him once. Even though I was probably incapable of defeating him, I at least wanted to know that he was there

I cast "Locate Monsters" frequently and found everything but the capital "B" I was hoping for.
  • Any item that conferred permanent speed or "haste." Every site says these items are vital, but I never found one, and I'm not convinced they exist in this version. When I finally hex-edited my character up to Level 33 so he could cast "Haste," there was no indication on-screen that he was faster, although I did notice that he seemed to get a few more attacks in combat. There's no mention of the word "speed" in the manual for this edition, if that provides any evidence one way or the other.
  • Any item that conferred permanent "see invisibility." I had to rely on scrolls and staves for this, and sometimes they just didn't seem to work, especially against ninjas--good candidates for the most annoying RPG enemies ever--who show up, poke you, laugh, steal items from your backpack, and then take off with a "poof!"
  • Artifact weapons. Moria sites talk about weapons called "Holy Avenger" and "Defender" and "Slay Dragon" and such, but I never found any of these.

On the other hand, this famous beast did eventually show up. I did not last long against him.
The slowness of leveling has also quenched my desire to keep playing. In about 38 hours spent on the character, I made it to Level 30. When I quit, he had 122,242 experience points and I was earning about 2,500 points for each foray to the lower levels, which took me maybe 30 minutes per visit. In order to get to Level 33 to test "haste," I had to hex-edit my character to 350,000 experience points, which would have taken me another 140 visits at 70 hours.

I'm pretty confident that a save-scumming player could win Rogue in less than 10 hours and NetHack in less than 20. But I found this version of Moria unwinnable, even with save-scumming and hex-editing in almost 40 hours. And before you ask, hex-editing to godlike levels wasn't an option because this version caps you at some level between 30 and 40 depending on class.

Some comments in a 1996 Usenet post by creator Robert Koeneke may shed some light on my difficulty:

[Between 1983 and 1985], I listened a lot to my players and kept making enhancements to the game to fix problems, to challenge them, and to keep them going.  If anyone managed to win, I immediately found out how, and "enhanced" the game to make it harder.  I once vowed it was "unbeatable," and a week later a friend of mine beat it!  His character, "Iggy," was placed into the game as "The Evil Iggy," and immortalized...And of course, I went in and plugged up the trick he used to win.

Koeneke's last official version was 4.7 or 4.8 at which point he provided the source code to the world. At least one history of Moria page indicates that the next released version, "based on Moria 4.8 sources" and developed at the University of Buffalo, had false Balrogs starting on Level 50, but the real Balrog not showing up until Level 1200! While I never encountered any Balrogs, real or false, is it possible that Balrog not showing up until Level 1200 is a carry-over from Koeneke's 4.8? Based on his comments, I wouldn't put it past him.

Most of my commenters, as well as various Internet sites, seem to be familiar with the various UMoria versions that were developed after 1990, plus Angband, an expansion of the game. It's tough to find sources specific to 4.8 or earlier. Even the manual that came with the DOS version of Moria 4.873 was written in 1994, well after these variants, and mentions features (being able to type a number followed by a command to indicate executing that command that many times; the need to manually (G)ain new spells; the use of a tilde to specify an action until something changes; the implementation of "monster memory") that don't actually exist in the 1988 DOS version.

It's possible that I just got extremely unlucky with the Balrog's generation and with my artifact finds, and that this version is entirely winnable, but until I see some confirmation or get any hints specific to this version, I'm going to move on and instead trust my luck against the Balrog in Angband, coming up on my 1990 list.

A few things I didn't otherwise mention in the previous posts:

  • Encumbrance is fairly generous in this version. I never got a message that my load was too heavy. Instead, you're limited by the number of different types of items.
  • I also like that you don't have to equip wands and staves before shooting with them.
  • For most of the game, I kept a pick as my secondary weapon, so I could quickly swap it in with the "x" key when I wanted to tunnel into a wall. But I kept forgetting to swap it out again afterwards, and some hours later, I'd notice I was attacking a golem with a pick.
  • Unlike in NetHack, if a thief steals your items in Moria, there doesn't seem to be any way to get them back.
  • You get a small amount of experience for disarming traps. I can't remember a previous game that does this.

All right. Based on my experience so far, here's my GIMLET. I mention the year 1983 a lot of times below. I'm aware that this version is technically from 1988, and I don't know for sure what features were available in the original version, but I'm assuming that in all areas, the core elements, at least, were present in 1983.

  • 1 point for game world. Roguelikes hardly ever do well in this category. There just isn't enough of a backstory or consistent theme.
  • 5 points for character creation and development. This category is more advanced in Moria than any other game of the era. There's an extensive creation process (including the cute backgrounds), the choice of race and class really matters, and there's an original skill system. Leveling up is very rewarding and occurs at a reasonably good clip until about Level 20.
My final character sheet.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. The only NPCs are annoying beggars and rogues who accost you on the town level.
  • 5 points for a nice mix of standard D&D derivatives and original inclusions for foes. Again, we have to remember that in 1983, there weren't many CRPGs that did a good job implementing all the strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and defenses inherent in tabletop RPGs. Moria and Ultima III are standouts in the year.
  • 6 points for magic and combat. Again, a category in which roguelikes exceed most other RPGs until the late 1980s. Only Wizardry and Ultima III come close in this era. You have melee and missile weapons, spells, magic items, and a variety of tactics to help you overcome foes, including highly-original features like spiking doors.
  • 7 points for equipment. There isn't a single game, roguelike or otherwise, that had such a complex approach to equipment in 1983, and very few afterwards. NetHack does it better with the ability to use so many items in conjunction with each other, but Moria does it pretty damned well. A solid equipment system is really the backbone of any roguelike.
  • 6 points for the economy. This is the first roguelike I've played to do the economy well. With so many useful things to buy back in town, I never felt that I had too much money. I just wish that some of the higher-order magic items had been available for obscene costs.

There's always cool stuff to buy. Here, I'm loading up on Potions of Cure Critical Wounds.

  • 2 points for the quest. It has one; that's about all you can say.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface--all going, of course, to the interface. I like nothing better than a bunch of keyboard commands, easily referenced with the ? key, that make logical sense.
  • 2 points for gameplay, the most disappointing category. Moria is punishing even by the standards of roguelikes, requiring far too much effort and time even for a successful character. It gets points for replayability, since different classes experience very different challenges, but in length and difficulty, I just found it exasperating.

The final score of 38 is extremely high for the era. It is the second-highest score I've awarded any game before 1985 (the highest was the 51 I gave Ultima III), and it shows, once again, that roguelikes generally outstrip other CRPGs in mechanical and logistical categories. (I'm still waiting for one with a great story, NPCs, and a solid quest system.) If only Robert Koeneke hadn't been so determined to defeat his players, this early version might have been truly outstanding by my standards. I look forward to seeing how it got adapted in Angband, which is coming up on my 1990 list.