Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Game 225: Swords & Sorcery (1985)

Swords & Sorcery
United Kingdom
Personal Software Services (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for ZX Spectrum, 1986 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 31 May 2016
Occasionally, I'm forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that between a Japanese teenager and a Brazilian tribesman who's never seen a computer before, I'm closer on the continuum to the tribesman. This usually happens when I play some modern game like Dark Souls. I might enjoy myself overall, but there are about 50,000 things I don't understand about the game mechanics, and apparently I shout a particular phrase so often that Irene insists she's going to have it inscribed on my real tombstone: "Wha...WHY DID I JUST DIE?!"

It's rare to have this experience with a 1985 game, but here I am with Swords & Sorcery. I can't make any sense out of what happens when I'm playing it. The messages that come and go on the screen seem to be random; the dialogue with NPCs seems to have been written by an insane person; items disappear from my inventory with no warning; spells fail to cast; commands don't do what they're supposed to do; and at least once every 5 minutes, I find myself yelling, "Wha....WHY DID I JUST DIE?!"
It was going to be a while without a screenshot, so here's an image of an altar or table that I don't know what to do with. Note the menu selections at the bottom.
What I do understand, I mostly hate. Take the controls. The idiotic interface has you keep three fingers of your left hand on the 1, 2, and 3 keys. 1 turns the character to the left, 3 turns him to the right, and 2 moves straight ahead. Meanwhile, three fingers of your right hand remain poised on 8, 9, and 0. 8 and 0 cycle through menus and sub-menus on the bottom of the screen and 9 selects which command or object you want. No other key on the keyboard is used except when you're naming your character.

I have this fantasy that if I yell loud enough my voice can transcend time and space. The employees of Personal Software Services will be able to confirm this if, one day in about 1984, while they were deep in development on Swords & Sorcery, the sound of an enraged male came booming into their offices. It would have said, "HEY, JACKASSES! IF YOU'RE DEVELOPING A GAME FOR A PERSONAL COMPUTER, AND YOU HAVE LESS THAN 26 COMMANDS, YOU DON'T NEED A COMPLICATED MENU SYSTEM!! JUST MAP EACH COMMAND TO A SENSIBLE KEY!!"

Why did so many developers act as if the computer was capable of no more than a joystick? Why was Richard Garriott--inventor of (A)ttack, (B)oard, (C)ast, (D)rop, and of course (Z)stats--one of the only ones to make use of the full, intuitive powers of the keyboard? 

The controls would be bad enough even if everything happened smoothly. But it doesn't. As other things happening on the screen take up the game's attention, it fails to register a lot of your inputs. You end up selecting the wrong command, or accidentally double-pressing the "9" because it didn't seem like it "took" the first time. There's no excuse for it. It might literally be the worst interface of all time. Together, the interface and the overall weirdness ruined the game for me, although there are some interesting elements lurking beneath the surface.

I was expecting great things from Swords & Sorcery based on the reviews catalogued on its Wikipedia page. Superlatives like "the best Dungeons and Dragons version ever produced on the computer" and "Game of the Month" appear there. But we must remember that the game was published in the U.K., for the ZX Spectrum, a description that applies to maybe 6 games through 1985. The island and its favored platform were RPG-starved. Anything must have looked good.

Swords & Sorcery is similar to Alternate Reality in that the game is much more intent than achievement. It was supposed to be the first in a series called, for some reason, MIDAS. When the "game"--really just the first level--was published in 1986, the manual promised Level 2 and Levels 3 & 4 (two separate modules) available in December of that year, plus expansions called "The Village" and "The Arena" available in early 1986. These were never produced. Some later versions of the game came with a "mea culpa" letter from author Mike Simpson in which he apologized and said that "commercial necessity" had caused him to abandon the future modules. He did say that the Level 2 module had expanded in scope and would be published as a separate game--advertised by PSS as HeroQuest. It was also never released.

Swords & Sorcery is also one of the first games to come with an associated merchandising campaign, including t-shirts, posters, and "badges."
You might have thought about focusing more on the game first.
When you strip all that away, you have a one-level dungeon crawler that takes you through about 80 rooms on a quest to find four pieces of armor. Not even good pieces of armor: two sabatons (which cover the feet) and two greaves (which cover the legs). Talk about an uninspired main quest. There isn't even any real backstory. Oh, there's some doggerel about a dark wizard named Caballus and the legendary Armour of Zob, but clearly the writers were planning to flesh out the game world in later installments.

Character creation begins with a name, after which the character has to spend 14 days training with 12 teachers, each session taking one day. Each trainer teaches you a different thing, and you don't know what that is (the manual doesn't tell you) until after you've trained. Thus, you basically have to waste a character just figuring out the different training options. Four different trainers focus on swords, spears, staves, and unarmed combat respectively. One gives you extra strength for carrying things, another improves your skills as a thief, and another improves your skills as a mage. A guy named "Hubris" improves the chances that you'll detect things like traps; "Grieves" improves each NPC's starting disposition towards you, and "Jack" helps you jump better.

Finally, YAMA gives you the ability to resurrect if you die. You only have to take his training once, and that one training gives you 99 "lives." You'll need them.

I don't mind the character creation that much, aside from the lack of good documentation. It's one of the few early games in which the concept of "class" is more an assemblage of skills than a nominal category. You can spend 10 days training in "sword" and start out as an awesome fighter, do the same for magic, or try to achieve more of a balance of skills. The problem is I was never able to come up with an optimal combination. Combats are so deadly that you need raw weapon and spell power, but you need thieving skills to disarm traps and jumping skills to get over pits and "instinct" development to avoid traps in the first place. The only obvious thing is to not specialize in more than one weapon type.
Creating a character by choosing training options.
After finishing your training, the game offers you the ability to spend a limited pool of starting money on items: a sword, a spear, a staff, a shield, a helmet, armor, gold (for bribing NPCs), bottles of wine, and pies. I learned the hard way that you basically want to spend all your money on pies. You can find starting equipment in the dungeon rooms--especially if you start with a lot of spell skill--but starvation is a constant danger in Swords & Sorcery. There's precious little food to be found in the dungeon, and if you don't eat every 15 minutes or so, you lose hit points until you die--at which point you'll be resurrected but still starving, thus doomed to a vicious circle until all 99 lives are gone.
Note that I don't need food, but rather "pie" specifically.
You start in "Quadrant 1" of a four-quadrant dungeon level, each quadrant consisting of about 20 rooms and hallways in between. You navigate with a top-down map on the right and a scrolling 3-D view on the left--a reasonably original navigation system at the time. Each room has a combination of monsters, traps, and treasure. Specific rooms in each quadrant warp you to the next one.

Combat with the monsters is pretty basic, even though it takes a while to figure out what the computer is doing. Essentially, you and the monsters trade blows based on whatever attack and defense options you've pre-selected. The options available have to do with the weapon you've equipped and your skill level; for instance, a novice with a sword might just have an option to "HACK" while a more experienced fighter has a second option to "LUNGE." Your defensive settings work the same way. Initial characters can either just "STAND" and try to absorb the damage or "ATTACK," which basically means "counterattack" and return part of the damage done to the attacker. Once you get a shield, you have the option to use that for your defensive round.

Anyway, the rounds flash by slowly, with you and the enemy trading attacks--which can miss, deliver a "glancing" (non-wounding blow), wound, or kill instantly--until one of you is dead or flees. There really isn't any input from the player during this process unless you want to change your attack and defense stances or cast spells.
Our initial attempts at greeting having failed, we are now engaged in combat.
Magic works in a similar way. Every character gets "Firebolt" at the beginning. As your magic power grows, "Heal" comes next, then "Fear," and 13 more that I never saw. Each casting depletes spell points, but points recharge as you move around (unlike hit points--see below), so I'm convinced that focusing on magic is the key to winning the game. But just like everything else in Swords & Sorcery, things happen with spells that seem to make no sense. For instance, during combat, the game lets you cast a spell at any point, and as many times as you want in a row. There have been times that I've opened a door, let loose a "Firebolt," and killed an enemy before he can respond. But there have been an equal number of times that I've cast 6 "Firebolts" in a row in the middle of combat, had the game tell me that they all achieved "full effect," and yet seen no drop in the enemy's hit points.

Amidst all my complaints, I should recognize that the skill/spell system is, for all its faults, fairly original. Combat, magic, and thieving skills increase as you use them, offering more options to the player as the game goes along. In this, Swords & Sorcery anticipates Dungeon Master by a couple of years. I can't otherwise think of an earlier game that has quite this combination of elements. I just wish they had been implemented as part of a better package.

That statement also goes for the NPC dialogue system, which is highly original and coincidentally mirrors Fate: Gates of Dawn, the game I happen to be playing at the same time, even though I don't think the two titles have anything to do with each other. Both games feature encounters that could be combats or could be NPC dialogues, largely depending on your own attributes and the NPC's disposition. In the case of Swords & Sorcery, a number of the "monsters" wandering the dungeon--mages, warriors, catmen, and so on--will happily converse with you instead depending at least in part on a hidden "villainy" score that largely depends on whether your character is in the habit of sucker-punching anything that moves or whether you wait and see what he does first. Hostility begets hostility.
I was just remarking that Fate is the first game I can remember that lets you mug an NPC. Well, here's an earlier one.
As in Fate, your goal with dialogue in S&S is to either charm or abuse the other NPC into capitulation, at which point you get him to do things you want him to do. On the carrot side of the options are friendly greetings and bribes; you can give NPCs any of the valuables you pick up in the game--gold, crowns, cups, even food. As far as I can tell, it's the only thing that you can do with gold, which makes bribery in this game a more viable option than in others. On the stick side, we have unfriendly greetings, insults, bragging, warcries, and threats.

Either way, the idea is that you keep using options on one side or the other until it's clear that the NPC has submitted. Most dialogue options seem to draw from a random bank of nouns and adjectives, creating a bizarre conversation as you and the NPC go back and forth:

Two characters exchange pleasantries.
If the NPC likes you and you use the friendly options, you can apparently figure out your relative combat and magic skills based on what the NPC calls you. For instance, if you barely know what you're doing in combat, the NPC will refer to you as an "adventurer" whereas a combat master will get "lord."

If you finally get an NPC to submit, you can ask for information about the dungeon, ask him to evaluate a specific item, or ask him to go away. "Evaluating" an item just returns his assessment of its value--it doesn't tell you what the item does, which is what you really need. "Information" returns one of a long and bizarre pool of hints. Some of them are obvious--"Beware Centerpoint" is a warning about the pits in the middle of Quadrant 1--but others won't become clear until I find an associated puzzle--"Music is the answer";"Jump from table to table"--and there's this whole string of them associated with a "password" that seems to make little sense:


I don't know if these all refer to the same password. If so, EMBER or COAL or something similar might fit most of the definitions.
This doesn't really help me.
What you really need the NPC to do, most of the time, is "go away." You can't walk over or past NPCs, so even if they're friendly, your primary goal is to clear them out of the room so you can search it for treasure. But "go away" hardly ever works--in fact, I'm hardly ever able to subdue the monster so that any command works--leading you to eventually give up and assault your partner in conversation (making the next monster more likely to be hostile) just so you can search the room and make sure it doesn't have one of the quest items.

If you can get a room to yourself, you might find chests, sacks, or just random items on the floor. I learned the hard way that these items might not be visible from adjacent squares, so you have to fully explore rooms and look in all directions. Chests might contain weapons, armor, gold, food, magic items, or even other chests to open. I've found a series of cups and crowns; I don't know if they have any purpose other than bribing NPCs. I've found several pendants and rings that give no clue as to their use, and at least one book that goes "bang" and kills me when I try to pick it up.
Finding several useful items in a chest.
All of the originality to be found with the skills system and the NPC interface shrinks in consideration of the game's many shortcomings, all of which conspired to drive me from the game prematurely even though, with only 4 quadrants to systematically explore, it's probably eminently winnable. In addition to the ones described above, we have:

  • A weirdly micromanaged process for getting things out of chests. When you first encounter a chest, you want to scroll to ACT and then DISARM to make sure it doesn't have a trap. Then, depending on your thief skill, you go to ACT again and either PICK LOCK and CHEST or SMASH and CHEST. If you picked it, you then have to ACT and OPEN to open it. To get the items out of the chest, you choose HANDLE then TAKE OUT then CHEST and then the item. That simply moves the item to the floor. Then you choose HANDLE and PICK UP to finally get the item in your inventory.
  • Inconsistent ways to work with inventory. To drop something, you go to HANDLE and then DROP and then pick the item. But to eat something or have an NPC evaluate something, you have to first go to HANDLE and then HOLD to equip the item and then ACT and EAT or TALK and COMMAND and EVALUATE THIS respectively. If you forget how it works, which is pretty easy, and accidentally go right to ACT | EAT expecting it then to give you a selection of items to eat, you instead end up eating your "held" item, which is usually your weapon. The game tells you that it's inedible, but that doesn't stop it from disappearing, forcing you to reload if you want to get it back.
  • Pits appear out of nowhere (you can sometimes sense them, but not always), sending you plummeting to your death since there's no Level 2. Sometimes, these pits are in the middle of a hallway or room. To deal with them--and to solve some puzzles involving tables--you're supposed to be able to ACT | JUMP. But as far as I can tell, JUMP does nothing at all. I stand in front of pits and activate it repeatedly without even any acknowledgement.
One more step and I die.
  • Combat difficulty is weirdly random. Depending on when I open the door, an enemy might be capable of swatting away all my hit points with a single blow or may die equally as quickly.
  • The 1 and 3 keys are supposed to turn you sideways, but sometimes--usually when you're facing an enemy that you want to flee rather than move closer to--they inexplicably move you forward instead.
  • I can't figure out the rules on hit point regeneration. In Quadrant 1, they seemed to regenerate on their own as I moved around; in Quadrant 2, this seemed to stop and I only get healed when I cast the "Heal" spell. The "status" screen is inconsistent in how it updates in real-time; sometimes, in combat, it shows me (and my foe) at full health even though I know wounding has taken place. A few times, my hit points have just inexplicably disappeared with no obvious cause (e.g., poison), causing me to die in the middle of a corridor with no enemy in sight.
Dying in combat against a skeleton. I don't think I really have 21 hit points here.
  • Instead of just being clear with you about your statistics, the game gives you a set of mysterious "magic numbers" on the status screen. By checking these figures after different combinations of training, I can figure out what they mean. The second number seems to be combat skill, for instance; the third is thief skill; and the fourth is maximum magic points. Still, why not just be explicit about this?
Checking my status. I wish I knew what the "46" meant. The others, I have mostly figured out.
Despite these issues, I gamely tried to play it for a while, exhaustively exploring Quadrant 1, annotating all my finds (treasure locations appear to be fixed), and finding one of the pieces of armor that I need to "win" the level, before taking the appropriate warp room to Quadrant 2. There, the rooms were a lot more linear than in Quadrant 1, and my frustration began to build exponentially. Certain rooms were simply impassable without defeating the monster inside, and he'd kill me in one blow, sending me back to Quadrant 1 for resurrection.
Finding one of the quest items.
Even so, I slowly pierced my way through the rooms until I encountered a room in the lower-right corner of the quadrant. Stepping into the room results in a message that says only "bang!" and half my hit points go away. This repeats until I die. There seems to be no way to avoid this happening, to avoid the room, or to prevent the damage. The manual offers no help.
I started to write this posting as a one-shot for the game. I was going to GIMLET it and move on. But I've been playing during a difficult and frustrating time (house-buying, moving, yet another new computer), so it's probable that I just lack patience all around. Swords & Sorcery has enough innovations that it's worth a full treatment if I can force myself to overlook its flaws. I'll leave it on the board and see what tips and explanations come along from veteran players and perhaps give it another shot after a couple of Fate sessions.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Game 224: Dungeon of Nadroj (1991)

Anyone know what Blackmar's Dungeon is?
Dungeon of Nadroj
C. W. Jordan (developer), published as shareware
Released 1991 for Amiga
Date Started: 22 May 2016
Date Ended: 22 May 2016
Total Hours: 3
Reload Count: 9
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 22
Ranking at Time of Posting: 78/223 (35%)
Raking at Game #453: 181/453 (40%)

It takes some guts to write an independent shareware RPG for what is arguably the premier RPG platform, in the heyday of its popularity, but that's what C. W. ("Bill") Jordan did here in 1991 with Dungeons of Nadroj. While it can't compete in quality with some of the best commercial games of the era, Jordan deserves credit for creating a game that feels familiar without feeling completely derivative. As I told him during a brief correspondence earlier this week, I couldn't identify a single specific game that must have served as Jordan's inspiration.

Dungeon of Nadroj belongs to a subset of games that we might call "afternoon RPGs": light games of short duration and randomized gameplay that use RPG elements. It's going to suffer in my GIMLET rating for not having much of a framing story or an epic quest, but that was never the developer's intention. An Australian chess champion, Jordan became well-known within his community for developing chess programs, and Nadroj feels like the type of game that a chess game developer would write: brisk, replayable, and more concerned with mechanics than content.
The game's "instruction manual" leaves out the important keys (U)se and (D)rop.
Jordan was 33 when he wrote Nadroj and began selling it in magazines for $25 AUD. Like legions of developers before him, Jordan decided to name the dungeon by spelling his last name backwards. Memo to future developers who might think about doing the same thing: this only works if you have the right sort of name. If your name is Bill Rorret, you got lucky. Mr. Jordan, in contrast, did not, and his game name sounds as silly and forced as, say, Dungeon of Ekorbgnilob. (Revelation: the first six letters of my last name are an anagram for "goblin." How did I never see that before?) Again, though, we give it a pass for not being that serious a game in the first place.
Two PCs encounter each other in the dungeon.
Up to 4 players can explore the dungeon, competitively or cooperatively, all with a goal to kill a wizard on the sixth level. When you start the game, you set the number of characters, choose from human, dwarf, elf, and hobbit classes (I found no functional difference), and give each character a name. If more than one character is active, you decide whether they can fight each other and how many moves each character gets per turn. After that, it's off to the dungeon.

Levels are supposedly randomized for each new game, but I didn't see that happening, so it's possible the only version floating around online is a demo version rather than the full, paid version. Each level is 14 x 14 squares, with the squares initially hidden but slowly revealed as they enter your field of vision. As you explore, you fight both fixed and wandering monsters appropriate to the level, collect treasure, and use it to improve your character's dexterity and strength (the only attributes), restore lost constitution, and purchase equipment.
The combat is pretty basic. You see your character's and the monster's comparative strength and dexterity levels and health meters. As the seconds tick by and you and the monster attack each other, your meters deplete until one of you is dead. Your only options are to toggle between "Defend," "Attack," and "Thrust" modes, but these just seem to affect the speed at which the meters reach their inevitable outcome. You can also "Run" or "Use" a particular item that gives you an offensive or defensive advantage against the enemy, but there aren't many of these.  
Combat with a poorly-drawn mummy.
Slain enemies give up gold. If the enemy was fixed (there are about a dozen of these per level), he'll also have a treasure chest that might be trapped or might have some special inventory item.

In between monsters, you encounter wandering NPCs. If you "talk" to them, they'll give you brief hints, such as the locations of stores. If you "trade," each will offer potions that increase strength, potions that increase dexterity, and healing potions. The potions that increase strength and dexterity are the primary mechanisms for character development in the game. They start at 200 gold pieces each and increase by 20 gold pieces for every point you increase.
Buying healing from an NPC.
You start the game with no inventory and slowly accumulate weapons, armor, rings, potions, scrolls, and so forth. Even after winning the game, I remain confused about how it treats weapons and armor. There's no "equip" command. There is a "use" command, but you can only have one item in active "use" at a time. Thus, if you have a sword and a suit of armor in your inventory, I don't know if they improve your combat stats if you're not actively "using" them. There are some items--sacks, ropes, and lanterns among them--that never seem to do anything even if "used."

On higher levels, you fight tougher creatures like dragons, demons, balrogs, vampires, and puddings, but you start to find more useful magic items. There's a "magic sword," for instance, that protects against any damage from undead, and rings that detect evil creatures, warn you of impending attacks (and give you a chance to flee), and protect against fire and magic. These rings are never called anything but "ring," so you have to remember which effects are in which inventory slots. There's one fun bug: if an undead creature attacks you while you're protected from undead, your hit points actually increase with every attack, potentially well above the normal maximum of 200.
A "Ring of ESP" does its job.
On lower levels, almost every fixed enemy's treasure chest requires a key. You have to develop an inventory of different keys--iron, copper, gold--on upper levels to open any of these chests. You're generally rewarded with multiple treasures per chest if you have the key.
I don't have the right key to open this chest.
Levels are dotted with staircases, parts of the corridor that slope upwards and downwards, magic portals that teleport you to other levels, trap doors, and secret doors. The ratio of regular squares to those that screw with your movement gets a little tiresome sometimes.
Slain characters can "reincarnate," but their strength and dexterity are reduced to 1, they lose all their equipment, and they lose all their gold. The maps remain explored and all the fixed encounters--which you really need to build the character--already tripped, so "reincarnating" is worse than just starting over. 
With the equivalent of permadeath thus in effect, winning the game is hard unless you spend a long time grinding. You want to spend a long time on earlier levels, earning money, buying potions, and getting your strength and dexterity up high. Camping near a store seems like a good idea; that way, you don't have to rely on random NPCs for healing potions. You probably don't want to move down to the next level until your stats are 10 times the level number.

Since I was willing to abuse save states, I won the game more quickly, though I had to "reload" quite a bit. The wizard roams the sixth level, but he's invisible, so you need a Potion of Detect Invisibility to find him. This can be purchased from one of the shops if you don't find one, although none of the potions in the shops are labeled, so you have to spend a while testing them.
For some reason, if you can't see the wizard, you end up fighting a pudding.
Once you can see the wizard, killing him isn't very hard--he falls far more quickly than the dragons and balrogs you can find on the same level. Defeating him gives you a brief message in which Jordan forgot to put spaces around the [Name] and [Class] variables. Hitting SPACE at this point dumps you to the Amiga desktop.

The "winning screen." Either by bug or by design, the wizard has no graphic of his own. You're seeing the last NPC I encountered.

Nadroj isn't going to do great on my GIMLET, but I still liked it. It didn't hurt that I played it while taking a break from the 100+ hour Fate: Gates of Dawn and just before the confusing Swords & Sorcery. Nadroj served great as a quick, fun palate-cleanser.
  • 1 point for an extremely brief game world.
  • 2 points for character creation and development in the form of buying potions.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction, both to trade things and hear a small selection of hints.
  • 1 point for a set of standard foes.
  • 1 point for near option-less combat.
  • 3 points for a variety of equipment you must use intelligently to survive.
  • 4 points for an economy that never gets stale given the need to buy potions.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for goofy graphics, no sound, and an okay interface, though the in-game instructions don't bother to tell you all the commands.
This is a "balrog." I think you'll agree I'm being a bit generous on the graphics.
  • 4 points for gameplay, mostly for replayability and not overstaying its welcome.
That gives us a final score of 22, which doesn't sound great, but is on the upper end of independent RPGs. It's much better than the other Independent Australian RPG I've played in the last year: 1990's Stone of Telnyr.

In e-mail correspondence, Mr. Jordan told me that the Amiga shareware scene was pretty active in Australia in the early 1990s, with a number of stores selling cheap disks by mail, and one magazine--MegaDisk--with a large shareware library. Bulletin board distribution was also quite common. There are probably dozens of uncatalogued shareware RPGs from this era (that wasn't a challenge!), and Jordan's was one of the few lucky ones to find its way to modern databases. Jordan says he did well with some of his programs, but he only ever received one shareware payment for Dungeon of Nadroj. Reviews were good, though, and the game was awarded "public domain game of the month" by one UK library.

As I mentioned, Nadroj is unique among shareware programs (so far) in that it owes no obvious inspiration to an earlier commercial RPG. You can't describe it as a "Whatever clone." Jordan told me that while he was familiar with some roguelikes--LARN, Moria, Hack--he was primarily inspired by tabletop Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls sessions from the 1970s. He also tried his hand at adventure games and an adventure game creator, all of which seem to be lost.

It's a bit refreshing to play a game with brand new elements, and even more refreshing to cover a 1991 game in a single posting. Back we go to Nadroj's thematic opposite with another posting on Fate.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Fate: Bumbling Around

Winwood chooses an inappropriate time to invent a creative curse.
I had hoped to report that I finished the first quest by now, but I don't think I'm even close. Instead, I spent about 10 hours since the last post just messing around, mapping, fighting combats, and talking to NPCs for hints. This is an insanely slow game.

Based on the comments from last time, I ran around Larvin testing every "black" square for secret doors (and I now know not to make them black unless I've already done this). I found two. One led to a relatively small area in the southeast with an extra chapel and smith. The second led to an alternate entrance to the catacombs. More on that in a bit.

I also got rid of my adventurer, hunter, and valkyrie characters and started looking for a banshee, archmage, witch, or enchanter (there was a little disagreement on the optimal party, but it seems to be mage-heavy). Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find anyone of those classes who would join me. I eventually picked up a fighter just so I'd have some more combat power until a better option came along.

I continued logging hints. In previous sessions, I'd learned that Larvin's "Cavetrain" wasn't working because it had been broken by some ape-men called "Mongards." King Garloth is offering a reward for anyone who can fix the situation. In subsequent hints, I heard that the "Shade Ghosts" are the power behind the Cavetrain, and that despite their name, they're not evil. The Mongards somehow have the power to control the Shade Ghosts, but so does a mysterious man named Miras Athran, known as "Master of the Shade Ghosts." But Miras Athran is reportedly an ally of Thardan, my enemy, and I've thus been encouraged to stay away from him. I really don't know where this is all going.

There was a hint about a magical axe hidden in a secret "Benth chamber" in the catacombs, and someone told me a wise druid named Mulradin, keeper of many secrets, lives in Larvin. I haven't been able to get anyone of any class to continue the thread about the island in the southeast of Larvin, even though it comes up every time I click "Hint."
A few other notes from NPCs:
  • If a male character (like Winwood) tries to use "enchant," it only works if the NPC is female. If the NPC is  male, the game says, "He doesn't look like a light-hearted fellow." I didn't think the message made sense until I realized what "light-hearted" must have been translated from.
  • The more I explored and leveled, the harder it became to find hostile people in town. Even muggers, thieves, and murderers were happy to talk with me instead of attacking.
A friendly mugger.
  • If you use "threaten" on these evil classes, they sometimes give you money before running away. I can't remember any game that's let me mug someone before. The chapels don't even regard it as a sin.
  • I'm continuing to gain points from talking to NPCs and asking for "help," but I've only found NPCs that will increase my dexterity, wisdom, and intelligence. Fighter types, who sound like they should be able to increase strength, never help me.
I tried exploring the catacombs, but until late in the session, the only entrance I knew about was in the northwest of the city. This leads to some very short hallways that quickly move downwards. I found that once I got to level 4 or 5, the monsters outclassed me and I died repeatedly from their attacks.
Lacking any other ideas, I decided to go outside and explore the environs. I mapped the area immediately around Larvin, traced the local road network, and then started to feel for the northern and western edges of the map. I was blocked from some areas by rings of dense trees or boulders, and from others by water. I'll ask explicitly: is there anything in the game that allows you to move on water? If not, I'll color in some of the middle areas.

My map of the outdoor area so far. Gold boxes are wilderness areas that you can step on (and I have); gray are roads.
There were tough enemies outside, too, but not as hard as the catacombs. My characters started to hit Levels 4 and 5. Combats with dwarves and gnomes--they never want to parley--resulted in thousands of coins.
Well, that's just rude.
I found hidden treasures in two locations: a set of scale bracers and an "icesword" that does significant damage against multiple enemies per round.
Winwood readies his new weapon.
My full combat post will have to wait for later, but I've noticed a much larger variety of magical effects in this game than in most RPGs. Enemies have spells that make you hungry and thirsty, destroy your items, sap your statistics, and prevent you from casting spells.

I don't know why enemies sometimes start up to 12 meters away and other times they're right next to you. Trying to advance across the battlefield 2 meters at a time while enemies fire spells is a sure recipe for death. I need to get some missile weapons soon.

As I mentioned last time, game time runs quite slowly. I explored the wilderness for almost 5 hours real-time before it started to get dark and I headed back to Larvin. My characters were hungry and thirsty, so I stopped by a tavern, and performing a "go around," I got the hint that led me to the alternate entrance to the catacombs.

The first level of the catacombs. Note all the one-way doors.
Instead of leading me to a series of small hallways, this new entrance led to a more traditional-sized dungeon. I mapped the first two levels, or at least parts of them. Both levels featured multiple one-way walls and doors, as well as multiple up and down stair cases, so it seems likely that the earlier levels might turn out to be much larger. Not a lot interesting has happened so far--some combats, some traps, some treasures, some NPCs--but on Level 2, in the middle of a 3 x 3 room, I found a boulder that clearly has some kind of purpose. None of the game's actions did anything, however.
Some other miscellaneous notes:
  • There are separate conditions associated with hunger, thirst, fatigue, condition, cleanliness, and sobriety. A character who doesn't need anything to drink is "still," for some reason. I don't really understand "cleanliness." I had a character who became "near death" in this category until I took him to a temple and had them cast "cleanse." I don't see anything in the manual that covers these conditions.
"Billy," who is female, is in perfect health, at least until we try to use a bathroom in North Carolina.
  • The game pays homage to Zork by offering battles against grues in the catacombs.
I thought they were supposed to stay away from light.
  • More than 12 hours in the game, I finally got a copy protection request.
  • Lamps are expensive and extremely short lived. I went through 5 of them just mapping two small dungeon levels.
It takes so long to assemble enough material for a post in Fate that I can easily envision 3 or 4 postings happening for other games in between Fate entries. The wilderness and dungeon are turning out to be so big that you could imagine the "Cavetrain" quest being the entire game in most other titles.
Time so far: 18 hours
Reload count: 21


Spectre of Castle Doomrock (1985) was on my upcoming list, but I'm suddenly having trouble with my Atari 800 emulator. Since some reports indicated that it's not an RPG under my definitions, I got rid of it.

MegaTraveller 2 was technically next, but I fired it up for a while and just got exhausted with it quickly. It's not good policy to postpone games for that reason, as I'll have to deal with them eventually, but I just wasn't interested in trying right now. Thus, Dungeon of Nadroj (1991) will be my next non-Fate exploration.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mandragore: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Infogrames (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II, 1986 for Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX, and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 26 April 2016
Date Ended: 16 May 2016
Total Hours: 15
Reload Count: 11
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 90/220 (41%)
Ranking at Game #404: 176/404 (44%)

Mandragore is a rare case of an RPG that got better as it progressed. When I first started playing, seeing it as something of an Ultima clone and wanting in traditional Ultima-style mechanics, it took a lot of effort to get me to play. Later, as I tried to appreciate it for what it was trying to do...well, I still didn't like it. But I was almost able to role-play the kind of person who would like it. Someone more interested in originality than in getting a traditional RPG fix. Such a person would appreciate the sheer weirdness of its visuals, which are almost outré enough to call it the first psychedelic RPG (although you could make a strong case for Empire on that one).
The outdoor area looks similar to Ultima III, but the similarities end there.
The framing story that wraps the game is almost bland in comparison. As I discussed in the first posting, the accompanying 22-page novella describes how the default party gets together, embarks on a quest to defeat the evil usurper Yarod-Nor, and is ultimately defeated and dispersed over the course of their adventures. But if you start the game with the default party, everyone is hale and together, so that's a bit of an unsolved mystery. After I defeated the game, I re-read the story to see if there were any hints. Although the party encounters some of the same monsters as the player does in-game, the manual doesn't give any explicit hints.

The basic goal of the game is to explore 9 castles reachable by land, solve their individual puzzles, and get a "stanza" as a reward. In each case, solving the castle's puzzle involves finding the right item and then dropping it in the right room. Once you're done with the first nine castles, you buy a boat, journey to Yarad-Nor's castle on an island, and defeat him using a passcode picked up from the stanzas.
Yarad-Nor's subjects are suitably bleak.
The beginning and end of the game are standard high-fantasy stuff, but the first nine castles all have quirky, comical, or just plain screwy themes. They're not even really "castles," although that's what they look like from the outside: many feature outdoor areas and caves. In the order I found them, they are:

  • A "zodiac" castle with NPCs representing each of the signs. Together, they provide a clue to look behind a bookcase, where you find an object called "Master." Dropping it on the top of the tower solves the quest.
  • A "beehive" castle in which a bunch of giant bees and wasps had been driven mad because the queen's "fluid" was leaking. Solving the castle means dropping a bowl, found in one of the other castles, in front of her.
My "reward" for the beehive castle.
  • The "number" castle, described in my last post, where I had to solve a magic square by dropping a "4" in the right place. Enemies included mathematical symbols.
  • The "Lost World," where I met a bunch of dinosaurs, dragons, and devils. In one of its caves was a hermit, and the solution to the castle was to drop a flame (picked up, somehow, from a different screen) on his pedestal. Given the stanza that followed, the hermit seems to be Syrella's father, mentioned in the backstory, but nothing particular came of our meeting with him.
There was no acknowledgement of paternity here.
  • A forested castle where I was attacked by different plant-based monsters. I had to find a plant called "Vital" and place it in the middle of a crown for some reason.
  • "Heaven," where platforms circled through the clouds, and angels greeted me as NPCs. I wasn't able to solve this one--more on the consequences of that in a bit. Apparently, I was supposed to find a compass rose somewhere but I never did.
  • An underwater castle of Nereids and sirens. I couldn't solve this one, either. I gather I was supposed to drop a "prow" in the siren king's chamber as an offering, but I visited the chamber too early and had to kill the king to escape.
Just before I killed him. I think his line refers to my party's curiosity in following the sirens to his chamber.
  • A castle full of undead. I had to find a barrier deep in the castle and place it in front of the front doors.
  • A "chess" castle full of NPCs named things like "red queen" and "green king." Solving it meant picking up the green king and dropping him somewhere else. I figured it out through trial and error.
Last time, I questioned whether it was possible to kill necessary NPCs without realizing it. Given the rest of my experience, I'm not sure there are any absolutely necessary NPCs, with the possible exception of King Triton, as above, but even that could have been something else I missed instead. In any event, it turns out that non-hostile creatures don't deliver experience points, so that's another way to tell.

Each of the castles held a set of monsters that, while bizarre in general, was specific to their themes. As I killed them, my characters increased in levels every 1,000 experience points, but I was never sure what the leveling did for me. I suppose it might have made combat easier, but with harder enemies coming along at the same time, it was tough to tell.
This is not the devil; only a devil.
Castles also held selections of treasure, weapons, and armor. As I mentioned last time, I never noticed that the weapons or armor were helping me in combat. To get to the endgame, you pretty much have to sell everything anyway, and I explored the final dungeon unarmed with no apparent drawbacks. Fortunately, I'd been stealing medicines throughout the game, because if I'd been purchasing them as often as I needed them, there's no way I would have had the 3,000 gold pieces necessary to buy the boat.

The last castle wasn't very hard until the end. There were some NPCs who alternately begged for assistance and commented on the futility of taking on Yarad-Nor. There were a couple monks I had to kill.  Eventually, I found a patch of the titular Mandragore (French for "mandrake"), which fittingly looked like a person. Each character took and ate a piece, which turned them invisible.
Okay, mandrake root looks kind-of like a person, but not in this way, right?
Soon we wandered into the chamber of the fearsome Yarad-Nor himself, labeled only "Monster." I couldn't figure out what to do here. Attacks did nothing. Talking with him did nothing. None of the commands usually applied to monsters did anything. I also couldn't leave the room.
To me, an evil overlord ought to have more contrasting colors.
Having played Ultima IV and plenty of other games in which the text found during the quest played a role in the endgame, I consulted the stanzas. I was missing two of them, as I hadn't finished those castles, but I was able to cheat and extract them from the game file just by opening it in Notepad. But each stanza basically just recapped the quest for that castle; none of them said anything about defeating Yarad-Nor. I tried to find some code among the words and letters and came up short.

I thus turned to a hint page in desperation. It took me a while to find one, and it was in French. Nonetheless, it told me what I needed to know by confirming my supposition that the code was in the stanzas. In the original French, the first letters of each stanza spell out IN DEMONEM, which is (fairly recent) Ecclesiastical Latin for "in the demon." The term actually makes sense, as we'll see in a second.
Anyway, stringing together the first letters of the English version spells out...TNSADWOAT. I'll save you a trip to Google: it doesn't mean anything in Latin or any other language, and in fact this page will be the only one that has it. As I typed it into the game parser, I thought, "there's no way this is going to work." But of course it did. That's some lazy translating there. It would have taken hardly any effort to translate the stanzas in such a way as to spell out the same phrase in English as it did in French; instead, the developers ensured that English players would never figure out the endgame password on their own.
Mandragore is the first game to feature a battle inside the enemy's body. It's not the only one because Pools of Darkness (1991) does the same thing.
Speaking the phrase took me inside Yarad-Nor's body. The images were freaky, but I think I was supposed to be inside his bloodstream, fighting fat globules or white blood cells or something. At last, I came to a chamber where I fought something called a "Filanta." Killing it--it wasn't very hard for the endgame boss--produced the winning message at the top of the screen.

The final battle of the game.
The endgame text thus had an interesting twist: Yarad-Nor, who the manual said had "appeared from nowhere" at the same time good King Jorian disappeared, was actual Jorian himself. The "Filanta" was some malevolent being that had ridden to the land in a meteor shower and possessed Jorian's body. By entering his body and killing it, I freed his mind and spirit. Groovy.

We thus start the GIMLET strong:

  • 4 points for the game world. There's not much thematic consistency among the castles, but the framing story is well-told and Mandragore certain meets my first bullet point: "The game world has unique features that distinguish it from other CRPGs."
  • 3 points for character creation and development. I like that the game awards experience for non-combat actions, and I like that only certain classes can access certain commands, making the choice of characters important. I don't like that the effects of leveling up aren't really palpable in the game.
A character sheet towards the end of the game.
  • 2 points for a series of NPCs that deliver one-line phrases and hints.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are uniquely named and drawn, but they don't really act any differently in combat, nor have any particular strengths or weaknesses.
I'm not quite sure how my party is breathing underwater here.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. A terrible system. I didn't notice that the SPELL, PARALYZE, or HYPNOTIZE commands succeeded any more or less than simple ATTACKS, nor even much difference among the characters. There are essentially no tactics at all.
  • 1 point for equipment. There's plenty of it; it just doesn't seem to do anything. My unarmed and unarmored characters at the end were just as effective as when they had weapons. There are items sold in the towns like torches and keys that never do anything in-game. The only purpose to inventory is to find things to sell and carry quest items long enough to use them.
  • 4 points for the economy. Food, medicine, and the boat must be purchased within a tight, closed economic system.
  • 3 points for a main quest, 2 for having one, and 1 for making it a little more interesting than most games of the era.
The stanza I received after defeating the haunted castle.
  • 2 points for graphics, which are bad but interesting. None for sound, as the only sound in the game is an awful music track. None for the parser interface, which might be one of the worst I've encountered. Every errant keypress causes it to freeze up. There's an option to separate the party that is never needed.
And I never understood why the game insisted on listing objects you can't interact with.
  • 4 points for gameplay. I like the nonlinearity of the first 9 castles, the moderate difficulty (I suppose I should regard it as hard since I couldn't finish 2 castles, but for some reason I don't), and the length. 15 hours is just about right for a game of this era.

Add 'em up and we get a subtotal of 26, but I'm going to subtract a point for the poor English adaptation to leave the final score at 25. It's not the best game of the era, but certainly far better than I thought when I fired it up. French developers have a way of making games that you remember even if you don't always like them, and I think Mandragore will be one of the most memorable games of 1985.

It would have been interesting to see what the author of Mandragore did as the genre evolved, but Marc Cecchi seems to have gotten out of video games shortly after it was published. The only other game I can find attributed to him is Infogrames's Oméga: Planète Invisible (1985), which seems to use the same engine. Both games would have been developed when he was in his early 20s. Since then, he appears to have gone into business consulting and is currently a senior vice president with Atos, a French IT services company.

Mandragore was the first RPG released by Infogrames--it might even have been their first game (there are three others in 1985, the company's first release year). We next saw them with Drakkhen, perhaps the best exemplar of my "memorably weird" thesis, but I don't think we'll run into the company again until 1999's Silver. They're almost entirely about action, adventure, and strategy games.

But we will have plenty of more French RPGs in the near future. As I mentioned in my 1984/1985 transition posting, this is the brief "golden age" of RPGs in France, and we have three of them in a row coming up in 1986: Faial, Fer & Flamme, and Le Fer d'Amnukor. I'm sure they'll all be suitably inscrutable.


Tell me if  you agree with this line of thinking: While the Macintosh is definitely a personal computer, of all the platforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is least like the others. Thus, RPGs designed specifically for the Mac make a kind-of subset of the genre and have to be studied as a unique evolutionary branch. For this reason, it would probably be a mistake to jump right to Shadow Keep (1991) without first investigating the Mac-only games that preceded it, like OrbQuest (1986) and Quarterstaff (1987), to see how this sub-genre evolved.

If this is true, I should probably move Shadow Keep off the active list and play it much later in the 1991 list, after I've played at least a couple of those earlier games.