Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Game 221: Mandragore (1985)

My version of the game has no title screen, so I'm using the box art.
Infogrames (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II, 1986 for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX, and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 26 April 2016
I have this idea that some day, perhaps around 1996, we'll reach a point at which every commercially-released game will have at least something going for it. A lot of them will still be sub-standard, sure, but they at least won't be painful from the outset, right? I remember not liking Might & Magic IX or Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, but I don't remember not liking them immediately. In this era, in contrast, there are a lot of games that make me sigh from the moment I start them. This has regrettably become my default reaction to French RPGs, which without exception (so far) have all felt as if they were designed by aliens who, peering through a telescope, could only make out the broadest outlines of popular titles like Wizardry and Ultima and thus managed to copy some of the screens but hardly any of the underlying gameplay.

Segue to Mandragore, yet another title that looks kind of familiar at first--there's a clear Ultima III influence--but almost immediately becomes weird and unsatisfying. You play four characters on an ambiguous mission to solve the secret of the Ten Castles of Mandragore and free the land from the clutches of an evil wizard named Yarad-Nor. The land of Mandragore--French for "mandrake"--used to be ruled by a good king named Jorian, but he was killed by a meteor, and Yarad-Nor "appeared from nowhere" and "imposed a reign of evil tyranny upon this peaceful country."

The back story occupies 20 pages of manual text, which is a bit too long, especially given that it sets up the game to follow so poorly. It covers how the four members of the default party came together. Briefly, a human paladin named Syrella is hanging out in an inn when she's challenged by some local guards looking for a fight. With the help of a half-orc ranger named Torlinn, she intimidates them away. Syrella and Torlinn leave the inn and wander into a shop, where they find a human mage named Gelth and his servant, a dwarf thief named Podus, arguing with a shopkeeper. (Podus is repeatedly described by other NPCs, in an un-PC fashion, as a "midget.") Finally losing his patience over the shopkeeper's price-gouging, Gelth turns him and his assistants into pigs. The foursome then gleefully ransacks the shop.

As they do so, they discuss their respective quests. Gelth is looking for information on the Land of Kings, where he hopes to confront "he-of-the-not-to-be-mentioned-name," probably Yarad-Nor, but I suppose possibly Voldemort. Syrella is seeking her father, who has become a priest and retired to a temple on some kind of volcano. Syrella argues for uniting their quests, saying that her father can probably help with information. Somewhere in there is a mention that to solve his own quest, Gelth will have to "discover the secrets of the Ten Castles of Mandragore."
The Land of Mandragore, from the game manual.
The rest of the story, using poor English and even worse plotting, outlines the troubled outset of their quest. They steal horses to get out of town, are attacked by the guards from the inn, and kill them. Later, in a forest, Gerth is poisoned by giant vampire bats. The party carries him to the sea, where some plants exist that will heal him, but Torlinn and Podus are lured into the sea by sirens. A giant octopus attacks the sirens, causing them to flee; Torlinn and Podus defeat the octopus and return. The reunion is short-lived. At a nearby manor, the party is attacked by undead and Torlinn and Podus flee in terror. Gelth is possessed by Yarad-Nor and Syrella is forced to kill him. The backstory ends with Syrella determining to finish her quest by herself--which makes it all the more confusing that the default party has Syrella, Gelth, Torlinn, and Podus together and healthy.

Character creation has you assign 80 points among six attributes--constitution, strength, knowledge, wisdom, dexterity, appearance--choose from dwarf, elf, half-orc, hobbit (or, as the manual has it, "obbit") races, and warrior, ranger, wizard, cleric, thief, and minstrel classes. For the first time ever in an RPG, I decided to go with the default party.
Character creation.
The game begins in a landscape not unlike the first few Ultimas but with uglier tiles. The party is positioned above a mountain range with a château to the northeast and what's supposed to pass for a town to the southwest. Movement is with the NESW keys. This "map view" is the only place with a top-down interface; indoor areas and combat use a side view with laughably bad graphics.
The starting map.
Commands more complex than movement are carried out with a list of 29 verbs and have to be assigned to a single character and, usually, a designated object. For instance, SYRELLA ATTACKS GOBLIN, TORLINN SHOOTS TROLL, PODUS READS SIGN. For some commands, the object is another character; for some, it's a monster; and for some, it's an NPC or object in the environment. Except for characters, the game keeps a list of available NPCs and objects on the right-hand side of the screen. Thus, in a weapons shop, you might see SALESMAN, SWORD, and BOW. ASK SALESMAN gives you the prices for the two items, which you can then BUY.
Even though you don't have to type all the words--you hit numbers for characters, a few letters of the verb, and then a letter representing the object from the menu on the right--I find the interface horribly cumbersome and unintuitive. I've yet to figure out some fairly basic stuff, like how to trade gold from one character to another. The HUNT command is supposed to work outdoors, but there never seems to be a valid object to apply it to.

It gets even worse. Some actions, for no reason whatsoever, cause your life points to mysteriously deplete. This most often happens when you type an incorrect or impossible action. For instance, I'm standing outside and I type SYRELLA GIVES before realizing she has no items. The game says "NOT POSSIBLE" and everyone's hit points go down by 3. But it's not just incorrect actions that do it. I enter a village and read a sign and everyone's hit points drop by 1. I enter a village and exit it again, and everyone's hit points drop by 1. These things happen inconsistently--different values, sometimes not at all--and it's hard to tell exactly what's happening.
At one point, I entered a castle, left, and immediately died.
Combat is no less baffling. When attacked, the various monsters appear on the screen and are listed in the menu to the right. For whatever reason, spaces not used by monsters are taken up by random environmental features like SUN, WOODS, and SKY. To attack the monsters, you have to assign various combinations of ATTACK, DISARM, SPELL, HYPNOTIZE, PETRIFY, PARALYZE, and SHOOT to the characters. When they execute, goofy animations show the characters (for instance) running up to the monsters and hitting them.
I've already killed 2 of the 3 "rapacs" here. One of my characters is dead. I have no idea why the "FOREST" is a usable object.
The characters don't attack in turn--you can just keep having a single character do all the actions in combat, but then he'll be the only one to get experience. Monsters, in the meantime, will attack in timed intervals if you do nothing for a few seconds; otherwise, they'll counter-attack the attacking character. Combat ends when you've dealt with all the lettered monsters, at which point you transition back to map view--which mysteriously causes everyone to lose a hit point. If you go back to map view before the monsters are slain--effectively escaping combat--everyone loses 10 hit points.
The only spells in the game are those called by specific verbs: SPELL, HYPNOTIZE, PETRIFY, PARALYZE, and TELEPORT for mages and CURE for clerics. I guess their success depends on the level of the caster. There are otherwise no "spell points," but hit points get depleted with spells like they do with other actions. The only way to restore hit points is to use the ABSORB command to trade an equivalent number of food units for hit points.

I've made basically no progress since the game started. Since my characters started with no equipment (there are only 4 slots per character), I entered a nearby village to look for a shop. There was one selling bows and swords, but none of my characters had enough for either. Figuring that I'd have to grind against monsters for a bit, I looked for easy random encounters--then noticed there was no way to search for money after combats. I'm not even sure combats deliver money.

The manual talks about selling items you find in castles for money, so I went into the nearby château to see what I could find (-1 hit point to enter). I had Torlinn BREAK the bars leading into the castle (-5 hit points but +15 experience).
Inside, I dispensed with a couple of monsters called "tickels" and used my thief to OPEN something called an "n-gate" which just looked to me like a door. He also lost 5 hit points and got 15 experience for it.

The castle's second room.
A room beyond held a "duonague" (no idea). It looked like a person, so I tried ASK, but just got a response of "nennee." It started attacking me, so I had Gelth PETRIFY it (-16 hit points!). Podus then picked up a casket, netting him 125 experience points. Torlin broke some more bars covering a western exit. Rather than continue on through the castle, however, I returned to the village and sold the casket for 100 "money units"--enough to buy the sword and give it to Syrella.

Podus's character sheet after the big find.
I guess the game's deal is clear at this point. "Life" simultaneously represents hit points, spell points, and something we might call "action points." Combat is going to be part of the game, but the bigger part is going to involve solving little object puzzles as I try to navigate the castles (basically figuring out what character and verb works best with what object). There's an ability to separate the group and move characters independently, which I assume is going to come into play in some of these puzzles.
Oh, I suppose it might turn out better than my initial reaction suggested. It certainly has nowhere to go but up. But I certainly look forward to the day when, "A new game! Let's see what it has to offer!" overtakes "Aw, Christ. What the hell is this?" as my reaction to a game's first screen.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Game 220: Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991)

Not a very fantasy-looking opening screen.
Fate: Gates of Dawn
reLINE Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for the Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 21 April 2016
In the hours that I spent re-visiting Alternate Reality: The City a few weeks ago, I was actually grateful for the game's lack of a main quest. Despite its fame and reputation, I simply didn't warm to the game, and I had no interest in exhaustively mapping the entirety of the enormous Xebec's Demise. I was happy that I could quit playing when I felt like quitting rather than spending dozens of hours following a meandering plot to its end. I thought that the game was far more intent than achievement.
Fate: Gates of Dawn is what we get when a developer makes good on the original intent of Alternate Reality, including an integrated city, dungeons, and wilderness and a main quest. The connection between the two games is so obvious that I'm surprised it hasn't come up on my blog before. Almost everything about the game has a clear basis in Alternate Reality, including the main plot, the size of the cities (or, at least, the starting city), the multiple types of each establishment, the importance of "guilds" to learning magic, the copious options for NPC encounters, the types of gear you can buy and equip, the root of the combat system, and the way you have to manage hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Heck, even the damned rain looks the same.
The rain falls during my first visit to the City of Larvin.
Alternate Reality wasn't the only inspiration, I hasten to add--among other things, there's a clear Bard's Tale influence on combat--nor did the developer lack for his own ideas, but overall Fate is clearly a love letter to the earlier game. This isn't just my guess: in an interview on a fan site, developer Olaf Patzenhauer explicitly says, "I played Alternate Reality and I liked the atmosphere of the game. Since the story was bad, I wanted to create a game with atmosphere and story."
Banks offering interest on investments also appeared in Alternate Reality.
The question is whether, given the story, I'll ultimately like it better than Alternate Reality. My reactions so far are mixed. I admire everything that Fate manages to cram into floppy disks and the sound is fantastic, but the interface so far is a bit of a nightmare. More important is the length. From the comments on my blog and my initial scouting of the Internet, it's obvious that the game is legendarily large. The opening city alone is a staggering 54 x 54 squares (roughly, anyway--I screwed something up somewhere), and I guess the wilderness extends so far that it can take hours of real-time play just to walk from one place to another. Estimates for the time it takes to win the game top 200 hours, which, if true, is going to be good news for my efforts to catch up on the non-DOS 1980s games.

Let's start with the basics. Fate is a first-person "blobber," based on tiles, with action progressing in real time except for combat. It was developed primarily by Olaf Patzenhauer and Heinrich Stiller at reLINE Software, the same company that published The Legend of Faerghail, although the only name that the games share is graphics designer Matthias Kästner. I'll have more about Patzenhauer in the final entry on the game, but for now suffice to say that he died in 2011 of a heart attack at age 50, so we won't see him comment on my blog.

In its backstory, the game is ironically truer to the title Alternate Reality than the original game. Where Alternate Reality had the player enter an alien-created virtual reality, Fate has the protagonist literally cross dimensions. There is no character creation in the game. Instead, everyone plays (at least initially) as Winwood, a young 20th-century record store owner happy with his work but a little tired of its long hours. (I've been enjoying the thought of John Cusack's character from High Fidelity playing the protagonist.) One afternoon, he lies down to take a nap on his sofa and begins to have nightmares involving an old sorcerer casting some kind of spell. When he awakens, he is not on his sofa but in a dirty room above a tavern. Dressing himself in the medieval-style clothes he finds in a nearby wardrobe, he heads down to the bar and listens to the patrons' conversations long enough to determine that he's found his way to some alternate timeline of human history, in which the development of magic skewed the balance of power and the growth of technology.
The opening screen starts Winwood lost in the woods.
Winwood wanders outside the tavern just in time to avoid a massacre of all its inhabitants, carried out by henchmen working for a mage named Thardan. He overhears that Thardan is looking for a "traveler between worlds" and surmises that Thardan is the mage of his nightmare. He hides in a tree for a day or so, then takes a chance on approaching an old guy poking around the inn's smoldering ruins. The old fighter, Naristos, takes Winwood in for the evening and fills in some holes. Thardan is indeed an evil wizard, in command of an army of henchmen and monsters, who probably brought Winwood through a portal to exploit his knowledge of advanced technologies. Warning Winwood to avoid staying too long in one place and suggesting that he find some like-minded companions, Naristos kicks him out and points him in the direction of the nearby city of Larvin.
That was a freebie.
The game begins with Winwood alone in the forest, clad in regular clothing, armed with a dagger, carrying 6 water bottles, 4 lunch rations, and 1,355 coins. There's not much of an indication of where to go. I bumbled about for a while, fighting successful combats against rats, finding a few random treasures (including a short sword upgrade), before I finally found a road.
Killing rats wasn't hard.
But not all the combats ended well.
I followed the road a ways, and a group of signs started directing me to the city of Larvin. I had to reload a few times after getting killed by bandits (human enemies seem beyond me at this point), but eventually made it into the city. Larvin is apparently one of four large cities in the game world. There are also five small villages and an unknown number of dungeons. The manual warns you not to bother entering the dungeons unless you have a particular reason to be there.
I guess I won't head here just yet.
I tried just wandering the city at first, but its walls offer no more safety than those of Xebec's Demise. Robbers, burglars, and evil mages kept attacking and killing me. I thus started to carefully map so at least I'd have something to show. Before long, I realized I'd kill a couple of game sessions just mapping Larvin. For this first entry, I managed to get most of the perimeter mapped, but I must have missed a square on the west side, because the squares didn't come together right on the east side. I'm sure that will take a while to work out.

What I've mapped so far.
The city has a variety of inns, taverns, equipment shops, banks, temples, and guilds. I've been annotating their locations, but I otherwise haven't done much with them. I've won a small minority of combats, but I'll save a posting on combat for later. About a dozen squares produced some random treasure.
I could afford it, but I think I need to save more money first.
I also ran into a number of non-hostile NPCs. The game takes an interesting approach to NPCs. The copious options in the right-hand menu bar include "Chat" and "Ask for." "Chat" takes you to a screen where you can insult, adulate (compliment, basically), enchant, curse, joke, brag, tell fibs, or just introduce yourself. "Ask for" gives you more substantive dialogue options like "Name," "Profession," "Hint," and "Being." Back on the main menu, you can also ask NPCs to join you.

In general, NPCs have been friendly but not helpful. They'll tell me their names, but when I say something like "Help," they say, "Why should I help you!?"
If this was the default response to JOB in Ultima IV, it would have been a really short game.
Over time, however, I got two of them to join me: a mage named Dolly and a mercenary named Auzack. It appears that there are quite a large number of NPCs who will join the party--I guess you can even have multiple parties--so every player's specific composition is going to be different than every others'.
The stats for one of my new party members.
I read somewhere that if you get stuck, NPCs start offering you clues as to how to proceed. Late in my wanderings round Larvin, Winwood suggested that we start talking to more mages. I'll let you know if that produces any results.
You just got here. What do you know about anything?
I don't really care for the interface which, like most Amiga games I've encountered, is all mouse-driven. As if the keyboard wasn't just sitting right there in front of the player. Technically, you can hit the number keys to correspond with the menu options, but since they're not numbered on screen, it doesn't help very much. It's very easy to click on the wrong option with the mouse, and you end up insulting an NPC instead of adulating him.

On the plus side: oh my god, the sound. Finally, finally, finally we have a game that could care less about music (there is none) and has instead invested all its efforts into sound effects. They're fantastic. You get birds chirping, rain falling, footsteps, and howling wind in the background, and fun clangs and swishes in combat. This is only the third game I can remember that features decent ambient sound; the other two--Legend of Faerghail and Dungeons of Avalon--were also German games for the Amiga.
I can't show sound, so here's a nice shot looking across a lagoon in the middle of the city.
There's much, much more to cover in subsequent postings. I haven't even touched on the game's races (they include "Morons" and half-Morons), magic, combat, or equipment. Even if I don't finish, this is going to be a long one.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Game 219: Dungeons and Dragons (1981), AKA "Heathkit DND"

Dungeons and Dragons
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1981 for Heathkit computers, ported to DOS at an unknown time.
Date Started: 23 July 2010
Date Ended: 17 April 2016
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at Time of Posting: 51/217 (24%)
Ranking at Game #452: 135/452 (30%)
This will be my last post on this curiously long-lived branch of RPGs, a line that started with the earliest known computer role-playing games and soon becomes twisted and obscure. During our exploration of the other entries in the lineage, from 1975's The Dungeon to 1984's Caverns of Zoarre and DND, we've reorganized several incorrect chronologies, dispelled several myths, and raised a number of questions. It is fitting, therefore, that our exploration should end on a mystery.

The game in this title is known on some sites as 1985's Heathkit DND, as it was originally created for Heath DOS, an operating system offered on the Heathkit line of computers starting in 1977. Its startup screen gives its real name--copyright be damned--as Dungeons and Dragons. But the title isn't the only thing that MobyGames and other web sites have wrong. It wasn't created in 1985. That might be when it was ported to the IBM PC, but it seems to have first appeared in 1981, as attested by the April 1981 issue of REMark, the magazine for the Heathkit User's Group.
To understand why this revelation shakes our entire understanding of the DND line, we have to go back to the same history I've recounted several times before, starting with the games that make up the DND family tree. Minus 1990s and 2000s tributes, they are (with links to my postings):

  • The Dungeon (1975), by Reginald Rutherford for PLATO, more commonly known by its file name: pedit5. The ancestor of all RPGs, and particularly those in this line.
  • The Game of Dungeons (1975), by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood for PLATO, more commonly known by its file name: dnd.
  • DND (c. 1976), by Daniel Lawrence, written first in TOPS10 BASIC, then in Pascal for DEC Systems. Popular but later purged after legal threats from both TSR and Avalon Hill. No known playable copies exist. It was clearly influenced by the PLATO dnd (see below).
  • Dungeon of Death (1979), by C. Gordon Walton for the Commodore PET based on his memories of the PLATO dnd.
  • Dungeons and Dragons (c. 1980-1981), this game.
  • Telengard (1982), by Daniel Lawrence for any number of platforms, published through Avalon Hill. When this deal was struck, Lawrence waged a campaign to get the free DND variants purged from the DEC mainframes.
  • The Standing Stones (1983) by Peter Schmuckal and Dan Sommers for the Apple II and Commodore 64. (This one clearly starts with a PLATO dnd base but offers more on top of it than most of the variants.)
  • DND (1984), by Bill Knight for DOS, later republished as Dungeons of the Necromancer's Domain. A recreation of Lawrence's DEC DND.
  • Caverns of Zoarre (1984), by Thomas Hanlin III for DOS, another variant based on Lawrence's original.

The line is distinguished by quick, deadly, action-oriented gameplay. Combat is very basic--boiling down to fight, cast, and evade. The monster list is short, but monsters have levels just like the character, so you might encounter a "Level 2 Dragon" on Level 1 or a "Level 49 Minotaur" on Level 50. As you explore, you find magic items, treasure chests, piles of gold, and special encounters like thrones and altars. Treasure gets converted to experience when you return to the "inn" at the top of the Level 1 stairs. The plot is minimal; many of the games have no main quest. Most important, even though the dungeon has walls, corridors, and secret doors, almost all of the encounters are completely random. You can stand in one spot, pass time, and find limitless combats, gold, and items.
A high-level character encounters a throne. Any of these options has the chance of something good or bad occurring.
For years, various web sites and book authors have insisted that Daniel Lawrence's DND has no relation to the PLATO file, but anyone who has played the full series sees the similarities immediately. As Lawrence was at Purdue University, which had access to PLATO, during the time that The Game of Dungeons was in the height of its popularity, it seems vastly unlikely that he spontaneously created a game with the same name and many of the same elements. Indeed, Dirk Pellet, one of the later contributors to the PLATO dnd, accused Lawrence of blatant plagiarism in a history file available only on the Cyber1 revival of PLATO.

For his part, Lawrence always denied that he based his game on the PLATO original. A key moment comes in Matt Barton's 2007 interview with Lawrence:
Q: There is also another program called dnd that was apparently written by Whisenhunt and Wood back in 1975 for PLATO. Is there a relationship between these games other than the names? I’m guessing that their “dnd” and your “DND” are two entirely different games. How does your game compare to theirs?

A: Not to my knowledge at the time. I did not know/see the other game, but note I was in the same area of the country as they were. Some of my play testers may have well been giving me suggestions from their experiences elsewhere.
One is naturally hesitant to speak ill of the dead (Lawrence passed away in 2010), but quite frankly, I think Lawrence was lying in this exchange. We don't have Lawrence's original DND to compare to The Game of Dungeons, but we do have enough derivatives--primarily the two 1984 games--to reconstruct what Lawrence's DND looked like. Lawrence's explanation that "some of [his] play testers" brought him ideas only makes sense if you can envision them saying, "Hey, Dan! You know what would be cool? If there was some magic item called the 'excelsior' that allows transport between levels!" or "Dan! Make sure you include in your game a spell called 'Kitchen Sink'. Also, include all these other spells and list them in this precise order."
In this variant, a "gray misty cube" takes the place of the "excelsior" transport.
There are just too many similarities: the screen layout, the real-time gameplay, the combat options, the types of magic equipment, WAXD as the movement keys, magic books that increase and decrease attributes, the spells, the way "quaff" is used for drinking potions, the main quest object being an orb. There's simply no question in my mind that Lawrence personally copied almost all of his game's elements from his PLATO source. If not, he didn't have an original idea in his head and his play testers brought him all of the game elements, which still fundamentally makes Lawrence's DND a copy even if he wasn't the one responsible for it.

But if Lawrence was the first cribber in the DND line, he was far from the only one. Every other author listed above played either the PLATO version or one of Lawrence's variants and decided to make (and sell) his own. Their defense seems to be that they only copied the game elements, not the code. Thus, whether these developers, including Lawrence himself, are "plagiarists" relies heavily on whether you think the term should apply to the substance of the game or just the literal code.

Where, in any event, does the Heathkit Dungeons and Dragons fit into this whole mess? The curious thing about this game is that it seems like an early variant of Telengard. Telengard isn't a lot different from other games in the line, but it does have some similarities that it shares only with Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, when you're at the stairway below the inn, both games mention that "you see light above," with the word "light" bolded or highlighted. Both offer similar timing in their rounds, and write "stay" if you don't offer any input in a couple of seconds. Both have a death message that says "another not so mighty [class] bites the dust." The types of magic items and special encounters that you find are nearly identical, and the list of spells--36 spanning 6 levels--is 100% identical.
Combat in the 1981 Heathkit game. All monsters are represented as # signs.
Analogous screen from Telengard.
It's possible that Lawrence's lost DND had all of these elements and both spawned from it, but I doubt it, primarily because the two 1984 games lack many of these features. I think the family tree, rather, goes from Lawrence's DND to Dungeons and Dragons to Telengard, which suggests that Lawrence is most likely the author of the "Heathkit" Dungeons and Dragons, and that this was a pre-Telengard attempt to make money on the series. [Edit: Check out the comments for alternate explanations.]

While Telengard is clearly later--the graphics are more complex, among other things--it's notable that Dungeons and Dragons has a main quest and Telengard doesn't. Moreover, this main quest is unique to this particular game: find the "Heathkit Vault" and defeat the "Lord Master of the Heathkit Dungeon" inside. As the game progresses, you slowly (as random encounters) find pieces of paper that reveal the combination to the dungeon as well as a special password that's supposed to protect you from its various ills.
The dungeon is 50 procedurally-generated levels that change between characters, or even between visits for the same character. "Misty cubes" and a high-level "Teleport" spell can help you move around, but for the most part, you don't have to go anywhere. Stand at any fixed point in the game, and a never-ending succession of monsters, gold, and treasure comes to you. You only need to explore to find staircases and, ultimately, the vaults that either contain magic items or the final encounter with the Lord Master of the Dungeon.

The hardest part about this version, much like Telengard, is surviving to Level 2. You start with no equipment except a Ring of Regeneration that restores 1 point per round. The moment you enter the dungeon, you start getting assaulted by Level 2 vampires and Level 3 fighters and whatnot. They're almost all capable of killing you in one blow. When you finally get a character that takes hold, gains levels, and starts finding some of the other types of magic gear, survival becomes much easier as long as you don't descend too quickly (the game recommends that you keep the dungeon level within +/- 3 of your character level). Eventually, you start finding swords +10 and elven cloaks +20 and Rings of Regeneration +30, after which survival becomes a combat-by-combat thing.
Leveling up by turning in gold to the inn.
However, Dungeons and Dragons is easy in a way that we don't find in Telengard: slain characters are not deleted from the disk. Plus, you can save anywhere in the dungeon in addition to the inn. Thus, keeping a character alive long enough to win is much easier here than in the game's cousins.

The number of experience points needed to level-up doubles in between levels, so pretty soon you need millions. The toughest creatures deliver only a few thousand experience points in combat, so you pretty much end up relying on converting gold to experience. At lower levels, you routinely find hundreds of thousands of gold pieces in a single chest or pile of jewels. After Level 10 or so, there's no reason at all to fight monsters, and the successful character hides or evades as much as possible.
Gold gets pretty ridiculous at higher levels.
You gain one spell level about every three character levels, until a Level 15 character has access to all 36 spells. Unlike hit points, spell points don't regenerate as you explore unless you're lucky enough to find an altar and donate a ton of gold. But they're also not all that valuable. Offensive spells generally equal, or under-perform, physical attacks, so I found myself mostly using spells for travel and navigation: "Passwall," "Continual Light," "Teleport," and so forth.
Fireballing a dragon.
Overall gameplay is more annoying in this variant than in the others. There's an obnoxious pause between every action you take, and cranking up the CPU speed in DOSBox doesn't do anything to solve it. Moving around the dungeon is torturous, since every time you move into a new square, the game rolls to determine if you have an encounter with a monster, treasure, or items in the square. As soon as one encounter is resolved, it rolls to see if you get another one. You might spend several minutes stuck in a single square, dealing with multiple monsters, chests, piles of gold, potions, and so forth. Between all these encounters and the various pits, teleport traps, and elevator traps that can move you around and between levels, it's virtually impossible to systematically explore the entirety of a single level.

There are two things the game does well with numbers. The first is to adjust the maximum level of enemies as you move downward, not the minimum or average level. This means that you might still find a Level 2 skeleton on Level 50. Wherever you end up, there's a decent chance that you can survive at least some encounters. I wish most games that had level-scaling adopted this approach instead of always jacking up the minimum level (cf. Oblivion). The second has to do with finding equipment. When you choose to pick up a sword, shield, suit of armor, pair of shoes, cloak, or ring, it replaces the one you were already carrying. To determine the "+" of the item the game rolls a random number using your current dungeon level as the average. So if you already have a sword +20, you're on Level 2, and the game asks if you want to pick up a sword, the answer is almost assuredly no. If you get the same question on Level 20, you're taking a gamble as to whether you'll get a better or worse sword.

Winning the game is pretty hard, not because of the enemies--you can always just reload--but because of the associated probabilities. Since the vault containing the Lord of the Heathkit Dungeon isn't at a single location, you can't just explore exhaustively until you find it. You have to keep opening random vaults. But before you can even open them, you have to have the passcode and magic word. The passcode, consisting of 3 digits, you find randomly on bits of "refuse" that occasionally appear as random encounters. "Refuse" might appear in 1 in 20 random encounters when you move or stand still. If you find it, there's a chance it's trapped. If it's not trapped, there's a chance it has nothing on it. If it has something on it, there's a chance it's "gibberish." If it's not gibberish, there's a chance that it just tells you the current level. But if you manage to pass all these probabilities, you get one digit to the vault. Since the digits are always between 1 and 4, if you can find two pieces of refuse with the correct digits, you'll have a 1 in 4 chance of guessing the third.

The magic word comes to you through mystical whispers that you get from random encounters. But fighting undead runs a high risk of making you forget the password. So you have to struggle to keep that in memory.

Then, if you're lucky, you find a vault. If I read the game's code correctly, as long as you have the magic word and are on a level higher than 5, there's a 1 in 10 chance that the vault contains the Lord of the Dungeon and a 9 in 10 chance that it contains some treasure: gold, a magic lance that drives off dragons, increased statistics, or a "Scroll of Entry" (no idea what that does). But even if it's the Lord of the Dungeon's vault, there's a 50% chance that he's "on vacation" and you get nothing from the vault.
This screen was responsible for the destruction of many Heathkit keyboards.
Regardless of what's in the vault, the game automatically generates a new passcode, so now you have to sit around looking for pieces of refuse before you can open another one. All in all, you're looking at dozens--perhaps hundreds--of hours trying to stay alive long enough to find bits of refuse, assemble the combinations, and find vaults.
Guessing on the vault combo before I knew that the digits were always between 1 and 4.
Not willing to spend that much time on such a limited game, I took a different approach. It turns out that the game stores your character data--including the combination to the next vault that you'll open--in a moronically simple-to-interpret plain text file. You don't even need a hex editor to open it and adjust your statistics. I used it to avoid having to keep finding pieces of refuse. The next time I found a vault, I saved the game next to it, consulted the text file for the code, and opened the vault. If I didn't get the Lord of the Dungeon, I reloaded and tried again. After about 8 tries, I got the final encounter. It turns out you don't fight the guy or anything: he just welcomes you.
Like Telengard, the game does pretty poorly on the GIMLET. There just isn't enough RPG substance: no story, no NPCs, limited character development, limited combat tactics. It has a smaller variety of non-combat encounters (like altars and thrones) than Telengard, but they're all based on random probability, so it's hard to regard them as fun or challenging. It's final score is 19 to Telengard's 25.
What I thought was going to be the last of a line turned out to be an early variant instead, and it was really Caverns of Zoarre and 1984's DND that closed the chapter on this series--at least until the remakes began in the 1990s. The true history of DND probably died with Lawrence, but perhaps some associate or co-developer out there will one day be able to confirm my hypothesis about Lawrence's authorship of this mis-named "Heathkit DND." 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Game 218: Dark Designs III: Retribution! (1991)

Most sites give the subtitle without the exclamation point, but my usage is always governed by the title screen.
Dark Designs III: Retribution!
United States
John Carmack (developer); Softdisk Publishing (publisher)
Released 1991 for Apple IIGS
Date Started: 12 April 2016
Date Ended: 14 April 2016
Total Hours: 7
Reload Count: 10
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 31
Ranking at Time of Posting: 126/217 (58%)
Ranking at Game #452: 291/452 (64%)

The first two Dark Designs games were far from the highest-rated on my blog--they hit 30 and 31, respectively--but they were satisfying for what they tried to accomplish. I run into so many games, particularly independent ones, that over-promise and under-deliver; that claim to be highly original when in fact they're highly derivative; that think they're epic when in fact they're short and lame. As a young developer, John Carmack suffered none of these problems. He knew he was offering distillations of Ultima in Shadowforge and Wraith: The Devil's Demise, and that he was offering a combination of Phantasie and Wizardry in the Dark Designs series, but he wrote all of his games in such a way that everyone's fine with that. They were tightly-programmed, packed with content, and knew to stop before they got boring. If they lack in some RPG areas, so what? They came on diskmags. You got a new one every month. You weren't expecting Ultima VII.

1991 was a major transition year for Carmack and his new partner, John Romero. At the age of 20, Carmack had gotten a job two years prior at Softdisk, largely on the strength of his Dark Designs series. But he and the other developers grew to despise the sweatshop-like atmosphere of Softdisk and the monthly programming demands. He and Romero began moonlighting by selling their own games--principally the Commander Keen series--as shareware on bulletin board services. When Softdisk found out about these games, and that the pair had been using the company's computers to write them, both threats of a lawsuit and offers of a contract followed. The messy result was that Carmack and Romero left the company but agreed to continue to produce one game every 2 months for Softdisk's magazines. Thus, a couple years later, after the team had changed the gaming world forever with Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, you see them credited on the occasional diskmag title like Cyberchess and Dangerous Dave Goes Nutz! (For the information in this paragraph, I am heavily indebted to David Kushner's excellent Masters of Doom.) [Ed. from 10 September 2020: It turns out that almost nothing in this paragraph is true. Carmack and Romero liked working at Softdisk, and their parting was entirely amicable. See the bottom of this entry for more.]
This is my first Apple IIGS game. Getting the emulator to work was no easy task. I've never used the computer before, and I was surprised to see how much it looks like early Macs.
I can't find a publication date on this issue of Softdisk G-S (#17)--the files on the disk are curiously reluctant to give a specific date--but judging by the creation and modification dates, it looks like Dark Designs was programmed in 1990 and thus not one of the games that Carmack wrote for the company later in 1991 to avoid getting sued. Owing to the promo for Part III at the end of Part II, the series had always been intended as a trilogy, even though Dark Designs II: Closing the Gate could have easily ended the story. The story itself is pretty basic. A wizard named Agamon opened up a portal to a hell dimension and started summoning horrid creatures to invade the borderlands. In Dark Designs I: Grelminar's Staff, the party explored the ruins of a castle to find an artifact capable of closing the gate. In Dark Designs II: Closing the Gate, they journeyed to Mount Delkeina and shut down the portal. Now in Retribution!, they plan to exact vengeance against Agamon for opening the portal in the first place. I love that the titular retribution is the party's and not Agamon's.

The game supports importing the victorious party from the previous game, but I had played the regular Apple II version (III was developed only for the GS), and I wasn't sure if the characters would transfer. Rather than screw around with it, I just created a new party. This turned out to offer a better gameplay experience, as a party already loaded up with high-end magic items and experience levels faces a less interesting challenge than a party that has to fight and scrimp for each magic weapon and spell. My new party started two character levels below my winning party from the last game. [Edit: I was wrong about this; the game also had a regular Apple II release. It just isn't currently available online.]

Creating a new character by assigning 5 randomly-rolled attributes to the locations I choose.
The graphics and sound have been updated since Closing the Gate, but otherwise not much has changed. The series offers a fairly bare-bones RPG experience: Four characters can be created from fighter, mage, and priest classes. Each has a small set of attributes--strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, and piety--gains experience from combat, and gains levels. Equipment consists of weapons and shields or two-handed weapons, armor, rings, and the occasional potion or pill.
Outfitting the new character.
Characters explore castles and dungeons in 3-D mode but with a Phantasie-style automap that annotates key encounters. There are both fixed and random combats that take place on a separate screen. Although you see character and monster icons, they're really just there to depict party members' distance from enemies and thus who can strike in melee range. You can't really move about the map, and the game thus does not accomplish much more than the menu-driven combats of Wizardry.
"You know....again."
All games start the party in a menu town. Returning to town is generally the only way to replenish spell points. The games' approach to magic is somewhat limiting. Even my high-level characters only had around 30 spell points, and their most effective spells cost around 10 points each. Spellcasters can thus only cast a few spells before needing to return to the town to restore. This game did offer occasional "mana pills" as post-combat rewards. I don't remember these from the previous game, and they were very helpful in extending the life of my expeditions. Also helpful were two new wizard spells--"Mark" and "Teleport"--which allow you to save your position in the dungeon and return to it. Unlike all the other spells, I couldn't buy them in the town. I had to find them in the dungeon. Once I did, it made the process of returning to town to replenish a little too trivial, thus removing a lot of the challenge of the game.
The many options at the town level. It's silly to pay to heal a character since you can just cast healing spells, then come back here to recharge spell points.
The game world for Retribution! is about the same size as the others. You start on the main level of the evil wizard's castle. A variety of stairs take you three levels down and one level up. On the second floor is a magic portal that you need an "ebonstone" from the crypts to activate. The portal takes you to the Netherworld. Another portal from there goes to the Treacherous Pit Hall, and a final portal from the hall goes to "Agamal" where the wizard Agamon lives. Exploring the entire game takes only a few hours; a player with prior experience, knowing the location of the ebonstone and the path through the Pit Hall, could beeline for Agamon and reach him in 15-20 minutes.

As I noted, the graphics and sound have been updated from the previous game. The graphics still aren't fantastic, but they're serviceable. The sound upgrades were a lot of fun, reminiscent of Sword of Fargoal. Combat is accompanied by whooshes, clangs, and grunts. A victory cord plays when you win. A voice says "thank you" when you sell and buy items, and "aha!" when you find treasure. Altogether, it's better than a lot of commercial titles on the market in 1991.

There are no NPCs in the game, no special encounters, no puzzles, and very little mention of the story between the start and end titles. The series does, however, offer a lot of "flavor text" as you explore. Each room or corridor has a name, and many have a couple of sentences about what the area holds. It's not quite as good as having special encounters and puzzles, but it's better than a bunch of featureless corridors. Retribution! does things a bit differently from the previous two installments: you no longer have to walk on each square to reveal it and get this special text. Instead, squares are revealed as they enter your line-of-sight, and the flavor text applies to the entire room or corridor.
I admit I never really thought of demons as being hygienic this way.
I'm skeptical about "plunderment" as a word. So is Google, judging by the squiggly line.
"Chet was shaving his head drunk again."
Priests get a new mass-damage spell called, fittingly, "Retribution." There are a few new items of equipment, but not a lot. It was good that I had to re-save for items like vampiric swords, magic shields, and electro-blades, because otherwise my starting party would have probably ended the game with 75% of its original equipment. I think I probably said it in an earlier post, but I like the game's approach to magic weapons. Each has an effect that might activate with each successful hit. For instance, the "electro-blade" casts an additional "lightning bolt" spell on about 25% of successful attacks. It feels like such a bonus when that happens.
Some equipment about midway through the game.
The sense of character development is more muted in this installment. In Grelminar's Staff, my characters went from Levels 1 to 10. In Closing the Gate, they went from 10 to 13. Here, the new party started at 11 and only made it to 13 before the end of the game. If they'd come in at 13, I'm not sure they'd have leveled at all.

Retribution! is reasonably hard throughout, although not overly so, especially if you ensure that your priest always has 7 spell points available to cast "Word of Recall" and zip the party back to the town. (Enemy priests amusingly have access to this spell, but it sends the party back to town instead of the caster.) You learn through trial and error which enemies you can defeat in melee combat and which you need to just blast with high-end spells like "Retribution" and "Flame Strike." 

I described the basic outline of the dungeon levels above. Things don't get very interesting until the Netherworld, where you find a shop that sells a few high-end items, including an expensive magic sword called "Black Razor" that casts a bonus "Magic Missile" with every hit, a Ring of Might that simultaneously increases strength, dexterity, and constitution, and some mana pills.
You don't have to be insulting about it.
After that is the Treacherous Pit Maze, where the game continually forgets the automap, so you have to map things yourself if you want to make sure you explore each area.

I did, of course. There's a locked door in the lower-left that I couldn't figure out how to open.
The final level, Agamal, takes you through a series of combats with dragons and demons before you finally encounter Agamon in the final chamber.
A typical battle on the final level.
Wandering through Agamon's halls.
Here, I have to confess I cheated a bit to win. Agamon is completely immune to regular attacks and spells, so nothing I did could hurt him.
For some reason, Agamon is represented as a little pile of goo.
I spent almost 2 of the game's 7 hours retracing my steps searching for secret doors. The process is annoying because you can't just walk into the wall. You have to hit "(S)earch" and wait about 5 seconds for the status bar to finish. Anyway, I gave up after I'd searched only a few of the maps. I did find a few extra secret areas this way, but nothing that would help me defeat Agamon.
This gets boring fast.
In desperation, I opened the game file in Notepad to see if the text held any clues. It appears that, somewhere, I was supposed to encounter "two glowing figures" who "stand before you with pleased expressions." They say something like, "you have proved yourself mighty adventurers," but they warn that only a sword called "Truth" can kill Agamon. They give the sword to the party. This encounter might take place at the Netherworld store, perhaps once the party has attained a particular experience level. I didn't feel like grinding more, nor did I feel like exhaustively searching every wall in the game for a missed secret door, so I took a lame way out and downloaded the Dark Designs character editor that Softdisk published in 1993. I gave one of my fighters the sword Truth. A little cheesy, yes, but I feel like I experienced 99% of the game and there's only so much time that you're going to devote to a game of such limited possibilities.

The sword killed Agamon in one blow and apparently beheaded him, since the game made a point that I took his head.
"You can take it." "No, you."
I returned to town and got the victory screen below. My party became unavailable for further play but was saved for future Dark Designs games.
The game doesn't offer difficulty levels, so I have no idea what "this will be a neat ending at master" means.
It rates a 31 in the GIMLET, just about the same as the previous two. In some ways, neither of the second two games has been quite as good as the first, where the sense of character development was much stronger and there was at least one side-quest involving an imprisoned demon. Retribution! does a little better in the "economy" category since the ability to buy mana pills offers a valuable money sink that the previous games didn't have, and it gets an extra point for its improved sound.

I conclude with the same sentiment as I offered with the previous games: it would have been fun to get Retribution! with my monthly diskmag, and it would have reliably passed half a dozen hours. But we've had three of nearly the same game by now, and I hope the developers did something different with the second trilogy, all three of which were released in 1994. Judging by the screenshots, however, I don't have my hopes up.

I always like it when I can cover a game in a single post. Let's see if I can do the same thing with Fate: Gates of Dawn.