Friday, March 29, 2019

Game 322: Nemesis (1981)

Hey, it was a bare-bones era.
United States
SuperSoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1981 for CP/M
Date Started: 24 March 2019
Date Ended: 24 March 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 12
Ranking at time of posting: 17/327 (5%)

In 1977, the innovative first-person dungeon crawler Oubliette appeared on the PLATO mainframe system at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Two students, aspiring programmers, became convinced of its commercial potential. Taking various elements from the game, they reprogrammed it for the microcomputer and released their version in 1981, offering no credit or acknowledgement to the Oubliette authors. The game was a smash hit and launched a dynasty of sequels and imitators, influencing the genre down to the present day.

The last sentence makes it clear that the above paragraph was about Wizardry, but take it out and you also have a description of Nemesis, one of a very small number of RPGs released for the CP/M operating system. The CP/M was a popular OS for Intel 8086 and 8088 computers in the 1970s, and based on most accounts, it would have been the OS of choice for the new IBM-PC if some issues hadn't arisen over a non-disclosure agreement, leaving the door open for Microsoft to sell IBM on PC-DOS, which ironically took some of its elements from CP/M. If things had gone another way, Nemesis might have been one of the first RPGs for a booming OS rather than one that died the same year.
A mix of D&D, Tolkien, and Donaldson in the race list was an early clue.
Like Wizardry, Nemesis isn't an exact copy, and has plenty of its own innovations, so we shouldn't go too far in making accusations of plagiarism and such. In fact, in making their adaptation, the authors--Michael A. Pagels and Michael Q. Hiller--changed enough of the elements (in particular getting rid of the 3-D interface) that I might not have noticed the association. What tipped me off was the use of "ur-vile" (from Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series) as a character class. I knew I'd seen that before, searched my blog, and came up with my entry on Oubliette. From there, I noticed that the list of races for the two games were exactly the same, in the same order, excepting the replacement of "Eldar Elf" with "Grey Elf." Then I got hold of the game manual and noted that the address for SuperSoft was a post office box in Champaign.

Getting the game running was no picnic. The only reliable CP/M emulator that I could find (Simeon Cran's MicroFast) was for DOS, which put me in the weird position of running an emulator within an emulator. The game then requires you to create a configuration file for the terminal you're using before you can run it. It has configurations programmed for numerous terminals, but none of them seemed to overlap with the various options offered by MicroFast. Actually, one did--the D.E.C. VT-52--but I overlooked it for a while, wasted a lot of time trying to define my own terminal type, and nearly gave up before I figured it out.

Nemesis is necessarily dumbed-down from Oubliette. Microcomputers of 1981 had nothing like the resources of the PLATO mainframe. Oubliette's explorable "town" level with numerous shops, inns, and so forth was (like in Wizardry) turned into a menu town. Instead of a party, a single character adventures alone. Combat is rendered considerably easier as a consequence.

But the basic rules, logistics, and statistics come directly from Oubliette, which itself drew heavily from Dungeons & Dragons and a few other sources. Character creation has you choose first from 15 races: human, elf, dwarf, half-dwarf, half-elf, hobbit, orc, uruk-hai, ogre (misspelled "orge"), pixie, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, ur-vile, and grey elf. The game then randomly rolls for your strength, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, constitution, dexterity, gold, and (weirdly enough) sex. The rolls are modified by your race choice. You also choose an alignment from lawful, neutral, or chaotic, which was also used by Oubliette but goes back to original D&D.
Choosing a class after rolling attributes.
You can re-roll as many times as you want before accepting the character, at which point you choose from a list of available classes, with those that don't meet your minimum attributes filtered out. There are 15 classes, and they again match Oubliette's list in names and order, except for the substitution of "rogue" for thief and "featheror" for courtesan. Nemesis's full list is cleric, demondim, featheror, hirebrand, mage, minstrel, ninja, paladin, raver, peasant, ranger, rogue, sage, samurai, and valkyrie. After a few false starts with boilerplate characters (e.g., an ogre hirebrand), I decided to aim for a "minstrel" because it amused me to think of a blackfaced adventurer pratfalling his way through a dungeon while belting a tune about his mammy down in Alabamy.

The menu town has an armory for buying and selling weapons and armor, a hospital, an inn, and Archives. Hospitals and inns both let you restore hit points. Hospitals cost money but heal you a lot faster (in game days) than inns, which has implications for your longevity. The Archives is where you go to pay money to have unknown items identified. New characters have no equipment, but they also have so little gold that you usually can't buy anything. Even a "pointed stick" costs over 100 gold pieces. So you enter the dungeon and take a chance with your hands.
Visiting the store. I have no idea why I'd need a hanky, brick, or beenie.

Visiting the hospital after a rough dungeon trip.
Gameplay consists mostly of wandering the 21 x 23 dungeon levels, picking up equipment as you find it, and killing monsters as they attack you. The items you find almost immediately outclass what's available in the store, so you mostly use gold for healing and identifying items in the archives. You want to stay near the entrance until you gain a few levels and extra hit points; although combat is relatively easy on Level 1, the game still features permadeath, and you can always get unlucky.

The dungeon is rendered in roguelike fashion, with ASCII characters representing the walls and doors, rather than in the 3D graphical fashion of Oubliette. It's possible that the developers were exposed to Rogue but equally possible that they came up with the idea independently. In addition to stairs, players can encounter chutes and pits to lower levels, teleporters, anti-magic rooms, anti-cleric rooms, "melee rooms" (every square has a combat), and special treasure rooms. You maneuver with the URLD keys.
Making my way through the dungeon. The character is a flashing underscore, so don't ask me to find it on this static shot.
Combat is drawn largely unchanged from Oubliette. When you encounter an enemy party, you're taken to a separate screen where you can see your own statistics and inventory and the enemy groups that you face. Your options are only (F)ight, (C)leric spell, (M)age spell, and (U)se a special item. There is no fleeing or parrying. Even worse, the point of most of the character classes is nullified, as the authors failed to adapt any of their special abilities. Courtesans/"featherors" and minstrels can no longer charm enemies; rogues and ninjas can't hide; clerics cannot dispel undead; paladins cannot lay on hands. There is a suggestion that some of these abilities were intended for a sequel.
I believe the primary party I'm fighting is orcs, but I caught this in the process of refreshing the screen. Two mediums (priestly classes) have joined the battle.
Other monsters may appear to join a battle in progress. As you kill them, you see your experience and gold increase. Leveling happens when you leave the dungeon, and it's accompanied by increases in maximum health and spell points.

Nemesis offers 55 different monster types, and all of them appear in Oubliette with a few exceptions, and those exceptions are all simple substitutions. For instance, Oubliette's giant spider and giant ant become "huge spider" and "large ant" in Nemesis. Oubliette has a lot more monsters than Nemesis; those that didn't make the cut tend to be the higher-level monsters like dragons, medusas, and advanced spellcasters, and I suspect that the Nemesis authors didn't know how, or didn't have the space, to program those enemies' special attacks.
The game's town. Oubliette had stores, hospitals, and inns, but I think the Archives are original to this game.
There is some overlap in the games' spells, but on the other hand, the 13 mage spells and 11 cleric spells offered by Nemesis are common enough that they could have come from anywhere. Nemesis doesn't require you to know a spell code name to cast its spells. They are separated into travel spells ("Light," "Protect," "Levitate") and combat spells ("Damage," "Sleep," "Fireball"), and each depletes a number of magic points from the character's pool.

There's no main quest or winning condition in Nemesis. The manual encourages you to set your own goals, such as a certain experience level or treasure level. Survival isn't very hard if you can live past Level 0 and if you play conservatively, for instance returning to the surface when you've lost half your health. The game earns only a 12 in my GIMLET, with no element rising above a 2. It is particularly hurt by the lack of any backstory, NPCs, or quests (all 0).
Ironically, one of the monster types that the game did not adapt from Oubliette was dragons.
The manual indicates that Nemesis II was already under development when Nemesis shipped. The creators intended to bring multi-user capabilities to the sequel. Players were invited to join the "Nemesis User Group," which met at Hiller's residence, to test the new adventure. Alas, it was never finished.

Pagels, Hiller, and SuperSoft issued at least two other products: a multi-player science fiction game called StarJump and a dungeon level and character editor called Nemesis Dungeon Master. The latter came with the edition of Nemesis that I downloaded, but it must have been a late addition because the manual doesn't mention it at all.
The Nemesis Dungeon Master character editor.
On a Google Group about a year ago, Pagels indicated that he and Hiller "had a great time writing this game, and it helped pay for grad school." Neither continued in the gaming industry. I reached out to both for comments but didn't get a response.

If we ever get hold of OrbQuest (1981), we may have a challenger, but until then, I'm willing to call Nemesis the best CRPG issued for the CP/M operating system. I'm glad we had a chance to check it out.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Seventh Link: Summary and Rating

The game manual featured some fairly modest hand-drawn art.
The Seventh Link
Oblique Triad (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for Tandy Color Computer 3
Date Started: 16 December 2018
Date Ended: 16 March 2019
Total Hours: 22
Difficulty: Medium-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting: 205/327 (63%)

Inspired graphically and thematically by the Ultima series, The Seventh Link is probably the most extensive and full-featured RPG for the TRS-80 Color Computer. A single starting character ultimately enlists a group of allies of different races and classes on a quest to save their planet from a black hole at its core, about to break its containment. Solving the quest will take the party through dozens of towns across multiple planets and through multiple large, multi-leveled dungeons. Although the game gets off to a slow, grindy start, character development is rewarding and the tactical combat system (drawn from Ultima III) is the most advanced seen on this platform. The problem is that the game's content is not up to its size, and not enough interesting stuff happens while exploring the enormous world.
I never like giving up on games, and I particularly don't like when I know the author is reading (I'm frankly not sure it's ever happened before). But in several months of trying, I simply haven't been able to make any decent progress in The Seventh Link. That doesn't necessarily mean I don't like it. If I was a Tandy Color Computer 3 owner, I'm sure I'd prize the game and play to the very end. The problem is that as a blogger, I have to be able to justify my playing time with material. If I spend four hours in a dungeon and all I can say is I killed a bunch of enemies (showing the same combat screens I've shown before) and gathered some gold, it's hard to countenance that time.

In some ways, The Seventh Link is the quintessential 1980s RPG. It offers a framing story with more detail than appears in the game itself, sticks the player in a large world that the player has to map if he's to make any progress, and features a lot of combat. In mechanics, it's as good as any of the early Wizardries or Ultimas.

Unfortunately, Link was the last game I encountered before leaving the 1980s, and I'd just spent a decade mapping featureless dungeon corridors. It's not its fault that it's last; that's just the way it happened. And by the time I got to Link, I just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't--I can't--play a game that's just a few dozen 20 x 20 dungeon levels full of combats. The Bard's Tale and its derivatives drained that battery.
I never figured out anything to do with the pillars.
This is the 90s, and gamers are demanding more interesting content in their game worlds. We want NPCs, special encounters, puzzles, and other features in those dungeons, at regular intervals. We've decimated forests in our consumption of graph paper; we're ready for automaps. Ones that don't require us to find a spell first. 

Despite investing a fair number of hours into the game, I really didn't accomplish much. I explored the surface of Elira, visited each of its towns to assemble a party, and mapped 4 of 13 levels of one dungeon. There were at least 9 more dungeon entrances on Elira alone, some of which would have taken me to teleporters to three other planets and their own towns and dungeons. I would have found a final party member, a female ranger named Starwind, on the planet Dulfin. Others dungeons would have led me to power packs and the places where I needed to install them to save the planet. I still don't know where I was to find the other spells. From hints in an old disk magazine, I learned that the maximum character level is 25 (my main character reached 8) and that one of the planets has a store where you can buy potions that increase attributes, serving in the role of Ambrosia from Ultima III.
One of the few lines from an NPC. Alas, I will probably never explore Selenia.
My GIMLET is naturally based on an incomplete picture of the game:
  • 4 points for the game world. The sci-fi origin story is fairly original, and well-told in epistolatory fashion, although it fails to explain a number of aspects of the world (e.g., why are there settlements on other planets). While the player's role is somewhat clear, it's less clear where he came from, how he got started on this path, and whether he understands his role.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The selection of races and classes is familiar but not entirely derivative. There's nothing special about character creation or the development and leveling process, but they're reasonably rewarding. I don't know if the level cap would have caused any issues or if you finish the game well before reaching it.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. The game has a better system than it uses. You learn a few things from NPCs, but there are hardly any NPCs that say anything to you. Expanding that number would have resulted in a richer, more engaging world. I do like the Ultima IV approach to assembling your party by finding members in the towns.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are mostly derivative of other games (though I like the explanations for their names here: the ship that populated the planet had Tolkien fans on it), and I didn't really experience other types of encounters.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The tactical combat screen is about as good as Ultima III, but with fewer spells.
On Level 3 of the dungeon, I met an enemy called "Floating Stars."
  • 3 points for equipment. You can get melee weapons, missile weapons, armor, and adventuring equipment like torches and keys. Various sites hint at more advanced items like rods and gems of seeing. The selection of stuff is a little paltry in the traditional Ultima style.
  • 5 points for the economy. It lacks a certain complexity, but money is certainly valuable. You almost never have enough keys, for one thing. Healing, torches, equipment, and leveling up consume gold fast, and it sounds like the shop on Dulfan would have served as an endless money sink for any extra you could accumulate.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side-quests or quest options.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Almost all of that is for the interface. It adopts the Ultima standard of one key per action, which ought to have been mandatory as far as I'm concerned. Graphics are functional but sound sparse.
I never quite got used to the perspective. That lava square is only one square in front of me.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It gets a bit for nonlinearity and a bit more for the moderate-to-challenging difficulty. But it's not very replayable and it's way, way, way, way too big and too long.
That gives is a final score of 32, which is hardly awful for the era. It's actually the highest score that I've given to the platform. The only things that stop me from finishing it are the number of hours it will take and the number of other games on my list.

The Georgetown, Ontario-based Oblique Triad was a mail-order developer and publisher, co-founded by Jeff Noyle and Dave Triggerson. The name referred to the decorative bars on the top of a Color Computer. Mr. Noyle used to host a page (available now only on the Internet Archive) with links to their games, which included a pair of graphical adventures called Caladuril: Flame of Light (1987) and Caladuril 2: Weatherstone's End (1988); a strategy game called Overlord (1990); an arcade game called Those Darn Marbles! (1990); and a sound recording and editing package called Studio Works.
Caladuril, the company's first game, is a decent-looking graphical adventure.
With the Color Computer in serious decline by 1990, Oblique Triad shifted its focus to specializing in sound programming, and both Noyle and Triggerson have associated credits on Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (1990) and Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (1992). I haven't been able to trace Triggerson from there, but Noyle got a job at Microsoft in 1995 working on Direct3D, DirectX, and DirectDraw and remains (at least according to his LinkedIn profile) there today. He also has a voice credit for a Skyrim mod called Enderal: The Shards of Order (2016).

Mr. Noyle was kind enough to not only comment on one of my entries, but to take the time to create overworld maps to speed things along. I'm sorry that it wasn't quite enough, but every game that I abandon stands a chance of coming back when circumstances are different, and I'll consider trying this one again when I feel like I'm making better progress through the 1990s.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Game 321: Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters (1992)

Let's not judge this one by its title screen . . .
Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters
United States
Toys for Bob (developer); Accolade (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1994 for the 3DO console; later fan ports to other platforms
Date Started: 23 March 2019

When I started this blog in 2010, I had already played, at least in adolescence--most of the RPGs that everyone else knows. I may not have remembered all of the details, but I at least could remember the basic outlines of The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, Wizardry, Questron, Pool of Radiance, and all of the Ultimas. There were lots of games I had never played--never even heard of--of course, but those were games that most other people my age had never encountered either. It wasn't until about a year into my blog, with Dungeon Master, that I truly felt I was blogging about a game that I should be ashamed for never having played previously.

For the first time since then, I am in that position again with Star Control II, a game that frequently makes "top X" lists of the best games of all time. My commenters have mentioned it so many times that my usual pre-game search of previous comments turned up too many results to analyze. This one, in other words, is really going to fill a gap.
. . . even though the first game had an awesome title screen.
There has been some debate about whether Star Control II is an RPG, but at least almost everyone agrees that its predecessor was not. That predecessor went by the grandiose name Star Control: Famous Battles of the Ur-Quan Conflict, Volume IV (1990), in an obvious homage to Star Wars. It's an ambitious undertaking--part simulator, part strategy game, part action game. The player has to manage ships and other resources and plan conquests of battle maps, but in the end the conflict always comes down to a shooting match between two ships using Newtonian physics and relying almost entirely on the player's own dexterity. This combat system goes back to Spacewar! (1962) and would be familiar to anyone who's played Asteroids (1979).

The setup has an Earth united under one government by 2025. In 2612, Earth is contacted by a crystalline race called the Chenjesu and warned that the Ur-Quan Hierarchy, a race of slavers, is taking over the galaxy. (Star Control II retcons this date to 2112.) Earth is soon enlisted into the Alliance of Free Stars and agrees to pool resources in a mutual defense pact. The Alliance includes Earth, the philosophic Chenjesu, the arboreal Yehat, the robotic Mmrnmhrm, the elfin Ariloulaleelay, and a race of all-female nymphomaniacs called the Syreen who fly phallic ships with ribbed shafts.

On the other side are the Ur-Quan, an ancient tentacled species with a strict caste system. They make slaves out of "lesser races" and only communicate with them via frog-like "talking pets." Their allies include Mycons, a fungus species; Ilwraths, a spider-like race that never takes prisoners; and Androsynths, disgruntled clones who fled captivity and experimentation on Earth. Each race (on both sides) has unique ship designs with various strengths and weaknesses, some of which nullify other ships. There's a kind-of rock-paper-scissors element to strategically choosing what ships you want to employ against what enemies.
No "bumpy forehead" aliens in this setting.
The occasionally-goofy backstory and description of races seems to owe a lot (in tone, if not specifics) to Starflight (1986), on which Star Control author Paul Reiche III had a minor credit. There are probably more references than I'm picking up (being not much of a sci-fi fan) in the ships themselves. "Earthling Cruisers" (at least the front halves) look like they would raise no eyebrows on Star Trek, and both Ilwrath Avengers (in the back) and Vux Intruders (in the front) look like Klingon warbirds. The Ur-Quan dreadnought looks passably like the Battlestar Galactica.

The original Star Control offers the ability to fight player vs. player or set one of the two sides to computer control (at three difficulty levels). In playing, you can simply practice ship vs. ship combat with any two ships, play a "melee" game between fleets of ships, or play a full campaign, which proceeds through a variety of strategic and tactical scenarios involving ships from different species in different predicaments.  The full game gives player the ability to build colonies and fortifications, mine planets, and destroy enemy installations in between ship-to-ship combats.
The various campaign scenarios in the original game.
The "campaign map" in the original game is an innovative "rotating starfield" that attempts to offer a 3-D environment on a 2-D screen. It takes some getting used to. Until they reach each other for close-quarters combat, ships can only move by progressing through a series of jump points between stars, and it was a long time before I could interpret the starfield properly and understand how to plot a route to the enemy.
Strategic gameplay takes place on a rotating starmap meant to simulate a 3-D universe.
I have not, in contrast, managed to get any good at ship combat despite several hours of practice. I'm simply not any good at action games. At the same time, I admire the physics and logistics of it. You maintain speed in the last direction you thrust even if you turn. You have limited fuel, so you can't go crazy with thrusting in different directions. You can get hit by asteroids, or fouled in the gravity wells of planets. And you have to be conservative in the deployment of your ships' special abilities, because they use a lot of fuel. Still, no game in which action is the primary determiner of success is going to last long on my play list. For such players, the game and its sequel offer "cyborg" mode, where technically you're the player but the computer fights your battles, but I'd rather lose than stoop to that.
One of my lame attempts at space combat.
Star Control II opens with a more personal backstory. In the midst of the original Ur-Quan conflicts, the Earth cruiser Tobermoon, skippered by Captain Burton, was damaged in an ambush and managed to make it to a planet orbiting the dwarf star Vela. As they tried to repair the ship, crewmembers found a vast, abandoned underground city, populated with advanced technology, built by an extinct race known as the Precursors.
The backstory is reasonably well-told with title cards.
Burton reported the find when she returned to Earth, and she was ordered to return with a scientific team led by Jules Farnsworth. Shortly after they arrived, they received word from Earth that the Ur-Quan had learned about the Precursor city and were on their way. Burton balked at Earth's orders to abandon and destroy the base with nuclear weapons. Instead, she sent her ship back to Earth under the command of her first officer and remained behind with the scientific team, planning to detonate nuclear weapons should the Ur-Quan ever arrive.
The team ended up spending 20 years on the planet, which they named Unzervalt, with no contact from Earth. During that time, the scientists discovered that the city had been created to build ships, and eventually they were able to activate the machines, which put together a starship. The machines shut down just as the ship was completed, reporting that there were insufficient raw materials to continue. About this time, Farnsworth admitted that he was a fraud, and all the success he'd experienced getting the machines up and running was due to a young prodigy born on Unzervalt--the player character.
They're not kidding about the "skeleton" part.
Burton assembled a skeleton crew for the new starship, with the PC manning the computer station, and blasted off. Three days out, they discovered the derelict Tobermoon, damaged and bereft of any (living or dead) crewmembers. Burton took command of the Tobermoon while the PC was promoted to captain of the new ship. Tobermoon was soon attacked and destroyed by an unknown alien craft, leaving the new ship to escape to Earth. Here the game begins.
What "plight"? You live on a technologically-advanced Eden where your enemies seem to have forgotten about you.
The player can name himself and his ship, and that's it for "character creation." He begins in the middle of the solar system, in a relatively empty ship with 50 crew and 10 fuel. I intuited that I needed to fly towards Earth, so I headed for the inner cluster of planets.  
"Character creation."
As the screen changed to show Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, a probe zoomed out and attached itself to our ship. It played a recording from an Ur-Quan (with the "talking pet" doing the talking), informing me that approaching Earth was forbidden, as was my status as an "independent" vessel. The probe then zoomed off to inform the Ur-Quan of my "transgressions," leaving me to explore the planetary area at will. I guess the war didn't go so well for the Alliance.
Well, we now know how the first game ended, canonically.
As I approached Earth, the screen changed to show Earth, the moon, and a space station orbiting Earth. Earth itself seemed to have some kind of red force field around it, so I approached the space station.

As I neared, I was contacted by a "Starbase Commander Hayes of the slave planet Earth." He indicated that his energy cores were almost depleted and asked if we were the "Hierarchy resupply ship." At this point, I had a few dialogue options. One allowed me to lie and say I was the resupply ship. Another had me introduce myself. A third--more reflective of what I was actually thinking--said "'Slave planet?!' 'Hierarchy resupply vessel?!' What is going on here?'" The commander said he'd answer my questions if we'd bring back some radioactive elements to re-power the station. He suggested that we look on Mercury.
I like dialogue options, but so far they've broken down into: 1) the straight, obvious option; 2) the kind-of dumb lie; and 3) the emotional option that still basically recapitulates #1.
I flew off the Earth screen and back to the main solar system screen. At some point during this process, I had to delete the version of the game that I'd downloaded and get a new one. None of the controls worked right on the first one I tried. I particularly couldn't seem to escape out of sub-menus, which was supposed to happen with the SPACE bar. The second version I downloaded had controls that worked right plus someone had removed the copy protection (which has you identifying planets by coordinates). The controls overall are okay. They're much like Starflight, where you arrow through commands and then hit ENTER to select one. I'd rather be able to just hit a keyboard option for each menu command, but there aren't so many commands that it bothers me. Flying the ship is easy enough with the numberpad: 4 and 6 to turn, 8 to thrust, 5 to fire, ENTER to use a special weapon. There's a utility you can use to remap the combat commands, but using it seems to run the risk of breaking the main interface, which I guess is what happened with the first version I downloaded.
Running around Mercury and picking up minerals. The large-scale rover window (lower right) is quite small.
When orbiting a planet, you get a set of options much like Starflight. You can scan it for minerals, energy, or lifeforms, and then send down a rover (with its own weapons and fuel supply) to pick things up. Minerals are color-coded by type, and at first I was a little annoyed because I can't distinguish a lot of the colors. But it turns out that the explorable area of planets is quite small, and you can easily zoom around and pick up all minerals in just a few minutes. In that, it's quite a bit less satisfying than Starflight, where the planets were enormous and you'd never explore or strip them all, and you got excited with every little collection of mineral symbols. 

The rover doesn't hold much, but returning to the ship and then landing again is an easy process, so before long my hold was full of not just uranium and other "radioactives," but iron, nickel, and other metals. In mining them, the rover was periodically damaged by gouts of flame from the volatile planet, but it gets repaired when you return to the main ship.
Returning to base with a near-full cargo manifest.
We returned to the starbase and transferred the needed elements. With the station's life support, communications, and sensors working again, the captain was able to scan my vessel, and he expressed shock at its configuration. Rather than give him the story right away, I chose dialogue options that interrogated him first.
This seems to be everybody's reaction.
Commander Hayes explained that the Ur-Quan had defeated the Alliance 20 years ago. They offered humanity a choice between active serve as "battle thralls" or imprisonment on their own planet. Humanity chose the second option, so the Hierarchy put a force field around the planet, trapping the human race on a single world and preventing assistance from reaching them. But they also put a station in orbit so their own ships could find rest and resupply if they happened to pass through the system. The station is maintained by humans conscripted from the planet for several years at a time.
Humanity's fate didn't seem so bad until he got to this part.
When he was done, I (having no other choice, really) gave him our background and history and asked for his help. Pointing out that starting a rebellion and failing would result in "gruesome retribution," he asked me to prove my efficacy by at least destroying the Ur-Quan installation on the moon, warning me that I would have to defeat numerous warships.

We left the station and sailed over to the moon. An energy scan showed one blaze of power, so I sent the rover down to it. The report from the rover crew said that the alien base was abandoned and broadcasting some kind of mayday signal, "but great care has been taken to make it appear active." My crew shut the place down and looted it for parts.
My crew files a "report from the surface."
Lifeform scans showed all kinds of dots roaming around the moon, most looking like little tanks. I don't know if I was supposed to do this or not, but I ran around in the rover blasting them away in case they were enemies. I also gathered up all the minerals that I could.

I returned to the starbase, and the commander accepted my report. Just then, an Ilwrath Avenger, having found the probe, entered the system. The arachnid commander threatened us. There were some dialogue options with him, all of which I'm sure resulted in the same outcome: ship-to-ship combat.
They're not just "spider-like"; they actually spin webs on their bridges.
This part was much like the original game, although with the ship icons larger and against a smaller backdrop. I (predictably) lost the battle the first two times that I tried, but won the third time. In my defense, the game's backstory specifically said that I had minimal weapons. It was also a bit lumbering--slow to turn, slow to thrust.
The alien ship destroys me in our first encounter.
When I returned to starbase after the battle, Commander Hayes said he would join my rebellion, and the starbase would be my home base. He asked what we would call our movement, and there were some amusing options.
The last option tempted me, but I was boring and went with the first one.
Through a long series of dialogues, I learned that as I brought back minerals and salvage, the base could convert them into "resource units" (RU) which I could then use to build my crew, purchase upgrades for the Prydwen (improved thrusters, more crew pods, more storage bays, more fuel), get refueled, and build a fleet of starships. I can even build alien ships if I can find alien allies to pilot them.
My own starbase. Why can't I name it?
Hayes had a lot more dialogue options related to history and alien species, but I'll save those for later. It appears that the introduction is over and I now have a large, open universe to explore, where I'm sure I'll do a lot of mining, fighting, and diplomacy. In this sense, Star Control II feels like more of a sequel to Starflight than the original Star Control.
One part of a nine-page starmap that came with the game. I'm tempted to print it out and assemble it on the wall in front of my desk. I suppose it depends on how long the game lasts.
I appreciate how the game eased me into its various mechanics. I'm enjoying it so far, and I really look forward to plotting my next moves. I suspect I'll be conservative and mine the rest of the resources in the solar system and buy some modest ship upgrades before heading out into the greater universe.

Time so far: 2 hours

Friday, March 22, 2019

Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers: Summary and Rating

Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers
United States
Interplay (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 5 February 2019
Date Ended: 15 March 2019
Total Hours: 18
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 34
Ranking at time of posting: 223/327 (68%)


A shallower, smaller, shorter sequel to a superior predecessor, The Two Towers tells the second of Tolkien's three books from the perspective of three adventuring parties. While the top-down perspective and interface (recalling Ultima VI but with a bigger window) are both adequate, and the game follows its predecessor in offering a number of non-canonical NPCs and side-quests, it remains under-developed in RPG mechanics like combat, character development, and equipment. The switching between parties, over which the player has no control, is jarring, and by the end it feels like no party ever got any serious screen time.


I'm not sure that it's possible to make a truly excellent RPG based on an existing plot with existing characters, particularly ones who live as largely in the imagination as the canonical members of the Fellowship of the Ring. This is different, you understand, than setting a new adventure in a familiar universe. If I had made a Lord of the Rings game, I would have told a story of a group of rangers, or Rohirrim, or even a motley group like the Fellowship, engaged in a struggle ancillary to the main plot, perhaps featuring Frodo, Aragorn, et. al. as NPCs. Games based on Dungeons & Dragons' Forgotten Realms largely seem to take this approach, although with much less well-known source material.
Offering an option to execute Gollum took some guts.
The problem with using existing plots is that either the player is on a railroad towards a predetermined destination, or he's jarred by the detours. Perhaps the only way to do it well is to allow such detours (as Interplay did here) and then give it to a player who doesn't care much about the original (e.g., me). In that sense, the game world worked out very well. Before we get into a litany of complaints, we have to at least admire the flexibility of the plot, plus the game's ability to introduce side quests that work thematically with the main plot points. It was a strength of Vol. I as well.

The game fails, on the other hand, in just about every possible way as an RPG. There is no experience or leveling. Character development occurs through the occasional increase in attributes and the occasional acquisition of skills as a reward for exploration or quest-solving. None of these improvements mean anything because, first, combat is so easy that your characters don't need to improve to beat the game, and second, every party starts with all the skills they need spread out among the characters. Inventory upgrades are scarce and essentially unnecessary for the same reasons. Combat couldn't be more boring, and there's essentially no magic system: "spells" are keywords that solve puzzles, more like inventory items.
Very late in the game, Aragorn can learn skills he won't need for the rest of the game.
Even worse is the way that it undercuts nonlinear exploration and optional encounters, essentially its only strength. While many of the side-quests and chance encounters are interesting, hardly any of them offer anything material to the characters. In fact, every time you stop to check out an unexplored area or building, you run the risk of some extra combats that leave the party weakened for the required encounters. This is related to the game's absurd healing system, by which characters are only fully healed at a few plot intervals, with meals and Athelas curing just a few hit points in between.

Now, it turns out that I missed a lot of side quests, mostly towards the end. The open world is nice, but the game only gives you any directions along the main quest path. I never returned to Dunland, and thus missed the side adventures there. Ithilien had at least three side quests that Frodo and his party didn't do, including a crypt, a Haradrim deserter who will join the party, and recovering the eye of the statue. If I'd gone another way in the Morgul Vale, I would have met Radagast. Aragorn missed the entire "Glittering Caves" sub-area, which culminated in a fight with a dragon and would have given him some powerful gloves. I still don't know what I did wrong here. I did find the way to the Glittering Caves, but I somehow missed the transition to the multiple levels that the hint guide says exist. I guess I was supposed to return after the Battle of Helm's Deep, but that would have meant embarking on a lengthy side-quest while on the threshold of victory for the game at large.
I'm not sure how I was supposed to get past this.
It's also possible that I missed some of these side quests because of another problem: the interface. There are parts that aren't so bad. The top-down perspective, the commands, and the auto-map all basically work, and I like the way you can make the interface go away and use the full screen for just exploration. What sucks is the approach to triggering encounters. You don't see an NPC or group of enemies in the corner of your exploration window. No, they just suddenly pop up because you've happened to walk on the right set of pixels or brushed up against the right object. There's very little correspondence between visual cues on screen and the appearance of encounter options. Sometimes, you see chests but walking up to them and bumping into them does nothing. Other times, you're in a blank room, and you're told about items and people that aren't on the screen at all.
Note that there are no orcs anywhere on this screen.
Finally, we have the matter of pacing. It's like the game itself has no idea what's going to come next. The battle of Helm's Deep involves six combats in a row, in two sets of three, with only a little bit of healing offered between the sets. After this epic battle, the party can rest and get fully healed, then (apparently) go off and find some magic gauntlets, when there's only one more (easy) combat remaining in the game. On Frodo and Sam's side, late in the game they have to figure out how to cut through Shelob's web. The option I chose (use the Star Ruby) causes the hobbits to get burned a little bit, which would suck--except that the endgame happens five seconds later. Why bother to attach a penalty to the choice?

And while we're talking about pacing, it's important to remember how all the erratic cutting between parties makes it hard to keep track of what any one party is doing. I completely missed an opportunity to recover Anduril because the game lurched to a different party when I was on that quest, and by the time it took me back to Aragorn, it was shouting that Helm's Deep was nigh.
Making the least-optimal choice hardly matters when the game is over at the next intersection.
Lord of the Rings, Vol. I had a lot of these problems (except the last one), and it ended up with a relatively-high 49 on the GIMLET. Before we rate this one, it's worth thinking about some of the differences. One is size. Vol. I is quite a bit bigger. Although Vol. II is good in this regard, Vol. I offered more opportunities for side quests, inventory acquisition, character development, healing, and general exploration. Pacing issues were caused as much by the player as by the plot.

Vol. I gave you a lot less direction on what to do next. There was a general sense that you had to keep moving east, but you weren't constantly getting title cards explicitly explaining the next step of the quest. For that reason, NPCs and the dialogue system took on a much greater importance. Here, although you can feed NPCs a variety of keywords, they mostly just tell you what the game has already told you in long paragraphs. You never really need them for any clues.

NPCs themselves were more memorable. They had personalities, agendas, side quests, and even a couple of betrayals. Vol. II only marginally developed any of that. There was a poor economy in Vol. I, but Vol. II had no place to spend money at all despite showing that the characters had it. Also keenly felt is the loss of nice graphical (or animated, in the remake) cut scenes between major areas.

Both games do reasonably well in the area of encounters. I've always liked the way Interplay games (including Wasteland and Dragon Wars) require you to read clues and then figure out the right skills to directly employ. Sometimes, items can substitute for skills. But Vol. I's encounters of this nature were less obvious and a little less generous in the variety of things that would work. You couldn't ignore options to improve skills or acquire quest objects. In Vol. II, you can pretty much just walk from beginning to end, knowing that your starting characters have whatever they need.

The rest might just be a matter of bad memory. Recalling the first game, I feel like the graphics offered a little more detail, that encounters didn't depend on hitting quite such a small set of pixels, that there was a little more character development, a slightly better inventory system, and so forth.
The game tries to evoke the majesty of Middle Earth without showing much.
Let's see how they compare:

1. Game world. The Two Towers definitely makes good use of the Middle Earth setting. The backstory and lore section of the manual are thorough and interesting. It wasn't until I read it that I finally understood some allusions from the films and the previous game, such as what "Numenor" refers to and what Gandalf actually is. While the game doesn't do a lot to build on this setting, it certainly is in keeping with it. Score: 6.

2. Character creation and development. There's no creation at all and only the slightest, near-invisible development. You mostly forget that the attributes even exist. Aragorn started with 70 dexterity, 28 strength, 33 endurance 75 luck, and 75 willpower, and he ended with 74, 28, 38, 79, and 77. Clearly, some development occurred, but never was I notified of any of these increases, and I really have no idea what caused them. The skills system would get more points if the game was a bit more balanced in how you acquire and use them. Score: 2.

3. NPC interaction. I always enjoy keyword-based dialogue systems, but here it's mostly purposeless. When a title card has just told you that "Orcs have ravaged this village and its people are forlorn," you don't need six different NPCs saying, "Orcs destroyed us!" and "We have lost hope!" I did like the few NPCs who could join the parties. Without them, the game would have been forced to either avoid combat with the hobbit parties or make the hobbits uncharacteristically effective. Score: 5.
I'm sorry we didn't see more of Eowen.
4. Encounters and foes. Despite Tolkien featuring a large bestiary, you only really ever fight orcs and men in this game (aside from a few one-off battles). The only points I give here are for the non-combat encounters, which are frequent, require some puzzle-solving skill, and offer some role-playing opportunities. As mentioned, I don't like the way that they appear, but that's more of an interface issue. Score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Combat features no tactics, no magic, no items to use. Just "attack" and select your preferred foe from a menu. The "magic system," as such, is just the acquisition of some spell keywords that occasionally solve puzzles, but I only had to use one of these words once. (This is in contrast to the first game, where they were constantly required.) Score: 1.
The easy, boring combat system.
6. Equipment. I found a few upgrades throughout the game: leather to chain, chain to magic armor, sword to magic sword, and so forth. It just didn't feel like any of it did anything. Most of the items that burdened my inventory were quest items, and I found no use for a lot of them. Score: 2.

7. Economy. In contrast to the first game, there is none. The game keeps track of a "silver" statistic for each character for no reason. Score: 0.

8. Quests. Perhaps the strongest point. Each party has a clear set of main quests, an equal number of side quests, and even a few options about how to complete them. I enjoyed the side quests most because with them, I was exploring Middle Earth rather than just hitting a series of determined locations and plot points in a row. Score: 5.
9. Graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics aren't objectively bad, but I do think they fail to live up to the player's imagination of storied places like Helm's Deep and Minas Morgul. The failure to show so many things that the game tells you is also pretty stark. Sounds are mostly beeps and the occasional "oof" in combat.
The staircase to Cirith Ungol hardly seems hidden, tight, steep, or foreboding, especially with the silly "mountains" on either side.
There are aspects of the interface that work well. The size of the game window seems practically luxurious, and you have to wonder if Ultima VII took a lesson from this game or its precursor. The automap works pretty well. There are some nice touches like the star that appears next to the most recently-saved game when you go to load a game. I definitely appreciated the use of keyboard commands for most major actions, in addition to the buttons. Overall, the game would earn a high score in this category except for the encounter-triggering issue, which is both a graphical problem and an interface problem, and comes close to ruining the game on its own. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Vol. II is a bit more linear than Vol. I, but not compared to other games. I suspect that Frodo and Sam could have turned around in the last chapter, left the Morgul Vale, and walked all the way back to the Dead Marshes, cleaning up side quests along the way. The nonlinearity coupled with the side quests lend a certain replayability--in fact, I think the game would probably improve on a replay, with a better understanding of the pacing and terrain.
I found it far easier than its predecessor, as exemplified by the battle in which Frodo killed the vampire. I was supposed to solve that with a quest item. The game should have made combats harder and the healing system less erratic. Finally, it's also a bit too short, particularly with the action split among three parties. I suspect you could win in a speed run of just an hour or so. Maybe I'll try when I get some more free time. Score: 4.
That gives us a final score of 34, as I suspected quite a bit below Vol. I and even below my "recommended" threshold, though just barely. The engine was a bit better than the game itself, and was used in a superior way in the first title. This one seemed a bit rushed and perfunctory.
I did like some of the "instant deaths."
Computer Gaming World disagreed with me on the first game by largely hating it: reviewer Charles Ardai obsessed about divergences from the books and didn't even seem to notice the more revolutionary elements of the interface. He dismissed it as "not special enough to carry the Tolkien name." But in the October 1992 issue, reviewer Allen Greenberg gave a much more positive review of the sequel. In particular, he addressed the carping of people like Ardai by pointing out that Middle Earth had taken on a certain life of its own, and if we can forgive Tolkien himself for his many appendices and allusions, why complain about a few side-quests and side-characters in a game that's otherwise relatively faithful to the material?
Greenberg also offers a relatively nuanced discussion of the party-switching system, pointing out (correctly) that the very approach is revolutionary, and while Interplay might have refined the approach ("Interplay may wish to consider allowing the player at least a vote in the decision making process as to whether it is time to switch locations"), the innovative system offered a "depth of narrative which would not otherwise have been possible." Greenberg's comments led me to avoid subtracting points for this element despite complaining about it several times.

MobyGames catalog of reviews for the game has them averaging in the high 50s, which is pretty miserable. On the other hand, the lack of any seriously rabid fan base must have softened the blow when Vol. III was never released. A couple of years ago, Jimmy Maher published an excellent entry on what was happening with Interplay during this period. The summary is that the company was struggling as a developer/publisher, with Dragon Wars not having sold well in a crowded RPG market. Founder Brian Fargo managed to secure the rights the trilogy from Tolkien Enterprises, figuring that the Lord of the Rings name would make the games stand out among their competitors. 

Interplay was already in the midst of a new RPG called Secrets of the Magi that would feature a free-scrolling interface. Fargo pulled the team off that project and put them to work on Lord of the Rings. By the time the game was released, the company had been badly hurt by the collapse of Mediagenic, publisher of Interplay's Nintendo titles. Interplay rushed production to make the Christmas 1990 buying season. They ended up releasing the game with a lot of bugs and cut features (including an automap), missed the Christmas season anyway, and got lukewarm reviews.

The company was saved by the unexpected success of a strategy game called Castles. Now understanding that the Tolkien name alone didn't ensure success in sales, Vol. II was produced with a smaller staff. When it, too, got poor reviews, and when repackaging Vol. I on CD-ROM also failed to generate significant sales, there was no impetus to move on to Vol. III. Some sites claim that before it gave up on III, there had been plays to turn it into more of a strategy game. 

". . . no one."
Maher memorably concludes:
Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years.
Indeed, the next RPG we'll see from Interplay isn't until 1995 (Stonekeep), followed by two in 1997: Fallout and Descent to Undermountain. It's hard not to see a little of the Lord of the Rings interface in Fallout's: axonometric graphics, continuous movement, a large main game window, and commands hosted in a set of unobtrusive icons with keyboard backup. (Vol. II and Fallout even share at least one designer, Scott Bennie.) Fallout shares these characteristics with the Infinity Engine, which was developed by Bioware but with a close relationship with (and financing from) Interplay. I'm probably grasping at straws, but I look forward to exploring the engines' history more when we get to those games.

The Two Towers was the last attempt to make an official Middle Earth game until after the Peter Jackson film series, which spawned a host of new games that, like the films themselves, are controversial among fans. (We won't see another one until 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.) The 1990s were the only era in which Tolkien fans were likely to get an RPG that was technologically and graphically advanced enough to be fun, but not yet influenced ("tainted," as I'm sure some would have it) by the films. While the two Interplay titles have some promise and fun moments, it's too bad that they were the only attempts.


While we're wrapping things up, I think I might be ready to throw in the towel on The Seventh Link. I hate to do it, particularly when I know the developer is reading, but I can't seem to force myself to map and explore all the large dungeon levels. I'll chew on it for another couple days while I get started with Star Control II.