Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Game 260: Hera (1987)

What passes for a title screen.
     
I had intended to sacrifice this one to the "notability" guideline in Rule #4, but as I started playing, I realized the flaw inherent in that rule. Cataloguing the obscure is the very reason for this blog's existence. If the game had won an award or had a bunch of fan pages, everyone would have known about it. Someone who writes better than me, like Jimmy Maher, would have already covered it. Perhaps the fact that this game's name has somehow survived for 30 years is "notability" enough. And doesn't the world need to know about the only Ultima clone with an on-screen temperature gauge? I think it does.

So here we are with Jeff Hendrix's Hera, which he started writing in 1985, when he was 18 and living in Lakewood, Colorado. The title screen, such as it is, mentions that it was available through the "shareware distribution system," and the all-caps means I can't tell if that's supposed to be a generic system or a specific system. He asked $10 for registration, or $15 for registration plus documentation. Later, he updated the game for DOS as Hera: Sword of Rhin (1995), but the only copies of that version that still exist seem to be demos.
     
The land of Hera, per the in-game magic map. Black is water.
     
Hera is largely a clone of Ultima II with perhaps a little Ultima III influence. It has many of the same keyboard commands, such as (A)ttack, (B)oard, (E)nter, and (T)alk. Combat is just "attack" and a direction. You have the same meters: hit points, food, experience, and gold. There are doors to unlock with keys, chests to open, and expensive items that generate area maps. Castles and towns have NPCs and guards, most of who offer one-line dialogues. If you attack them, they'll swarm you, but if you leave town and return, everything is reset and everyone is cool again. We've been here a dozen times before.
     
Combat consists mostly of you missing while the enemy hacks away your hit points.
      
And yet, Hendrix did just enough that was original to keep me interested, starting with the thermometer. As you explore, you run into tracts of desert and frozen tundra. Moving through or staying in their squares moves your the meter up and down respectively. If it goes above or falls below indicated thresholds, you die. You have to look for "normal" squares within the extreme-temperature areas to rest and get back to normal. In at least one area, to survive a long trip through blizzard conditions, you have to warm up to near-death in a desert square first, so your meter has that much further to fall.
      
Hera is the first game in my chronology in which it is possible to freeze to death in a blizzard.
     
There is no backstory offered in the game itself, although by talking with NPCs, you eventually piece together that the land is called Hera and it's in the grip of an evil lord named Zarebae. To kill him, you must find the Sword of Rhin and the magic crystal that powers it, then confront Zarebae in his skull-shaped fortress in the sea. There's some business about Zarebae having a magic gem that must be destroyed, which sounds passingly like Mondain and his gem in the original Ultima.
     
Some intelligence about Zarebae from an NPC.
      
Players can choose between human, elf, dwarf, and halfling races and fighter, ranger, and thief classes, with attendant effects on the only two attributes: strength and agility. (There is no magic system in the game.) I played a human ranger.
     
The brief character creation process.
      
The game starts on top of the town of Helwan (named after an Egyptian city), two squares across the bay from a castle, although it takes a long time to navigate to that castle via the twisty landscape.
     
As the game begins, I'm already standing on a town.
     
Towns have the typical services: weapons, armor, food, pubs, and healing. The types of weapons you can use and armor you can wear are governed by your agility and strength, respectively.
     
It turns out that with my starting agility, I can only wield a dagger or an axe.
      
There are several NPCs in each town, but Hendrix programmed their dialogue to appear in a window, so they're capable of a lot more text than the typical Ultima clone. In another innovation, many of them will pause after their pre-programmed lines to accept single-letter questions from the player. For instance, a guard in the town of Rara Avis asks "What do you want?," and only by speaking with another NPC do you know to type "K" to ask him about "keys." It's not quite the dialogue options of Ultima IV, but it gets us a step closer.
      
A bartender suggests a "keyletter" to use on another NPC.
      
Each city has one or more locked doors that require keys. But in another disruption of expectations, there are actually four types of keys in the game: regular keys, jail keys, boat keys, and submarine keys, each opening a different set of doors. Regular keys work on the majority of doors, but you need jail keys (obtained from the guard mentioned above) to open doors to the city jails and talk with the NPCs there, and boat and submarine keys get you into special areas where you can steal those forms of transportation.
     
This NPC has a good reason to not want to be associated with me.
     
At the beginning of the game, you can walk to three cities--Helwan, Rara Avis, and Capaal (from one of the Shannara books)--one castle, a nomad camp that actually moves around the map, and a ghost town called Irray. For the first few hours, it's tough to survive. Your paltry weapons and armor aren't much use against the land's denizens, and you rarely make enough money from a combat to replenish the hit points that you lose. You have to spend almost every cent on hit points, so it's a struggle to afford keys and equipment.

A saving grace comes when you find a small treasure chamber in the southern castle. It opens with a normal key, which costs 8 gold pieces at the guild shop in Capaal. The chamber holds between 30 and 60 gold pieces depending on luck. Since the chests reset every time you leave the castle, you can buy a bunch of keys, enter, pillage the chests, leave, return, and repeat. The walk from the entrance to the chests and back again makes this a somewhat boring option, but without it, you probably wouldn't survive until the next stage.
      
Looting the treasury right next to the queen.
     
As in Ultima III (but not Ultima II), the king (King Patrick, after Hendrix's middle name) is in charge of your character development, giving you one point of agility for every 100 experience points you earn. I suspect the king in the other castle (which is surrounded by mountains) does the same thing for strength. 
     
This is more than Lord British did for me in the analogous game.
     
The starting landscape offers tantalizing glimpses of cities and dungeons in the midst of mountains and across the seas. Most of the NPCs in Helwan talk about boats, so a clear step on your quest is to acquire one. You can steal them in an area behind a door in Helwan, but the door is locked with the "boat key," and you have to piece together a series of clues and solve a modestly-difficult but original puzzle to find it.
      
How will I ever get in there?
     
An NPC in Helwan says, "Find Steve, for he knows of the key." When you find Steve, he says, "Rumor has it that it is on an island." "Look for islands in desolate places," a sailor contributes. And in such places, "water may be your only hope!" says a man named Logan. 

I spent a long time looking for both literal and metaphorical islands (e.g., lush patches in the middle of desert). The problem is, you can't reach islands without a boat in the first place. Even if you do, there's no "search" command, only "get," so you really need to be able to see the key from afar.

Eventually, I realized that the most desolate place was probably the ruined ghost city of Irray, where all the undead NPCs just moan at you. Sure enough, a map showed me an island in the northeast. There was no way to cross to it, though. A ship sat maddeningly close by, and I could board it, but it was landlocked by a single square.
      
How do I get one of these boats into that water?
     
"Water may be your only hope," Logan had said. I tried crossing each square of water but was rebuffed. Incidentally, the island is surrounded by swamp squares, which are always dangerous in Ultima clones. In regular Ultima, they poison you. In Gates of Delirium, they directly damaged you. In this one, some kind of tentacle erupts from them and whacks you, then disappears before you can respond.

Anyway, I wasn't getting anywhere with the puzzle. But in further exploration of Irray, I found a locked door with a water square behind it. I couldn't see how it could help, but when I opened the door, the water followed me! I led it back to the ship, messed around until it placed itself in the square between the ship and the lake, boarded the ship, and sailed across my new water friend. Tell me you've ever seen that type of puzzle in an Ultima clone.
     
The boat is no longer landlocked.
      
The island in the middle of the swamp held the boat key, and an NPC standing next to it said, "All of Hera is now open to you. Be careful."
      
That is one enormous key.
       
I took the boat key back to Helwan, opened the door to the boat yard, and stole the boat. Based on the NPC's statement, I expected it to open a lot of new locations, but most of the extra dungeons and castles I had seen from the mainland are still blocked by mountains. It really only opened the way to one new place, an island town called Paranor (another Shannara reference).
      
The interior of Paranor.
     
More important, though, the cannons offer a powerful way to dispose of wandering enemies, and like in Ultima II (but unlike Ultima III), killing them with cannons still awards you experience and gold. The enemies grew more powerful as my experience increased. You can't see their names, but based on icons, they include things like thieves, orcs, cyclopes, wizards, and demons. On the water, you face mermen and whales. 
    
I finish off one enemy with my cannons and prepare to take on another.
     
In Paranor, most of the NPC discussion had to do with bypassing electric walls. I had encountered one guarding some treasure chests in the castle; crossing the wall means instant death. One section of Paranor was walled off by the force fields. An NPC told me that the princess knows of a "special suit" that allows safe travel through the fields.
      
An "electric wall" fences off a section of this town.
     
The princess was back in the castle, sequestered in her chambers because, as Queen Linda said, she is "very mischievous." To get to her, I had to open an unlocked door, which was no problem, but I also had to get past a fixed guard. You can't kill guards in this game--at least, not with the weapons I'm capable of wielding--so the only option is to attack them and force them to leave their posts to chase you. With that method, the guard at my heels, I was able to get into the princess's chamber and speak to her.

She didn't just know where the special suit was--she had it. Thus, I couldn't just reload after getting the intelligence. I had to escape the castle with dozens of guards dogging me. My health went from over 1,500 to about 200 before I escaped, and it took me a couple of reloads to avoid getting boxed in by multiple guards.
    
Notice the guards already lining up to ruin my day.
     
Back in Paramor, I used the suit to cross the electric walls and found an NPC guarding something called a "sub key." The entire time, I'd been expecting to find some way to climb mountains, like a grappling hook. But I realize now that all of the places surrounded by mountains have a single water square next to them, which means that the real solution is probably to board a submarine and sail it beneath some of the land squares. That's an original element.
      
I had to cross some "hot" squares to reach him, too.
     
Unfortunately, this is where I'm stuck. I suspect the submarine is in Rara Avis--it's the only other city with a bay. There's a door that opens the way to the bay, and a selection of landlocked ships, but none of them are subs. I think the sub is actually in the middle of the bay, but I have no way to get a boat into the city.
      
I'm sure the endgame is going to be here. I just have to duck beneath that square of land.
      
Based on NPC clues, I suspect the answer has something to do with letting a pirate steal my boat and sail it into the bay through a secret mechanism, then killing him and taking it back. "Pirates are the only ones who can steal a boat and get away with it," a jailed NPC offers, echoed by an imprisoned pirate who confesses to a compulsion to steal boats. "I hear only pirates have been able to sail into the cove. The reason? Nobody knows," says the bartender at Rara Avis.
     
This pirate's name is Becky.
      
The one time I found a pirate outside, he did indeed steal my boat--but he just sailed away. I've been trying to find one closer to Rara Avis, but no matter how long I wait, none appears. I'm not sure the specific mechanism by which this would work anyway. Since towns just reset when you leave and return, it's hard to imagine entering Rara Avis and finding a pirate in the cove with my stolen boat. There's got to be something I'm missing.

I've written to Mr. Hendrix for help and for more information about the game and its remake. Obviously, I'll welcome hints here from anyone who has played the game. Either way, we'll wrap things up in a second entry later this week.

Time so far: 5 hours





57 comments:

  1. This game seems to have some cool ideas!

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    1. True. But I wonder how that singular letter keyword here works in that you can basically fish for every possible clue with each NPC by trying out 26 combinations each.

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    2. You can't always tell that they're waiting for a key input. You'd have to try all 26 combinations with every NPC in the game to be sure. That would get old fast.

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    3. Not if you do it like I did as a kid which is to smash the keyboard and check which keys where under your fist at the time of impact. ;P

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  2. Water as a pet? I was going to say that having it follow you around like a dog is as out there as the pet flying carpet in Aladdin, but then I remembered the whole ocean's basically a sidekick in Moana.

    Never seen it in a computer game, though. Occasionally a "lure something

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  3. I wonder if that $10 is the key to getting that submarine...

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    1. If so, it might be the first example of pay-to-win

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    2. Coin-op arcade games have been around for a few years longer than this game.

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    3. No, I was just overthinking the clues. It turns out I missed an entire castle. More next time.

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  4. I'm glad you gave this one a shot. Obscure CRPGs with some neat ideas seems like your wheelhouse. Curious what buying the full game gets you, if you already have "all of Hera open to you".

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    1. I guess in the Apple II version, registering it only got you the satisfaction of doing things honestly. For the DOS version, it was unplayable past a certain point if you didn't register it.

      Hendrix sent me the manual, which I will discuss in the second entry. It was worth the extra $5.

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  5. Very pleased to read the first paragraph, as I think you're exactly right. Though "cataloguing the obscure" may make your quest (so to speak) more arduous, it's also the thing that makes this site special and keeps it from being just another "let's praise and discuss some things that are already popular!" affair.

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  6. This game sounds really interesting.

    Actually, you already managed to interest me in the old first person dungeon crawls (Wizardry, Bard's Tale, Might & Magic series), that looked so awful when I discovered them, many years after I played "Doom 1" and "Quake 2".
    --- Abacos

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    1. I found out only now how to set my (nick)name...

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    2. You just have to have a little imagination.

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    3. Actually, Wizardry hardly fits in my definition of role-playing game. I use a different set of criteria: 1. text rich game; 2. freedom of exploration and/or backtracking; 3. permanent upgrades to attributes and inventory.

      As you can see, your criteria n.1 and 3 correspond to my n.3; being sort of a pacifist, combat is secondary to me. I will be unable to beat any Wizardry because of boredom, but it is a pleasure to read from you about them.

      I might start a Strategywiki guide to Hera, sooner or later.

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  7. This game has some unique puzzles and ideas. I never heard of it before this post, either. Thanks for playing it and blogging about it.

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  8. Thanks for ditching the notability rules. The little independent games are the ones I find the most interesting. I certainly don't expect you to play each one to completion and rate them, but I hope you continue to at least feature them. You're doing really great work.

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    1. I didn't "ditch" it so much as chose not to apply it to this game. I want to keep the option open for future games of questionable quality like Tanda. Thanks, though. I appreciate the interest in the more obscure titles.

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    2. I'll add my appreciation for coverage of some of the more obscure games of the past. Before reading your blog I thought of myself as a CRPG afficionado, but I was clearly wrong about that given the number of games you've covered that I had never heard about. It is definitely interesting to see the historical developments across the genre over time, which may be incomplete without coverage of some of these titles.

      With that said, it's completely understandable to draw a line somewhere. I would think there's a distinction to be made between games that are derivative / highly derivative / blatant copies (like Tanda). The latter two categories may only need a brief mention at most for us readers to be aware of them. Obviously categorization is a grey area, but your time and enthusiasm is limited, so feel free to cut games as you see fit.

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    3. I wonder if it would be worthwhile to do a post every X games that summarizes the next X games on the playlist (or even Master list) and why you are playing/not playing them.

      This would keep discussion of upcoming games contained (currently, these discussions occur haphazardly throughout the blog as people look at the upcoming list and chime in), and also provide a place for people to say that Game Y really is worth checking out, or that Game Z is extremely obscure, or that Game AA is utter trash that you will forever regret having touched.

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    4. On that note, I see you've skipped over Hydlide 3 in the alphabetical 1987 list. It's much better than the first.

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    5. I have to go back and play 2 if I'm going to play 3. Maybe I'll get to it eventually.

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  9. I'm glad you play these games, I'm not a big fan of Ultima and can't imagine playing through all these clones but ita really interesting to learn the little differences.

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    1. You... abomination, you!

      Nah, everyone has their pet peeves and yours just seem a tad radical for CRPG connoisseurs. XD

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  10. Hera is the wife of Zeus. She's been around for a bit!

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  11. Definitely worth doing a post on, some really interesting ideas on using the Ultima toolset to do new things...

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    1. No kidding... I always felt there was substantial stuff to be done with the earlier Ultima game engines. It's too bad we didn't have an Ultima 4 Part 2 (oh wait... Where's My Avatar?) and Ultima 5 and 1/2 - Wizards of Destiny... Lots of cool notions and tweaks to the operating system.

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    2. I would like to see a game using the Ultima 5 system. This was my favorite of the series, as the world shrunk too much with the single perspective in U6 and onward and the combat got less interesting.

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    3. True... I preferred the progressively larger worlds from 3 to 4 to 5. The 5 world system had much potential for tweaking. I don't think they ever really thought about using it again. There was a third Worlds of Ultima setting using the Arthurian Legends planned for the Ultima 7 engine, but it was ultimately cancelled after the poor sales of Savage Empire and Martian Dreams.

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  12. This game seems to include quite a lot of original ideas, judging from what you wrote it might be a little unfair too speak about out as yet another Ultima clone. On the other hand similarities are plenty.

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  13. With a name like Hera, I was expecting a mythological theme. Still, for an obvious Ultima clone, this game does skew things quite a bit. I like the temperature gage and the unusual puzzles, but I would think by 1987 that a game would have a more interesting combat system. I admit it. Gold box spoiled me rotten here. Just mashing a couple of buttons is not very interesting.

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  14. I agree with what others are saying about the interesting innovations in this little game, but I wanted to comment on one more thing you say in your first paragraph:

    Don't sell your writing short.

    I enjoy Jimmy Maher's blog very much and have followed it for quite a while. He's a very good writer; his recently-completed series of articles about Tetris and its multitude of legal and financial woes were far more interesting than I thought they would be. Mr. Maher excels at writing history and making arcane subjects like microprocessor architecture understandable to almost-luddites like me.

    However, one place where his blog falls down for me is when he discusses the experience of playing the games about which he's blogging. In almost every case, he falls flat for me...I never really feel like I've gotten a sense of how the games play or what really makes the experience magical.

    You convey that in spades here. I understand that's the whole purpose of this blog, but I've followed others that try to do the same in other genres which aren't nearly as successful. It's clear when you're enthusiastic about a game or topic (I'm particularly thinking of that Arthurian game from a while back; your affinity for the subject matter was obvious from the get-go even without knowing your background on the subject) or when you're frustrated. And even when you're bored, you manage to highlight details of interest. Communicating that experiential feeling in writing isn't easy.

    So, yeah, this is getting long-winded and kind of fanboyish, so I'll just reiterate: don't sell yourself short as a wordsmith.

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    1. Very good comment, fully agreed.

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    2. This is a problem for Cyril Lachel of Defunct Games: His articles are hilarious and creative, but he is a horrible writer who cannot distinguish between homonyms.

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    3. I found Mr. Maher's fantastic blog due to your kind reference here, I'm glad you give him a plug now and then, as he references you too! His blog is more focused on history, yours more on documenting the experience. Both are quite different, and I'm hooked to both! Keep 'em rolling, you are fantastic!

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    4. I was making a self-effacing joke and not really fishing for compliments, but I appreciate them nonetheless.

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    5. Mr Maher's filfre.net and this one are my most read blogs in the last several years. So much before-bed time well-spent reading it on my tablet. I even think the majority of my tablet time is spent using the browser on the blog of the CRPG Addict blog or of the Digital Antiquarian.

      Thanks to both of you for the great reads and the shots of nostalgia even though we are already past my active home computer computer time with the Amiga when crossed 1989. I appreciate all the games I have not played too!

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  15. These obscure games with actual merrit are extremely interesting to read about.

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  16. I love how teenagers have all these ideas that they aren't afraid to implement just because they don't make sense, for a fantasy setting, that is.

    Also... this is the first throne room in a CRPG where the throne is not directly facing the door to the throne room.

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    1. That might very well be. It's even weirder than that, actually: the king's throne is nowhere near the queen's throne. If you go directly north from the entrance, you hit the queen's throne, but the king's is off in a side area.

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    2. Oh geez... really? I guess they also have those 50's politically correct master bedroom with twin single beds separated by a nightstand too, eh? XD

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  17. Find Steve, for he knows of the key.

    But after being blasted in last entry's comment section, he's hesitant to spoil its location for you.

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  18. One of my favorite obscure games just got a sequel: Rock of Ages 2: Bigger and Boulder. Rock of Ages was a great game that combined surreal Monty Python-style humor and Marble Madness-style gameplay and the sequel is getting great reviews.

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  19. I love finding obscure classics that can inspire my imagination:

    Anachronox, Superhero League of Hoboken and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magicka Obscura: Charming CRPGs with unusual worlds, a lot of style and plenty of great humor.

    Little King's Story: A surreal game with plenty of subtle themes, every type of gameplay, unpredictable changes everywhere and a great sense of fun.

    Twinbee and Parodius: Incredibly surreal parodies of shooters like Gradius, with unique styles and challenging, fast-paced gameplay.

    NES Metal Storm: Nothing like the P.C. game, a very fun platforming game where gravity has to be reversed--and it has the merciless challenge expected of an IREM game.

    Ai Senshi Nichol, King Kong 2, SD Splatterhouse, New Ghostbusters 2, Layla, Getsufuu Maaden: Great NES action games that were never released in America, their exciting combat, interesting worlds and challenge make them great.

    Gumshoe: A surreal light gun game with a steep difficulty.

    Dark Half for the SNES: Another game nothing like the P.C. game of the same name, a very dark, atmospheric horror R.P.G. with challenging gameplay, good characters and two different combat systems.

    Clu Clu Land and Bubbles: Unique, surreal games which are surprisingly complex and detailed for their time.

    Bubble Bobble part 2 and the other Bubble Bobble 2, Rainbow Islands: Even stranger sequels to a classic game, and Rainbow Islands has a unique brand of gameplay.

    Run Saber: A fun and challenging game in the style of Strider. Its difficulty curve is odd, starting flat and becoming very steep in the last half, but a very fun game.

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  20. I obtained a copy of Hera manual, and it explains the game plot, as well as publication story.

    RELEASE HISTORY

    Hera was developed from 1985 and 1987, but the two authors could not find a publisher. Eventually, they published it for free in 1995, as well as a demo for MS-DOS.

    The demo differs from the full game because the command to "get equipment R)eady" is disabled. The only weapon available are the ship cannons, therefore the DOS demo is unwinnable.

    GAME PLOT

    The land of Hera was divided into three kingdoms. One day, the three kings decided to united, and created a unified council of ministers to rule all the land. The council was composed of ten wizards.

    This reminds me of some real countries: the United Arab Emirates (where the seven monarchs are the president and the ministers), the United Kingdom of Great Britain (where the queen has less powers than the prime minister), Canada (the prime minister does everything, the queen does not even live in the country!), the United Crown of Denmark, etcetera...

    Back to Hera, the prime wizard-minister, Zarebae, decided to overthrow the three kings and rule with the Council. The remaining nine ministers said "No!", and banned him. In exile, Zarebae organized an army of orcs and attacked the three united kingdoms.

    One of the nine wizard-ministers, Rhin, manufactured an enchanted sword embedded with a magic crystal, and went to slay Zarebae. He failed, and the sword of Rhin was lost.

    Later, a valiant noble horseman took up the quest. He failed: he left Zarebae's stronghold with the sword, but the evil wizard was alive, well, and in possession of the crystal.

    It is now up to you (the player) to take up the quest: find the nobleman with the sword, and defeat Zarebae onca and for all.

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    1. I'm sorry you went through that trouble, Abacos. I should have put a note at the end of the first entry that I did eventually get the documentation. Thanks for transcribing it, though.

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    2. Point: Technically the Governor General (representing the Queen) has a lot of power in Canada, it just is basically only there for traditions sake, and would likely be taken away if they ever tried to use it outside of the traditional forms.

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    3. No problem, I found all that before you published the second post. And I resisted reading the second post until I finished the game myself, in order to avoid too many spoilers.

      Now I almost finished it in the DOS version, too, and the guide on Strategywiki is almost complete (https://strategywiki.org/wiki/Hera:_The_Sword_of_Rhin). The only difference between the Apple and DOS is that in the latter the third king only raises strength instead of both attributes.

      PS: thanks for the note about Canada, I always like to learn new things.

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  21. As a native of Lakewood, CO, I'm strangely pleased to see an interesting game come out of there.

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  22. I was wondering how you contacted Jeff Hendrix to register the game and get the manuals? Did you use the physical address shown on the registration page in the game? Or were you able to email him. I'd like to get register the game, but I was worried about using such an old address.

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  23. Sorry, I accidentally posted this first as anonymous, so I'm trying to make amends...

    I was wondering how you contacted Jeff Hendrix to register the game and get the manuals? Did you use the physical address shown on the registration page in the game? Or were you able to email him? I'd like to register the game, but I was worried about using such an old address.

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    1. I found his telephone number somewhere and called him. From our e-mail exchange, I'm sure he's not looking for the shareware fees anymore. Were you looking for the manuals? He sent me physical copies, but I don't mind scanning them for posterity when I get back home.

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    2. I like to collect the physical goodies for CRPGs, so I was actually interested in getting the printed manuals. If you think he is still open to that, I'd like to get in touch with him. If not, then scanned in versions would be the next best thing. Thanks!

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    3. Come to think of it, I was probably going to toss them anyway. I can just send you mine. E-mail me an address. If you want to write to Jeff yourself, that's fine, but e-mail about that, too. I'm not going to post his address publicly here.

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