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.


  1. "this will be a neat ending at master" sounds like placeholder text where an ending was supposed to go, using "master" in the sense of "master copy", which is the final release version.

    Judging by the release date, while they were working on this game, they would have been just starting work on Wolfenstein 3D, which not only promised to be more lucrative than a diskmag game but would have required far more work and a much more interesting design process than a low-end RPG that mostly reused an existing engine.

    1. Computist #82 complains about a game breaking bug in this game, and in #88 they say they received a fixed version. Maybe Softdisk sent out a non-final version to their subscribers?

    2. Perhaps that bug is what I encountered.I feel better about cheating, then.

    3. I recently came across a game called Scubaventure that's from right about this time when ID software realised that continuing to make diskmag games was a waste of their time. So they subcontracted their last one to somebody else. Rather an interesting set of circumstances they got themselves into really.

  2. >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.

    Haha, I see what you did there!

  3. "blackrazor" is a ripoff from the AD&D module White Plume Mountain. There, however, it was a life-draining black sword ( itself a ripoff from Moorcock's Stormbringer )

  4. "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."

    ROFL... You'll have to either decide that you'll only do a few posts of that game, or spend the next year beating it.

  5. Really excited to see more love for the Dark Designs series. I played them a ton as a kid, but there's so little info to be found about them now.

    It's been a very long time, but I think you had to go to "Paradise" to find Truth. I'm pretty sure the party has to pay for transport there.

    And a little correction: There was definitely a regular Apple II version of DD3, that's the version I had.

    1. Ah, wait, no, Paradise was DD6. I know I've gotten Truth, but I can't remember how!

    2. So was there an Apple II version of DD3, or were you thinking of DD6 there? I wasn't able to find one if it did exist.

    3. I'm absolutely positive I had DD 1-6 for the Apple II. My family never owned a GS.

    4. The Apple ][ version of Dark Designs: Retribution! was released on Softdisk issue 116. It was the only one I couldn't find online, although there are some screenshots of it.

      Most of Softdisk releases can be found

    5. I stand corrected, and correction made above. My faith in anonymous message board commenters has been shaken again.

    6. Softdisk 116 with Dark Designs III for the AppleIIe can be found here:
      You need to download all four disks (they are for the AppleIIe NOT GS). Do not use download accelerators or the files will be corrupted.

      To play DD3 you need to boot "Disk A" first and swap to "Disk C" when asked.

      This site also includes all the Softdisks in AIIe DSK multi-disk format as opposed to the other link on this page that has all-in-one 2mg versions for the GS.
      I have tested them with AppleWin.
      The collection is complete up to disk 166.

      If you register on the site, it will let you queue up 50 downloads at a time so you can easily get them all :)

    7. The link to SD116 got mangled up somehow.
      Here it is again:

    8. Thanks for finding this Roland! :o)

    9. No problem. Starting from the links for Dark Designs on your page and after discovering which SD issue it was on (116, which was missing from the French site), I eventually got there :)

  6. I spent almost 2 of the game's 7 hours retracing my steps searching for secret doors.

    Secret doors, a classic Carmack obsession from this era through to Catacombs and even all the way to Doom! (I may have mentioned last time around, the main opponent of game #2 returns in their pre-Wolf EGA FPS Catacombs 3-D, making for a distinctly curious continuity across different genres.)

    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 think you can safely assume that the second trilogy was a cash grab from SoftDisk, desperately grasping for a breath of the prestige their onetime star programmer left in his wake and coasting on the fumes of disposable IP they accidentally ended up the owners of.

    1. I thought I'd played Carmack's Catacombs, but what I'd actually played was the first episode of Softdisk's sequel.

      I was always surprised that Wolfenstein was such a big moment in PC gaming but that Catacombs wasn't.

  7. What, the final boss dies in one hit? That's disappointing - but, to be fair, designing a decent final boss encounter in a game with such limited options probably wouldn't have been easy. Still, feels like a cop-out.

  8. I'm definitely adding "plunderment" to my lexicon.

  9. How about trying the 1989 Apple IIGS RPG '2088: The Cryllan Mission'?


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