Sunday, November 29, 2015

Martian Dreams: Emulation Nightmares

As far as I can get. The game freezes if I try to move one step further east.
You are going to find this posting truncated for the following reasons:

  • Every version of the game I can find has a bug (at least for me) by which once you cross the 180 meridian with a sextant in your possession, you can no longer save your progress. This remains true even if you go back to the other side of the meridian. Both crossing the meridian and tracking your progress with a sextant are pretty vital to the game.
  • There is no no-DOS version of the game, so I can't switch to another platform. (Side note: I really think MobyGames users should stop tagging games with "Macintosh" and "Windows" releases just because the game is available for those platforms through GOG. All GOG does is bundle them with a customized version of DOSBox. The same goes for games released on "virtual consoles." If a game wasn't coded specifically for that platform, it shouldn't count.)
  • I did download a version of DOSBox with save states, but if I try to load a save state after closing and re-opening the emulator, the emulator immediately crashes. (Yes, I know you have to start the executable first.)
  • Even if I load a save state during the same session that created it, the keyboard generally does not work upon re-loading, at least for a few minutes (but sometimes it never comes back).
  • Even if I'm willing to play mouse-only, the game simply locks up entirely at certain places. It freezes every time I try to cross the canyon to Noctis (below), for instance.
I know that many of you have played the game successfully with DOSBox, with or without a save-state version, so I'm not sure how to account for the differences. I've fiddled with every setting that I can think of (including increasing and decreasing the CPU speed and changing the emulated machine). Thus, the game is going to have to go on the "NP" (not playable) list until someone comes up with a permanent solution or I try again on a completely new system configuration.

It's been long enough that it might be worth re-reading my first posting for the basic setup. In my re-start, just to defy the game's official narrative and images--and to further distance myself from the "real" Ultima series--I created a female protagonist named Inez after Inez Milholland. I didn't see a good women's suffragist on the list of dignitaries, and I've always liked Ms. Milholland. You probably haven't heard of her, so go ahead and read her Wikipedia article. If she hadn't died tragically in 1916 at aged 30, she would have been the flappiest flapper of the Jazz Age.

Inez bursts onto the scene in her very plain dress.
For whatever reason--I guess they were disguised as authentic 1890s citizens before blasting off--Inez starts the game wearing a dress. My first act was to dress her in pants and an overcoat. As before, I talked to the various people aboard the second capsule and stocked up on weapons and utilities before heading off in search of the first capsule that had brought Curie, Earp, Edison, et. al. to the Red Planet.

Spector responds to the SAVAGE keyword.
My capsule is at 27S, 146E, and the crashed first capsule is at 28S, 153W. Never dreaming that these coordinates were global, and that I'd be able to explore the entire planet, I set out west to find the capsule only to encounter an impassable canal. Apparently, what I needed to do was go east and cross the 180th meridian. A degree in this game is four steps, so it doesn't take very long to cover large distances. I could circumnavigate the planet, apparently, in 1,440 steps.

Without much trouble and in relatively short order, I reached the wreckage of the first capsule. It was empty except for a single man named Lieutenant Gibbs, commander of the "ceremonial guard" at the British pavilion at the World's Fair (from which the first capsule had been accidentally launched). In a very long bit of exposition, he filled me in as to what happened to the occupants of the first expedition. Apparently, they tried to repair the capsule and build a new cannon to return to Earth, but they ran out of steel. The group split into four expeditions to find iron, but somehow they morphed into four separate factions with their own goals.

Origin, the British pronounce it "leftenant." They don't spell it that way.
The first group, led by Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, set up a trading outpost northeast of the crashed capsule at Arsia Mons. Dibbs suggests we go there next for supplies. The second, led by astronomer Percival Lowell, went to the Martian city of Elysium, where they found a working Dream Machine. (Apparently, all Martian cities have them, but most are in a state of disrepair.) The party had hoped to use the Dream Machine to communicate with Earth, but instead it drove everyone mad.

The third group, led by someone named Jack Segal (I can't find a good historical contender; it's probably not the composer who wasn't born until 1918), settled at Olympus, where construction of the space cannon had begun. They've now fortified the site against anyone "contaminated" by the Dream Machine. The final party, a "secretive" group led by Grigori Rasputin, went to the Martian city of Argyre, apparently in an effort to investigate dangerous Martian technology.

As for the Martian cities and technology, although there's no sign of any sentient Martians, they apparently left behind four advanced cities: Elysium, Olympus, Argyre, and Hellas (they were named by the explorers, not the Martians). The latter is inhabited by a guy named Marcus who split off from Lowell's group. Dibbs also warned me that to survive on Mars, I'd have to learn to contend with the extreme cold and the low-oxygen atmosphere. Fortunately, there exists on Mars an element called Oxium that, when chewed, releases oxygen. It's apparently so valuable that it's being used as currency. I tried to (U)se one that Dibbs had, but the game told me that I will "chew it instinctively" when needed. Sure enough, in the next couple of steps I got a message that everyone "breathes easier," and the penalties to the characters' attributes went away, but 4 of Dibbs's 20 Oxiums disappeared.

Dibbs automatically joined the party and we set out for the trading post as he suggested; fortunately, Dibbs had coordinates to all of the locations and cities. Along the way, we were attacked by "sextellegers," and I found out the hard way that my Belgian Combine, which I had set to "shotgun" mode, damaged any characters in between me and my intended target. This is the first game that I recall that correctly depicts shotgun pellets spreading with distance, although I think perhaps Martian Dreams overdoes it. (It is, to be fair, only the third game I can think of with shotguns, the first two being Wasteland and Captive.) Anyway, we killed the alien beasts in short order. There didn't seem to be anything productive to do with the corpses, so I carried on. A couple more attacks followed.

Inez has just fired a shotgun at the "creeping cacti" to the south. Note that by the time the blast is two squares away from her, it's already spread out to include one square on either side.
By the time I reached the trading outpost, Inez was heavily wounded. (I had switched to a saber at some point because the shotgun kept hitting my allies.) Buffalo Bill Cody introduced himself and said that he and Calamity Jane trade various goods for Oxium. Apparently, they're the only store on the planet except for one set up by William Randolph Hearst at Olympus. Jane gets Oxium from Cooter McGee, who's been prospecting "in the labyrinths of Noctis" but has been subjected to raids from Rasputin's band at Argyre. Jane asked if I'd go to Noctis and see what happened to him. They gave me an additional 30 Oxiums to help with the quest.

Buffalo Bill gives me the next step on my quest. If you've never had a chance to visit his grave on Lookout Mountain in Colorado, I recommend it. The views west from the parking lot are spectacular.
I returned to my capsule briefly to get healed up by C. L. Blood, then set about following Buffalo Bill's directions to Noctis. I had to go far north to cross a canal bridge before heading back southeast. Apparently, finding bridges to cross the canal network is going to be a significant obstacle to navigation, although Dibbs has given me the coordinates to a bunch of them. I've found levers in some places that might lower other bridges, but there's no power to the network.

Crossing a canal.
And that's about all I can tell you. The game freezes every time I reach a particular part of the canyon, in the midst of a fight between some "jumping beans," although I've tried killing all the jumping beans first and it still freezes.

Some miscellaneous notes:

  • It might change later, but so far the game hasn't been making great use of these historical figures beyond using their names. I got no particular sense of character from Cody or Jane. The fictional Lt. Dibbs has the most character of any of them.
  • Similarly, the Martian landscape is mostly just boring and its creatures unimaginative. Granted, I haven't seen the cities yet.
  • There are several books to read. So far in my chronology, I only remember this game and the original Ultima VI having in-game books.

Apparently, the third Worlds of Ultima title was going to be set in Arthurian Britain. It was never released.
  • In case anyone missed it in the comments, someone created a Wikipedia article for the obscure C. L. Blood (so obscure I didn't think he was a historical figure at all). Despite its recency, it is quite long and well-researched. It was created two days after my first Martian Dreams post, so I don't think that was a coincidence. [Later edit: And it wasn't! The author wrote to me by e-mail and confirmed that the post inspired the article.]
  • Unlike The Savage Empire, here you can turn off music independent of the rest of the sound.
  • One of the useful objects from the capsule is a spyglass. When (U)sed, it shows you several screens in a given direction. Oddly, using it to look east at the point the game freezes also causes it to freeze--there's something about the graphics on the other side of the canyon that someone doesn't want me to see.

Using the spyglass to see enemy activity to my east.
And now, regrettably, the game goes on hiatus, at least until I get a new computer in December. Normally, I wouldn't think that would help, but since the game seems to work for everyone but me, it's worth a try. In the meantime, we'll be finishing up Shadowkeep and moving on to Disciples of Steel (1991).

Friday, November 27, 2015

Shadowkeep: A Novel Approach

The author of Star Wars, several Star Trek novelizations, The Black Hole, and Alien goes slumming.
Sasubree was the largest and most powerful city on the High Plains, alive with merchants and traders, farmers come in from far and near to market their produce, craftsmen, wandering soldiers-of-fortune, and all manner of adventurers from several intelligent species. It was a thriving, impressive community. Exactly the kind of place where one would go to find an impressive hero.

Thus begins Shadowkeep (1984), the novelization of the game by Alan Dean Foster--an author who built a career in large part around novelizations, including both the first and most recent Star Wars and Star Trek films. Today, it is hardly remarkable when a novel tie-in accompanies a successful game, or when novels contribute to a video game universe, and even by 1984, there were plenty of video games based on novels, including Dracula (1982), Ten Little Indians (1983), Dragonriders of Pern (1983), and any number of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit adaptations. But until Shadowkeep, it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to go the other way. Wikipedia claims that Shadowkeep is the "first video game that inspired a novel" (which is not quite true, as Shadowkeep's publishers specifically commissioned the novel), and I can't find any evidence to contravene the claim. 

It is an odd game to have such a distinction. With virtually no NPCs and an extremely derivative plot, there doesn't seem to be enough stuff in the game to build a novel around it. Already in the first paragraph of the book, we see two proper names that show up nowhere in the game documentation. The game has only three named characters--Nacomedon the wizard, Dal'Brad the demon, and Raddath the innkeeper/salesman/otyugh--and yet the book still manages to change Nacomedon's name to "Gowyther" and Raddath's to "Norell." (Or, more accurately, I assume the developers changed or invented the names after having given Foster the notes.) More than half the book concerns itself with the formation of the party. It isn't until Page 132 (of 243 total pages) that the characters enter the Shadowkeep and thus join the progress of the player.

During the first half, the novel is well-written and interesting. It begins as a mysterious figure named Spinner visits Shone Stelft, a famous-adventurer-turned-smith whom Spinner hopes to lure out of retirement to end the threat emanating from Shadowkeep. In a fun reversal of the normal trope, Stelft stodgily refuses to leave his forge and family, but his apprentice, Practor Fime, is inspired to go instead. As Practor journeys to the Shadowkeep, he stumbles into a variety of adventures through which he slowly assembles the rest of his party: a friendly Roo fighter named Sranul, a beautiful Thaladar mage named Maryld, and a Zhis'ta warrior named Hargrod.

The party is attacked by two "barguests" and a gargoyle.

Once in the dungeon, the book follows the encounters in the game. The characters come upon the same altar, anvil, pile of rubbish, and pedestal that I encountered on Level 1 of the dungeon. When one character starts messing with the altar, it knocks him across the room, just as happened to my character when he tried to climb it. Upon reaching the "podium," they divine that one of the gems sold by the innkeeper would probably fit within it (though they decline to go back and purchase one). All that's really missing is the dozens of random combats and any sense of a maze between the rooms. At least so far, for instance, the book does not describe any one-way passages or doors. The characters have to find the staircases upward; the levels don't all branch of a central staircase like they do in the game. Presumably Foster was given the text of the encounters but not the actual dungeon maps. This would explain why the book has no analogue to the game's Level 2--a twisty, confusing maze that has no special encounters.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fall apart at this point. The special encounters in RPGs of this era didn't really lend themselves to sensible narratives. As the book's party careens from one silly puzzle to another, discovering magic items lying in wait for them and fighting hordes of trolls along the way, the narrative starts to feel forced. Foster tries his level best, I should add, but you can sense him struggling with a very different sort of adaptation. I haven't finished the book yet to avoid potential spoilers, but I'll quote more from the text as I encounter the same elements in the game.

As for my playing, I've mapped only two more levels since the last post. The game is relatively slow-going, with random encounters every 6-10 steps. Nonetheless, I've discovered two things about the game since the last post that makes it likely I'll continue until the end. First, the game probably doesn't have 25 levels. It seems likely to only have 9 or 10. I must have gotten the "25 levels" idea from the "hints" part of the manual, which I somehow interpreted as 1 hint per level. Instead, some levels have multiple hints.

The second major factor is that there is character development of a sort. As characters successfully strike foes, parry attacks, and cast spells, their associated skills have a chance of increasing by a point. It's not much, but it gives the game more RPG credentials than I originally thought. However, attributes, hit points, and spell points do not seem to increase, which means that the game scales only very slightly in difficulty from level to level.

"Wa" is up to 50% on his attack from a starting 30%.

Reflective of this, the second level that I mapped was Level 4. The pedestal/"podium" that I discussed last time turned out to be a teleporter that took me from 1 to 4--hardly necessary, as Level 4 was already accessible from the stairs. The Level had a small number of special encounters:

  • An "office" in which searching a desk revealed Gloves of Cold.

  • A wall with the Rune of Death on it. I couldn't figure out anything to do here, but when I cast the "Perception" spell, I got a message that said, "PASS uttered with determination allows passage into the sixth door of death."

  • A room containing a single silver rose, which I took.


Level 2 as I said, was just a big maze. It seemed to have more random encounters than the other maps, but there were no special encounters. I learned the hard way that I really didn't want to run from enemies because when you flee, the game moves you to a random place facing a random direction, and getting back on target in such circumstances was nearly impossible with this layout. There weren't even any doors to use as markers. I resorted to dropping "soggy sticks" (burned torches) in key places to avoid getting lost.

Level 2. I think I screwed some things up in the northeast, so don't rely on it for your own game.

When I was done with the level, I returned to the inn to see about spending some of my rapidly-increasing gold on magic items. (My starting gold had been enough for the best regular weapons and armor.) The game manual faithfully describes what each magic item does, but I remain slightly confused about which ones operate by simply wearing or wielding them and which have to be INVOKED. I'm also not sure which ones operate for a limited duration, and which will stay with me indefinitely. For instance, the Gloves of Cold disappeared a few hundred steps after I put them on.

I reloaded and took them off in case this was the only pair and I needed them later.

A lot of magic items seem to simply duplicate spells. The 500-gold-piece Eldritch Staff, for instance, simply casts the "Perception" spell and gives you a hint for the level or the specific location. I purchased a few largely random items to test them out before making a commitment to a larger purchase.

The magic items sound cool but mostly replicate the spell list.

Level 3 would seem to be the next stop, but here's something interesting: the PASS codeword I found on Level 4 opens up the doorway to Level 6. Oddly enough, the book mentions this: "Doors are often sealed with spells of warding, released only by the timely use of magical words discovered by those who made the journey before you. The passwords that are known are..." and it goes on to list 5 of them, including PASS. On a lark, I tried them all on the ninth level, and one of them--HOME--opened it. I have no idea why the manual just gives you these words, but I'm half-tempted to skip right to Level 9 and see what happens.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • You have to READY your weapon every time you enter the dungeon after exiting.
  • If a character doesn't have enough money to buy something, the game automatically deducts the difference from another character. That's handy.

  • Now that I know skills increase with use, I've been having my warriors "attack and parry" each round instead of always putting their energy into "attack twice." I've also been having my mages cast spells even when they're not strictly necessary.
  • The stairway is always a safe place to rest and replenish spell points, which can be used to replenish hit points. I don't know why you'd pay Raddath for healing unless you created a party with no monks (the class that starts the game with "Heal").
  • I've found several scrolls scattered about the hallways. These can be used to learn spells by character classes who wouldn't normally have access to those spells. I had one of my warriors learn "Luminance" (light) so I wouldn't have to deplete a real spellcaster's points with the spell.
  • With few exceptions, all enemies seem to drop exactly 51 goldens. A 4-enemy party will drop 204.
  • So far, there have been no "boss" battles on any of the levels. 

I haven't died yet, but I've come very close a couple of times, usually because of an ambush. Ambushes are particularly annoying because they scramble the party and you have to take a while to get your warriors back up to the front ranks.

So far, Shadowkeep is a little on the easy side and a lot on the boring side, and I hope the number of special encounters increases as we ascend. I've barely used a fraction of the 400 words the game supposedly understands. Now that I'm home for a little while, I can start interspersing Shadowkeep sessions with Martian Dreams.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Game 204: Shadowkeep (1984)

United States
Ultrasoft (developer); Trillium (publisher)
Released 1984 for the Apple II
Date Started: 25 November 2015
Shadowkeep is a uniquely odd game: a first-person dungeon crawler in the mode of Wizardry but with a text interface reminiscent of adventures like Zork. We've seen this dynamic before in Dungeons of Daggorath (1982), but not taken to this extreme, where you can string together commands like CHET GET THE SWORD AND GIVE IT TO IRENE THEN LIGHT A TORCH.

It has aspirations to be epic: four game disks, constantly overwritten with the party's progress; up to 9 party members; 25 dungeon levels; and an original set of races, classes, and monsters. To help market the game, the publisher, Trillium (a subsidiary of Spinnaker Software), hired Alan Dean Foster to write a novelization. I bought a copy. It's not half bad, especially given how little source material the author had to work with. I'll talk a little about that next time. [Later edit: I guess the game only has 9 or 10 levels, not 25. I can't remember where I got that idea. Probably I saw that there were 25 hints and reasoned there would be one hint per level.]

Unfortunately, this was an era in which epic games could be conceived but not really delivered. In many ways, it is the perfect 1984 game: created after several years of commercial RPGs had managed to build a fanbase and to create expectations for the genre, but before the 1985/1986 appearance of the giants--e.g., The Bard's Tale, Ultima IV, Might & Magic, Phantasie, Starflight--that would together establish the standards.

The plot is boilerplate. A big tower used to be occupied by a good wizard named Nacomedon, but a demon named Dal'Brad came along, imprisoned Nacomedon in a crystal, took over the tower, and began using it for "evil madness." As the tower's malign influence spread, heroes of the four major races--Roos, Thalidars, Zhis'ta, and humans--tried to brave the tower, but they all died. The current party is the world's last chance.

The adventure begins in an inn, where the player can create up to 20 characters, 9 of whom will adventure at any given time. The characters can be male or female (males have higher strength; females higher dexterity), four races, and five classes: warriors, monks, runemages, shadowmages, and necromancers. Oddly, when I went to name my first character "Chester," the bartender yelled at me that that was a reserved word.

This had better pay off later.

Ultimately lacking the stamina to come up with a theme for 9 different character names, I made use of the Random Name Generator that commenter Marc Campbell/LordKarnov42 made for me years ago.

You have to give the creators points for some originality on the races. Roos are literally intelligent kangaroos, and Zhis'ta are evolved lizards. Thalidars are basically elves.

I'm willing to bet this is the only RPG in which you can role-play a kangaroo.
The combination of race, sex, and class come together to define your attributes: strength, intelligence, dexterity, leadership, power, and hit points. You can adjust the starting scores from a pool of bonus points. These statistics, in turn, adjust your percentages in attack, parry, magic, searching, and opening skills. As it does everywhere else, the game's interface slows down this whole process, and it can take easily 30-40 minutes to create a quick party. The leader is designated as the character with the highest "leadership" skill; he performs command by default unless another character is specified.

The innkeeper, Raddath, also serves as an equipment-seller, healer, and raiser of the dead, so it's clear that the party will be returning to the starting point throughout the adventure. Characters start with a random amount of gold from about 25-100, but they also have a decent selection of starting weapons, armor, salves, and spells, so it seemed to me a better choice to just save my money for some of the expensive magic items. Later, I revised this opinion, as difficult early combats made me realize that I needed all the advantages I could get early on. There don't seem to be any weapon or armor restrictions on the races and classes.

I'll have to return later for most of this stuff.
Once in the dungeon, the fun really begins--and yes, I mean that a bit sarcastically. The tediousness of the text-only interface becomes clear before you've even left the first room, where you have to LIGHT TORCH and then make sure you READY weapons and WEAR armor for each character in sequence, but first you have to check the INVENTORY for each character to see what they have. Since the party names don't remain on the screen, you have to frequently LOOK PARTY to remind yourself what you called them. There are no abbreviations except for movement commands (F, B, L, R), and since the game recognizes more than 400 words, you have to constantly refer to the documentation.

Movement throughout the game is slow. You wouldn't think having to hit the ENTER key after every command would be so annoying, but it is. F-ENTER, R-ENTER, F-ENTER, F-ENTER, L-ENTER, and so forth. When monsters appear, there's a slight delay before an animation shows them approaching the party. In that slight delay, it's easy to accidentally hit "F," intending to move forward again, which the game helpfully interprets as (F)IGHT as soon as the encounter menu appears. Even worse, if you intend to move (R)ight next, and hit that before you realize an encounter is occurring, the party will "run screaming" from the monsters.

The parser is impressive. I'm not sure what the maximum length of a string of commands is, but it's well beyond what I'd be willing to type. You can type something like CHESTER PICK UP THE HAMMER AND PUT THE GREAT SWORD ON THE ANVIL AND STRIKE THE GREAT SWORD WITH THE HAMMER AND DROP THE HAMMER. The manual takes great pride in this capability. The problem is, I'm not sure why you'd want to do so many things in succession without pausing to check and make sure the action did what you intended first. Moreover, if you mistype a word or the game otherwise misinterprets it, it simply ignores what it doesn't understand. If I type, CHESTR TOUCH THE ALTAR and the game doesn't recognize that person, it will have the lead character touch the altar instead.

This did nothing until I figured out that you have to type "CAST HEAL SPELL ON WA."

In a similar vein, there's a neat ability to string together movement commands. If you've already made your map and you just want to get somewhere fast, you can type something like F, F, R, F, F, L, F, L, F, R, F and the game will execute them all in sequence. Now if a wandering monster shows up in the middle of the sequence, no problem. Once the combat is over, the game will faithfully pick up where it left off and continue moving you--except by then you generally don't want to keep moving, because you'd rather pick up the defeated monster's dropped treasure. Now you have to wait to get where you were originally going, then turn around and go get it.

The party fights three human warriors and a troll.
In combat, characters have options similar to Wizardry: attack, defend, cast a spell, invoke an item (a command the game surely got from Daggorath), change items, or change the party order. Technically, there are three attack/defend options: put everything into "attack twice," adopt a more conservative "attack & parry," or "parry only," but this adds only slightly to the tactical options. As in Wizardry, only the first three characters can attack in melee range. Unlike Wizardry, Shadowkeep doesn't cycle you through each character; you have to manually select them one at a time, hitting ENTER after each option. And naturally there are no "default" actions; you have to set something for every character unless you want him to "do nothing." At least the game remembers actions from a previous round.

Lining up our attacks.

At the beginning, chances of hitting anyone in combat with default equipment, and chances of spellcasters successfully casting, runs less than 25%, leading to a lot of wasted power. After a couple of early character deaths, I realized my party was too imbalanced towards spellcasting. My original party was two warriors, two monks, two runemages, two shadowmages, and one necromancer; when I tried a second time, I went with three warriors, two monks, two runemasters, and one each of the other spellcasters. (The spellcasting classes are mostly differentiated by what spells they can cast, although they also have varying levels of other skills like searching.) I also took the opportunity, in making the new party, to name them things like "WA" and "WB" (Warrior A and B) so I wouldn't have to remember everyone's name.

When combat begins, you have to wait and watch the enemies approach one-by-one. I know there's going to be at least three enemies in this combat, because if there's only two, the second one walks up the middle instead of the right.
Shadowkeep invests a lot in what it thinks are good graphics. It boast about its "high-resolution animation" in the start-up screens and the manual, and indeed every time you encounter a party of monsters, it insists on forcing you to watch as they walk up to the party one by one. All combat actions have accompanying animations. Even transitioning between different menus in the store forces you to wait as Raddath whisks you from one storage room to another (and for whatever reason changes into something like an otyugh during the process), with accompanying changes in the graphics. The problem is, I don't think I would have been impressed with these graphics even in 1984. Coupled with the length of time it takes to enter the commands, Shadowkeep ends up being slow and needlessly complicated where Wizardry was brisk and simple.

I have no idea why this was necessary.

The final problem with the game is one of character development: there isn't any. There's no experience and no leveling. The only method of getting stronger comes from improving your equipment, which means the only reason to fight monsters is to get their gold. Thus, the game technically doesn't qualify as an RPG under my definitions, but this is one of those cases where it seems absurd to call it anything else despite the deficiency. [Later edit: it appears that your skills increase as you successfully use them, thus qualifying the game for RPG status.]

Note something missing from this character sheet. Attack, parry, magic, search, and open seem to be functions of attributes and equipment. They don't seem to increase with use.
If there's one redeeming thing about Shadowkeep, it's going to be in the special encounters and puzzles. For 90% of the first level, I was using only movement commands and combat choices, but occasionally I ran into a special room that required me to puzzle through some of the other 400 words that the game interprets. These moments offered a depth to the adventuring that we rarely see in RPGs of the era. They included:

  • An altar. On the wall nearby, a rune (readable only to my runemages) signaled "Life." After some experimentation, it appears that the altar takes donations of gold and other valuables. Commands like OFFER 1000 GOLDENS TO ALTAR and PUT ORNATE RING ON ALTAR would cause those objects to vanish. Nothing seemed to change among my party members, but I suspect I need to wait for someone to die and put his or her body on the altar and make the donation for resurrection.
  • A smithy with a hammer and anvil. I could pick up the hammer but not walk anywhere with it in my possession. Through some trial and error, I realized that if I put a weapon on the anvil and banged it a bit with the hammer, an asterisk appeared next to the weapon in the inventory. I think this means it's enhanced or magical. The weapons I treated this way do seem to perform better in combat.
Figuring this out was rewarding.
  • A rubbish pile. Repeated SEARCHing using the character with the highest search skill yielded an ornate ring. I'm not sure what it does.
A metaphor for my entire project.
  • Something that the game calls a podium when it really means "pedestal." It has a depression on it that would seem to require some kind of gem or crystal. I had expected to find one in the dungeon, but when I didn't, I returned to the innkeeper's shop and found that he sold several promising-sounding artifacts, including a Gem of Power and a Black Crystal. I bought the cheapest (the Black Crystal) and put it on the pedestal, and sure enough the entire room lit up. I don't know exactly what that did, though. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to take the gem or leave it there.
A "podium" also isn't the same thing as a "lectern." A podium is what a speaker stands on, not behind.
Now, if you're really stumped about what to do on a level, the back page of the game manual has quick hints for each level. For level 1, the hint is "PODIUMS: GEM OR CRYSTAL DEPRESSION." Unfortunately, it doesn't help with the question about whether to then take the gem or crystal. To cover all bases, I bought a second crystal. I took the first and left the second on the "podium."

In an odd deviation from the norm, you don't have to explore each level--at least, not the first nine--to find the stairs up. Instead, each level is spun off a central staircase. It looks like you can visit the first four freely, in any order. On Levels 5-9, the entrance to the level is blocked by a door that can't be opened until you accomplish something on the previous level. I assume that further staircases will be found somewhere on Level 9.

For this first session, I mapped only the first level, which was 16 x 16 and wrapped back on itself. A single inaccessible square gave me some heartburn, but I searched extensively for secret doors and found nothing. The game is extremely fond of one-way walls and doors, and I was constantly having to find new routes back to previously-explored areas when the walls closed behind me.

The game's first level.
Monsters on the first floor consisted of goblins, human warriors, trolls, and "deathsheep." I came close a couple of times, but none of my characters died in the first session. It did take about 3 hours to map the first level owing to the slowness of movement and combat.

I also went up to Level 4 for some time, but I didn't find the enemies notably harder. When the game offers no character development except equipment upgrades, it can't scale the enemies too fast.

Level 4 enemies. The developer needed to work on spelling. A "barguest" is what I am in New Orleans. [Edit: apparently, "barguest" is a legitimate alternate spelling of "barghest." Screw all of you who took the time to respond.] [Further edit: I meant "thank," of course. Freudian slip.]

A few other notes:

  • If enemies surprise you, your party enters combat with the character order scrambled. This means that every character needs a melee weapon equipped in case he suddenly needs to be pressed into melee service.
  • There is no sound in the game.
  • No command allows you to turn around. You can back up, but if you want to turn around, you have to hit "R" or "L" twice.
  • The game has a sleep system by which you re-gain hit points and spell points. Sleeping in the main dungeon seems to carry about a 30% risk of interruption by monsters, but you're perfectly safe sleeping on the staircase.
  • The amount of gold dropped by slain enemies seems to be dependent on the number of enemies. On Level 1, I routinely got gold in multiples of 51 (e.g., 102 for two enemies, 204 for 4 enemies). Enemies occasionally drop items as well.
  • When torches run out, they turn into "soggy sticks," which can be used as weapons.
  • When you encounter  monsters, there's a "negotiate" option. If it's successful, monsters drop their treasure as they leave. If unsuccessful, they get a free combat round.
Since combat does nothing for you, this is a real bonus when it works.
Shadowkeep has some interesting ideas, but I'm not sure it's going to be worth playing this for 25 levels. (I'd be happy to break my "no cheating" rule for this one and just follow online maps, but none seem to exist.) The combination of a tedious interface and a lack of character development really kills my enthusiasm for the game. On the other hand, the special encounters and puzzles are mildly intriguing and worth mapping a couple more levels. Next time, I'll have more about the book and the developer's background.

What happened to Martian Dreams? The short answer is that I'm still experiencing that save game problem with Martian Dreams, and I can't get around it. No matter what I do, after a certain amount of time passes, I hit CTRL-S and the game freezes up. At that point, I'm unable to save any further progress in the game even if I quit and reload. It's happened with two versions in a row, and I've exhausted any solution that I can think of. Message boards report the same problem repeatedly, and no one has offered a permanent solution yet.

Hence, I am waiting until next week to continue with Martian Dreams, as I will be home all week and thus can keep the emulator running indefinitely.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Game 203: The Black Sage (1980)

The Black Sage 
United States
Poly-Versa-Technology (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II
Date Started: 17 November 2015
Date Ended:
17 November 2015
Total Hours: 3
Reload Count: 16 (I was screwing around a lot)
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 18/201 (9%)
I know that a couple of days ago, I said I was going to save some of the new RPGs on "Keith's list" for later, and I truly did intend to do that. But then I started playing The Black Sage, just to verify it met my criteria, and damned if this goofy little game didn't strike my mood perfectly. I played all the way to the end in a single session, frequently laughing, sometimes with the game and sometimes at the game. It is perhaps important to the story to know that I was in Denver, where the altitude and things can cloud your judgement.

This dragon looks like he gets it.

The Black Sage is subtitled "an Ogres & Orcs adventure," a phrase that led me to a session of fruitless Googling before I concluded that the game is, in fact, the only "Ogres & Orcs adventure." Perhaps some of my more experienced readers can fill in the blanks if I missed something, but it doesn't appear that there was ever a tabletop RPG of the name. This makes it all the more weird that the game refers you to the "Ogres and Orcs rule book" (that's not my typo; the game can't decide whether there's an ampersand or a full word in the middle) if you're confused about any of the mechanics.

Exploring the rooms of the Black Sage's castle. This map and the dragon on the sub-title screen are the only graphics in the game. There is no sound at all.
The game begins by rolling you a character--with random values for strength, IQ, luck, dexterity, constitution, and charisma--and asking whether you like the character. The "Y/N" option at this point seems to be the same as hundreds of other RPGs, in which hitting "N" will generate a new series of statistics. But this game has a surprise for you:

This cracked me up and made me want to keep playing. You had to be there.
This is all too bad because something seems broken with the random generator. Every time I started the game anew, I got the same "random" statistics, so there was no choice but to like the character: a kind-of weak, really dumb, but spry and healthy adventurer.

The character begins the game with 1,000 gold pieces to outfit himself. He can select from a variety of swords, shields, hafted (two-handed) weapons, armor, and spells. All weapons but one have a strength requirement above 12, so I was forced to choose a cutlass for my primary weapon. I was similarly restricted to a "normal" shield. This left me plenty of money for spells, of which there are four: "What a Blast," "Where For Art Thou," "Seal Shut," and "Detect Magic." Alas, I lacked the rule book necessary to describe the uses of each of the spells, but I basically figured it out.

(Side note: I was at least 30, and already a Shakespeare fan of many years, before I realized that the word "wherefore" means "why" and not "where." Juliet is asking why Romeo is who he is, not where he is. This game is using it wrong.)

After outfitting yourself, the game verifies that you "are equipped the best you can be considering limitations of money and strength." To the unwary player, this sounds like an invitation to return to the equipment store and get more stuff. Ha. Instead, a "no" answer causes you to lose 2 IQ points and sends you forward to the next question: whether you want to enter the adventure. If you say "no," you're dumped to the prompt with a "why did you run this program stupid!!"

This game really enjoys messing with you.
A "yes" finds you in the Black Sage's castle, a high-resolution fortress of 34 interconnected, numbered rooms. As you enter, the game offers you a hint as to what room the Sage occupies. In what is probably another failure of the random number generator, I always got the same hint:

I still don't know whether this is so you can avoid him or find him.
The "figure in skating" is, of course, an 8, and Bo Derek, as Dudley Moore learned in 1979, is a 10. That meant I should look for the Sage in room 18.

Each room in the castle supplies a random encounter that, although goofy, generally gives you more role-playing options than the typical CRPG. For instance, the first room of the castle pits you against a sleeping ogre. You can try to "sneek" by him, slit his throat with a dagger, wake him up and fight him, or wake him up and talk to him. Success with each of these methods depends largely on your attributes. Sneaking requires you to make a saving throw based on luck, assassinating him rolls against your dexterity, fighting him takes you to standard combat (dependent largely on strength), and waking him up for a conversation...well, that leads to instant death here, but in similar scenarios it rolls against your charisma.

In this particular case, slitting his throat is the most rewarding because you get experience for both the successful action and the ogre's death, as well as 10 mithril pieces from the ogre. But it's not always that easy.

A lot of the options are jokes. In a couple of cases you can "stand and wait," which does nothing except require you to "hit any key when you want to stop standing around and waiting." In at least one encounter, choosing the option to "throw up" dumps you to the prompt with the admonishment that "that is absolutely disgusting; you will no longer mess up my castle." In one encounter, a "low-level commoner standing in front of you" turns out to be you in a mirror, and any offensive action ends up killing you. A "successful" charisma roll against a beautiful sorceress results in her falling in love with you and imprisoning you forever.

Here are a few of the many rooms:

Successfully dueling them rewards you with money and experience; talking to them (and passing a charisma roll) leads them to show you a few tips and increases your dexterity and charisma.

Throwing a coin in the well gives you an attribute bump.

Say what you want about the game, but I'm pretty sure I've never encountered this in another RPG.

Hmmm...there only seems to be one "good" role-playing choice here.

Ah, lesson learned.
When you do have to fight, the game rolls a series of statistics, shown in the shot below, that ultimately determine the damage to your constitution. I didn't find that straight-up combat with most fixed creatures was survivable for more than a couple of fights. You really want to play this more as an adventure game than a traditional RPG.

A lot of the encounters add or subtract from your attributes, and "solving" some of the rooms properly gives you clues that help in other rooms, including this one that explains a way to get out of the castle.

In almost every room, at least one option leads to instant death (or instant dumping you to the prompt), and I suspect that someone playing this honestly would have to restart about a dozen times before successfully navigating the small castle. (The game offers no save ability.) I liberally used save states and probably re-loaded twice that many times screwing around with the various options.

You get screens like this one a lot. I thought it was very funny at the time.
Revisiting a room generally finds it empty, although occasionally there's a random monster like an orc or hobgoblin in there. In contrast to the fixed encounters, the random ones are usually easily beaten in combat.

This is one of the times I laughed at the game. Even accounting for various possibilities, the language could have been less tortured.
The Black Sage himself resides in Room 18, near the middle of the castle. If the goal is to defeat him, I'm not sure how you do that. Even visiting his room after successfully exploring all the other ones, the only options lead to him freezing you in place with a spell and demanding "the amount of gold that you are worth." If you offer too little gold, you lose attributes before he kicks you out of the room. If you offer a moderate amount, he takes it and nothing changes. If you offer all your gold, he releases you and lets you keep it "for being so generous."

With no clear way to defeat the Sage, the goal just seems to be to get out of the dungeon with some riches, which include a large diamond and a magic sword. I found three methods of exiting the place, one of which doesn't even give you a choice when you find it.

This blew my mind. It took me a while to articulate why it wouldn't work.
Upon exiting, you can sell or keep your riches. If you got enough experience to advance to Level 2, you can choose to increase your attributes by varying amounts.

Since the game ends after leveling up, this doesn't really qualify as character development.
After you save your character...that's it. There's no way to "load" a character in this game, so I can only imagine that the author intended to write more Ogres & Orcs adventures in which you could use the saved and leveled characters. I can't find any evidence that any other games were produced in the series.

Even this one is about as obscure as it could be. Its publisher is "Poly-Versa-Technology"; Googling the company shows no results not attached to The Black Sage. Was it a real company? Was The Black Sage even really "published"? It feels like something a wise-ass but somewhat skilled teenager programmed in his high school lab. The written manual that accompanied the game probably had more clues, but it seems to have been lost to the ages.

A couple of days ago, I thought this was the best game ever, but luckily I descended from 5,280 feet before calculating the GIMLET. I give it a 13. It gets 1s in almost everything except I liked the encounter system (3) and the gameplay was short and challenging enough (3). So far, both of the games to offer detailed encounter menus have been somewhat juvenile humor titles (the other one that I can think of is Girlfriend Construction Set). Why haven't real RPGs adopted this dynamic? Some of the Gold Box titles perhaps come closest.

Even though there's one more pre-1984 game on the updated list--1981's Doom Cavern--I'll be returning to my listed rotation for now, adding it as soon as I clear off one of the others. Even though my initial reaction to Keith's attempt to "help" me was somewhat negative, quickly burning through a couple of early titles has really helped ease me back into regular blogging.


Since I'm back to managing the blog on a daily basis again, I've disabled comment moderation. Your comments should appear automatically now. I'm still getting a lot of comment spam, but I'll just try to deal with it when it happens.