Sunday, February 28, 2016

Revisiting: Alternate Reality: The City (1985)

The screen that actually has the title is boring, so here's a shot of an alien spaceship capturing people in a tractor beam.
Alternate Reality: The City
United States
Paradise Programming (developer); Datasoft (Publisher)
Released 1985 for Atari 8-bit; 1986 for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari ST; 1988 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 12 March 2010
Date Ended: 26 February 2016
Total Hours: 18
Reload Count: 17
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 113/209 (54%)
Ranking at Game #452: 273/452 (60%)

If you had to give any 1980s RPG series the designation of "cult status," it would have to be to Philip Price's grandiosely-planned, unfinished Alternate Reality. Originally intended to cover six games, the series never got further than two. But their technological achievements coupled with a uniquely weird setting make The City and The Dungeon (1987) live longer in memory than the typical titles of the era.

According to a Wikipedia article so poorly written and cited it's being considered for deletion, Price had recently left a U.S. Navy enlistment when, "living in a shack with no running water and...using a Jeep for power," he began writing his first commercial games, starting with The Tail of Beta Lyrae (1983) and progressing to Alternate Reality, which he published through California-based Datasoft. According to another poorly-sourced site, he hardly made any money from the games because his contract allowed Datasoft to deduct 100% of the conversion costs from his profits; and they ported the game from the original Atari 8-bit to the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Amiga, the Atari ST, the Macintosh, and DOS. Discouraged, Price left the gaming industry for a variety of programming jobs at military contractors. He made a failed effort to turn Alternate Reality into an MMORPG in the late 1990s.

Alternate Reality uses a first-person interface in which the player navigates a large map and encounters monsters, NPCs, and shops. In its basic approach, it superficially resembles The Bard's Tale from the same year and thus draws on a Wizardry tradition. Although the setting is high fantasy, the opening screen shots make it clear that the character is in that setting because he's been abducted by aliens. The specific nature of the world is left a mystery: Has the character been transported there in body or just mind? Is it a real place or a simulation?

The nature of the plot, and the ultimate plans for unfolding it, make up half of the games' appeal. The other half is due to a series of memorably innovative technologies and elements. These include:

  • Continuous incremental movement between tiles.
  • Weather effects, including continuous rain.
  • Visible sunrises and sunsets, including changing the colors of the terrain to represent the lightening and darkening days.
  • Multiple methods of dealing with enemies, including tricking them and charming them.
  • The ability to work regular jobs in some establishments to make money and pass time (in some versions).
  • A complex set of hidden character statistics, including hunger, thirst, fatigue, heat, cold, disease, poison, and encumbrance.
  • An alignment system that responds based on player actions.
  • The ability to invest money in banks and earn interest, at various rates of risk and return.
  • In-game drunkenness manifesting itself in difficulty manipulating the game interface.
  • Artfully-composed music and lyrics specific to the various settings of the game.
When you're drunk, your character staggers around independent of your keyboard inputs. It's raining in this screenshot, too.
These innovative elements are coupled with a heavy difficulty curve. Characters start with a handful of copper pieces and some basic clothing and have to immediately contend with hostile enemies wandering The City. Stores don't necessarily sell low-level adventuring equipment, so even if the player scrapes together enough money for a dagger or short sword, he might not be able to find a shop that will sell one. Surviving even a couple of days and assembling a basic set of equipment is a major victory. And death is generally permanent unless the player backs up the character disk.
From the C64 version. It's going to be a while before I can afford anything here.
The original goals for Alternate Reality were lofty. The City was going to serve as the central hub for the game, and from there, the player would be able to move in and out of The Arena, The Palace, and The Wilderness, each with its own selection of sub-quests and winning conditions. For instance, the player would be able to retire after becoming champion of The Arena or take over the city after negotiating The Palace. The idea was that players would be able to transition seamlessly between these areas even though the actual disks might be released years after The City--much like characters in Skyrim can move back and forth between Skyrim and Solstheim.
The Atari 8-bit version calls for a disk that never existed.
I'm not sure how the two final planned games--Revelation and Destiny--would fit into this "transition" model, but together they would resolve the plot of the series. I'll talk more about that later.

In any event, the series never even got to the second of the planned games. The City was split into two games: the one bearing that title, and The Dungeon, which was originally just The City's sewers. The Dungeon has a winning condition, but exploration in The City is both open-ended and goalless, with the exception of creating a good character for The Dungeon.
From the DOS version. This doesn't seem very champion-like.
For the last six years, since I briefly covered The City in a short posting during the first month of my blog, I've been feeling bad about how I treated the game. Since The City didn't have a winning condition, I didn't feel like putting up with its difficulty, and I eagerly moved on to the next title. You understand, this was before I started to take my project seriously. I was only in the game to have fun, not to properly document the historical development of RPGs, and I wasn't even bothering to look up basic things like developers' names.

This time, I was determined to explore The City long enough to create a viable character for The Dungeon in 1987. This meant that I would need to play one of the versions for which The Dungeon was released: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and Apple II. As you may have gathered from the comments in my recent "1984/1985" posting, I had some trouble with this. I downloaded multiple versions of the games for each of the platforms but encountered a variety of crashes, bugs, and obstacles caused by the game's sensitive copy protection system, which diseases and slowly kills the character. The C64 version is notably bad, sending a seizure-inducing series of flashing colors at you every time you encounter a monster or NPC or enter a shop.

Amid this, multiple readers wrote opining that the Atari 8-bit version is "the original, therefore the best" and a couple of them finally sent me working copies, so that was the one I ultimately stuck with, even though it brought its own challenges. My first character, for instance, was unable to enter any of the smithies--after a bunch of disk swapping, he was immediately kicked out. Also, the version lacks any obvious mechanism for exiting a bank once you enter. Ultimately, in my modern emulator-based experience, instabilities, bugs, unexplained deaths, and inconsistent requirements for disk-swapping marred every version of the game that I tried to play.
With no "exit" option for the bank, you have to use the joystick controls to get out.
The opening graphics show an alien space craft hovering over a modern city, firing tractor beams or something that scoop up random citizens, including (presumably) the player's character. The title graphics come in over a field of stars. The game thus establishes the theme of the series: although the world of The City may resemble some medieval fantasy, it's really taking place in a simulated reality on a spaceship after the character has been abducted by extraterrestrials.

The original Atari version does something that I didn't see in the others. As the star field whizzes by and music plays, lyrics appear on the screen to accompany the music, with individual words highlighted as their accompanying notes play in the background:

The early morning
Turns into early day
A sunset comes they
Take the colors
Where you are
Alternate Reality

A bit like home yet
Unmistakably new
A morning rain then
Evening stars come
And view
What is your
Alternate Reality

You walk around each
Corner hoping to see
A way to get back
Home a way to
Break free
And to leave
Alternate Reality

This is your
Alternate Reality
I think I could just turn off the computer.
I can't say much for the meter or rhyme scheme, and there are some obvious errors (e.g., "and view" instead of "in view"), but it's definitely a "first" in the RPG world. There are other little songs throughout the game. For instance, after you wander into a tavern, this little ditty scrolls by on the screeen: "Walking in / sitting down / naturally you / glance around. / On the floor / about to dance / with smallish legs / in smallish pants / a character / with features drawn / from ages past / and yet to dawn. / You down an ale / and few a forth / you watch the dance / you watch the dwarf."
Attributes scroll by as you contemplate entering the city.
Character creation begins with a name, after which you find yourself in front of a portal with continually-scrolling values (between roughly 3 and 20) for your stamina, charisma, strength, intelligence, wisdom, skill, hit points, and copper. They scroll too fast to watch more than one or two, so you have to prioritize when to accept the values. Stepping forward through the portal freezes the values and lands you in the City of Xebec's Demise, with no idea where to go or what to do--but then again, you wouldn't have any idea in a real scenario, either.
Arriving in Xebec's Demise.
Xebec's Demise (no explanation is given for the name of the city) is a huge city--64 by 64 squares. I started out trying to map it, but the incremental movement made it hard to figure out how many "squares" I was passing through. Ultimately, I gave up and just bumbled around. The city is full of banks, inns, taverns, smithies, other shops, healers, guilds, and random encounters in between. Notable is the ability to take a job at some of the shops and earn a little extra coin (in some versions, at least; I don't think I encountered these options in the Atari 8-bit version).
Visiting the bar in the Atari 8-bit version. I've ordered a meal.
Everything in the game takes place in real-time, and if you don't make liberal use of the (P)ause key, you'll get approached and attacked while standing still. During combat, when the options change, you only have a couple of seconds to choose your selection or the game assumes you take no action and the enemy gets a free hit. This is not a game in which you want to crank up the emulator speed.

Outside combat, you have options to view your stats, drop items, ready items, pause, drink potions, and save the game. In the Atari 8-bit and C64 versions, movement is accomplished with the IJKL cluster.

Creatures approach at random intervals, including enemies like orcs, muggers, and giant rats and friendly NPCs like couriers, knights, and merchants. Nighttime and rain cause more dangerous monsters to appear. I can understand nighttime, but I have no idea why so many monsters come out in the rain.
From the C64 version, I contemplate my attack options as the rains fall.
Once you encounter an enemy or NPC, your options change to charm, ignore, sneak, trick, engage, use, ready, cast, and leave. Tricking and charming, if successful, immediately kill the creature but are considered "evil" acts if done against non-evil creatures. If you "engage" him or he attacks you, your options then change to lunge, attack, parry, disengage, use items, ready items, cast spells, or "give up," the latter of which immediately kills you. (You wouldn't think this would make sense in a game, but in a real-life scenario, if I suddenly found myself kidnapped by aliens, thrust into a medieval alternate reality, and attacked by a goblin, it might very well be my default choice.) As I struggled to find a shop that would sell me my first weapon, I managed to get past a few enemies with "trick" and "charm."
Having enough money to buy a weapon and finding a shop that will sell one for that price is a major event in this game.
There are lots of elements hidden from the player at the outset, revealed as the player enters various guilds. These statistics include a physical movement speed, "noticeability" (i.e., how often you get encounters), stealth, likelihood of finding treasure, and an alignment score. The latter apparently goes down when you attack friendly creatures; I'm not sure how it goes up. The game is also ahead of its time in the way it awards experience points--some for damage, some for each kill, and some for finding treasure--and the way that attributes can increase as you successfully use associated skills.

For this post, I invested about 12 hours into the game, 6 with characters and versions that ultimately went nowhere, and 6 with a semi-successful character named Chester, aided by some save-scumming. He started strong, with attributes all in the teens. Like all characters, he began outside the entry gate, near a couple of shops, a smith, a bank, and several inns and taverns. This "city square" area is a relatively safe part of town, and I learned to hang out there until I was strong enough to explore other areas.

Trying to survive the early stages is an exercise in masochism. You don't have enough money to buy anything the shops are selling, and there's no easy way to make more. You have to trick, charm, or kill a monster with your bare hands or slave for a couple of weeks in a bar--at which point you can perhaps afford a dagger--if you're lucky enough to find a shop that will sell you one. Meanwhile, you're worrying about depleting food, water, and stamina--but of course staples and sleep also cost money.

The difficulty does create a couple of good aspects. First, there's a real incentive to be evil and prey on innocent, defenseless townsfolk. It's rare to find an RPG in which you (realistically) turn to evil out of desperation. Second, I admit that the difficulty does make things all the more satisfying when they start to get incrementally better.

In the case of Chester, the turning point was tricking a gremlin to death and finding a couple of potions on his body. The game has an interesting potion-identification dynamic, not unlike NetHack, in which you have to take cues from the color and what happens if you sip it. For instance, a red potion that tastes "bitter" is a Potion of Strength and a white potion that tastes "alkaline" is poison. There are several dozen combinations. A player would have to learn these combinations through extensive testing and record-keeping and more than one character death. Anyway, the two potions the gremlin carried were Strength and Treasure Finding. The latter increases the associated hidden statistic, and after I drank it, I started finding more money with subsequent kills.
My fortunes change for the better.
Soon after the gremlin, I managed to kill a mugger with my bare hands. His corpse delivered enough gold that I could afford a small weapon, and fortunately the nearby smith had one for sale. The difference that one small dagger makes is huge, and in the next couple of hours, I was able to kill more gremlins, thieves, and even a couple of zombies. Later, I killed a thief who had a battle hammer and took it as an upgrade, then killed a swordsman and got his shield. Slowly, I worked my way up to Level 4.

Fighting a zombie in front of a smithy.

I started exploring the city and found a variety of shops with different names but basically the same stuff. Eventually, I wandered into one of the guilds of the city. When you enter a guild for the first time, the wizards always increase the associated statistic. Some of them tell you your hidden scores, like alignment and treasure finding. Despite an option to do so, there's no way to "join" a guild. I suspect this was supposed to be how you would acquire spells, which otherwise never seem to appear despite a "cast" option. (I understand you can join the guilds in the Amiga version, though.)

visiting a guild.
As I discussed above, there were grandiose plans for The City as a hub for other, more meaty adventures. Characters would explore the plots of The Arena, The Palace, and The Wilderness, moving back and forth through The City and using its shops, taverns, and inns. Unfortunately, because the reality of the game fell so far short of the plans, The City is left curiously pointless--a hub without any spokes--as if it were a normal dungeon-crawler released with only the town level.

But even though the game lacks a specific goal, certainly we have the general goal of developing a character for The Dungeon, right? Well...maybe. While I was in the middle of playing the game, a fan named Allen wrote with a bunch of tips, including this one: "veteran City characters are worse off in the long run than newly generated Dungeon characters in terms of ability scores, equipment, and the hazard level of encounters." He went on to explain that new Dungeon characters start with attributes higher than all but the luckiest City characters and that The Dungeon has level-based encounter scaling that punishes City characters at an already high level.

This means that the answer to the question of how long you play The City is "as long as you're having fun." And for me, that was no time at all. I apologize to fans of the game--I hope you at least agree that I gave it a fair chance this time--but I have a worse impression of Alternate Reality now than I did at the end of my 2010 posting. I have no idea how it developed such a positive reputation. It seems to expect its intentions and technical developments to override slow, punishingly difficult, buggy, and ultimately pointless gameplay.

The technical innovations don't even make for a good experience. Take the scrolling movement. Once you get past the initial reaction ("Huh. Cool."), you realize how difficult it makes mapping when you can't tell the moment you cross into a new square. The rain...sure. I might have been impressed in 1985. It's hard to get excited about some straight blue lines today. As for all the attributes--heat, cold, hunger, thirst, fatigue--the need to scrimp for every penny at the beginning, and the ability to work menial jobs--let's just say that I'm looking for an RPG, not Oregon Trail.

Thus, when I hit Level 5 and had more than 10,000 copper pieces, I entered the bank and invested most of them in a medium risk account...
...retired to the bar, ordered the lobster, and bought a round for the house...
...saved my character for The Dungeon and ended the game. If kidnapped by aliens, Chester would prefer to spend his days in the bar instead of fighting gremlins on the street, trust me.

My previous attempt at a GIMLET, calculated a few weeks after I played the game, came to a 24. Without looking at the individual scores, I tried again:

  • 3 points for the game world. The plot is original, and I like the way that Xebec's Demise is a "living city," but ultimately you can't do much with it. While I can look up the series' backstory on Wikipedia today, the game earns a low score judging from what its own documentation gives you.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation is all random, but development is somewhat satisfying, with multiple ways to increase experience and alignment consequences to your actions. But too much is random and too little is self-directed.
  • 2 points for NPCs. NPCs are really the same thing as monsters--miscellaneous knights, merchants, townsfolk, and couriers that you encounter just like enemies. There's no way to productively interact with them, but interaction does affect your alignment. Shopkeepers are also quasi-NPCs, given how they react to your attempts to low-ball them. Neither, unfortunately, imparts any information about the game world.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The enemies are fantasy standards with the usual slate of special attacks and defenses. There are no special encounters or role-playing choices.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The numerous options don't amount to much since you can't always use all of them. There's theoretically an option to cast spells, but I never found any in the game.
Fighting a knight outside the palace.
  • 4 points for equipment, a very important part of the game, to include weapons, armor, clothing, food, water, utility items, and the potion system.
  • 6 points for economy. In a game that's half survival simulation, this category takes on a lot of importance. I liked the currency, banking, and gem system.
  • 0 points for having nothing like a quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. You want me to give points for the graphics, but I find them ugly and crude no matter how innovative the color-changes and raindrops are. You want me to give points for the music, but I don't care about music, and the other sound effects are primitive. The keyboard input works okay.
  • 4 points for gameplay. I admire it for being open-ended and large, and slightly "replayable" given how random the encounters and events are.

This gives us a final score of 30, a little below what I would consider "recommended," but a little better than I expected. Its improvement from my 2010 attempt reflects the fact that I understand the game better.
My thoughts are echoed in Scorpia's November 1986 review in Computer Gaming World. She praises the attention to detail but criticizes the game for monotonous mapping, lack of anything interesting in the huge city, and lack of a plot. I think her review would have been even less charitable if she had known then that the planned 5 games would never happen.

Regardless of how the liberal media treated Alternate Reality, the sheer oddness of the game ensured that it would develop some die-hard believers. I've received e-mails from a lot of them, and I'm sure this comments section is going to be filled with notes from people who insist I missed many of the game's nuances. (I welcome that; please help me better document this game from multiple perspectives.) There are several fan sites, with no shortage of people who call Alternate Reality the best game ever made for the Atari 8-bit, or indeed for any platform. In 2011, a British company named Elite Systems released an iPhone version (though it no longer seems to be available), and a commenter named acrin1 is currently working on a nice-looking Windows version that combines The City and The Dungeon (you can download the current version in progress).
From acrin1's remake.
If I ever get a chance to talk with Philip Price, I'm going to ask about his influences. I said earlier that it comes from a Wizardry tradition, but that's mostly in the first-person interface and a few of the encounter options. It's possible that Price never played Wizardry. Some of the elements, such as the guilds, call to mind some of the PLATO titles, but I can't find any evidence Price was ever near a PLATO campus. The weird sci-fi setting, the emphasis on simulation, and the banking system suggest a familiarity with the Empire and Space titles from Edu-Ware.

Around 1990 (I'm having trouble finding the original source), Philip Price revealed to a fan his entire original plan for the series. Revelation was going to end with the character finding a metallic door at the end of a cave, leading to "corridors gleaming with technology" and a room with an immense window looking out onto space. (Given what's revealed in the opening shots, I'm not sure that's much of a revelation.) In Destiny, the character would acquire a bunch of high-tech equipment, fight through a bunch of aliens, and find a chamber with humans stored in pods. It would turn out that the aliens were using humans' experiences in The City (and the other expansions) for their own entertainment, and that the character isn't even corporeal but one of the bodies in the pods. The series would end with a number of choices involving remaining incorporeal (and immortal) or returning to the body, fighting or aiding the aliens, and continuing on to alien worlds or returning to Earth.

Great ideas--anticipating elements of The Matrix and Lost, even--but ideas are a dime a dozen, and the reality is that this "cult classic" never got out of its own sewers. I'm not interested in joining the cult. I think this series has been coasting for too long on its own mystique. We'll see if I feel any differently after playing Alternate Reality: The Dungeon in 1987. For now, let's revisit another game that I didn't engage long enough back in 2010: Autoduel.


For further reading: Unsatisfied with my conclusions? You might be happy to know that I enjoyed Alternate Reality: The Dungeon (1987) quite a bit more. And check out my coverage of two games heavily inspired by Alternate Reality: Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) and Legends of Valour (1992).

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Vengeance of Excalibur: Won!* (with Final Rating)

Vengeance of Excalibur
United States
Synergistic Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 14 February 2016
Date Ended: 22 February 2016
Total Hours: 18
Reload Count: 11
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at Time of Posting: 140/208 (67%)
Scenario 3 opened with the intelligence that several of Camelot's treasures had been taken to the mysterious City of Brass, occupied by thousands of "skeleton soldiers." Al-Mansur, Breuse's supposed ally, was besieging the city, and might agree to sell out Breuse in his desperation.

The party meets the most powerful figure in Muslim Iberia.
I went to the city and spoke to Al-Mansur. He agreed to help me if I could get into the city and open the gates from within. "If only men could fly," he added, hinting at what the manual makes explicit: I need a flying carpet. Fortunately, the djinni in my service had a "Flying Carpet" spell. I went to the exterior of the city, summoned the Djinni, and cast the spell.
I have to provide the carpet?! What kind of a djinni are you?!
Time to scour all of Iberia for a carpet! Figuring it wasn't in any of the places that I had explored in Scenario #2, I concentrated on the other cities. I first hit all the ones without garrisons, but found nothing except some traders selling healing balm and herbs. These turned out to be handy later but they weren't the object of my quest.

In my explorations, I ran into a Christian army led by someone named Enrico. He was hoping to get my help reclaiming Barcelona. Figuring at the very least this was a side-mission, I accepted and we conquered the city.
I like my odds.
Barcelona turned out to have several merchants, one of whom was happy to sell a carpet.
Something about the way he said this made me a little suspicious.
I bought the carpet, returned to the City of Brass, dropped it on the ground, summoned the djinni again, and cast the spell.
Right. What does "house of a flying creature" mean!? I went back to Barcelona, poked around some more, and found a merchant who would sell me a silk carpet. 

Okay, I suppose the cocoon of a silkworm is a "house of a flying creature" in some twisted way. When I went back to the City of Brass with this carpet, the spell worked and I was able to fly over the walls into the city.
I'm not sure I wouldn't want to sit for this.
As predicted, the city was full of skeletons. They were tough enemies, and I had to use a lot of healing balms and "Healing" spells from Nineve to keep my knights alive. Even then, the skeletons occasionally killed someone before I could react, and I had to reload. There were several combats with multiple skeletons at once, in which case three of your party members engage at once.

Throughout the game, I was never able to figure out how to re-order the knights in combat or send the warriors I actually wanted into the fight. For instance, in the battle above, if Palomides withdraws, Amadis will take his place. So far, so good. But if Bedivere then withdraws, Nineve won't take his place--Palomides will head back into action again. In other words, you can only have one substitution at a time, and it always substitutes the next highest-ranked character. Later in the game, I got the ability to summon a bunch of my own skeletons, and it would have been nice to have them do all the fighting, but they only ever took the place of whatever knight was third on the list (in a battle against three foes).

Anyway, eventually I reached the gate of the city from the inside, and Al-Mansur's forces were able to conquer it. But that still didn't end the scenario. I had to wander around the city until I found the source of its evil: an evil djinni constantly summoning skeletons. Every time I defeated one, he just summoned another one.
I couldn't break the cycle no matter what I did or what spell I used. Thus, I reluctantly consulted a walkthrough. I discovered that to defeat the djinni, I needed an empty bottle and a cork. This would have required me to buy a bottle of wine back in Barcelona, drink it before meeting up with the djinni, and then "use" the cork to trap him. I guess the evil djinni couldn't possibly see me coming with a bottle and cork held out menacingly in front of me.

This was exactly the kind of thing that drove me crazy about Spirit of Excalibur: fail to visit some random place or acquire some random object, and you're screwed hours later. Even classic adventure games don't typically put you in this kind of situation. They allow you to backtrack to previous screens and work out puzzles logically. When you have the entire Iberian peninsula to explore and events progress in a linear manner, it fundamentally isn't fair unless the goal is to expect the player to tread the same ground multiple times, fighting the same battles. RPG's typically aren't like this, and when they are--when I have to hunt around for an "earlier save"--I get annoyed.

Anyway, I restarted from the beginning of the scenario, bought the wine bottle this time, did everything again, and trapped the djinni. This got me Helye's Book, a treasure that I don't recall being mentioned in the backstory and that does not appear in Arthurian legend. It's apparently a spellbook, and reading it conferred to Nineve some extra spells.

From this point, I lost my interest in playing honestly, and I consulted the walkthrough frequently to get to the end of the game. I was able to finish Scenarios 4 and 5 without help, but I sleepwalked through Scenario 6 and consulted it a couple of times in Scenario 7.
Scenario 4 opened with the news that Al-Mansur had betrayed me by taking Arthur's helm, Arthur's shield, Excalibur, and the Holy Grail and rode off for Kurtuba (Cordoba). The world map showed his army on the move towards the city.

Winning the scenario depended largely on getting to Kurtuba before Al-Mansur--difficult enough on its own given that accidentally running into him on the road leads to immediate death. Even worse, I had to reach Kurtuba with a knight named Ruy Diaz, who had a quest to rescue the daughter of the King of Castile. That meant first joining him far to the north in Salamanca. The manual tells you all of this; I didn't have to get it from the walkthrough. What the walkthrough recommended, however, was leaving one knight close to Salamanca during Scenario #3 so he could hustle to join Diaz at the beginning of Scenario #4 and meet the rest of the party in Kurtuba before Al-Mansur could get there. Having not done that, I had to take my entire party to Salamanca and back down to Kurtuba, which took me three tries and left me with just seconds to spare on the last try.
The party gets to Kurtuba too late. These instant-kills are really annoying.
The manual also warned that I would need Sir Breuse's help. I had to explore a large dungeon to find him. The multi-screen dungeons in this game are a good idea, making it more like an RPG than Spirit of Excalibur, but they're hard to map because there's little rhyme or reason to the direction you enter and exit a room. You might go from Room 1 to Room 2 by clicking on a door, but when you arrive in Room 2, you walk in from the left side of the screen. Then, clicking on the left side doesn't necessarily take you back to Room 1.
This is the kind of thing Breuse would do.
With Breuse's help, I found the maiden, Landoine (the name belongs to a couple of characters in the Vulgate Estoire del Saint Grail), and got from her a golden key to the castle's treasury.
In the treasury, I found Arthur's helm and shield, completing this scenario.

Scenario 5 opened with the news that Breuse had stolen Arthur's shield moments after I found it, and that Al-Mansur was headed for Tuliatala. The manual suggested that three cities would ask for aid, and that I would need to help at least two of them to raise an army large enough to take Tuliatala, but if I tried to help all three, it would "enable Al-Mansur to raise an army that is so formidable, even a prayer won't protect your party from certain death." I think the game could have tried harder with that hyperbole.

Anyway, as the scenario opened, I already had one army: King Alfonso's, given to Ruy Diaz in exchange for rescuing his daughter. A messenger came along soon enough with a request from two other cities.
Long story short, I helped defend the cities, acquired their armies, marched on Tuliatala, defeated Al-Mansur's army, and then killed Al-Mansur himself in a very easy one-on-one combat with Lancelot. Excalibur was mine. (Historical note: Almanzor is believed to have actually died in 1002 in the Battle of CalataƱazor, a major victory in the Spanish Reconquista.)
Al-Mansur moments before I eviscerated him with my "feeble weapons."
Scenario #6 inexplicably wanted me to "reforge" Excalibur to kill the Shadowmaster despite nothing ever having been said that it was broken. The manual gave enough hints about what I needed to do that I probably could have figured it out on my own, but the process involved a couple of spells for which Nineve needed specific herbs, and I didn't feel like running around to every city trying to find them.

As part of the scenario, I had to sail to Majorca and kill a dragon in it's cave, recovering a number of treasures, including a "runic blade" that served as a good weapon for Bedivere (Lancelot had Excalibur), a "small chest" that I never found a way to open, and the dragon's teeth which, when used, summoned skeleton warriors to fight for me.
The dragon had some fancy treasure.
Somewhere, I ran into Diego Garcia again, who offered to trade me some meteor iron for the djinni's lamp, which I owed him anyway in exchange for his previous favor. I agreed. That plus some spells were the final ingredient I needed to reforge Excalibur, which I did at a smith's shop, ending the scenario.
And we've finished our destruction of the Arthurian tradition.
As Scenario #7 started, that mysterious canis lupus reappeared and told me that  the Shadowmaster was in the "Ciudad Encantada" northeast of Cadiz. I brought my party to the city. The difficult part of this scenario was finding my way through a couple of mazes, first outside the city and then inside, and killing a couple dozen Saracens, Moors, and guards along the way.

The map culminated first in a fight against Breuse. Killing him got me Arthur's shield.

Breuse, just before a quick death.
After that was the Shadowmaster. When I faced him, Lancelot was equipped with the Gauntlets of Power, Arthur's helm, Arthur's shield, and Excalibur/The Sword of Vengeance, but I still couldn't defeat the Shadowmaster. He kept killing me with fireballs before I could even get up to him.
This guy wasn't trash-talking.

The game had screwed me one more time. It turns out that to defeat the Shadowmaster, I first had to use something called a "Citadel Scroll" on Arthur's shield. But only a knight with a piety of 25 or greater was capable of using the Citadel Scroll. And the only way to build piety is to spent hours praying at a church. Thus, I had to reload a save from the beginning of the scenario, have my knights sit at a church until their piety was at the sufficient level, and replay everything again.
Trust me, I wasn't feeling particularly "pious" right now.
With the shield thus enchanted, the Shadowmaster could hardly do any damage at all, and Lancelot killed him in a few hits.
The endgame text describes how the party returns to Camelot and heals Constantine with the Grail and the land is saved, at least until William of Normandy shows up.

How the paralyzed Constantine "sips" from the Grail isn't well explained.
Mind if I add a quick GIMLET to this already-long post?

  • 4 points for the game world. It uses an unusual historical setting--maybe the first and only time that we see Islamic Iberia in an RPG--but merging this history with Arthurian legends doesn't really make any sense, and I can't say that the backdrop contributed significantly to the story except for a couple NPCs and of course the landscape. The Shadowmaster was just a generic "big bad," and his nature and threat is never well explained in the game or backstory. I did, however, like the concept of a living world in which events happen independent of the party and yet you can still influence them.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. You "choose" characters rather than create them, and the game doesn't give you a lot of help with that. There's little reason not to just pick the strongest knight (Lancelot) and have him wield all the best equipment and get all of the combat points. "Development" consists of an occasional combat or magic point--definitely the bare minimum to be considered an RPG at all.
Some character stats that increase with use and equipment.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. A key part of the game is finding messengers and allies and agreeing to help (or not) with their quests. Some of them are historically based, which adds some more depth.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The enemies in the game are a bland selection of skeletons, Saracens, dwarves, and such--nothing to celebrate. As I often do, I give a couple points here for the adventure-style puzzles, but not a lot because I don't think they're very good.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Both individual and army combat are boring, automatic, and overly random. There is little in the way of tactics except for the occasional spell.
  • 3 points for equipment. There are a handful of items to buy, find, wield, and use, but they make permanent changes to the character's attributes and are not the types of tradable, swappable, droppable inventory that you really seek in an RPG.
  • 5 points for the economy. Because hiring armies costs so much, I was too paranoid to spend gold through much of the game, but it does have a lot of value, both in hiring allies and buying various potions and spell reagents, and you earn it both from quest completion and searching slain foes.
  • 3 points for a main quest and a number of optional areas.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are fantastic--probably the best part of the game--but there's no sound beyond music and I found the mouse-driven interface clunky. It was too easy to click on the wrong thing.
Beautifully-composed scenes like this gypsy camp are the highlight of the game.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It's deceptively linear, meaning the ability to traverse the Iberian peninsula makes it seem non-linear, but really each scenario confines you to a couple of cities. I suppose it's slightly "replayable" for different experiences with different knights, and different ways to accomplish some of the missions. I find it just a tad exasperating, but at least it's over quickly with a little help.

The final score of 34 puts it right below my "recommended" threshold and 1 point higher than I gave Spirit of Excalibur. Spirit had a much better story and game setting, but Vengeance has a better economy. The rest of the categories rate about the same. Reading over my Spirit rating, I see that I made a lot of the same comments, particularly on the nonlinearity issue: "I hold a special contempt for games that seem nonlinear but actually expect you to follow a precise path. What starts as, 'Wow! I can go anywhere in Britain!' soon becomes 'Wow! If I don't hit these towns in this precise order, there's no way to defeat the Saxon armies!'"
This title should have been rejected for the same reason that Revenge of the Jedi was.
Contemporary reviews tended to praise the original setting but gave poor overall ratings. Most noted that the problems inherent in Spirit of Excalibur hadn't been fixed. Amiga Power, wrote, "Back in May last year we less-than-eccstatically [sic] reviewed this game's predecessor, Spirit of Excalibur. This one's no better." Amiga Action in June 1992: "Following on the heels of Spirit of Excalibur, Vengeance revives the previous disappointment with a sequel of equally low stature."

The January 1992 Computer Gaming World offers a nuanced review, making most of the criticisms that I do: lack of information about the knights and spells, the horrible blow to role-playing in the dwarf caverns, and the tactically-bereft combat system among them.
Both Spirit and Vengeance exemplify Synergistic's refusal--going all the way back to Robert Clardy's Campaign series--to define itself by a single genre. But while originality is admirable, it has to be tempered with strong game elements. The games blend some strategy, adventure, and RPG characters, but they don't go deep enough into any of these genres and thus leave fans of all of them feeling a bit unsatisfied. The company is only going to have one more chance--1996's Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance--to get it right.

I needed a quick one after Disciples of Steel, and that served okay. The next 1991 game is one I know nothing about--Dusk of the Gods--followed by the familiar comfort of a Gold Box title.


Further Reading: Check out the other games made with Synergistic's "World Builder" engine: War in Middle Earth (1988),  Spirit of Excalibur (1990), and Conan: The Cimmerian (1991).

Monday, February 22, 2016

Game 212: The Adventure - Only the Fittest Shall Survive (1985)


The Adventure: Only the Fittest Shall Survive
Green Valley Publishing (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II
Date Started: 9 February 2016
Date Ended: 9 February 2016
Total Hours: 3
Reload Count: 0
Difficulty: Easy (2/5), at least for the first scenario
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 72/223 (32%)

Green Valley Publishing only seems to have been around for about two years between 1985 and 1987, but during that time they managed to produce at least half a dozen games, including A PACAaLIPS Now, a ripoff of Pac-Man; Atomic Handball, a ripoff of Breakout; a C64 adaptation of a chess game that someone else made; a re-release of Sierra's The Wizard and the Princess; and The Adventure: Only the Fittest Shall Survive, a breathtakingly blatant ripoff of Eamon (1980). This was not a publisher with a lot of ambition towards originality.
I feel like we've seen this dragon before...
As you may recall from my March 2013 review, Eamon is an open-source adventure construction set from Donald Brown. Any number of adventures spin off from a central adventurer's hall where you start and end each quest. There, you can buy weapons, armor, and spells and perform a few other aspects of character management. The adventures are all text, but unlike the Infocom adventures of the time, they are proper RPGs, with a complex set of statistics to determine accuracy and damage in combat, including a system of critical hits and fumbles. Skills for weapon, armor, and spell use increase as you successfully use them, which I think is the first time this method of character development appears in RPG history.

Different weapon types adjust accuracy and damage formulas but are mitigated by developing skill.

Donald Brown wrote half a dozen adventures to go with the core program, then made it available to the world. Today, the Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online has cataloged 255 Eamon adventures, including several made within the last few years.

Brown apparently has a chip on his shoulder about his game, and he has refused to respond to requests for interviews, including mine. But he did try to commercialize Eamon as SwordThrust (1981), a variant I liked so much that I wrote my first walkthrough based on it. The engine has also been adapted to graphic platforms several times.

Unless Brown had some relationship with Green Valley Publishing that history has yet to be uncovered, The Adventure is a staggeringly unethical commercialization, in express violation of the Eamon license. It adopts the Eamon engine in its entirety and makes only the most superficial changes. The Hall of the Guild of Free Adventurers becomes the Guildhall of the Free Adventurers. The primary attributes of hardiness, agility, and charisma become strength, dexterity, and charisma. The skills of spear, bow, and axe become blunt, distance, and slashing. Idiotic word substitutions like this, fooling no one, permeate the game.
Chester fights a priest.
In almost all of its changes, The Adventure makes for blander text. For instance, when you first enter the guildhall and give the guildmaster your name (to load an old character or retrieve a new one), Eamon calls him a "burly Irishman," while The Adventure just calls him "a guard." When he can't find your name and wants to confirm that you want to create a new character, Eamon has him say, "Yer name's na in here. Have ye given it to me aright?" while The Adventure just notes, "the guard eyes you suspiciously and says he can't find you listed." Eamon's weapon shop owner is named Marcos Cavielli and says "well, as I live and breathe, if it isn't my old pal Chester!" when you enter. The Adventure just has a generic "weaponmaster" who "greets you warmly." I could go on for multiple paragraphs.

But the underlying engine--as well as major things like the main screen graphics--are entirely unchanged. This includes your amount of starting gold, weapon and armor prices, and spell names ("Blast," "Heal," "Speed," and "Power"). This also includes the name of the first adventure: "The Beginner's Cave." 

Beginning the first adventure in The Adventure...
...and in Eamon. Changing "entrance" to "mouth" really shows the former's originality.
Once you start the adventure, some changes in The Adventure interface become clear. The text is mostly the same--superficial replacements, I suspect designed to counter the most obvious charges of plagiarism--but The Adventure splits its screen so that the text occupies the right half and information about the character (which in Eamon you would need to return to the guildhall to see) occupies the left.

As with Eamon, exploring the adventure is done with simple commands, including the cardinal directions (unlike Eamon, The Adventure doesn't support abbreviations, so you have to type out NORTH and SOUTH), LOOK, TAKE, QUAFF, SAY, and ATTACK. The Adventure gets rid of some of the less-used but fun Eamon verbs, including SMILE and WAVE. Again, there are dumb substitutions: Eamon's GET, DRINK, and READY become TAKE, QUAFF, and PREPARE here.

Another comparison. This is Eamon...
...and this is The Adventure. Same rates, same treasure. By making its chamber "large" instead of "small," The Adventure corrected a glaring problem with the original.

I played a little of the game side-by-side with the Eamon version, and it appears that the map is identical, including the placement of monsters and treasures. The cave is basically just a long hall with rooms off to the side where you can fight monsters and pick up treasures. Charisma determines whether certain NPCs are enemies or allies. Again, the encounters are less interesting than in Eamon: a "grizzled old hermit who smells as if he hasn't taken a bath in forty years" is just "a hermit"; "a bottle with a strange potion inside" is just "a bottle."

Some of the changes make no sense. In Eamon, when the adventurer gets to the end of the hallway, the text says, "to your great shock are two doors on the east and west." This is a joke about the fact that the three preceding squares in the hallway have all had east-west doors, thus you are shocked--shocked!--to find the same configuration yet again. In its efforts to avoid tripping the alarms at or something, The Adventure missed the joke and changed the text to read, "you are mortified to see two sinister looking doors to the east and west."

The only thing The Adventure really adds is some nonsensical names. What was just a large chamber in Eamon is "The Hall of the Great Lord Gumby" in The Adventure. A jail cell has "Gumby hath no mercy" scrawled on the wall. A passage not found in Eamon leads down a hallway to the Temple of the Great Lord Galootie.

"Sir, we must put our own stamp on this adventure!" "Agreed! Just make sure it's stupid!"
There is one instant death if you read a book in a library: a giant fist crushes you. (In Eamon, you get turned into a fish.) If you can avoid that, the adventure culminates when the cave emerges onto a beach and you fight a pirate for some jewels. After that, you make your way back to the entrance, where the guildmaster converts your accumulated treasure to cash that you can spend on equipment and goods for the next adventure.

The final confrontation of the scenario.
Two other adventures were apparently released for The Adventure: Cave of the Mind and River Adventure, both "adapted" from Eamon adventures (Jim Jacobson's Cave of the Mind and The Zyphur Riverventure, respectively). I didn't find either, but I wasn't looking terribly hard.

The game poses a challenge for the GIMLET, because I ought to rank it almost the same as Eamon. The text changes don't make a huge difference. The interface is arguably a little better by having the "character sheet" on the left, although what it gains it loses via the inability to delete previously typed text, so if you accidentally type ATTAKC, you have no option but to hit ENTER, accept the error message, and try again.

Thusfar, I've avoided making adjustments to the GIMLET based on originality or moral judgments on the game development process (distinguished from moral judgements about content, I hasten to add), so I guess The Adventure gets a 21. But where Eamon has 252 more adventures to its name, there aren't many reasons to play this game over that one.


For more information on Green Valley and the potential authorship of The Adventure, see my later posting on The Realm of Angbar: Elfhelm's Bane.