Thursday, December 29, 2016

Game 239: Silmar: Volume I - The Dungeons of Silmar (1991)

 
    
Silmar: Volume I - The Dungeons of Silmar
United States
Independently developed and distributed as shareware
Released in 1990 or 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 27 December 2016
Date Ended: 28 December 2016
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 27
Ranking at Time of Posting: 118/238 (50%)
  
Silmar is a decent "roguelite"--a game clearly inspired by Rogue but which removes too many elements to make it a "roguelike." It features the type of quest you typically find in roguelikes, plus a randomly-generated dungeon, but it lacks permadeath and greatly simplifies the interface and inventory systems. Too many games offer too-similar an experience to recommend it specifically, but it does a decent enough job for shareware, and it kept me amused for a few hours.

The base module--The Dungeons of Silmar--features 30 randomly-generated levels to explore. As in most roguelikes, the character finds treasures, fights monsters, gains experience, and presses ever downward towards an elusive goal at the bottom level. But if you die along the way, the game isn't over: you simply reload from the moment that you entered the most recent dungeon level. And since dungeon levels don't last very long, you don't really lose that much progress when you die.
    
Exploring the Dungeons of Silmar. My barbarian character is Level 6 and on dungeon Level 12. He's just opened a door to find a couple of monsters and a fountain waiting for him. A treasure chest sits in a room to the right. In the hallway to my southeast, a trap is barely visible (little black symbol in the middle of the tile).
    
Silmar does show some originality in its character creation system. Players choose from a staggering 25 character classes, including such oddities as werewolf, biodroid, baseball player, mortician, sub-vampire, gymnast, and percussionist. The differences among them are starker than in Nethack and other typical roguelikes. Some of them, like werewolves and sub-vampires, come with inherent weapons and armor that last them throughout the game; they can't pick up or wield normal weapons. Some have abilities that negate some of the game's logistical difficulties, such as the biodroid's ability to see without torches or the ability of several classes to go without food. Still others have special abilities, like the crusader's "Damn" ability, which destroys undead, or the pixie's ability to teleport enemies away. And a number of them come with weaknesses to balance their strengths. Some of the monstrous classes might be denied entry to the shop, for instance, and paladins tithe any gold they have remaining when they leave a store.
    
The strengths of the "percussionist" class.
    
On the negative side, you don't even get to name your character. After selection, the character receives 13 points in each of five attributes--strength, intelligence, judgement, agility, and endurance--and the player can redistribute them as he sees fit. After that, it's off to the first dungeon level. Every character starts with two "teleport beads" in their inventory and nothing else.
    
Distributing attributes during character creation.
    
The game's framing story places it in the land of Gormarundon, where an evil mage named Syrilboltus once waged war against the peaceful dwarves of the town of Silmarii (an obvious derivation from Tolkien). When he was on the verge of defeat at the hands of the dwarven armies, just before he disappeared, he somehow cast a spell that created the 30-level dungeon and populated it with evil monsters--a curse to plague the town until some adventurer could reach the bottom level.
    
The backstory is told in a few screens.
    
Each level is 30 x 30 tiles, randomly generated as the player goes down the ladders (once you go down, you cannot return to earlier levels). If the character dies and restarts from the last save, the level is re-generated. Secret doors are prevalent, and you spend an awful lot of time searching for them so you can find all the level's treasures and encounters, plus the ladders down.
     
This closed-off area is actually reachable. Any block that has an empty space on the opposite side from where the character stands will disappear when you push on it. I just need to slowly chisel away enough blocks.
     
The game uses an extremely simplified list of commands: get, drop, fire, view character information, use a special power, toggle sound, and quit. The inventory is also simplified from the typical roguelike. There's no concern about identifying items. You have an active weapon and one suit of armor--no helms, boots, belts, amulets, rings, and so forth. There are treasures like crowns and medallions that are simply for selling, plus a handful of items that offer one-use protection from certain effects. For instance, a "blood talisman" will negate poison and a "nerve amulet" protects against paralysis. The only ambiguity is in scrolls and potions. Some have positive effects (e.g., temporary invulnerability, revealing the map of the level) and some have negative effects (e.g., poison, forgetting the part of the level you've already explored) but there's no way to identify this ahead of time; you just use them and hope for the best.
    
A scroll clearly inspired by Nethack's Scroll of Genocide.
   
Each level is sprinkled liberally with treasures and monsters, and like most roguelikes, you can fight monsters by shooting them at a distance with ranged weapons or bashing them in melee range. Even at high levels, the typical combat only lasts a couple of rounds. Monsters are not named within the game, but you can figure out by their icon what they are, and you soon learn which ones have special attacks that you want to avoid. As you kill them, you gain experience and level up (characters start at Level 3, for some reason), which confers extra "injury points" (the specific number dependent on class) and for some classes extra attacks.
    
My barbarian attacks a vampire on the diagonal.
    
Key to the game is the ability to warp to a store using "teleportation beads." Unlike some roguelikes in which such devices take you to the top of the dungeon, in Silmar they simply call up a store menu, leaving your position in the dungeon unchanged. I learned the hard way that after you use a bead, the first thing you want to do is buy another bead; otherwise, you might get stuck with no ability to return to the store unless you happen to find a bead, and they're very rare. Some classes have a chance of getting rejected when they try to enter the store, but their bead disappears anyway, so they need to keep several on hand as backups.

The store sells a variety of items, including torches and food. Unless the character is of a class that doesn't need these items, you have to buy them frequently throughout the game, but they're very cheap and it's more of an annoyance than a true challenge. Mostly, you use the store to sell excess merchandise and then to convert your gold to experience points (at a rate of 1 experience point for 10 gold pieces).
    
Visiting the store early in the game.
     
Characters can only carry 10 x their strength in gold pieces, so you have to warp to the store frequently--sometimes after every individual chest--to make sure you don't waste the excess. The store sells a Bag of Carrying that allows you to carry up to 30,000 gold, but it costs 15,000 gold. Since you can't carry that much, one of the logistical challenges of the game is to assemble the right collection of high-value sale items, sell them all at once at the store, and then buy the bag.

The game is very hard until you find a weapon (if the character doesn't come with claws or whatnot), then easy for a few levels, and then quite hard in the second half as enemies start to develop special attacks. There are slimes that dissolve weapons and armor, invisible enemies, and monsters with the ability to poison, paralyze, drain levels, steal items or food, and teleport you away. Some only respond to "holy" weapons like holy water or a Mace of Purity. There's at least one monster--some blob-like creature--that seems to be completely invulnerable, and you simply have to run away from it and hope it doesn't trap you in a hallway.
    
Some kind of ooze destroys my armor.
    
The game also features a variety of special encounters in the same vein as the D&D or Wizard's Castle variants, where by sheer luck either a good thing or a bad thing happens. An altar will take your money and then either raise or lower an attribute. A fountain might do the same. A magic lamp will either release a genie who boosts your statistics or an efreeti who fights you to death. The only encounters that are always positive are trainers, who will boost attributes for 1,000 gold pieces, and statues, which will give you a random item if you have a gem.
    
An orc character gets a boost to his strength.
And a barbarian gets lucky in this encounter with a genie.
       
There are copious traps--a few too many, really, although what I like about the game's approach is that you can see them before you step on them, if you look carefully. An extra bit of vigilance on the player's part can avoid pits, spiked pits, poisoned spiked pits, and teleporters.

Spells are under-developed. Only a few of the classes have them, and even they only have one or two each. The druid can cast "lightning" to damage enemies and "recall" to return to the store (she needs no teleport beads). Paladins and crusaders have spells that heal and turn undead. Wizards have "fireball" and "teleport." None of these spells cast from a pool of spell points. Instead, when the player invokes them, the game rolls against the relevant attribute (usually intelligence or judgement) to determine success or failure. Thus, for those spells that aren't cast in combat, like healing or "recall," failure really has no consequence since you can just keep doing it until you get it right.
   
My character prepares to "damn" a skeleton.
   
In theory, I think the character classes are supposed to be balanced in their strengths and weaknesses. In practice, some of them have bonuses that make the game much, much easier. In particular, classes that automatically regenerate hit points (barbarian, troll, sub-vampire) or have a special healing power (paladin, crusader) have a much easier game than those who have to rely on potions to heal. (Unlike some roguelikes, the average character doesn't automatically regenerate by moving around.) The sub-vampire is almost laughably easy. He regenerates quickly, needs no torches or food, is immune to poison and paralysis, and doesn't have to worry about weapons and armor because he comes with his own.
    
And he takes 0 damage from lower-level enemies.
    
But both the lack of permadeath and the nature of the game's winning condition make it ultimately pretty easy for any class. To win, you simply have to reach the down ladder on the 30th level. Since the game regenerates the current level every time you die and restore, inevitably--no matter how incompetent the player--it will generate a level in which the down ladder is right in front of you. You don't even need to wait to die--you could just keep hitting "(Q)uit" and then reloading. A Level 3 character can reach the bottom, find the final ladder, and win the game without killing a single foe.
    
My werewolf, who has yet to gain a single level, gets lucky when he arrives on Level 6 and immediately finds a ladder to Level 7.
    
The only real difficulty, I suppose, is that you can no longer visit the store after the 23rd level. The game doesn't give you any warning about this, and if you hit Level 24 low on torches (and your character class isn't one that can see in the dark), you could put yourself in a situation where you can't see to continue. You could also starve to death if you're low on food when you pass this level. Beyond that, patience will always lead to victory.

There's no final battle or encounter before winning; you just find the ladder on Level 30 and go down once more. The game ends on an unsatisfying (and somewhat nonsensical) cliffhanger:
     
The dungeons disintegrate around you but you are protected by some kind of shimmering magical field. Before you, a spirit rises up from the earth and ruble, shouting vulgar things triumphantly in a powerful voice. It is Syrilboltus! Once high above you, you see his spirit taking on a human form once again. The mage then flies away, but to what aim?
     
The story promises to continue in the next two modules--An Everpresent Magic and The Forward Terminus--which advertise new items, special encounters, monsters, and settings. To get these additional adventures, the developer asked for $12. I haven't been able to find them online, and in any event, I think I've played enough of the game to understand it.
    
The "winning screen." I won with a barbarian.
    
Based on The Dungeons of Silmar, I award it:

  • 1 point for the game world, a simple framing story unreferenced in-game.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The strengths and weaknesses of the different classes are clever and original; otherwise, there's not much here.
    
A full list of available classes.
    
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for a standard selection of encounters and foes.
    
Gee, thanks for making the situation worse.
     
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Other roguelikes offer more tactical combat through more interesting inventories.
  • 3 points for a basic set of equipment.
  • 4 points for an economy that, since you can convert gold to experience, never stops being relevant.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 4 points for decent tile graphics, a few sound effects, and a very easy-to-use keyboard interface. I like how each character class has its own icon.
  • 4 points for gameplay. It gets credit for not lasting too long and for offering a fair amount of replayability given the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. On the other hand, it's a bit too easy.
    
That gives us a final score of 27, very respectable for a roguelite shareware title. A little more of Nethack's complexity would have been welcome, and perhaps some reason to defeat monsters other than "they're in my way." I do rather like its approach to saving--automatically, once per level--which doesn't punish you as severely as the typical roguelike yet still offers some consequences for death.

Silmar is credited to Jeff Mather and David Niecikowski of Tucson, Arizona. Its copyright says 1990, but the files all have 1991 creation dates. Mather is also credited on an earlier shareware RPG called Ranadinn (1988) that I somehow missed on my first pass but will catch when I swing through the year again.
   
A side-scrolling combat game called Navjet was distributed on the same disk as Silmar.
    
Silmar was packaged with two other titles: Dunjax and Navjet, both side-scrolling action games, the former involving a gun-toting dungeon explorer and the latter involving fighter jets bombing missile bases. Beyond these games, I can't find evidence that Mather or Niecikowski worked on any other titles. They did update Silmar for Windows in the late 1990s with revised graphics and a fully-explorable town level, but apparently without the selection of character classes that make the original worth playing. Mather offers it for sale on his web site, which also features a browser version of Dunjax.
    
The Windows version, from the game's web site.
    
The game was a nice diversion from the sprawling gameworld of Fate and the translation issues and bugs in Fer & Flamme, but it also had the effect of arousing my roguelike appetite without bedding it back down. Maybe if I get started on the 3.1 series of Nethack now, I'll have a "won" posting ready for when the game comes up in 1993.

****

OrbQuest: The Search for the Seven Wards (1986) is off my list unless someone turns up with a copy.

And I'd appreciate hearing from anyone with experience with Heimdall (1991) or Obitus (1991) whether they're RPGs under my rules. I can't quite tell from the descriptions whether they have character development during the game. (Heimdall does seem to have attributes, but that's not quite the same thing.)

37 comments:

  1. Being a huge fan of Heimdall yet acknowledging its limitations, I still recommend it as it falls well within your CRPG parameters.

    Characters do have levelling-up, and this affects a bunch of attributes, the most unique of which is probably Runelore - basically the magic-user level, there are threshold values required for casting certain spells. Unlike Heimdall 2 it is NOT a mana-like expendable resource: spells are cast via scrolls only, and every scroll is one-off. However, there is no character creation: you select pre-defined characters for your party, but in order to have the more powerful ones available you have to score high on three action minigames at the beginning.

    The inventory is definitely your thing - you carry gold, weapons, quest items, scrolls and food. The latter is basically health regeneration, but it is also consumed while sailing from one island to another (if you have a navigator in your party, he will warn if there is not enough food for a journey). It's not a specially smart inventory - just a plain list with a length limit, which doesn't take into account the type, size or weight of the object. Be sure to have space in your inventory before a fight: if your inventory is full by the time you are looting your enemy, the loot is lost forever! If any of the loot was a quest item, you're done and you have to reload/restart (at least so was the Amiga version).

    Speaking of combat, it is probably the weakest with respect to your criteria. it is exquisitely real-time and action-oriented, and defending is merely a matter of timing. However, the damage dealt does depend on the character's strength. Note that the party fights one monster at a time.

    I hope this helps towards your decision to try it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From my recollection, Heimdal just barely passes the 3 criteria, in the same way that e.g. Zelda would. Personally, I would classify it as an action-adventure.

      Anyway, I guess it wouldn't take Chet long to complete, though I think the game's qualities (pretty graphics, simplistic gameplay) will not result in a favorable GIMLET.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, William. In my scan of the documentation and screenshots, I couldn't find a mention of experience or leveling-up, so I wasn't sure. With your confirmation, it definitely remains on the list.

      Delete
    3. I played and finished Heimdall 2 and don't recall any experience or levelling, thought Heimdall 1 would be the same.

      Delete
    4. Heimdall 2 had different mechanics for different platforms. The Amiga version had an "increase with use" system, a-la QfG, the DOS version, however, is simplified, and all stats increase automatically on level-up.

      Delete
  2. speaking of rogue likes have you decided what to do with ADOM that has had considerable amount of stuff put in to it over the years since -94 including a blasphemous graphic interface that some even dare to claim to be clearer then the original ascii.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For games with continuous development it is probably the best to visit key versions only. For ADoM I would recommend version 0.9.4 in 1996 and 1.0 in 2001.

      Delete
    2. For roguelikes that are significant and which have undergone sufficient change over the years to render them different games from different eras, Chet plays the earliest version he can find and then later versions when he feels like enough has changed.

      The earliest version of ADOM still exists, but I woudln't call it a release - it was an alpha distributed to a few friends. The earliest post-release build seems to be from early 96, when it was still a single dungeon.

      Delete
    3. Yes, Tristan has it. I'll play the earliest released version and then decide how often to revisit subsequent releases.

      Delete
  3. I had great recollections of Obitus from my youth, it was possibly the first RPG I ever played, so was looking forward to you reaching it, but after reading your post here I decided to fire it up for a couple of hours. I came to the following conclusions:
    1) My rose coloured glasses were failing me and it wasn't really a good game, the combat is unbelievably rudimentary and I had forgotten about the abrupt switches from first person dungeon crawl to side scrolling platformer.
    2) It almost definitely isn't an RPG by your definitions as there are no stats at all, meaning it fails rule 2 & 3 of your definitions.

    I would like to see how you tackle mapping it in excel as you can travel in 8 cardinal directions instead of the usual 4, but apart from that you should probably skip it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Most text adventures (and some of the RPG hybrids) use the same system, so Chet would be used to this.

      Delete
    2. Thank, Mikrakov. I appreciate the confirmation.

      Delete
    3. Just noticed Obitus on the upcoming list so I thought I’d remind you of this post, and the fact that you can probably skip it.

      Delete
    4. I've heard Obitus is like an adventure game with combat. I still might play it on the SNES.

      Delete
    5. Thanks for reminding me, Mikrakov. I read some more about he game, and it does sound more like an adventure game with a traditional RPG interface. If there truly are no statistics, even invisible ones, that develop during gameplay, then it isn't an RPG under my rules.

      Delete
  4. What are the features of percussionist, baseball player and mortician?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From the documentation:

      PERCUSSIONIST

      1. UP TO 8IP PER LEVEL
      2. 1 ATTACK PER TURN
      3. HITS VERY WELL IN COMBAT
      4. HAS TNT DRUMSTICKS, RANGED WEAPONS THAT DO
      1-8 DAMAGE
      5. HAS VORPAL CYMBALS, RANGED WEAPONS THAT CAN
      BEHEAD ENEMIES
      6. SEEKS THE DRUMS OF DEATH [I have no idea what this means. None of the other classes have particular quest treasures associated with them.]

      BASEBALL PLAYER
      1. UP TO 6IP PER LEVEL
      2. 1 ATTACK PER TURN
      3. HITS VERY WELL IN COMBAT
      4. +3 TO HIT AND TO DAMAGE WITH CLUB
      5. NO ARMOR USE
      6. HAS SPIKED BASEBALLS, RANGED WEAPONS THAT
      DO 1-11 DAMAGE

      MORTICIAN
      1. UP TO 6IP PER LEVEL
      2. 1 ATTACK PER TURN
      3. HITS POORLY IN COMBAT
      4. SINGS DIRGE TO KILL ENEMIES, A JUDGMENT
      POWER
      5. HAS A +2 SHOVEL, A MELEE WEAPON THAT DOES
      3-7 DAMAGE

      Delete
    2. I've been wondering that as well.

      Delete
    3. Opps, need to refresh before reading comments I guess. Sorry.

      Delete
  5. While Core Design seemingly tried to one-up Psygnosis at their own game - high production values combined with weird idiosyncrasies - with Heimdall, the game definitely qualifies as an RPG.

    It has attributes and character progression, stat-based combat, and an "RPG inventory".

    The thing I foresee Chet being annoyed with though, is the weird character creation, which consists of strictly action-oriented minigames. How well you score in these determines your stats and the pool of possible party members available for you to choose from.
    Strictly speaking this part is optional, but if you skip it, the game assigns an average score, meaning you miss out on several very good party members (and better starting stats, of course.)

    And yeah, Obitus doesn't qualify. No char progression, no stat-based combat.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I played the shareware version of "Silmar" many years ago when it appeared. Spent a lot of time on it. As time passed I never forgot the game. Alas... I forgot its name :P

    Spent many hours on Mobygames looking for it, to no avail. Now, thanks to you Chester, I'll enter 2017 with my mind more at ease, since one "enigma"of my early teens has been solved :)
    Thanks, Chester.

    I wish you and everyone who follows this Blog an excellent 2017, filled with Health and Peace

    ReplyDelete
  7. Goodness, I had totally forgotten this existed until I saw screenshots, but when you mentioned "basketball player" as a class it all flooded back. I finished this as a youth and was super-excited, but wasn't allowed to mail away for the rest of it. Sad times for young me.
    I still wonder what I was missing out on.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Now I want to play a percussionist with TNT drumsticks and vorpal cymbals in every RPG.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I don't think class balance is super important in games like this. In Nethack Valkyrie and Barbarian are easier then the Caveman or Healer for a new player, but it encourages replay either for the challenge (Caveman) or the new playstyle (Healer). I'd say games like this can well get away with easy, medium and hard classes, though they should probably mark them as such.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely agree, especially with "true" rogue likes. If they're overly brutal having a more powerful class is welcome, likewise for weaker classes for replay value.

      Delete
    2. Yeah. 100%

      A forgiving character like Troll Monk is a useful way to come to grips with what ADoM is all about, and you can progress all the way to Hurthling Farmers and Dark Elf Merchants if you want that challenge.

      Delete
  10. I like that the currency has an implied weight to it. While playing Skyrim I find myself wondering where my character is storing thirty-thousand Septims.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or the giant sack of bottle caps you must be carrying in Fallout.

      Delete
  11. arousing my roguelike appetite without bedding it back down.

    I see someone watched O Brother Where Art Thou recently.

    ReplyDelete
  12. From what I remember Obitus is an inventory-based adventure game similar to Shadowgate, Deja Vu, or The Uninvited. It has no characterization or stats of any kind that I remember, and really has nothing to do with the CRPG genre at all save one thing: maps. You must make your own maps to finish the game. In my opinion, this game should be skipped.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Heimdall is definitely an RPG under your rules, even if its RPG's systems are lightweight.

    It's an interesting game, but revisiting it not long ago (http://amigamemoirs.blogspot.pt/2014/03/chapter-x-heimdall.html) made me realize its shortcomings, specially the really annoying interface.

    I look forward to see your take on it

    ReplyDelete
  14. I wonder if the ability to remove blocks that have an empty space at the opposite side from which they are pushed is a deliberate design decision or just a way to ensure that you won't get stuck if the game creates a room that isn't connected to a tunnel (which seems to happe regulraly on every level).

    ReplyDelete
  15. I can't find OrbQuest either. It's a bit frustrating as there are many mentions of people having the disk. And I would have loved to see it, I find old Mac games often have a weird charm about them.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Seems like a fun casual roguelite, will look into it, nice recommendation, addict.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I guess the game is just too silmar to other rouguelikes to stand out.

    ReplyDelete

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