Sunday, September 3, 2017

Hera: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

There was, alas, no Hera II.
United States
Independently developed, distributed as shareware
Released in 1987 for the Apple II; 1995 for DOS
Date Started:  19 August 2017
Date Ended: 25 August 2017
Total Hours: 11
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 29
Ranking at Time of Posting: 139/260 (53%)

Hera turned out to be a tightly-plotted, competent game. It got a bit grindy towards the end, but its puzzles and locations remained interesting and fair. It's a good example of how to do an Ultima clone right: take inspiration from your source, but introduce your own ideas, throw in a few surprises, and don't exceed a reasonable scope of time and effort.

I sent Jeff Hendrix the shareware fee and thought it was well-spent. He, in turn, sent me the game book and reference cards for both the Apple II and DOS versions. The playbook offers descriptions of the game's weapons, armor, and services, and it provides a detailed back story. It turns out that Zarebae, the game's villain, used to be the leader of the "Palisades," a group of 10 wise men who served as Hera's governing body. Rhin was another of these leaders, and the putative author of the book, Kibil e Tirbut, was a third. Ultimately, Zarebae was banished from the council when he refused to stop studying books of evil magic. He went into exile and started stirring up monsters. To deal with him, Rhin created a sword capable of destroying evil, but he was killed in battle and the sword was lost. Enter the hero.
The documents supplied by the author.
At the end of my first entry, I was stuck about halfway through the game. It turned out I was over-thinking the next stage in the quest. I had simply missed a castle in the far north, at the tip of the blizzard area where the thermometer threatens to freeze you to death. The second castle's king increases your strength where the one to the south increases your agility--but it isn't either/or. Every time you achieve 100 experience points, you can go to both kings for their respective increases. Thus, I got a bunch of strength all at once.

A healer in the castle also offered 6 hit points per gold piece instead of the 3 that everyone else offered. It was the best deal in the game.
I would have given a lot to find this place earlier.
A hidden section of the castle led me to a submarine. This is definitely a "first" for an Ultima clone and RPGs in general. You hit "D" to submerge the sub, at which point you can see the different paths you can travel underwater. You can't go just anywhere, but you can often dive under single squares of land. "S" brings the sub back to the surface. You can't stay submerged too long; an air gauge tracks your oxygen levels and leads to your death if it gets to empty. Fortunately, the sub has cannons, so you can continue blasting enemies to earn gold and experience.
Stealing the sub.
The snowy north also held a city called Lucantia. The primary purpose of the city seemed to be to offer a place to buy furs, but for 5,000 gold pieces, which is the highest price of anything in the game. I didn't think that I needed them since everything in the cold area is accessible by land or boat without freezing to death if you take a direct path.

For that price, it had better be Vicuña fur
The submarine led me to a couple of new areas. The first was a castle called Venipanor, where the king raised both attributes, thus obviating a visit to the other two castles.
The underwater world. I nearly ran out of air on this trip to a monastery.
I had to get a cross from a priest in Venipanor to enter the second location, the St. Remi Monastery. The purpose of this location was to lead me to an NPC with a diving suit.

I also continued to get weapon and armor upgrades during this period, from mace to bow to sword and from chain to plate. Moving to higher items requires increasing agility and strength.

NPCs continued to offer hints and clues, some directing me to other NPCs. Ultimately, I learned that the Sword of Rhin would have to be fused with a crystal found within "the skull," the castle/dungeon that the evil wizard Zarebae occupies. I learned that the full power of the Sword of Rhin could only be used at a distance. Finally, I learned that the nomads in the migrating camp had the sword.
I had to put this together with another bit of intelligence that the "Rovers" had the sword.
An NPC in the nomad camp said she'd trade me the sword for something valuable that she wanted, but she wouldn't tell me what it was, just that I didn't have it. Eventually, the only thing I hadn't found or bought were the $5,000 furs from Lucantia. That turned out to be what she wanted. We traded, and I had the Sword of Rhin.
I feel like I got the better end of this one.
Incidentally, the nomad camp was even cleverer than I thought. In addition to moving around the map from turn to turn, the interior tiles actually take on the characteristics of whatever exterior tile the camp is situated in. So if you enter the camp while it's in a forest, you get a lot of forest squares on the interior.

Unfortunately, I couldn't equip it. It turned out to require 90 agility to wield the sword, which in turn required about 6,800 experience points. Through just regular exploration and combat, I had only achieved about 3,000 by this point in the game, so I had to settle in for a fairly long period of grinding. With my sub and its cannons, it wasn't dangerous. As I got more experience (or as I amassed more moves; I'm not sure which is the deciding factor), more dangerous but lucrative enemies appeared. Again, the game doesn't name them, but one was clearly a dragon.

As I was grinding, my submarine got stolen a couple of times. This required an annoying circuit through several cities to solve, as I first had to get the original boat key, then steal a regular boat, then sail to the city where I got the sub key and get that, then return to the northern castle and get the sub.

The diving suit was clever. I had to experiment a while to figure out how to use it. I couldn't just walk up to the sea and dive in; instead, it allowed me to exit the submarine while submerged and explore underwater for a time. There was only one place that it made sense to do this: the bay outside Rara Avis, where NPCs told me that a pirate ship had sunk.

I explored the wreck of the ship, finding oxygen canisters to boost my air, and emerged with a pirate flag.
Exploring an underwater shipwreck.
The pirate flag allowed me to enter the pirates' cove in the southeast of the map. At some point, an NPC had told me that the pirates were servants of Zarebae, and it turned out they had a magic wand that allowed access to Skull Keep. I killed some pirates guarding it and took the wand.
And, because they were there, looted a few chests.
The endgame commenced when I used the wand to enter Zarebae's keep. Once I entered, I couldn't exit. It consisted of two levels. Neither had many monsters, but they were huge mazes with almost three dozen ladders connecting their various sections. I had to resort to mapping, which I hardly ever use in top-down games.
My map of the basement of Zarebae's castle.
Eventually, I found the gem in the lower level, then made my way to Zarebae on the upper level. He disappeared into a hole in one blow.
The end of the maze at last.
Following him, I found myself in a dark area where I had to feel my way along the walls. Adhering to the rightmost wall, I made my way to Zarebae's inner chambers.
Approaching the mad wizard.
He started shooting fireballs at me the moment I came into range. Each one did 200 hit points of damage, but I had plenty because there weren't that many fights in the keep. Remembering the NPC comment about using the sword from a distance, I attacked from about five squares away and killed the evil sorcerer in a couple of blows. Then, I walked up and smashed his gem to get the endgame screen.
Firing the fatal shot.
In a GIMLET, the game earns:
  • 4 points for the game world. There's a decent back story, and the author managed to give each of the towns and castles a slightly different character.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There isn't much of either, alas. Whether you start as a fighter, thief, or ranger simply affects your starting attributes, which become unimportant as you develop. Development is steady and predictable for every character.
  • 4 points for NPC Interaction. As with most Ultima clones, this was a key part of the game, and reasonably well-done, with some NPCs getting paragraphs instead of single lines, and others requiring special attention like bribes and key letter prompts to reveal their secrets.
Not all NPCs were useful.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters aren't even named, let alone described, and their differences come down mostly to how hard they hit. But the game gets some credit for creative non-combat encounters, including the various situational puzzles I've described.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. Only one option in combat, and no magic. The weakest part of the game.
Battling a dragon with the only option I have.
  • 2 points for equipment. You only have a handful of weapon and armor types, and your ability to purchase them is tied to character development.
  • 4 points for the economy. It lacks complexity, but as it's the only way to gain hit points, food, and a few key items, it remains important for most of the game.
  • 2 points for a clear main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The interface is very easy to master and poses no problems. Graphics and sound are only functional. The DOS version does slightly better here, and you can mentally add two points for its improvements.
  • 4 points for gameplay. Although the world is non-linear, the path that you must take through it allows little variation. The game does not offer different experiences for different characters or playing styles. However, it lasts about as long as it should and offers a moderate, satisfying challenge.
That's a final score of 29, which doesn't seem a lot higher than I gave to Gates of Delirium (25), but that was a commercial title. If my scale scored originality, Hera would come out significantly ahead (though obviously not as high as a completely original game).
The main screen title from the DOS version.
In 1995, Jeff produced a DOS version of the game with upgraded graphics and sound, including music. He also added The Sword of Rhin as a subtitle It otherwise seems to offer the same geography and gameplay as the original. [Ed: See Abacos's comment below for a few differences.]
Fighting an orc in the desert in the DOS port.
In an e-mail exchange with me, Jeff Hendrix freely admitted to the game's Ultima origins, saying that while he appreciated III and IV, he "missed the simplicity of Ultima II." He wrote the Apple II version in assembly code but learned C for the DOS port (except for the graphics). He estimates that he sold less than 50 copies, proving again that shareware is mostly for love and the programming experience.
We might finally be done with Ultima clones in 1987--just in time for one to pop up on the 1991 list (Enchantasy). For my next 1987 game, I get to dust off the ol' Amstrad CPC emulator once again for Inquisitor: Shade of Swords.


  1. He even copied the shoutout to the not-yet-produced sequel that Ultima (and many other games too probably) did in the endgame sequence.

  2. Wow, I feel that I should play it and send Mr. Hendrix his 10 bucks. For the originality!

  3. This is a really interesting game, I'm glad you played it. It prompted some ideas for my own non-computer gaming with its originality.

  4. Is that a Terminator reference in the NPC Interaction screenshot?

  5. Just curious--does the somewhat unusual screen shape make mapping more difficult?

    1. Unusual but not difficult. You just map what you can see relative to the square you're in at the time.

  6. I can imagine Jeff being extremely surprised to receive a registration fee for a game he originally programmed twenty years ago. I do like that this is a policy of the blog though.

  7. "We might finally be done with Ultima clones in 1987" So, does that mean you've given up on Deathlord? Or is just that uninteresting that you're waiting to wrap it up with one final post when you finally beat it. ;-)

  8. Enchantasy isn't exactly an Ultima clone - about as much as Magic Candle, I would say. BTW, hope you remember about the shareware crack? I'm not sure the author is still around to provide you with a registered copy.

  9. I'm glad he still had the documentation. If he sold under fifty copies, it might be worth scanning that stuff and seeing if the Internet Archive or the like want it. They're very big on rarities.

  10. Money very well spent!

    And wow, that castle map looks like a QR Code.

  11. The tenor of your posts lead me to believe you enjoyed this game more than the score of 29 suggests.

    Is this the case and do you feel that you have certain preferences not captured by the Gimlet?

    1. I'm satisfied where things end up on my GIMLET in an objective sense. MegaTraveller 2 is manifestly a better RPG than Hera, and I enjoyed playing it more, even though I sounded more negative about it.

      The tone I find myself adopting for a post is generally influenced by how I rank the game against its own ambitions and resources. The moment 16-year-old Jeff Hendrix conceived of this game in his mind, it would have been a struggle to break 25 points. It's a clone with no combat tactics and very little character development. The fact that it pulled off a 29 is a bit remarkable. MegaTraveller 2, on the other hand, could have easily been a 55-point game with a little more effort.

      You'll see the same in my Gold Box reviews, which often sound negative despite their positions at the top of my list. As good as they did, I think SSI could have done better. Here, I think Hendrix did as well as he could have done.

      To summarize, the GIMLET grades on a curve but my attitude grades the title against itself.

    2. I tend to feel the same way about any kind of work- I have some friends from college who I used to watch a lot of movies with. They would always get annoyed because most movies we watched I would say were pretty good, so they thought I just liked everything. Truth is that I consider something "good" if it set out to do something interesting or entertaining, and succeeded. I think most popular, accessible movies are able to do this. Movies that I actually really enjoy are going to be a lot more ambitious or challenging, but just because something isn't especially meaningful to me, doesn't mean it lacks value. I only consider something really bad if it's lazy, failing to adequately achieve its own goals, or if its goals are just stupid or offensive. I have a soft spot for things that sincerely fail at their goals because they were too ambitious, especially if those ambitions are ridiculous, like Ed Wood films for example.

  12. I´m desperate for more oldtime ultima-style journeys so Hera looks like a good thing!

  13. You don't kill vicuñas for their fur, you shear them for their wool. I mean, I guess you could do it, but it's not an economically sound decision, that's literally killing the goose that lies the golden eggs.

    1. You can't write for guys who play RPG since forever and probably know a lot of rule books in and out and spent half of their time arguing with Game Master and expect them to gloss over SUCH IMPORTANT MATTERS :)

    2. Actually, Matt Dragoon's observation was useful to me: I thought "vicuña" was Spanish for "mink", and you do skin minks for their fur. Matt pushed me to check, and I learn something :)

      It is still completely off-topic...

  14. Some of the most successful games have been shareware, what are you talking about? How is an obscure, self-published indie effort, proof that shareware does not work?

    1. I didn't say that "shareware doesn't work," but the successful games you refer to are certainly not the norm. It's possible for both our statements to be true: some shareware titles are wildly successful, but the average shareware title delivers nothing back to the programmer except the lessons inherent in creating it.

    2. The average restaurant fails within its first year of business, but I wouldn't say the proprietors opened it "mostly for love and the cooking experience", because (and I think this is the crux of the issue) that phrasing makes effort sound suspiciously like bougie self-indulgence. Almost everyone hopes for success, after all, even if they know the odds are against them.

    3. You seem to be conflating "shareware" with "shovelware". Yes, PC shovelware was very often pushed through the shareware system (most commonly through those "2 trillion games" CDs that you could buy in the 90s, and later on dedicated shareware sites), but that doesn't say anything about shareware as a distribution system - you might as well describe the PS2 or Wii as failed systems because so much of their libraries were shoddy junk.

      Games with decent quality flourished as shareware until the rise of practical digital delivery systems such as Steam rendered the need for shotgunning limited copies of your game (which, fairly often, were easily cracked open, as the most common solution was to have the whole game distributed and unlocked with a serial code) out. Entire game companies, some of which remain as titans of the industry today, were built on shareware. It worked very, very well as a distribution system, provided that you put real work into it, made a real effort to get the trial copies out, and released the game into a receptive market. Hera seems to have more than adequately passed the first test, obviously failed miserably on the second, and didn't do too well on the third.

    4. Could you give some examples of very successful shareware games, mainly rpgs? I am not doubting you, I would like too look into them.

    5. Leave it to my readers to dissect what was just supposed to be a pithy way to close a paragraph. Nonetheless, I stand by my statement. I've spoken to a number of game developers over the years and know shareware developers in other fields. I still think the AVERAGE shareware title is written for love and experience with no expectations of major paydays. If your perception is different, fine. Barring the appearance of some hard data to settle the issue, why don't we just leave it as a pithy way to close a paragraph.

    6. I grew up in this era of shareware, and it was always more a labor of love and desire to produce something, rather than try and make a living. Most shareware authors were thrilled to get ANY money, and any recognition for their work. The fact it's coming 30 years later doesn't change that!

    7. Banshee: I second that motion. I can't think of any wildly successful shareware off the top of my head, but my knowledge of the phenomenon is quite superficial. I think Chet's comment was not only pithy but charitable, since the alternative to a labor of love produced by someone with limited resources is a deliberately shoddy effort by someone looking to turn a quick buck.

    8. ThirtyNine: Well, maybe you've heard of a little game called DOOM... :)

      I suppose it depends to some degree on where you're going to set the "wildly successful" goalpost, but , but just to name a handful more - Quake, Descent, Commander Keen, Traffic Department 2192, Jazz Jackrabbit, Wolfenstein 3D, Blake Stone, Terminal Velocity, the first two Duke Nukems (and arguably the third), Tyrian, Mystic Towers... just off the top of my head really.

    9. Domphlunk, while there were many successful shareware games, you shouldn't confuse widely distributed with successful. Going through your list, the developers of Traffic Department 2192, of Blake Stone and of Mystic Towers never made a second game. I'd wager none of those games were profitable.

      Banshee, I don't think RPGs were a common genre for shareware. The only popular one I can think of is Castle of the Winds. [Listed as a 1993 game in the master list, which was the year of the Epic MegaGames re-release, but supposedly originally published in 1989 for Windows 2.0.]

      The big three shareware companies were Apogee/3DRealms, Epic MegaGames (now Epic Games) and id Software. They developed most of the other games that ThirtyNine listed. Apogee is the oldest of the three, and they earned enough of shareware to pay for 15 years of Duke Nukem Forever development :)

    10. Spiderweb Software has been making shareware RPGs since mid-90s (Exile, Geneforge, Avernum and Avadon series) and are still afloat, following essentially the same shareware model.

    11. Hi VK,
      From what I can see they have abandoned the shareware model a while back and adopted the common indie developer model:

      Going to their website right now they sell full versions of all of the games and hand out what they call demos for some of them. Similar they sell all of the games on the usual distribution platforms in episodic fashion, without any free shareware episode.
      That ain't really a shareware model anymore.

      Admittedly the market has moved past the requirement for a shareware model thanks to digital distribution.

    12. The "demo" you can download is actually the full game just with most areas past a few starting ones being locked. Then you buy a registration key from the dev and unlock the rest. Tell me it's not shareware model.
      The Steam/GOG versions are probably full games, but they only started doing it around 2012 or so.

    13. The developer of one of the WORST adventure games played on the Adventure Gamer blog, Hugo's House of Horrors made so much money off it that he quit his day job to make more terrible games.

      It is going to be really hard to say without actually contacting a statistically significant number of devs and doing some analysis. That not having been done, we are trading anecdota.

      Also, something doesn't have to be a huge hit to be a commercial success, at least not back then. If you only had one or two people working on a game you only had to sell a few thousand copies a year to make a decent income. So while I can't see a ton of COMPANIES making big budget games that way, I could see a cottage industry of people making nice second incomes or even full time jobs out of shareware pretty easily. I can also see the people who churned out endless solitaire games and such not being able to do the same.

  15. This is what we wanted Gates of Delirium to be, but wasn't... a game inspired and copied a bit from Ultima but with some fresh ideas of its own. I'm glad Hera ended up being a more enjoyable experience!

  16. This sounds like a nifty game, at least within the parameters of what it's trying to do -- I like the idea of a temperature mechanic a lot. I may give it a spin sometime soon.

  17. Did you finish it already?!? You are more addicted than me, indeed! I started playing the day after you published your first Hera post.

    After I saw you beat the game already, I started a second game. On the Apple 2 port, I am playing with a Dwarf Thief called "Penitent" (because I despise thieves in real life already), and on the DOS port I am playing with a Hobbit Fighter called "Clumsy" because... Well, after all, my favourite classes are Clerics (followed by Mages)!

    Did you notice that the character's title changes every 1000 experience points, and it is different for each class? It is pointless for the gameplay, but I think it is nice. E.g. the fighter starts as "veteran", then becomes "warrior"; the thief starts as "rogue", then "footpad", "cutpurse", etcetera.

    How could you have two submarines stolen? Almost all relevant locations are on the seaside, there would be no room for a pirate to sneak between you and the submarine.

    1. I've been home a lot this summer, and I tried to get a good stack of posts scheduled ahead of time so we wouldn't have a long delay (like we usually do) when I go to a conference this month.

      I don't know on the submarines. Generally, it only happened when I wandered away from one for a while, such as to track down the current location of the nomad's village. I'd return and the sub would be gone.

      I didn't notice that bit about the title. Thanks for pointing it out.

    2. E.g. the fighter starts as "veteran", then becomes "warrior"; the thief starts as "rogue", then "footpad", "cutpurse", etcetera.

      That's a direct rip from D&D (or AD&D), IIRC, as those terms in that sequence are very familiar.

    3. I see! Now I am home from work with a broken wrist, I can catch up to you! :D

      Indeed, I lost the ship when I tried to reach the nomads, too. By the time I obtained the submarine, I learned to leave it safely near Castle Lunca and use the ship to reach the nomads: the latter is easier to recover, and the extra backtracking is good for the (boring, boring) grinding.

  18. Although Hera is clearly an American-style role-playing game (aka CRPG), I noticed some influence from "Dragon Quest 1"/"Dragon Warrior 1", that is a Japanese-style role-playing game (aka Consolle RPG, or CRPG again), released one year earlier, in 1986:

    1) the opening, with the hero near a city (or on top of the city if you use the default character, a human ranger) and a castle across the water;
    2) the fixed sequence of key-items to open new areas;
    3) dungeon in iconographic view.

    1. I see the similarities, but DW wasn’t released in North America until 1989. Also, I corresponded with the author back when I was writing this entry, and he didn’t say a thing about DW.

  19. This is my form of video game addiction: I play, I take detailed notes, map all the areas, write a text transcript, and I publish them all...

  20. I'm really glad you didn't skip this as shovelware, Chet. This turned out to be a really nice game to read about, and a really great thing to document.

  21. Hera: the Sword of Rhin (MS-DOS): WON!

    There are three gameplay differences between the two versions:

    1. In the Apple version, the third king raises both attributes; in the DOS version, he raises strength only.

    2. In the DOS version, enemies give the hero less experience (especially the "third tier" enemies, unlocked after 20 000 moves) and more gold than in the Apple version. Therefore, grinding in the DOS version is far longer and more boring.

    3. In the Apple version, in Skull Mountain you have to navigate two basement passages to get to the Crystal and to Zarebae, respectively. In the DOS version, you have to navigate one passage only, the one to get the crystal; the entrance corridor of Skull Mountain continues straight to Zarebae.

    Personally, I prefer the Apple version: grinding is less boring (shorter) and the final dungeon is more interesting.

    1. I appreciate your help in fully documenting the title. It sounds like you also figured out a secret that I didn't: harder enemies are tied to moves, not experience.

  22. Enchantasy has fallen off your upcoming list, did it fall foul of rule #4?

    1. Moved to 1993. That seems to be when it was published, despite the copyright date saying 1991.

  23. Thanks for this entry! I really enjoyed looking through your posts. I downloaded the demo version of the DOS edition back in the day from the good ol' AOL Games page. Years later, I reached out to Jeff who was kind enough to send me the full version for no charge (It was 2004 or so at that point, so I don't think he saw there being any more money in it). I still have the zip file, so let me know if you're still interested in the non-demo DOS version. I doubt Jeff would mind.


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