Thursday, May 31, 2018

Game 290: Talisman (1988)

The game has no title screen, so the closest we get is the "version" command.
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1988 for Atari 800
Date Started: 28 May 2018
Date Ended: 29 May 2018 
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at time of posting: 86/294 (29%)
Talisman, credited to K. Newman or perhaps Ken Newman, is nothing more or less than Rogue ported to the Atari 800. As far as I can tell, it adds nothing to the original except some icons in the place of ASCII characters. Rogue received a port to the Atari 8-bit family from Mastertronic the same year, but it's ugly as sin, so perhaps Mr. Newman's port was an alternative for players who preferred a more classic look. (A 1987 game called AtariRogue is, confusingly, a variant of the DND line rather than a direct Rogue adaptation.)

Everything from the original is here: a no-name hero whose only attributes are strength, armor class, and hit points; a large and varied selection of equipment; potions of various colors, wands of various metals, and scrolls of various arcane names, with their effects randomized for each new game; monsters that you can fight with missile or melee weapons or with the intelligent use of items; and of course the constant need for food, the inability to backtrack, and permadeath. Even the messages that appear when you use unidentified items are copied from the original.
A Potion of Restore Strength--with the same message that Rogue gave you.
The only major changes are unwelcome ones. First, each dungeon level requires multiple screens instead of fitting neatly on a single screen. This makes it more difficult to identify "obvious" secret areas. (This is a limitation of the Atari 800 hardware, I suspect, and not something we should necessarily blame the programmer for.) Second, the color scheme changes randomly with every level, with some of the options a bit dark.

Third, movement requires a keyboard cluster so unintuitive that it ought to win some kind of award. It's so bad that you're going to think I made typos. Here you go:

Y  K  U
H     L
B  J  N

The Atari 800 had no arrow keys nor keypad, so I understand the need to make an uncomfortable choice, but holy moly. It's like he was so set on using various other keys for their original Rogue functions, like (I)nventory and (E)at, that he just fit movement--the most important part of the game--in wherever he could. Even then, he could have used TYU/GHJ/BNM without having to change any other commands.

[Edit: Apparently this particular cluster is a convention going back to the original Unix Rogue. That relieves Mr Newman of culpability for inventing it. It still doesn't make any more sense, however, and as I said, there's no reason that the developer couldn't have chosen a more logical cluster for this particular adaptation.]

Aside from the icons, there are minor graphical improvements. You see arrows fly to their targets, for instance. But sounds are just beeps and are best turned off.
In a room occupied by a jackal and a pile of gold, I find a shortcut to the next level.
It's been a long time since I played Rogue, and experimenting with Talisman brought back a lot of memories that had been softened by other roguelikes. NetHack is a breeze compared to Rogue. Since enemies reliably drop items in NetHack (but not Rogue), you can farm early levels as long as you want. Food is everywhere. Rogue--and Talisman--are much more unforgiving. Enemies respawn, but they almost never carry anything. You can't eat corpses, and there are no instrinsics. Every action you take burns more calories, and you're constantly praying to find food before the "Hungry" alert shows up in the status bar. Inventory is much more limited, and there are fewer tricks to get out of sticky situations. There's gold--which contributes to the final score--but no shops. There are no fountains, no wishes, no altars, no blessings, and no luck statistic.
The most prized item in the game.
And yet, overall, I didn't have too difficult a time with the game--certainly nothing like my Rogue experience--and I wonder if Talisman wasn't programmed to be a bit easier. There's nothing obvious, but I suspect food lasts slightly longer, and the numbers are slightly more generous with player attacks and damage. I could be wrong. But while I didn't even try to play with permadeath--I allowed myself to copy the save every 2 levels--I still only had to reload about six times. And I wasn't that careful in my explorations.
A rare death, which looks like the original Rogue death screen.
The game is pretty easy through about Level 10. If you're lucky, you can trade out your starting mace and ring mail for some of the higher weapons and armor (e.g., two-handed sword and platemail) on an early level. That way, any scrolls of "Armor Enhancement" or "Weapon Enhancement" that you find will stack on the same equipment throughout the game. Also prized are potions of "Gain Strength," which add to your only real attribute. Perhaps the most useful offensive magic item in the game is the Wand of Cancellation, which removes a monster's special abilities.
Damn it.
The worst enemy on early levels is the giant ant, whose venom can remove a point of strength. Later on, you have to worry about rust monsters--although if you're careful and see them a couple squares away, you can doff your armor. Wraiths, which drain levels, start appearing around Level 15.

On lower levels, the toughest regular foes are umber hulks and xorns, both of which pound away dozens of hit points per attack. Vampires also do a lot of damage and can drain your maximum hit points. Once you hit dungeon Level 20 and character Level 10, a smart player treats it more like a stealth game, avoiding combat when possible and taking the stairs the moment he finds them. If he's lucky, he has a Ring of Slow Digestion and a Ring of Stealth by this point.
A late-game inventory. The teleportation items are useful to get out of tight situations.
The game's version of the Amulet of Yendor is the Talisman of the Ancients, found in a random room on Level 26 (or perhaps starting on Level 26; I didn't go down further). There's no Wizard of Yendor or other special challenge before walking up and taking the Talisman. There's not even any magic in the game.
So that's why the game is named Talisman.
After you find the Talisman, the stairways reverse and the challenge is to fight your way up. Of course, you take the stairways the moment you find them, and always revel when the next stairway is in the starting room. Unlike NetHack, the game doesn't remember earlier levels and regenerates new ones as you go up. But also unlike NetHack, it preserves the original levels' difficulty levels. So while you can't get too cocky, by the time you get to Level 15 or so, there's not much danger. At that point, the game becomes mostly an annoyance when a trap knocks you back down a level, or when you can't find the stairs because you need to find a secret door first.
Heading for the surface.
It's a relief when the stairway appears on Level 1 and you ascend for the last time. Talisman offers a better winning screen than Rogue, hinting at a slightly deeper story, but that's about it.
At least after all that work, my reward isn't that I get to join a guild.
This ought to GIMLET only a couple points lower than Rogue, which I rated over eight years ago. It will be interesting to see how consistent my rating conventions are between the two games. (I'm not going to look at my Rogue rating before attempting this one.)
  • 1 points for the game world. Lacking an introduction, we only hear about the nature of the quest at the very end. I can only assume the original distribution came with a text file or something that set up the quest, but I have to rate what I experienced.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. With no creation, no races, no classes, the only points I can give it are for the strength and level increases, which are rewarding when they happen.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
One of two primary means of "character development."
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. While the menagerie is small, it has some nice variances in strengths and weaknesses, and the traps provide an additional challenge.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Like most roguelikes, combat seems pretty basic, but it can be quite tactical when you consider terrain and the use of missile weapons and special objects.
Fighting one of the game's more difficult foes.
  • 5 points for equipment, almost always the strongest category in roguelikes. This little game offers more variety in weapons, armor, rings, potions, wands, and other items than most AAA commercial games of the era, with the need for identification offering an additional puzzle.
  • 1 point for economy, which just serves to increase your final score.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side quests or options.
Exit in view!
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface for serviceable graphics and very intuitive commands--except for movement.
  • 3 points for gameplay, earned for offering the right challenge level (for a roguelike) and a modest play time. I'm somewhat sick of roguelikes that think that if the original's 25 levels was good, 50 must be twice as good.
That gives us a final score of 21, which lands where I expected it to in relation to the original Rogue's 24. In the end, we can say that it's a decent piece of programming that faithfully replicates the original Rogue on the Atari 800, but doesn't accomplish more than that.

Talisman is so obscure that Rogue Basin doesn't even have it, and I can barely find any mention of it online. K. Newman is also a pretty obscure figure. His name appears on a handful of Atari 800 games in the late 1980s, none of the rest of them RPGs.

At least that one was quick. We're only two games away from the end of 1988 (again), but one of them is French, so . . . you know . . . it might take a little while.


  1. I'm surprised you haven't seen that movement keyboard cluster before -- it's the standard "vi keys" commonplace in Unix systems. It looks like it was(/is?) fairly common in roguelikes derived closely from the ur-Rogue (Angband, etc.).

    1. Yeah, vi keys for sure. In fact, using vi keys is more authentic for a Rogue clone than using the arrow keys. Arrow keys vary between systems but Y K U H L B J N are the same everywhere. The more you know!

    2. A lot of modern roguelikes still use vi keys, including NetHack. The advantage is that you don't have to move your fingers from the home row to move in the cardinal directions. It's second nature once you've gotten used to them, to the point that I've forgotten which letters move in what direction. I had to think for a while before I realized that the scheme was just vi keys.

      I'm assuming Chet used a tenkey for previous roguelikes, then. You can't really use arrow keys for roguelikes because of the lack of diagonals.

    3. I play several roguelikes using the VI keys when I play on my laptop, which doesn't have a numpad. It takes some getting used to but is certainly not impossible.

    4. Apparently vi keys were an option in the original Rogue's PC and PCjr versions but only forced in the PCjr version due to the lack of arrow keys, as per the manual found here:

      They're still quite unusual to see in modern things, though, because the population of vi users is much, much smaller than the population of gamers.

    5. I think the fact that I finished the game shows that I never felt the particular cluster was "impossible."

      I made an edit above to reflect that clearly Mr. Newman didn't invent this particular key cluster. I otherwise still don't understand why it would have originally been chosen or why it ever made sense on any keyboard.

    6. In vi it's just hjkl, which makes sense based on the constraint that you want all the movement keys to be on the home row. yubn is a reasonable expansion of that into diagonals. It makes sense if you're used to it, just like inverted Y-axis on joysticks. There isn't any square arrangement of keys on the keyboard outside the tenkey, so they're all kind of wonky from a purely spatial perspective.

    7. I guess I don't understand why anyone would "want all the movement keys to be on the home row." A roguelike isn't meant to be played at 80WPM. I can't believe most players wouldn't prefer a more natural arrangement of keys to a more easily-accessible arrangement of keys. Then again, Unix people are another species entirely.

    8. Originally on Unix systems there were a couple ways to edit files ed and then later ex. Ex had some visual editing options, but was really built to editing things in a stream.

      One of the first visual text editors was called "vi" (visual editor) written by Bill Joy. It could also call the ex editor functions. The convention for doing things used modes, one mode for inputing text, the other for doing things like movement or substitution or all kinds of things that are now usually done with a mouse (or sometimes not done). Well unix systems often had different keyboards and ex already had some conventions, so to guarantee ability to move and edit and replace and so on, and to be able to use ex commands pretty much the conventional keys were used. And there was a certain thought to what you would do commonly and where those keys were on the keyboard- so home row.

      I can't say it is wholly logical, but it has been a convention since... um I'm going guess 76,77 or 1978. Not sure exactly when it was released, but somewhere in there.

      So when people made games on Unix after 78 or so, the convention for moving around in a visual but character environment was the vi keys (as you published them). Games adopting that helped me use vi much later as I'd played enough Rogue on Unix systems that moving around in vi was second nature. Kind of like mine sweeper helped people learn to use the mouse (and double click) in early windows era.

    9. Back in the days, one can easily identify a fellow Rogue player on the street, when we need to get out of the house, just by looking at our clawed misshapen and arthritic hands.

    10. Right. The point is that the keys originated in a text editor, where WPM are actually important. They got translated to games because the keyboards the game was originally on didn't have arrows and the arrows weren't eight-directional anyway. vi-keys are very ergonomic if you're used to them, even for gaming -- I find games that try to set up a 3x3 grid on the keyboard more difficult to use, because I'm used to another input scheme. Just like WASD might be weird for someone used to an old game that used WAXD or the like.

    11. The original '82 version of Wizardry had the most nonsensical control scheme ever. You pressed F to go forward, L to turn left, and R to turn right. Now look at where these are on your keyboard... yeah.

      The PC-88/98 versions (from '85) used W, A, and D, respectively, which makes much more sense. Not quite WASD, since S showed or hid the status window.

    12. I wonder what emacs users of the time thought of those keys, and what they used instead?

    13. Way late, but for anyone who just read Yoshida's comment, Wizardry also used the WAD keys for forward, left and right. Probably one of the first games that led to the WASD/WAXD cluster.

  2. The Atari 800 (and all Atari 8-bits) had cursor keys. You had to use the CONTROL-{-,=,+,*} to use them, although most programmers just scanned for the -,=,+, and * keys so one didn't have to hold down CONTROL.

    The regular 8-bit text screen (graphics mode 0 in BASIC) had a 40 x 24 character screen. It looks like this fellow used a combination of that (upper and lower text) along with a larger text mode (mode 1 which is 20x24) for the game. Probably because it allowed more colors or was just easier to see. So, yeah, that's probably why dungeons are multiple screens.

    I honestly don't remember ever seeing this one back in the day.

  3. Oh, and there was a numeric keypad available for the Atari 8-bits (CX-85) but I don't think very many games supported it at all.

    I never had one so I don't even know if it returns special key codes or just mimics the regular keyboard's codes.

  4. I had wondered if this bore any relation to the Games Workshop board game Talisman, but I suppose a talisman is a common enough fantasy tchotchke to write a game around.

    While I knew about the fairly recent (2012/13) video game adaptation of Talisman, I wasn't aware that there had been also been an earlier one released for the ZX Spectrum in 1985:

    (Though I suspect it'll be fairly borderline as per your definition of a CRPG, like HeroQuest.)

    1. Likely named after Talisman (1983), but I don't see any obvious callbacks to Talisman. No Games Workshop properties, no giant skulls, no Crags, no Crown of Command. Not even a Wizard of Yendor. The only thing it has in common is being a D&D type game that requires no DM.

      In fact, I would question whether this was a re-implementation or a port. Xorn and such seem to indicate that this was a port with "Amulet of Yendor" filed off and "Talisman of the Ancients" written in in crayon.

      Yeah, there was a version of Talisman for computer. I am distressed to note that it is quite close to the definition of CRPG, having inventories and combats based on attributes. Hell, if you count gaining strength and craft as character leveling and development, which it pretty much is, then computer Talisman *is* a CRPG. It has a main quest, side quests, it supports single player, there are no scripted events but all is driven by the Adventure Deck...if you ignore the fact that it's a port of a boardgame you might think it fits the definition of a CRPG. In fact by these terms Computer Talisman is closer to a roguelike than anything else.

      I'm not saying I think Talisman is a "six characters hit the dungeon" kind of CRPG...but if we're applying the strict standards of this blog...honestly I think it has to go on the list. Its saving grace being it won't take more than an hour or two to play through.

    2. The Inner Region is certainly scripted events. As is the Tavern, City, Village, Sentinel...etc.

      If HeroQuest is a CRPG then Talisman certainly is. In fact, it has more credibility in several categories. Even though it isn't what you would call a traditional CRPG by any means. It would be closer to King's Bounty than anything else, with its short length and replayability due to variable starting conditions.

    3. HeroQuest WASN'T really a CRPG. I played it because I wanted to write about the game that forced Hero's Quest to change its name.

    4. Well... why not write about the game that *didn't* force Talisman to change its name? Eh? Eh?

  5. It's hard to see you discussing a Rogue port without a faint memory triggering that your beating Rogue was the inception of this blog. Might be worth mentioning for the benefit of readers who haven't digested the Compleat Works of Chester.

  6. Speaking of RPGs with the same name, I seem to recall a CGA first-person dungeon crawler for DOS by the name of "Talisman" that I played back in the mid-90's. I didn't see on your list, and I imagine that you'd rather not unearth too many "new" RPGs from years you've finished already... but I'm curious as to whether anyone else knows what I'm talking about. I couldn't turn up anything about it online, given how generic the name is...

    If it's any consolation, though, I don't remember it being particularly difficult.

  7. The effect of the multi-screen setup is interesting. In Unix rogue, each dungeon level consists of a rigid 3-by-3 "tic-tac-toe" grid, where each cell contains either a room, a connection between neighboring cells or a dead end. Since you can see the entire level, it's immediately obvious which cell you are in when you enter a level.

    I assume this game uses the same technique to build dungeon levels, as it seems to be a very faithful port. But if you can only see the current room, you have to do a lot more work to figure out where you are in the level. It seems like it ought to make the game a bit more interesting.

    Regarding food, Unix rogue guarantees you a food drop at least once every 3 levels. So if you keep running out of food, it's a hint that you should descend a bit more aggressively. Never played this version of course, so I'm not sure if it sticks to this rule.

    As a little curiosity, I guess you might have never seen the manual for Unix Rogue, and there probably won't be a future post where it might be relevant:

    (And like everybody else, I'm baffled that you managed to play all classic rogue-likes without ever encountering the vi-keys...)


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