Sunday, April 26, 2015

Game 187: Operation: Overkill (1990)

This appears to be an alien hand holding...something.

Operation: Overkill is a BBS door game--a phrase that I'm writing for the first time in my entire life and still don't fully understand what it is. I mean, I looked it up on Wikipedia and everything. Here's the link. I like to consider myself a pretty smart guy, and I definitely understand the conjunctions and indefinite articles in the first two paragraphs, but I'm fuzzy on everything else. Although I was alive and young for it, I really missed the entire BBS era, much as I am doing with social media in the 2000s. Three decades from now, someone will be reminiscing about Candy Crush, and I'll have no idea what they're talking about and no frame of reference to understand it.

Without commenter HunterZ, who sent me some instructions for making the game work on my computer, I wouldn't be playing it at all. Having jury-rigged some kind of solution to mimic a BBS on my own computer (I think), I've gotten the game running, but I lack confidence that it will stay running, particularly since it's bent on kicking me out after a certain amount of time, and every time I want to play, I have to run a maintenance program that changes some things.

Operation: Overkill was created by Dustin Nulf, a programmer with a moderate game portfolio, usually as the audio programmer or music composer. This game was  his first, and his online resume suggests he might have been in high school when he created it. He kept maintaining it throughout the 1990s; the version I was able to get running is 1.20, with a copyright date of 1996-2001. His c.v. says that he sold 3,000 copies.

The title of the game is somewhat confusing. Almost every web site and database has it as Operation: Overkill II, with no word on the first game in the series. The game's main executable is called "OOII," lending credence to the II part, but its title screens generally just say Operation: Overkill. I say "generally" because the game has a variety of title screens that it chooses at random when you start up, and one of them does say "Part II" on it. None of the others do, nor does the copyright screen.

This alternate opening screen is the only one to indicate that the game is "Part II" of something.
The game takes place in 2060, decades after a nuclear war wiped out most of the human population. To avoid contamination of the planet's water supply, humanity somehow converted it to "water crystals," which serve as the world's currency. As if a nuclear holocaust wasn't enough, Earth was soon invaded by the forces of the planet Hydrania, ruled by a merciless commander named "Overkill." Overkill and the Hydrites stole most of the planet's water crystals. The remnants of humanity live in an underground complex, protecting the last of their precious water, sending scavengers to the surface to find food and more crystals. On the surface, they must contend with Hydrite marauders, mutants, bandits, and other assorted monsters. There is a vague main quest to find and kill Overkill, but it isn't well-elaborated.

A bit of the in-game backstory.
The game is all text, though with some occasional navigational graphics. It plays a lot like a roguelike, particularly since I assume death is permanent (I haven't died yet). In the base, which serves as a kind of "town level," you can buy and sell weapons, armor, and equipment, get healed, store money, practice combat, train to level-up, and interact with other players.

The main base offers some basic navigational graphics.
Characters begin with 18 strength, 21 dexterity, and 21 hit points, and they can enroll in a training program that makes small adjustments to the totals. At each level increase, they can raise one of the three attributes by 4 points.

The brief character creation process.
Outside, the wasteland occupies multiple "levels," each with coordinates extending from 0,0 to 24E, 29S. I assume the map is randomly generated for each new game, though I'm not really sure how this worked with multiple players. Not all the squares are used; the entire wasteland is ringed by impassable rock, and the interior has a variety of terrain, including mountains, water, swamps, desert, and radioactive areas. In my explorations of the first "level," I found a couple of missile silos (these just seem to serve as temporary camps where you can rest and meet other characters), an abandoned Air Force base, and a hole that goes down to the other levels; I guess the other levels are meant to be underground, but they have the same terrain as the initial one.

The outdoor navigation screen. The infrared scanner shows that I'm on flat terrain (in the center). Flat terrain surrounds me to the west, east, and north, but south of me are impassable rocks. I've just encountered an enemy.

My map of the first "level."
There don't seem to be any fixed encounters in the wilderness areas. Instead, you randomly bumble into enemies like scavengers, cobra-men, bandits, rabid dogs, and giant frogs. At least one non-combat encounter, with a weird gypsy named Aurora, moves randomly around the map. She tells you answers to questions for a sacrifice of your attributes.

An encounter with the only NPC so far.
Combat uses an interesting combination of real-time reaction and underlying attributes. Each round, a series of As, Bs, and Cs scroll along the screen in groups of 5, and the game tells you which one you're looking for. When your desired letter group appears, you hit SPACE or ENTER, and if you caught it before all 5 letters went by, you score a hit. At that point, damage is based on your weapon and strength. I think the speed at which the letters scroll by is based on your dexterity.

A bit of the action combat system. I like the descriptors.

For players that don't like the action-oriented system (or had laggy modems, I guess), there's an alternative system based on random rolls against your dexterity, but I found that I miss a lot more using the random system. Either way, for all its originality, combat offers few tactics, making it long and boring, and the game promises to offer hundreds and hundreds of them.

Fighting using the "statistical" method gives me nothing to do but watch helplessly.

Each character can carry both a melee weapon and a long-range weapon. The melee weapons range in quality and value from a steel chain up through a "TransAxe," an electric sword, and something called a "Tevix-Bahn." Ranged weapons range from a "Trialism" through a "Z-Tempest." Most of the weapon names are invented by the author, but the neat thing is that you can get a full description of each item in the base, making this one of the few games so far with item descriptions.

This looks like the thing that Worf uses.

If you have a ranged weapon, you have the option to squeeze off a shot at the beginning of combat. If your foe doesn't have a ranged weapon, that's a freebee for you. After that first round, the enemy closes with you and you have to fight with your melee weapon for the remainder of the combat. I don't know if there are any combats with multiple ranged rounds, but I haven't fought any yet. Even opponents with guns generally run into melee range after the first round.

Usually, you can loot items after combat, but occasionally something like this happens.

There are four types of armor, each with a specific number of "hits," and two types of suits: environmental suits (which protect against radiation) and combat suits. There are a large number of miscellaneous items, including ropes (for climbing up and down the levels), medpacks, "summoners" to increase the number of random combats, "Galacticoms" to enable translation, gas masks, and explosives. These things are all sold in the base, but I've found that it's easy enough to save money by waiting for enemies to drop them.

Purchasing equipment.

The annoying thing is that you can only carry 2 weapons and 5 inventory items at a time, making looting items for resale, which would otherwise be very lucrative, almost impossible. Apparently, you can build your own base to store items in--up to 100--but these cost over 100,000 water crystals, and I haven't possessed more than 15,000 at a time yet.

Like any good post-apocalyptic game, radiation and disease are problems. Your radiation level increases slowly as you explore the terrain. If it goes above 50%, you can't get back into the base, and if it goes above 75%, you start to lose attributes. I don't know if there's a way to cure radiation without returning to the medical bay at the base, but I've been doing that frequently. It's fairly expensive, and most of my money has been going to de-radiation. There's also a variety of diseases you can catch in the wasteland, including malaria, yellow fever, rabies, and polio. Fortunately, you can pay to vaccinate yourself against all of them. After a near-fatal bout with "Delyria," which causes you to move in random directions, I spent all my money on vaccinations against everything.

Getting vaccinated. How the post-apocalyptic society managed to develop vaccines for all these diseases is unexplained.

In about 2.5 hours of gameplay, I rose to Level 5. When I hit Level 5, I got a notice that future training sessions would cost 5,000 water crystals, and the experience and money rewards from creatures on Level 1 of the wasteland would be substantially reduced, making this one of the few games of the era to impose level scaling.

An unwelcome message upon reaching Level 5.

I've started to explore Level 2--though I don't know if maybe I should go to the Air Force base first--and have found more difficult monsters but better equipment. As I noted above, I haven't died yet. I don't know if the game gets a lot harder later, but so far I've found it easy to survive as long as I keep medkits with me and use them when I get below 50% health.

Operation: Overkill isn't bad, but neither is it offering anything particularly enjoyable. It's shaping up to be something like Fallthru with a smaller game world. I've had no leads on a main quest, but some of the things I was able to ask "Aurora" about, including launch codes for missile silos, the locations of keys to some kind of cells, and the location of an "Oracle," suggests a broader plot to come.

My character on leaving this session.

Naturally, I'm missing a huge part of gameplay by playing this by myself. Playing it on a BBS allowed players to talk to each other during gameplay, send each other e-mails, trade water crystals, form "squadrons," and kill and loot each other. I'm getting none of that, but then again I don't particularly want to play with other people. I guess I'm setting a standard here that as long as an online game offers a single-player experience, I'll play it if it's still possible.

I jumped into this game because I was having trouble getting back into The Savage Empire after a week's absence from it. These two in-progress titles are all that remain of 1990. Let's see if we can wrap them up this week.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Game 186: Hack (1984)

Hack [v. 1.0.3]
Independently developed on Unix systems from 1982-1984; ported to DOS in 1984
Date Started: 20 April 2015
Date Ended: 24 April 2015
Total Hours: 7
Reload Count: 6 characters; 16 reloads on final character
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 101/184 (55%)

Here's one reason that roguelikes are awesome: while anyone reading this post could identify a roguelike in an instant, to the uninitiated (which, let's face it, is most people), they don't look anything like games. They look like work. An average person glancing at my monitor thinks I'm using some kind of retro graphing calculator or an early DOS version of AutoCAD. He thinks, "Man, I always knew Chet was smart, but whatever that is is hard core."

All week, I've been in a series of meetings and events that didn't exactly require my full concentration but had people hovering around my computer frequently. The Savage Empire was definitely out, as were most of the other games on my upcoming list. I needed a roguelike. Since I kicked Angband to 1993, the next obvious choice was the original Hack.

I can't remember why I missed Hack when I first passed through 1984. I probably looked for it but couldn't find it or didn't try very hard. Having already played Rogue and the first generation of NetHack, I rather expected that Hack would be an obvious evolutionary step, perhaps halfway between the two. (Reading the posts on both will greatly assist roguelike novices in understanding this one.) Instead, I was surprised to find a game that was almost indistinguishable from the first versions of NetHack. By the time of its DOS release, Hack had left Rogue far behind, and the improvements made between this game and early NetHack are few and subtle.

The opening screen from an early version of NetHack. Note how similar it is to the screenshot at the top of this post.
Some history is in order. Rogue was created by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold on Unix systems at a couple of University of California campuses in 1980. My understanding is that they didn't intend for it to be open-source software; in fact, they eventually marketed it through several companies, with varying degrees of success. But other programmers found it easy enough to knock off, and they generally made their creations open-source. This led to the entire roguelike genre.

A fortune cookie message hits a little close to home.
A game known as Hack was first programmed in 1981 by Jay Fenlason and other students at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts. [Ed. This sentence originally said 1982, but El Explorador de RPG confirmed a 1981 date in his coverage.] By most accounts, the game was essentially identical to Rogue except that it featured more monsters. (Some sources say that it had shops and pets, but Andries Brouwer says those were his additions.) In any event, Fenlason et. al. released Hack with an open-source license a compilation tape from the nonprofit group USENIX. This tape found its way to Andries Brouwer, a mathematician, computer scientist, and professor at the Mathematisch Centrum in Amesterdam. Brouwer greatly improved the game from its Rogue roots and introduced most of the elements that distinguish it from earlier incarnations, including:

  • Multiple classes that start with their own inventories
  • Shops
  • Pets
  • Intrinsic attributes gained by eating corpses
  • Complex interactions between monsters, items, and the character, such as a dragon's breath hitting other enemies in your path or destroying your scrolls
  • Ability to backtrack to previously-visited levels
  • Special rooms like vaults and "treasure zoos"
  • Ability to write on the floor
  • "Bones" files 
  • Fortune cookies with associated "rumor" messages
  • A special set of levels on which the Amulet of Yendor is found

The adventurer stumbles into a killer bee hive.

There's still plenty of opportunity for later development by Mike Stephenson and the rest of the NetHack development team. The item and monster lists are about half of what modern NetHack aficionados are used to; there's only one way up and down; you don't get the option to identify your possessions or see your intrinsics when you die; there's no "blessed" status or altars; there are no spells or spellbooks (making the wizard class a dubious choice); and while "pray" exists as an option, the manual is quite frank that it doesn't do anything. But the basic structure of NetHack is here, and it's clear we need to credit Andries Brouwer as the most important founder of the game.

Shops are a particularly welcome addition.

Brouwer released the game on Usenet in December 1984. He offered a patch a month later, an updated version (1.0.2) in April 1985, and a third version (1.0.3) in July 1985. The three versions show as much evolution as we see from Hack to the first NetHack. Adjustment of luck based on phases of the moon first appeared in 1.0.2. Designation of the lower levels as "Hell" (and the need for fire resistance) also appeared in 1.0.2, as did the Wizard of Yendor in a special square in the middle of a level (in the first version, the Amulet of Yendor was found under a rock). Version 1.0.3 first required players to reach Hell via teleportation, and it also introduced "wizard mode" for the first time.

In October 1985, Hack 1.0.3 was ported to DOS by Don Kneller, who would later port Moria. Kneller didn't seem to know Brouwer by name, crediting the development of the game only to "several people at the Stichting Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam." Reading his notes on the game, we come across this shocking paragraph:

Saved games have no special protection, so you can save a game and make a copy of the save file. Then, if you die trying something risky, you can use the copy to restart your game from the same place.
Folks, this is the author of the first PC port of Hack telling us that it's okay to save-scum. Imagine the time I could have saved myself with NetHack a couple years ago.

Hack offers six character classes: tourist, speleologist (later replaced by the more common term "archaeologist"), fighter, knight, cave-man, and wizard. Version 1.02 introduces the ability to specify sex. There are no attributes other than strength. I played a little with each class and finally settled on a knight to go for the win. Having already won NetHack 2.3e and NetHack 3.0.9 legitimately, I didn't feel any particular compulsion to do this one the hard way. I backed up my save file before each new level and ended up reloading 16 times.

If my adventurer is killed in Hell, where does he go?

I didn't find it very difficult to survive within the first 15 levels as long as I took my time. Beyond Level 15, as the monsters get harder, the game becomes a lot deadlier--particularly since the game caps the character at Level 14 (a liability that continues through the early versions of NetHack). It's important to improve strength as much as possible through Potions of Gain Strength and eating Royal Jelly (from killer bee hives) or spinach, as well as weapons and armor through Scrolls of Enchant Weapon and Scrolls of Enchant Armor. Eating the right creatures conveys fire resistance, frost resistance, regeneration, invisibility, and other intrinsics. I was never able to get poison resistance, and I'm not sure what other intrinsics are available since you can never see them and never get confirmation of their acquisition.

Strength increases a point.

There are fewer options for getting yourself out of tight situations than in NetHack, and I learned to prize various wands and scrolls, including Wands of Teleportation--which send monsters off to a random location--and Scrolls of Teleportation, which do the same thing for the character. While you can get ESP by eating floating eyes, there are no blindfolds in this version, so the ESP only helps when you get temporary blindness from eating rotten food or getting blinded by yellow lights. As with later versions, teleportitis and a Ring of Teleport Control are the most important intrinsic/item pair in the game.

Below Level 25, the levels become a series of mazes. Paradoxically, the game becomes a little easier in the maze section because each level has a dead-end in which a Wand of Wishing lies beneath a boulder. You have to have a pick-axe or a Wand of Teleportation to get rid of the boulder (there might be other ways), but a couple of those wands goes a long way towards finishing your ascension kit. Unfortunately, there are no Scrolls of Recharge in this version.

After Level 30, the maze levels are designated "Hell," and you need fire resistance (either a ring, or by eating a dragon) to survive. You also have to find a way to teleport into it. There are no down staircases after Level 29, so the only way to reach Hell (and the Amulet of Yendor) is via level teleportation. Later versions of NetHack give you several ways to accomplish this, including Cursed Scrolls of Teleportation and level teleportation traps, but in this version, the only way I could find to reach Hell was to read a regular Scroll of Teleportation while confused and in possession of a Ring of Teleport Control.

The Wizard of Yendor and the Amulet of Yendor supposedly appear at a random level between 30 and 40, but I found him right away on 40. He's surrounded by a wall, which is surrounded by a moat, so you need some mechanism of getting past the water and the walls. I found that a Wand of Fire evaporates the water and a Potion of Levitation lets you cross over it. As for the wall, a Wand of Digging or a pick-axe do the trick.

The Wizard is a pushover in this version, since there's no real magic or magic resistance. I killed him quickly with my sword, and grabbed the Amulet from his body. This version's Wizard doesn't resurrect and harass you all the way to the exit.

Once you have the Amulet, the rest of the game--just as in the first versions of NetHack--is a breeze. All of the up staircases are in the same location in the maze levels, so once you find it on the Wizard's level, you just have to keep hitting CTRL-period to quickly pass through all the other Hell and maze levels. Once you get to Level 25, you have to navigate from staircase to staircase, but the game remembers the maps from previous visits, and if you have teleportitis, it's a simple matter to just teleport yourself from the down staircase to the up staircase.

When you go up the staircase from Level 1, the game tells you your score and number of moves.

For someone who has played a later version of NetHack, Hack feels fairly primitive. But just as I noted with Moria in the previous year, Hack was undoubtedly the most complex, tactical game of 1984. It's not until 1985-1986 that regular RPGs start to rival roguelikes in the complexity of their mechanics, and as late as 1990, no commercial RPG has come close to the Hack/NetHack line in the complexity of inventory and inventory interactions.

On a GIMLET, this game gets:

  • 0 points for not even the slightest description of the game world in the manual.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The selection is limited and the level cap is a huge turn-off.
  • 2 points for NPCs. You know what gets those two points? The pet. I forgot to reward other versions for this addition. I typically abandon the pet because I find it annoying to constantly maneuver around him, but it's still a unique and interesting element of the game.
  • 5 points for foes: a terrific variety of monsters with special attacks and resistances.

I wouldn't have minded if this had waited for a later version.

  • 4 points for magic and combat. The combat system is deceptively sophisticated with all the item-based tactics you can use, but there's no magic system to speak of.
  • 6 points one of the best varieties of equipment that we've seen to date, and the ability to use items in complex (but logical) ways to solve puzzles.

A mid-game inventory shot.

  • 2 points for the economy. You might get a store on an early level, might not. If you don't get one, there really is nothing to do with the money you find except score extra points.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no decisions or branches
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, all for the interface, which is intuitive and well-documented.
  • 4 points for challenging gameplay that, while linear for each game, offers a lot of replayability.

The final score of 30 is better than anything else in 1984 so far, but a little lower than the 36 I gave to the first edition of NetHack. The variance actually surprises me a little because I feel like it played about the same, but looking through my notes, I see that NetHack offered enough features to get an extra point here, an extra point there. In any event, it's hard to recommend Hack for modern players with more advanced versions of NetHack available, but I'm glad I played it for its historical value.

I hope to get back onto a regular schedule next week and continue on with The Savage Empire. I have no idea why I have this kind of lull every single April.


For further reading: Check out my posts on Rogue, this game's antecedent, and my posts on NetHack v. 2.3e (which followed Hack) and NetHack v. 3.0.9.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Savage Empire: Neither Savage nor an Empire

Love or hate the game, this is a pretty awesome scene.

I've often remarked that while Origin was competent at "creating worlds"--better, indeed, than any other developer of the 1980s--they generally fell short of greatness. Their world-building often falls apart under scrutiny. The gargoyles, presented as misunderstood victims, are actually pretty vile when you think about it, and their virtue system makes no sense. The explanations for the extinction-level physical changes to Britannia's landscape are just absurd, and don't even get me started on Ultima II and its planets. When the world-building doesn't fall apart under scrutiny, it's just a little too tidy. Britannia's eight major cities, each based on a virtue, with docile NPCs spouting platitudes like "STRIVE FOR HUMILITY!," seem more like one big cult than a viable socio-political system.

Given its history, I've been alert for The Savage Empire being a little too cute. For instance, the three "totems" needed to cast spells are Heluzz, spirit of knowledge and vision; Aphazz, spirit of emotion and strength; and Molazz, spirit of battle--which of course correspond with the three principles of truth, love, and courage. For a while, I thought the various tribes were somehow going to be organized around the eight virtues, and that may in fact be the case. (There are actually nine tribes, but the Urali are supposed to be weird outliers who no one knows where they came from.) For instance, the "Disquiqui" are said to be "happy, musical, and rather notoriously amorous," which somewhat fits with the bards of Britain in the main series. The Pindiro have a "one with the land" thing going on that may associate them with the rangers and the virtue of spirituality. But on the whole, if this is what the developers intended, it's very subtle.

The manual's depiction of some of the tribes.
More specifically cloying for this game is the way that each tribe represents some aspect of "primitive" Earth cultures. The character portraits and NPC dialogue hint at this, but the game book makes it explicit. The Yolaru are Africans,  the Nahuatla are Aztecs, the Barrab are Asians, the Disquiqui are Polynesians, the Kurak are South American Indians, the Haakur are Neanderthals, and the Pindiro are North American Indians. Eodon is about the size of EPCOT, and yet these tribes have managed to maintain distinct cultural identities over what must have been thousands of years.

Whether by ignorance or design, Origin does a good job treading the "cultural sensitivity" line sometimes, as we discussed in association with Tangled Tales and Ultima VI's "Miss Mandy." They're never actually what I would call "offensive," and yet they sometimes elicit a groan, as when the Barrab are described as having yellow skin, or in Professor Rafkin's note about the Polynesian Disquiqui: "I always recall how and where Captain Cook died, and keep my wits about me when dealing with the Disquiqui." For the record, Captain Cook died while trying to kidnap the King of Hawaii to hold him for ransom.

I don't want to give the impression that I really care about this stuff, because I don't. I don't really think that anyone at Origin hated Mapuches, or that the game somehow hampered Caucasian-Polynesian relations. If I was an ethnic Zulu, I wouldn't feel offended. It just suggests a certain failure of imagination. Like a million things they did, Origin started with the germ of a good idea but failed to take it beyond the usual tropes.

'Cause nothing says "Native American" like feathered headdresses
As gameplay goes, it's been tolerable so far. Not Ultima VI quality, but a decent quasi-expansion. It follows the typical Ultima dynamic of offering a large game world which you navigate by a non-linear approach, taking notes as you talk to NPCs and find clues, juggling multiple quests at a time.

I decided to explore the north part of the map first and see if I could find Topuru, the exiled ex-shaman of the Urali, who supposedly knows where the Urali live (no one else does). The first camp I ran into belonged to the Pindari. From them, I learned that Topuru lives on an island west of the Barako camp, and that I'd need a raft to get over to him. A raft, meanwhile, requires four people to paddle in unison; the Pindari get their paddles from the Disquiqui far to the south.

Fortunately, I found my fourth party member in short order. Shamuru--Shamino's doppleganger from the introduction--was waiting on the road between the Pindari and Barako villages. Like Triolo, he said he had been found by the tribe after wandering out of the jungle with no memory, so it's possible that he actually is Shamino. His fellow Barako villagers revere him as a "great hunter." Talking about things like Lord British elicits a faraway look. Another clue was that Shamuru was wearing leather armor, which wouldn't otherwise seem to exist in Eodon. I gave the armor to the Avatar, the only character who fights with a melee weapon. Everyone else has a bow.

Another clue: Shamuru is white.

The Pindari had told me about a stranger living in a cave north of the village, and I found him after some exploration. He turned out to be Fritz, a colleague of Professor Spector; as per the backstory, both had disappeared while studying the rogue moonstone, which they recovered from a dig in Guatemala.

And the German scientist manages to insult about a dozen cultures in the space of two sentences.

Fritz related that after they were in Eodon, Spector found a crystal skull in an underground city to the southwest. He referred to the crystal skull as a "brain" and said that he (Spector) could use its energies to conquer the Earth. (One wonders if the crystal skull drove Spector insane, or whether Origin thinks that a German's default use for any artifact is to try to conquer the world.) Fritz ended up stealing the "brain" from Spector and fleeing to the cavern. He gave me the skull and 60 rounds of ammunition but declined to join me for fear that he'd run into Spector again.

The Barako village was astir because a great ape had recently kidnapped the village chieftain's daughter, Malisa. The villagers say that they can see the ape on the top of a cliff, but they can't get to him. I, too, found him lurking at the top of a cliff, but I couldn't find any way up to the plateau. There were a couple areas where it looked like I should be able to perhaps attach a rope to a tree, but maybe I need to find or fashion some kind of hook first. Nothing I tried worked. Mild hints welcome here.

I suspected I'd have to travel all the way down to the Disquiqui village to get paddles for the raft, so I was surprised when I found a bunch piled next to it. I nearly didn't see them--the color contrasts in this game are the worst I've ever experienced. As usual, I suspect it's my colorblindness, but those of you without that problem can tell me your opinion. I suppose it makes sense, given that we're in a jungle, that everything seems sort-of camouflaged.

Can you see the four paddles just south of my lead character?

Using the paddles (one in each character's inventory), I made it over to Topuru's island. Topuru is the insane, exiled shaman of the Urali tribe, banished by his own apprentice, Wamap. He promised to tell me where the Urali "hide" if I would bring him his "mind," which he claims he lost in a magic battle to Balakai, shaman of the Barrab tribe, far to the southwest.

Topuru makes a reasonably funny joke about Aiela's abductor.

In the meantime, Professor Rafkin had given me a list of some items necessary to build rifles and grenades. For instance, a grenade requires a strip of cloth soaked in tar, gunpowder (charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulphur ground in a mortar), and a hard clay pot. I started looking for these items in the wilderness and in the villager's huts. Eventually, I assembled the rifle items, but Rafkin insists he needs to be in his lab to make one. His lab is supposedly southwest of the Kurak (starting) village, but I haven't been able to find it yet. I'm going to search a little while longer and then continue with the main quest if I can't find it.

Soon, I'll be able to defeat the Gorn.

Given the name of the game, I was expecting a lot more combat, particularly with hostile tribals. Maybe that comes later, but so far the only enemies have been random dinosaurs. Since they are, you know, dinosaurs, I feel rather bad about killing them, and I would have expected my party members to offer more incredulous exclamations. There have been a few attacks by big apes, too. So far, I don't think any of my party members have increased in levels. I don't know if there's something I have to do to get that to happen, or if I just haven't earned enough experience yet.

Fighting a pteranodon while walking across a rope bridge feels very cinematic.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Night comes very fast. I'm constantly having to rest for the night to make it go away. Bumbling around a village and finding all the NPCs to talk with can easily burn a day or two.

Fighting at night. The game won't let you rest until you've cleared the area of monsters.

  • While I love the engine's ability to designate an active character, I sometimes forget to turn "party mode" back on until my main character has wandered miles away. It's annoying to have to get everyone back in the same area again.
  • NPC dialogue is my favorite part of Ultima games, and this off-shoot didn't adapt it very well. Each village has maybe three important NPCs and 6-8 generic NPCs. None of them, even the important ones, have very many things to say. I had hoped that through dialogue, we'd learn more about the game world and its relationship to Earth or Britannia, but nothing that I cue them with enlists anything more than a few stock lines or issues of purely local concern. Again, maybe that comes later.

I feel like maybe I should have been able to get further with him.

  • I found a potentially game-breaking bug while talking with Fritz. When he first gave me the crystal skull, my lead character was already at the maximum of his encumbrance, so the item simply didn't show up in his inventory. I suspect this is going to be a necessary item later. Fortunately, I noticed what happened when it happened and reloaded.
  • When I enter combat, it's a complete crapshoot whether any of my party members fire their bows, even though I've set all their actions to "ranged." I may have to just take manual control of everyone.
  • The game has poison swamp patches just like Ultima VI. So far, I haven't found any mechanism for healing poison, so I've been avoiding them like the plague they are.
  • Using a knife on a slain foe results in meat and sometimes hides.

Dian Fossey had better not be around here.

  • The consensus from the last post is that there's no penalty for taking whatever you want to take from the villages. I've been trying not to go overboard with this, and only take what I absolutely need.

Such as arrows.

  • In the middle of the jungle, I found something that looks like a portal. Rather than investigate it and screw up my adventuring path, I marked it for later investigation.

You just know that this is going to be important.
  • I don't know what was happening with graphics outside the RPG genre, but I think this waterfall represents the most advanced water effects we've seen in RPGs so far. This reminds me: a few weeks ago, Irene and I were playing Dragon Age: Inquisition on one of the seaside maps, and we were remarking how awesome the water effects were. I couldn't remember any previous RPG that actually had waves. Anyway, I said to her, "No matter how good we think these graphics look, I guarantee you that there are people online complaining about how much they suck." The Internet did not disappoint.

Sorry it's been a week since my last post. Irene and I have had to move out of our house and put all of our stuff in storage while the interior is completely gutted and replaced. (The house suffered horrible water damage this winter.) Eventually, this might result in more time for RPG playing, but alas not just yet.

Time so far: 5 hours
Reload count: 1


Let's talk about Angband. I'm not sure I shouldn't regard it as a 1993 game instead of a 1990 game. My general tendency has been to play roguelikes in the year that they had their first general release, not in the year that they were first a gleam in someone's eye. Hence, I played Moria in 1983, not 1981, and I'll be playing Hack in 1984, when it first appeared on Usenet, not 1982, when some students at a Massachusetts high school were able to mess with it.

From what I understand, Angband first appeared on some Warwick University computers in 1990, but that was just a variant of Umoria. The first version that seems to have achieved general release under the name Angband--and the earliest version currently accessible--is from December 1993. (The official Angband site actually says it "eventually became Angband some twenty years ago in 1994.")

Hence, unless someone comes up with a compelling counter-argument, I'm going to bump it to 1993 and get one step closer to getting out of 1990.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Game 185: Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990)

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire
United States
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, 1992 for PC-98, 1993 for Sharp X68000
Date Started: 11 April 2015 
Re-use of a game's "engine" appeared in some of the earliest RPGs. For instance, Epyx built a dozen titles off the Dunjonquest engine between 1979 and 1982, and the programming framework of Wizardry (1981) served untouched for three games and slightly modified for two more, all the way through 1988. Eamon (1980) gave us the first engine specifically built to be modular, and Stuart Smith offered us a "construction set" for RPGs in 1984. By the end of the decade, we'd be knee deep in "Gold Box" games that offered the same interface and mechanics, and almost all of them are great games. These days, the fact that a game re-uses a popular engine is a selling point, not a point of criticism.

Given that, it's always surprised me how reluctant Origin was to re-use its Ultima engines. Ultima V, in particular, was brilliant. It could have sustained titles all the way through the mid-1990s and I'd be raving about them. But they used it once.

Thus, it's a good thing that the company got some additional mileage out of Ultima VI, one of the best game engines we've seen so far. Yes, none of us like how limited the map window is. Let's get past that. No other top-down game of the era--and few of any era--offers a more complex approach to inventory management and world-interaction. I like the Infinity Engine moderately better for combat, and of course the graphics improved, but in Ultima VI there are a score of things I can't do in the Infinity Engine, or the Aurora Engine, or almost any other engine for that matter, including repositioning objects to get a tactical advantage in combat, smashing furniture, setting fires, and using objects interactively with each other, such as storing common objects in their own bags.

(U)sing a random tree gives you a branch from it. Putting that branch in fire gives you some charcoal.
I wasn't looking forward to The Savage Empire going into it, and I still have some reservations about the content, but almost all of my fears evaporated when I started playing the game and remembered how much I liked the "sandbox" feel of Ultima VI. Add to this the detailed dialogue and virtue-based roleplaying that the Ultima series has become famous for, and I'm already hooked.

As with most Origin titles, the manual is particularly well done. It's credited to Aaron Allston, prolific writer of game manuals, D&D supplements, and novels set in the Star Wars universe. This, Wing Commander, and Wing Commander: The Secret Missions--all 1990 games--are his first video game credits. He died a little over a year ago, at age 53, after suffering a heart attack at VisionCon.

The creatively-presented game manual.
The manual is presented as a pulp magazine from the early 1900s, most of it written by the Avatar himself using that pen name. ("He's a modern-day adventurer who prefers to keep his identity a secret," the editorial introduction says, "But we've heard of him for several years and can attest to his courage, resourcefulness, and truthfulness." Note how "resourcefulness" replaces "love" in the three principles of virtue here.) The writing has taken place after the Avatar's triumphant return from The Savage Empire, but since this is only the first issue, we only get enough information to impart a backstory and a description of flora and fauna. The backstory covers 16 pages and is recapped in the game's opening screens.

The Avatar has been experiencing disturbing dreams of a faraway jungle and an endangered princess. Lord British has been showing up in these dreams, commanding the Avatar to find out more about a "ruined moonstone," so the Avatar decides to see his friend, Dr. Rafkin, curator of a local Museum of Natural History, because clearly a paleontologist is the right person to analyze a stone capable of opening portals to other worlds. At his office, the Avatar runs into "ace reporter" Jimmy Malone. "Oh, what a file we have on you," Malone says. "Every so often, you disappear for days on end. Usually come back really tanned. Your neighbors are curious about all that, you know...What's the story? You CIA? Helping US-backed rebels somewhere?" Why they don't assume I'm just flying to St. Croix for a long weekend is anyone's guess.

Is this the 1940s?
Anyway, it turns out that Dr. Rafkin has been analyzing a damaged moonstone, sent to him by a former student, who discovered it on a dig in Central America. The student's employer, a Dr. Spector, disappeared while examining it. When Dr. Rafkin starts frigging around with the moonstone, it opens a moongate and sucks the Avatar, Rafkin, and Malone into The Lost World, complete with dinosaurs and Amazonian tribesmen. Within moments, they come across a pterodactyl attacking a "she-warrior," Princess Aiela of the Kurak tribe. ("She didn't have the pouty, perfect features preferred by modelling agencies, but oh, she was beautiful.") The four of them manage to kill the beast before they're surrounded by Aiela's tribe. One of the tribesmen looks exactly like Shamino but calls himself "Shamuru."

The visitors pass some time with the Kurak people and learn that they're in an isolated valley called Eodon. Princess Aiela has lately been dreaming about someone who looks like the Avatar saving her from an insect creature. Shamuru is agitated because he thinks he recognizes the Avatar but can't place him. The Avatar is forced to explain to his companions about Lord British and Britannia.

I've told you I occasionally do favors for a foreign dignitary who goes by the name of Lord British. That's true. I sort of led you to believe that he was European, that his name was a code-name, but that's not true. British lives in a place--a world--he calls Britannia. I like to think of it as a distant reflection of our world. I get the impression, from his choice of names and other clues, that he's had some contact with our world, but I've never gotten the whole story out of him. [It's hard when all you ask about is NAME and JOB.]

The Avatar is about to go spend some private time with Aiela when the Urali tribe attacks, led by Darden the Huge, who wants Aiela for his own. The attack scatters the companions, the Avatar is knocked unconscious, and Aiela is kidnapped. Begin character creation.

She looks a bit like Courtney Cox, but she wasn't famous yet in 1990.
The character creation process mimics the gypsy from Ultima IV but with a tribal wise man in a dirt-floored hut, presented as Intanya, a healer who is trying to rouse the Avatar from unconsciousness. "In order to heal your spirit, Intanya must know your spirit," he says, and progresses through a series of role-playing decisions. 

  • You fight a warrior you hate, and knock his spear from his hands. Another blow and he will be dead. Will you (a) let him surrender, and spare him if he does, or (b) slay him where he stands? The fact that I hate him doesn't seem enough to warrant the death penalty. I hope I would choose (a), but who knows what I'd justify when the adrenaline is pumping?

I didn't get this one with my final character. It's the only one that offers a true dilemma.
  • One warrior borrows another's spear and fails to return it. Days later, he mislays his own spear and you find it. Do you (a) return it to him, or (b) give it to the warrior who is owed the spear? Another warrior's debt is none of my business. No one asked me to get involved in this. It's (a), naturally.
  • A huge, powerful warrior stands against you and demands you give him your food. Will you (a) throw his demand in his teeth and attack him, or (b) give him your food, since it is clear he is hungry? This is like the time I got mugged. I'd like to say (a), but in reality I'd probably do what I did in New Orleans, and go with (b). Since this is a fantasy game and I'm creating an ideal character, it's (a).

There's a larger bank of questions--I got different ones when creating different characters--but you only get three of them when you start the game. Instead of determining class, the answers seem to determine your starting attributes.

My starting stats. Don't I look like a proper H. Rider Haggard hero.
The game begins with the Avatar waking up to the ministrations of Intanya. In short order, the Avatar is having a dialogue with him, learning the fates of his companions. Scattered after the Urali attack, Rafkin found refuge with the Yolaru tribe to the east, Jimmy ended up with the Disquiqui tribe to the south, and Aiela's fate is unknown but presumably she's a captive of the Urali. Intanya loans his apprentice to the Avatar to help with his travels; the apprentice, Triolo, looks suspiciously like Iolo. He might even be: Triolo claims that he "came stumbling from the jungle, bereft of name and memory" some time ago and was taken in by the Kuraks. Anyway, the Kurak chief wants to see me before I head off looking for my friends.

I hope those wash off.
All right, let's get the backstory stuff out of the way. Yes, it's kind of stupid. The Avatar from Ultima IV was supposed to be the player's "avatar," not some specific guy who lives in a specific city, has a friend named Dr. Rafkin, and writes stories for pulp adventure magazines. Yes, Origin has reversed themselves, and the Avatar can no longer be anything but a white male with blond hair. Yes, the stuff the Avatar says about Lord British contradicts previous dialogue and manual text (the Avatar knows he's from Earth). Yes, in the real world of 1990, reporters didn't look and talk like a character in a Howard Hawks film. Yes, the game has perhaps too-literally adapted the conventions of pulp magazines when it comes to certain ethnic caricatures. I thought I was going to go on about all of these things for an entire post. But that's all I'm going to say--one paragraph. I'm going to seal all of that in a box and try to enjoy the game.

Gameplay starts in Intanya's hut, and even in this little space, we can see many of the things possible in the engine. I can (L)ook at the various objects on the floor (the three skulls are magic totems); (T)alk to Triolo or Intanya; search his pot for reagents and (G)et them; pick up some food; get or extinguish the torches on the wall, move the various items around to different positions, and finally open the door to leave.
Outside the Shaman's hut.

A couple of tribe members lurk outside. I talk to them. The game's dialogue system hasn't changed from Ultima VI. Everyone responds to NAME and JOB, and keywords that will lead to further conversation are highlighted in red, green, or brown. As in all Ultima titles, dialogue promises to be a huge part of the game, imparting quests and game lore. 

One change soon becomes apparent, though. Outside Intanya's hut, a woman named Tindira tells me that the Kuraks are the greatest tribe, at war with the Yolaru, Urali, and Myrmidex.  The Yolaru are a fierce tribe of black warriors. I'm going to have to talk to a madman named Topuru to find out where the Urali live (he's apparently a Urali defector). The Myrmidex are human-sized insects who "live only to kill." Their nest is to the west.

I then talk to a man named Padrag, and he tells me the same things, using the exact same language. So does the next guy, a tribesman named Enokor. And a woman named Jana, and a woman named Shalan. In all previous Ultimas, there were generic guards and whatnot, but usually all named NPCs have unique dialogue. Here, I guess we're going to see a lot more re-use.

The tribe's chieftain, Aloron, does have his own things to say. He's pretty upset about Aiela's kidnapping. He also directs me to Topuru, somewhere on an island in the far north, to learn about where the Urali live. His second daughter, Tristia, is nearby. She seems a little spoiled.

She also looks kind of mean.
And that's about it for NPCs in the Kurak village. The game doesn't seem to have a strong opinion about where I should go next. I could seek out Rafkin or Jimmy, or go look for Topuru to get intel on the Urali tribe, or go anywhere else, I guess.

In his initial inventory, Gideon (my Avatar) has only a knife. Triolo comes with a bow, some arrows, and some pouches filled with reagents. The huts around the village have a lot more stuff, including obsidian knives, food, cloth, spears, shields, and torches. I don't know if this is the kind of game where you happily loot that stuff or the kind of game where you lose karma for stealing. Figuring I'm off to rescue their kinsman, I take some food and a few other items from the huts.

Looting food from a house full of jaguar pelts.
By the time I'm done, night is falling. Knowing how much of a pain it is to navigate in the dark, I find an empty hut and (R)est until sunrise.
The world  map. You start in the upper-center.
I head north at first, looking for Topuru, before I realize I don't really have a plan for getting to an island and I don't know exactly where I'll find him on the large map. Since the Yolaru camp is much closer, I decide to turn east and go there.

Well, hell.
On the way, I'm attacked by an Allosaurus, who gets Gideon down to 2 hit points before we kill him. Combat in The Savage Empire is absolutely identical to Ultima VI, down to the way you can theoretically program companions to behave in specific ways, but they don't really follow the commands anyway. It was late in the battle before Triolo decided to finally use his bow.

I fight a carnivorous dinosaur with a knife while Triolo helpfully wanders off-screen.
Hit points don't regenerate automatically, so it's time to explore the magic system. There are three totem skulls in the game--Heluzz, Aphazz, and Motazz--and three reagent "offerings" you can make to each totem--chocolatl, pinde, and yopo. This leads to nine spells: light, eagle eye, detect hostile creatures, charm enemies, heal, protection, summon animal, curse enemy, and battle frenzy. You cast a spell by (U)sing the appropriate totem and then specifying the offering. I guess you have to be a shaman or shaman's apprentice to cast spells in the game. My Avatar can't, and among my companions, only Triolo can so far. Oddly, the game doesn't let me specify who to heal, but it seemed to figure it out anyway. Unfortunately, it only heals him 4 points, so I cast it a few times.

Triolo uses totems and reagents to slowly heal the Avatar.
Later, we fight another quick combat against a deinonychus. This would be a good place to mention that both the Avatar and his NPC companions start at Level 6 or 7. The character that makes the kill gets the experience.

The manual has Professor Rafkin's notes on the various tribes in the valley, and among his description of the Yolaru, we have the first hints that we might either still be on Earth, or that the people of Eodon (an obvious corruption of "Eden"?) originally came from Earth. "Their antecedents are definitely African," he says, and  "their dialect of the common valley language contains elements of what I believe to be Bantu."

I'm so grateful that he didn't say, "What up, blood. What it be?"
Rafkin is living among the Yolaru. He's educated them so much that they want him to be their shaman, but he has told them that he'll be their "schweitzer" instead, a clear reference to Albert Schweitzer who was, among many other things, an African missionary.

I found him in one of the huts. He seemed glad to see me and offered me recipes for creating bombs and rifles in case they should become necessary. He indicated he'd set up a lab somewhere south or southeast of the Kurak village (how long was I out?!). A simple JOIN got him into my party.

I suspect it's going to be necessary.

A few other notes before I wrap up the first post:

  • The interface has redundant mouse and keyboard commands. You could use one or the other exclusively or do what I do and switch flexibly between them.
  • There's some evocative background music, some of the most complex we've seen so far in a DOS game, with a a tom-tom beat and African rhythms underlying complex melodies. (It's credited to "The Fat Man" George Alistair Sanger. This was his first year in game music, but he later went on to score Ultima Underworld, The 7th Guest, and The 11th Hour.) Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any way to turn it off independent of the sound, and as much as I like the game music, I really don't want it playing while I play the game. Since other sound effects are sparser, and a combat theme appears jarringly every time you see an enemy, I've been playing with the sound off.
  • I'm not sure if there's any economy in the game. I don't have any gold (or other currency), and I haven't found any in a few hours of play. The manual doesn't really mention it.
Night falls, as it frequently does, and we camp on the road.

Definitely a fun game so far, and I am mildly intrigued to see what happens with the Shamuru/Shamino and Triolo/Iolo mystery. I hope it doesn't turn out to be really, really stupid.