Thursday, September 10, 2015

Antares: Anlagen und Geräte

This monster portrait freaks me out for reasons I don't understand.

At the conclusion of the last session, I had been visited by a "projection" that told me to travel to Akrillon and see an Umbeke named Ranishtar. Before I left, I wanted to check out the one un-explored dungeon in Nomiris: Tiefencastel.

Despite its name ("deep castle"), Tiefencastel ended up being about 17 squares. There were a couple of trite messages ("Life is expensive, even after death!") along the way. The hallway ended in a barricaded door and there was no way to progress. "Despite being a bit disappointed," the game said, "you're nevertheless glad that the way ends here. Everything you've seen from these corridors so far didn't exactly inspire confidence." I don't know if some other event will bring me back here or not.

It's nice that the skull and crossbones has universal meaning.

So much for that. I returned to the transport hub, entered my found PIN, and set off for Akrillon. I'm not entirely certain whether the three places I can travel from the transport hub are different planets in the Antares system or different cities on Kyrion.

Akrillon was much like Nomiris: a 20 x 20 city in which every wall is a door to a building. I explored them all and found a lot of empty houses, four food shops, one equipment shop, a storage depot, and two dungeons: Tornac and Dominia. There was no sign of Ranishtar in any of the houses, so I reasoned that he was probably in one of the dungeons.

The city of Akrillon.

The storage depot was a nice touch. It allowed me to stuff any of the equipment I was carrying in a locker for later retrieval. I put almost all my "Electerium" there, a bunch of food for when the stores were closed, and a couple of items that I was afraid to discard but I didn't know what they did. This freed up a lot of inventory space. This might even be a CRPG first. I can't remember a previous game that allowed me to store items in a central location.

A nice touch for an inventory-limited game.

I decided to try Tornac first. It turned out to be a two-level dungeon, each level consisting of two 6 x 19 areas connected by a 3 x 7 corridor. In general, the developers of this game did a good job varying the size and shapes of the levels while still making them symmetrical enough that you can identify likely secret areas. They also did a good job with different textures in the dungeons.

One of the symmetrical levels from my latest exploits.

I didn't find Ranishtar in the dungeon, but I did find a bunch of messages related to the mysterious Questonaten race. "It's strange that the Umbekes' best friends carry such a 'questionable' name," the first read, opening a mystery I haven't yet solved. Another indicated that the race can assume a spectral, ethereal shape, and a third said that they were telepathic.

"Our masters are exceedingly reserved. In all of their history, they have chosen to bother with only three other cultures--us being one of them." I assume this one is talking about the Vuroners, but I'm not sure. "You'll see us," a final one promised, "and then, at the latest, you'll recognize us." Okay.

The main quest reward from the dungeon.

On Level 2, I found some kind of medallion that the game assured I would need later. Then, after navigating a room with invisible walls ("Do not trust with your eyes what they're not able to see," a clue offered), I ran into what I assume is a member of the race. He asked me telepathically to name him, and the answer--QUESTONATEN--opened the way back up to the exit. So I guess the medallion was the real purpose of the dungeon.

Encountering a member of the Questonate race.

The dungeon was also unique in that it had a shop in the middle of Level 1, run by a guy named Ernesto Samson. The shop sold a variety of objects labeled "container." I suspect these are supposed to be boxes that allow you to expand your inventory, but unfortunately every time I try to open one, the game crashes. I hope this doesn't turn out to be plot-relevant.

I have no idea what these containers do except crash the game.

As I explored, I did my best to puzzle out all of the various items of equipment in the game. To help future players Googling the terms, I've pasted the full list (so far) at the end of this posting. Of particular note are a series of devices that help with dungeon navigation. A "Detektor AR-1" alerts you to messages within a few squares of where it's pointing; a "Detektor AR-2" warns you of messages and traps. I haven't found any way to avoid or disarm traps, though, so this is of limited utility.

The Detektor alerts me to a trap.

An "Auto-Mapper" does what it suggests, although it only lasts for the active level, so you can't really rely on it for all your mapping needs.

It would be nice if this meant I no longer had to do my own mapping, but alas...
Other notes:

  • In an earlier post, I mentioned how difficult it is when your fatigue meter gets to 0 and you're forced to sleep, even in the middle of a dungeon. Well, I found a loophole to that. On the initial encounter screen--where it tells you how many enemies you face and asks whether you want to fight or flee--time still passes. I can remain on this screen indefinitely, letting my party members get a nice, long rest, before either fighting or fleeing. Unfortunately, light and food also deplete during this period, but they're not as much of a problem.
  • Blue laws are apparently in effect on Kyrion. Shops are closed on Sundays.

Man, the Puritans made it everywhere.

  • Akrillon, unlike Nomiris, had a bunch of houses that I couldn't enter.
  • One of my victories produced an "Atari ST." I have no idea what to do with it. It would be the coolest thing ever if, when I "used" it, it opened up a mini Atari window and let me play a basic game. But we're way too early for such things.

The computer only an alien would own.

  • Based on the percentage of paragraphs in the translation document that I've accessed, I'm only about 20% of the way through the game.
  • I rather thought I'd find an NPC to occupy that sixth party space by now. Did I just miss the ability to add that sixth member during character creation?

You can't say I'm not trying my best with this one, but I'll continue to intersperse posts on other games in between Antares articles. Let's check out Enchantasy.

Time so far: 21 hours 
Reload count: 23


Aluminum-Platte: Aluminum plate (armor) - 100
Armschutz: Bracer (armor)
Aspirin: Aspirin (mental healing) - 50
Asthanen-Steak: Steak (food) - 120
Atari ST: Computer (unknown use)
Auto-Mapper: 450
Beruhigungspille: Pill (mental healing)
Biospalter-Ragout: Food - 20
Blei-Mantel: Lead coat (armor) - 450
Container: Containers of various types all crash the game
Demograllampe: Lamp (utility) - 30
Detektor AR-1: Warns you about messages ahead - 140
Detektor AR-2: Warns you about traps - 190
Druckverband: Bandage (physical healing) - 40
Eisenstange: Iron bar (weapon) - 120
Electerium: Use in landing craft to resurrect characters - 423
Glasfaserkabel: Fiber optic cable (unknown) - 20
Halogenlampe: Halogen lamp (utility) - 20
Handschuhe: Gloves (armor) - 80
Handtuch: Towel (unknown) - 20
HiFi-Center: H-Fi Center (makes music) - 210
Hut: Hat (armor) - 60
Isolierband: Insulating tape (armor) - 60
Jogging-Schuhe: Jogging shoes (armor) - 50
Kichererbsen: Chickpeas (food) -
Kompass: Compass (utility) - 50
Kompass "Ali": Compass (utility; stays on longer?) - 60
Kreuzring: Cross ring (unknown; "increases self-confidence") - 180
Marmorbuddha: Marble Buddha (unknown; "increases self-confidence") - 300
Marschallstab: Unknown
Megaphon: Megaphone (does group psychic damage in combat) - 374
Messer: Knife (weapon) - 50
Nomiris-Vodka: Vodka (food) - 90
Pflaster: Bandage (physical healing) - 20
Poisodan: Unknown - 60
Refraktor: Unknown - 120
Rippenknocken: Ribcage (weapon) - 30
Roboterhand: Robot hand (unknown) - 150
Roter Hering: Red herring (unknown) - 60
Sandspargel: Sand asparagus (food) - 10
Schlüssel: Key (unknown) - 20
Schutzanzug: Protective suit (armor) - 150
Skrit Reference: Translation book - 12
Stahlschild: Steel shield (armor) - 200
Sonnenhut: Sun hat (armor) - 30
Stablampe: Flashlight (utility) - 20
Taschenmesser: Penknife (weapon) - 30
Tokero: Does mass physical damage - 309
Totenkopf: Skull (unknown) - 100
Trash: Trash (unknown) - 400
Walther PPK: Gun (weapon) - 250
Wasser: Water (food) - 10
Wochen-Abo: Unknown

Monday, September 7, 2015

Revisiting: Adventure Construction Set/Rivers of Light (1984) (Won!)

The title screen from the original C64 version.

Rivers of Light
United States
An adventure that was created with, and accompanies, the Adventure Construction Set
Stuart Smith (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1984 for Commodore 64 and Apple II; 1986 for Amiga; 1987 for DOS
Date Started: 27 October 2010
Date Ended: 6 September 2015
Total Hours: 13
Reload Count: 4 in this last session; wasn't keeping track in 2010
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at Time of Posting: 66%
Raking at Game #437: 307/437 (70%)

It's rare that I return to a game that I've already abandoned and rated, but if any piece of software is worth some additional attention, it is Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set and its accompanying adventure, Rivers of Light. I blogged about it in my awkward, often-confused first year, when I still thought the primary purpose of my blog was to have fun personally. Looking at the posts now, I can't believe that 9 months into the project, my DOSBox screenshots still had title bars. What was I using to take the shots? ALT-PRNTSCR? Jesus.

I'm returning to the game not because I didn't fully document it--I made up for the part I didn't play with text and screenshots from a YouTube player's winning session--but because I didn't understand its historical context. I was playing Stuart Smith's last game without having played any of his prior ones.

Prior to Adventure Construction Set, Smith's series consisted of Fracas (1980), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981), and The Return of Heracles (1983; links to my reviews). Each of the games is reasonably enjoyable as an RPG, but there's something more--a certain zest, a joyful irreverence--that is difficult to describe in writing and in rating scales like my GIMLET. Part of their charm is their frenetic pace. You don't have a lot of time to pause and think in a Smith game--not with 40 thieves, Greek villains, or other potential enemies wandering freely through the landscape and attacking at any moment. Combat in the games is a true "fracas"--not much strategy, but lots of fun as you and your enemy exchange blows and are often interrupted by other NPCs deciding to join the battle. Death is frequent and often random, but the games are short enough that you almost don't mind. Plus, both Ali Baba and Heracles let you play multiple characters, either concurrently or consecutively.

My character explores the Fertile Crescent in Rivers of Light.

A lot of other features characterize Smith's games: a foundation in classical mythology rather than Tolkienesque high fantasy (though this doesn't stop hobbits from appearing in Ali Baba!); cooperative or competitive multi-player options; rapid changes in scale from campaign level to room level; hidden, one-way, and otherwise often confusing portals between screens; and limited reliance on traditional RPG inventories and mechanics. In fact, it's hard to detect the influence of any previous CRPGs on Smith's series. Except for a few nods to the tabletop RPG genre in some of the attributes, you could easily imagine that Smith never played an RPG in his life.

Perhaps the most notable element of the Smith games is the way that they handle NPCs and monsters--which are essentially the same thing. There are no generic orcs or goblins in the games; each creature that occupies the world is named and has a specific set of equipment and statistics. Each belongs to a particular faction as well, and monsters of opposing factions will attack each other. Fracas allowed monsters to level-up by killing each other. I don't think the other two had this mechanic, but NPCs and monsters in all games can pick up gold and equipment. A few of them are confined to their starting screens, but a lot more have the run of the map. You could play the three games without fighting a single foe--instead, just watching as other NPCs wander along and mop up the enemies in your path.

Rats ignore my character and decide to steal grain instead.

Given how much Smith's games differ from traditional CRPGs, it's ironic that he would create the first graphical RPG construction set. (Technically, the all-text Eamon was first.) Numerous Internet pages claim that he was inspired by Pinball Construction Set (1983), but in a comment on my blog, Smith said that he'd never heard of that game; that instead, he was inspired by his previous work on an accounting program that would automatically write a report-generating program. However, in naming Smith's game, Electronic Arts was clearly referencing its previous title.

Adventure Construction Set came with two adventures: The Land of Aventuria and Rivers of Light. The former, written by EA's Don Daglow, is a set of mini-adventures that walks the player through the capabilities of the set. But Rivers of Light is a full-fledged game, based on The Epic of Gilgamesh, requiring some creativity and a good 8-10 hour investment. My previous attempt at the game ended after 8 hours, when--at least 3/4 of the way through the game--I came to an area called "Two-Hero Valley" in which you need--you guessed it--two heroes to open the way forward. I declined to roll up a second character and get him all the way to that point, although it later turned out that it wouldn't have been as hard as I thought.

A screen from the Land of Aventuria. My character icon is an axe.
I still don't know what other CRPGs or adventure games influenced Smith, but in the Rivers of Light, we can see him making some concessions to them, such as respawning of random creatures and a more standard set of RPG statistics and RPG inventory. Some monsters still roam freely across screens and attack each other (as well as you), but in a less frenetic, unpredictable way than in the previous games. There's a clear distinction here between monsters and NPCs; the latter are immobile and can't be attacked. They just wait until you walk into their square and then offer some dialogue on title cards.

A late-game character sheet in Rivers of Light.

Rivers of Light is stronger than the other games in its mythological basis. Ali Baba was loosely based on Arabian myth, and Return of Heracles was loosely based on Greek myth, but neither game was afraid to introduce characters and themes from other traditions. Rivers is more firmly in Mesopotamia, and as the character walks the path of Gilgamesh, he must contend with some of the same foes (Humbaba, Shedu), meet some of the same NPCs (Utnapishtim, Urshanabi), and solve some of the same puzzles, like using cedar poles to cross the Waters of Death.

Meeting the Sumerian Noah.

Consistent with the era, a sword made of iron is fantastically rare and the best melee weapon in the game, and barley serves as the game's currency.

Rivers of Light begins.
Rather than recap all my earlier posts, I'll just quickly summarize. In choosing the character icon, the player can select any of the game's tiles, including monsters, equipment, and terrain. After the player gives a name, the game randomly generates constitution, wisdom, strength, and dexterity statistics.

Missile skill, melee skill, armor skill, dodge skill, and parry skill are all attributes that increase as you successfully use them. This is not the first time we've seen that dynamic, but it's still pretty rare for the era. Encumbrance is an issue, with every item you carry reducing the length of your turn.

A character with a skeleton icon starts the game.
There is an impressive variety of monsters throughout the game, some fixed, some random, including bulls, trolls, rats, asps, bandits, master thieves, ghosts, alligators, bats, and scorpion men. In one notable place, you have to fight a clone of your own character, equipment and all.

The game's action takes place between Mesopotamia and Egypt, in locations like Great Assur, Ashurbanipal's Great Library of Knowledge, and the great pyramid at Gizeh. As he explores, the player gets a number of clues and items necessary to solve puzzles in other areas. The game culminates on an island in the middle of the Nile river, where the player must use his assembled items, powers, and clues to pass through three gates and encounter the spirit of the god Osiris.

Preparing to cross the Sinai peninsula, Chester stocks up on water.
As I said, I was mostly there back in 2010, but I got annoyed in Two Hero Valley, thinking I'd have to build up another character until he was strong enough to make his way across the Sinai Peninsula and join the primary hero. Some commenters alerted me to a "shortcut," but I still didn't think it was worth it and declined to return to the game.

Getting "Helper" over here took a trivial amount of time.
Little did I know that the shortcut was laughably close to the start of the game. This time around, it took less than 2 minutes to create a character and bring her over to Two Hero Valley. There weren't even any combats on the way. I can't believe I gave up that easy in 2010.

Approaching the final area, Chester uses a "power" to quench the fire.
Given that your goal is eternal life, the endgame text is a little disappointing:

You have found the "sealed thing in darkness with fire about it." The essence of Osiris himself rejuvenates you. You can feel a new body forming about your disembodied spirit, bringing your seven souls back together from their wanderings.

Rapturously entertained by a chorus of your past lives giving a joyful rendition of your life and struggles, you are taken to a land of milk and honey where you are born again. Wiser now, you may retire with honor or move onward to more adventuring.

On the next screen, the character reappears in the Fertile Crescent and can run around fighting random combats or be saved to the disk for other Adventure Construction Set scenarios.

Better than the DOS prompt.
I gave the game a 30 on my GIMLET back in 2010. Reading over my comments, I want to make a couple of adjustments. I gave it only 1 point for the economy, reasoning "there's not much to buy," but that isn't quite true. The game does a good job duplicating some quest items among the shops and giving you backups for weapons that break or are lost. It's still not a great economy, but it's worth at least 2 points. Gameplay, meanwhile, deserves a bump from 3 to 4; on my replay, I found it just about the right challenge and length. Moving NPC interaction from 2 to 3 would be more consistent with how I've rated things since then, and the quest deserves 3 rather than 2 points for its originality. That raises the score to 34, a couple points higher than The Return of Heracles, which makes more sense.

The game's approach to buying and selling items is a little odd and cumbersome.
Aside from Rivers of Light, it's worth discussing how well Adventure Construction Set serves as an RPG maker. The answer is that while it serves reasonably well for 1984, it would have gotten outdated very quickly. The interface is quite bad, requiring (in the DOS version) the player to constantly hit the INS key to acknowledge messages and choose commands. (In the C64 version, the joystick serves as the sole input and is no less cumbersome.) The inventory system is under-developed: it has a single armor slot and a single weapon slot, the latter constantly switching between melee and missile weapons. The magic system is also bare-bones, with spells appearing as items.

But it was popular enough at the time. Ported to four platforms, the construction set generated enough enthusiasts that they formed a club, published a newsletter, and reviewed and traded adventures. It's hard to find many of them now. An ACS fan page that wants to catalog all user-created adventures has only 10 of them, almost all for the Commodore 64.

Every ACS adventure starts with an introductory title card.
I spent a little while on one of them: The Hobbit, by Neil Tiedemen. The description promises to replicate the book. It started predictably in the Shire, with Gandalf as a nearby NPC. I played for a while, but I was confused when I was attacked by another hobbit and had to kill him.

Where are the dwarves?
Later, I got trapped between a troll and a skeleton and I was killed. It seemed like it would have been a serviceable enough game, but I wasn't motivated to restart.

This didn't end well.

Contemporary reviews of the Adventure Construction Set were somewhat bad. The rudest comes from (naturally) a British C64 magazine called ZZAP!64, which made fun of the graphics and lack of sound and called it "a waste of time and money." The mystery of the review comes from the beginning of that sentence, which is, "Compared with programs already available for writing your own adventures...." What programs is the reviewer talking about that existed in 1985?

Much later, in 1989, Orson Scott Card wrote a Compute! article in which he called ACS's adventures "quite playable" but opined that the interface "was designed by the Kludge Monster from the Nethermost Hell." The best review comes from Scorpia, in the February 1989 Computer Gaming World, who extensively discusses the set's flexibility in things like graphic editing and monster behavior, but complains that even a simple project can take a long time to create.

Good or bad, Adventure Construction Set was all we had for a while. Barring some discovery based on the ZZAP!64 quote above, I think the next RPG creation kit was 1991's Bard's Tale Construction Set, followed by Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures (1993). If lists I can find online are exhaustive, there aren't really that many of them. That makes Smith's contribution all the more notable.

Unfortunately, it was his last game. Seeking financial stability, he moved on to other industries in the late 1980s. He left us a small but unique set of titles, and I'm glad I had the chance to play and talk about them all.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Antares: Langsame Fortschritte

I get the ability to travel to several new places.

Since my last post on Antares more than a month ago, all I've accomplished is the exploration of one dungeon--though as we'll see, it appears to be a pivotal moment in the game.

Before I recount my brief adventures, let's recap the plot: my crew of 5 are the only survivors of the Earth spaceship Auriga, which was shot down on the planet Kyrion while trying to figure out what happened to a previous expedition, the Hope. We soon found the Hope's survivors scattered in cave-like dwellings in the area of the planet called Lauree. The small human population is sterile and has no way to leave the planet. We received some intelligence on the alien races. The Vunoren are the iron-fisted rulers of the planet. Two other races, the Umbeken and the Questonaten, serve under the Vunoren and may be fomenting rebellion against them.

I left the opening area via a dungeon called Eriankeller, which connected to a long, linear dungeon called Philgoel-Tunnel. This latter one emerged in a new city, called Nomiris. An exhaustive exploration of Nomiris revealed two more dungeons branching off of it--Sakral and Tiefencastel--as well as a transport hub where I couldn't do anything because I lacked a PIN.

In this session, I explored Sakral, a six-level dungeon. Four of the levels were 5 x 5 squares, but two were larger, more complex diamond shapes.

The 6 levels of Sakral. I just realized there's probably a secret door that I missed in the upper-right of the last one. Damn.
Before I described what happened there, let me explain why exploring dungeons is a logistical nightmare and why I have to force myself to get started with every new session. The first set of difficulties are in-game. As you explore, you have to keep constant attention to a few things: your fatigue level, your hunger level, and your supply of lamps. Of these, hunger is the least perilous, because you can bring some food to cook and there's a good chance that you'll find some food on slain enemies.

Lighting is a little more annoying. Each character only has 6 inventory slots, and 4-5 of them are taken up by weapons, armor, and special items. I might only have 3 or 4 empty slots, total, among my party members at any given time, and a six-level dungeon easily consumes 3-4 halogen lamps.

Fatigue is the worst. It slowly drains for every character except the android and does not last 6 dungeon levels. Inevitably, the characters need to sleep. Unlike most games, you can't just bed down for 8 hours of rest and wake up refreshed. Instead, you sleep in real time, as you explore or stand still. Since there's no place safe from enemy attacks, this is a risky thing to do in a dungeon--but inevitable since this particular dungeon had a one-way door on the third level.

The game warns me that, "From here, there is no turning back!"
The internal logistics, which might just be "challenging" in a satisfying way by themselves, are complicated by external ones. To play the game, I have to have five windows open at all times: the game itself, my Excel map book, the Word document to which I copied the translation you all did, Google Translate for the small bits of text that weren't translated in the big document, and a notepad for taking notes for the blog entry. This is all tough to arrange on a single laptop screen, so I've been saving Antares for when I'm home with my second monitor, which is almost never.

While the game is tile-based, it's not turn-based. Hunger increases, fatigue increases, lamp life decreases, and enemies can attack while standing still. This makes it difficult to take notes, review translations, and add to the map during game time. Yes, there is technically a "pause" function, but the emulator captures the mouse, and anything you do to get it to release the mouse also unpauses the game. I have to remember to move to a different window, then click on the emulator window header (if I click in the middle of the screen, it re-captures the mouse), then hit the "P" key to pause.

Finally, the dungeons feature a lot of small messages in various squares, most of which weren't translated in the commenter document (that's not a criticism; I appreciate all the help you offered). This means I have to type them myself into Google Translate. Of course, while I'm doing that, there's a chance that a random encounter can appear and override the message, forcing me to fight the encounter, win, leave the square, and re-enter to get the message again. This cycle might repeat 3 or 4 times before I finish translating.

I could easily get attacked 5 times while trying to translate this drivel about needing to exercise the mind.
Overall, you can see why it's been tough to prioritize the game. At least one thing is a bit easier: commenter Anym was correct that the scroll bar to the right of the message window controls the text speed. This has been a god-send.

"Once again, you enter the empty, bare rooms of an underground labyrinth. You try to find something positive in that, but most of you are only human...." It's like the game can sense my ennui.

As for Sakral, on Level 3, I encountered the skeleton of a dead inhabitant of Kyrion, chained to the wall. The encounter noted that I found a small steel plate on his wrist that said "KOMC40." I guessed immediately what this was for--more in a bit.

Most of the important stuff was to be found on the final level, where a series of squares brought me face to face with the same Projektion that helped me in the first dungeon. The projection asked me three questions in different squares. In general, they seemed to be tests of the game's lore. For instance, the first was: "Once, she was Kyrion's most important city, but she fell victim to a Vunorian act. She was destroyed, utterly. Only a ruin tells of its former glory." Now, there's some back story here that I didn't know, but overall, I guessed correctly that the answer is LAUREE, the opening, trench-filled map.

The second question, "What does everything on Kyrion revolve around?," was even easier. The answer is the star for which the game is named: ANTARES.

This was a freebie.

It was the third one that stumped me: "They exist as particles--if not in this, then surely another dimension. They have a name--if not in another, then surely in this dimension." At first, I thought the answer must be SCHEMEN, the game's name for those ethereal party members that don't seem to have any physical form. (It translates as "specter.") Alas, that was not it.

Tell me this doesn't seem to fit perfectly.

After trying a few more options, I fear I couldn't help caving in. The translator of this section had put the correct answers in ROT-13 after the text, and it turned out that the answer was TACHYONEN, or "tachyons." Now, I understand what tachyons are, or are supposed to be, but I don't know if this was a straight riddle (if so, a difficult one) or whether I was supposed to find the answer in-game. The translated document doesn't mention tachyonen anywhere else, so I suppose it's the former.

Whatever the case, after I answered the three riddles correction, the projection (which the game seems to call a "she") congratulated me:

Congratulations, you have proven that you're intelligent enough to persist in more dangerous areas. I think that together we could succeed in breaking the dominance of the Vunorians. I possess the knowledge, you possess strength and stamina. And please, don't fret too much about my appearance. I cannot and don't want to divulge my real identity yet. This is safest for me and you as well, rest assured! As a sign of trust I will help you onwards: Travel to Akrillon and seek out an Umbeke named Ranishtar. He counts himself among the most tenacious opponents of the Vunorians and their eons-old friendship with the Umbekes. If you manage to earn his trust and survive long enough, he'll be a great help. But first you'll have to reach him. That he is still alive is proof enough that he's a force to be reckoned with, and a sign that his Questonates will confront you with serious challenges.

The helpful projection moves the quest forward.

As for traveling onward to Akrillon, the path was as I suspected: When I returned to the surface, I re-visited the transport hub and typed KOMC40 when prompted for my PIN. I then got the ability to travel to three new locations: Akrillon, Remoria, or Sistar City. I still have Tiefencastel to explore in Nomiris, though.

Entering the PIN.

A few notes: 

  • There are dozens of odd items found at the end of combats and in stores. Although I've translated some of them several times, I keep forgetting what they are and what they do: megaphon, tokero, poisodan, isolierband, krach-bonbon, marmorbuddha, schutzanzug, refraktor, and so forth. To figure out what they do, you have to ask a technically-skilled character, whose answer of course must be translated and is often somewhat cryptic. Because of these issues, and because of very limited inventory space, I'm probably not getting all the use out of the game's items that I could be. 

A megaphone does mass psychic damage in combat. I'm not sure what the other two items are.

  • As I discussed before, the types of weapons you can carry are limited by your physischer kampf skill. My first two characters are currently brandishing Walther PPKs, which never run out of ammo.

My lead character's current inventory. I'm not 100% sure what any of the first three items are for.
  • Sakral had a lot of secret areas that, in Wizardry tradition, could be entered by walking through a wall. I don't remember any such secret areas in the previous dungeons; I should probably return and check.
  • Nomiris has no items for sale that heal physical or mental damage. I either need to find the items on slain enemies, wait a long time, or trek all the way back to Lauree if I want to get my party to full health.

Although apparently, according to this message, there will be healing available in Remoria.

  • Combat is extremely variable in difficulty, but in general not overly deadly. I've lost more characters to traps than to battles. When a character dies, I've just been reloading rather than make my way all the way back to the beginning of the game and resurrect him in the landing craft.
  • My characters are up to Level 8. I don't really know what leveling does for you. Neither statistics nor skills seem to increase. I suppose maximum health must increase, but you don't see that numerically.

I haven't otherwise included a combat shot in this posting, so here's one.

I remain a bit confused and lost as I play the game, much as I often am when visiting a foreign country. In this case, I haven't been able to determine if my confusion is related to the foreignness of the game, or if the game is just a bit inept. I'd really love to see a native speaker's account of the game and to see whether you have the same issues I do with inventory and the abruptness of the storytelling. Can I persuade any of you to fire it up?

Time so far: 17 hours 
Reload count: 23

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Questron: Won! (with Final Rating)

The respect that Lord British never gave me.

United States
Quest Software (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1984 for Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 28 August 2015
Date Ended:
02 September 2015
Total Hours: 15
Reload Count: 12
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting: 117/199 (59%)
Ranking at Game #453: 302/453 (67%)

After the last post, I did what I said I was going to do and pillaged chests and coffins in the previous two dungeons for a while. I soon found that hit points cap at around 30,000--at least from coffins. But you can still buy more beyond that. Once I had enough gold, I bought around 50,000 and stocked up on "Fireballs" and "Stone Spells." During my trips, enchanted armor and long bows became available in the shops. At that point, I felt I was ready to take on Mantor.

Entering the final dungeon.
Mantor's Mountain, on its own island to the northeast of the Land of Evil, opens with the diamond ring from the Dungeon of Doom. It turned out to be a whopping 17 levels, but they were only 9 x 9, so progress was swift. However, I ended up having to make the trip twice. The first time, I opened a jar that destroyed my best weapon on one level, then a few levels down opened a coffin that was "booby trapped" and reduced my hit points from 45,000 to 10,000. I wasn't having any of that. I reloaded and vowed to just press through the dungeon without opening anything.

Chet learns to avoid opening things in Mantor's Mountain.
The dungeon had the same kind of monsters as the other two, but I dealt with almost all of them with the copious spells I had brought. I wanted to make sure I got to Mantor's place with as many hit points as possible. I was recalling the endgame of Questron II, where every time you took a step, you took damage. This game's analogue was a periodic message that "Mantor hits with magic fireball!" while exploring the dungeon levels. There's no way to avoid this and the 200-500 hit points damage that it causes.

On level 17, I was approached by some crystalline creature that offered to show me "the way to the safe" for 11,000 gold. I paid it, and he opened a secret door.

Curiously, this is almost exactly as much as I have.
I groaned when I saw the safe. I thought I was heading for the endgame, not retrieving another artifact. I worried I'd have to retrace my steps back up 17 levels. But the safe turned out to conceal a pit that led to Mantor's fortress.

When I arrived, some announcement said, "intruder" and warned the guards that I was "armed and dangerous." Mantor announced that the "death device is activated" and "Questron will be destroyed."

The castle wasn't big, but I had to plow my way through dozens of guards. They wouldn't let me lead them to me one-by-one; instead, they refused to step out of certain formations, ensuring that multiple guards could attack me at once. Maddeningly, my bows wouldn't work in such circumstances; I only got a lame message that "projectiles don't work here."

They won't move out of this formation, so I have to walk into a square where 5 of them can attack me at once.
Mantor was sitting up in his throne room, and I couldn't figure out how to get to him at first. It turned out that his doors opened with the same gold key that opens the doors in the Royal Castle. I have no idea why that would be.

Once I reached Mantor's room, things got hairy. He immediately destroyed the weapon I was carrying. As I made my way towards him, he blasted me for around 500-700 hit points with every step. Just crossing his room, I went from almost 24,000 hit points to less than 19,000. I soon found that he was invulnerable to melee attacks. Every time I tried to equip a weapon, it was immediately destroyed.

Just as I was about to spray him.
Casting about for some item in my inventory, the only thing I could think of was Mesron's magic powder. It worked. One use and Mantor immediately died. I don't want to know what was in that powder.

Upon his death, I received his book of magic, which I used to destroy his doomsday device, then used again to teleport myself out of the castle. I found myself outside the royal castle on Questron (for some reason, my eagle, which I had left outside Mantor's Mountain, was there with me). A single pit screamer decided to block my entry to the castle and ended up being the real "final battle" of the game.

Destroying Mantor's doomsday device.
Inside, I made my way to the throne room, where literally the best ending that we've seen in my CRPG chronology so far commenced. Guards lined up and escorted me to the throne, then filled the hall behind me as King Aaron and Princess Lucane came marching down the aisle. Two trumpeters whipped out their instruments and played a victory tune for about two minutes. The king spoke:

For many years, I have awaited the emergence of a mighty warrior. Until you came, I had almost given up that dream. The oracle said that the one who takes the silver trumpet shall be wise enough, and strong enough, to destroy the evil Mantor. Many before have tried; all before have failed.

Chester, I appoint thee Baron! For thy victory, I award thee all lands within 10 days of Geraldtown.

Baron Chester, Mesron requests an audience.

That's like everything you see here plus one more screen to the north and east.
After the king's speech, the guards departed the throne room in orderly ranks, followed by the princess, and I was able to control the character again.

I went to visit Mesron, who rained on my parade by telling me that destroying Mantor was only the "first step." His book of magic, which I was carrying, was "immensely evil" and must be destroyed. He told me to enter his teleporter--not telling me where it would take me. I did so, and found myself invited to continue my adventure in Questron II.

Man, making me a baron and giving me a bunch of land really didn't cost the king anything in the long run, did it?
I was sure there must be a recording of the endgame on YouTube, but I couldn't find one, so here it is. This takes the game from Mantor's dungeon through the endgame sequences.

Okay, two things about the endgame before we get into the final rating:

1. As we discussed, Questron took a lot from Ultima, but Richard Garriott could have learned a couple of things from Questron--like how to treat a winning player. Am I still irked at not being invited to my own victory party? You bet I am.

2. Questron II is exactly the same game, just with better graphics. You start off weak with a hit point cap. You slowly amass gold. You play minigames to increase attributes. You go through major plot divisions that lead to attribute increases. You have to find a succession of keys and other items to progress through the various dungeons. You massacre castle guards to find a lot of these keys. Mantor starts destroying cities and you have to stop him. You get a selection of time-dependent weapons, armor, and transportation options, culminating in a tamed eagle. You reach the endgame through a 3-D trap-filled dungeon, where Mantor has a bunch of attacks that sap your hit points with every step. You kill him in an indirect way and use the Book of Magic to finish the game. Questron II is basically Questron remade.

Despite this, I seem to have enjoyed Questron more than Questron II. I can't see any mechanical reason why, so it must solely be the nostalgia factor. The game kept triggering memories all the way through the end. I'm pretty sure I had another friend with me when I won the first time--not the same one who introduced me to it. I think we were at his father's condo when we finally won, and I seem to remember switching who was playing with each dungeon level.

So how does my first CRPG rate? Let's check it out:

  • 3 points for game world. The backstory is a little bland and derivative, and not well-reflected in the world that you can explore. (For instance, Princess Lucane, who gives the PC a note in the manual, never really has anything interesting to say to him.) I do like the slow destruction of towns at Mantor's hands, though.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Questron just does this all wrong. The only "creation" is the designation of a name, and development is mostly through fixed plot points instead of player action. You can increase attributes with the mini-games, but these are overridden by the plot developments so they don't end up meaning a lot. Plus, it's never clear what most of the attributes (particularly stamina and intelligence) actually do. You never really feel like you're getting stronger in the game--for every increase, there's a new foe waiting to do 10x the damage as the last one. On the role-playing front, I'm going to allow one point for the ability to progress by killing and robbing, even though I tried to avoid it.
  • 2 points for a handful of NPCs that impart quest information, and all of the wandering travelers and prisoners who give you one-line bits of intelligence (although mostly unnecessary).
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The enemies are well-described in the manual, but they're really not on the screen long enough to be consequential. Having different monsters respond to different weapons was a good idea, but in practice it's easier just to pound away with less effective weapons than to juggle 6 different ones and have to swap between them. The special attacks of some of the dungeon monsters lend an additional challenge.

Some bastard lives up to his name.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. For most of the game, you only have the option to (F)ight; later, you get a couple of spells. You get no real rewards from combat, so it's mostly an annoyance.
  • 2 points for equipment. As with character development, I don't like Questron's approach, making weapons and armor slowly available based on game time. A handful of special items don't quite redeem the system. It's kind of funny that it's a major event when you get a short bow.

Switching among my available weapons.
  • 4 points for economy. The economy is reasonably well done. It's the major form of development throughout the game, and it never stops being relevant, with the need to purchase hit points and expensive spells. If you don't save-scum and cheat at gambling, it's also reasonably tightly-controlled.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side quests and no alternate outcomes or role-playing.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The redundant keyboard/joystick interface is flawless. Graphics and sound are both serviceable for the era.
  • 4 points for gameplay. Although quite linear (except for the order in which you explore the islands), the game benefits from a brisk pace, a moderate challenge, and an overall game time suitable to its content.

The score adds up to 29, but I'm going to boost it to 32 with 3 bonus points. The first is for the minigames, which are fun by themselves even if they don't lead to much in the way of character development. I give two more for the excellent ending. In an era where too many games simply dump you do the prompt upon completion, Questron deserves a lot of credit for making the end a true ceremony.

The box doesn't lie. You can ride an eagle.
I'm going to do something beyond that, too, and I don't think this is just youthful fondness talking. Although flawed, this little sub-series represents some of the most notable Ultima-inspired games, and I think Questron deserves a place on my "must play" list for anyone who wants a full sense of the history of CRPGs.

I was hoping contemporary reviews would realize the uniqueness of the elaborate ending, and they do. In the June 1984 Computer Gaming World, James McPherson says, "The end does not fizzle. If you complete Questron, you will really enjoy an ending fit for a king." Or a baron. He also praises the look and feel of the dungeons (I guess rough-hewn wireframe dungeons were quite a novelty after the blocky ones of Wizardry), the ease of the controls, and the mini-games. In her storied "C*R*P*G Survey" issue of October 1991, Scorpia credits the game with "one of the neatest reward endings in the genre."

Slaughtering castle guards in Legacy of the Ancients.
Chuck Dougherty had a promising beginning with this game, but his next two titles--Legacy of the Ancients (1987) and Questron II (1988)--manage to offer almost the exact same experience and make the exact same mistakes. Owing to how I messed up my approach to this project, I reviewed both of those games before playing the original, giving Legacy a 38 and Questron II a 26 (links to my first posts for both games). I haven't yet played the sequel to Legacy, The Legend of Blacksilver (1988), but MobyGames's description makes it sound like the same thing a fourth time. It's too bad that Dougherty couldn't break out of his template.

Slaughtering castle guards in Questron II
Both Chuck and his brother John (who did some programming, playtesting, and other development tasks for the entire series) disappeared after Blacksilver. Chuck's LinkedIn profile indicates that when his development company, Quest Software, closed down, he went to work as the Chief Information Officer for a community mental health organization in Michigan and has remained there for 23 years. John, meanwhile, is Executive Vice President of Operations at a "risk visualization" software company in Lansing, Michigan. I tried to contact Chuck Dougherty through his work e-mail, but have not received a reply as of yet.

In the end, returning to the game that got me addicted to the genre was a positive experience, and unlike my attempts to return to The A-Team, it didn't damage any of my childhood memories. It's not a perfect game, but I didn't remember it as a perfect game--just an addictive one. But while I'm not upset that the CRPG genre didn't adopt Questron's approach to combat, or its merciless slaughter of castle guards, or its approach to hit points, we sure could stand to see a lot more parades and trumpets.