Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Seventh Link: Summary and Rating

The game manual featured some fairly modest hand-drawn art.
           
The Seventh Link
Canada
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%)
      
Summary:

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.

21 comments:

  1. I don't blame you for shelving this one.

    I've been trying to find a copy of the hint guide but no success so far... Actual copies of the game are incredibly rare too.

    I have also looked at the game disks in a hex editor to see if I could figure out where the dungeon maps are and decode them. Even compressed, map data would have a certain "look" to it.

    The data on the dungeon disk is broken up into segments 66 bytes long (22 x 3) with two different 2 byte footers. Unfortunately, the content of those segments just doesn't look varied enough, based on the map of the dungeon level you provided.

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  2. While I like it when you grind out a game, I don't think another 30(?) hours of this is going to be worthwhile.

    As you suggest, for a CoCo owner, this game may well have been the pinnacle, but for this blog it's too much of a featureless plateau.

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  3. Visiting another planet might have been a possible intermediate goal without finishing the game. But without knowing how long that takes, and the possibility that it's just more of the same - wrapping up now is the right decision.

    I see your random selection process added an Ultima clone to the end of the upcoming list. Let's hope it's shorter :)

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  4. Whew... persistence is good, but I agree with everyone else. At some point you have to keep moving.

    You are right on the Bard's Tale effect. I mainly played Ultima, The Magic Candle, and Starflight, along with Wizardy and Phantasie on a friend's computer. After the others, The Bard's Tale became pretty boring quickly. I finally used a character editor and cheat book to win the game so I could see the ending. It was not worth battling through endless dungeon levels and I never even loaded up the sequels.

    I did completely miss out on Might and Magic... will have to go back and try that one some day.

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  5. Darkwood will be a single entry and take 3 hours to win, if that, I suspect.

    I played it in 'computer club' at primary school. It wasn't on any of the handful of computers at my 140-kid school, but was installed in the mac lab at the nearby highschool we'd visit.

    One of my friends wrote a more tactically punishing version of the 'Darkwood' genre for his capstone IT project at university.

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  6. Enderal is one of the most depressingly fantastic games I've played, a total conversion mod for Skyrim that is essentially an entirely new professionally-developed game. I enjoyed it a great deal, and recommend it to anyone who liked Skyrim. Funny to find it cropping up in a case like this one!

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    1. I'd even say Enderal is much, much better than Skyrim itself since it has more environmental variety, more interesting quests, far superior dungeon design, more interesting exploration (some secrets to find that have no quest marker attached to them!), and much more.

      Same with Nehrim, the previous total conversion mod the team made for Oblivion. That was also far, far better than Oblivion itself.

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  7. After spending a year fruitlessly trying to find the original hint guide, I got an urge to go hex editor diving again while I was snowed in.

    I contacted Jeff and we have found the town maps! I'm working on reconstructing them now.

    The next phase will be the dungeon maps, which will hopefully provide anyone who wants to play the game to completion an easier path.

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    Replies
    1. I might give it another try if you're able to put it together.

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    2. Well I have now both dungeon AND town maps. :) I'll set them up on a link here in the next week or so. I want to consolidate information on every town and more or less provide a complete hint guide to anyone wanting to play and complete the game.

      Once I found the towns and got the RLE encoding figured out it wasn't too hard to decode them. I had to hack the world disk to make a dungeon entrance go to various other dungeons to figure out what certain tiles were, in order to avoid having to go down 14 levels to find out. There's some anomalous ones, like monsters that are just "statues" in places.

      Jeff wasn't even certain the game was winnable, actually. There were letters in Rainbow magazine complaining that the last energy pack couldn't be found. I'm happy to say I confirmed that all seven energy packs DO exist, and there are enough charging units for all of them as well. That said, the dungeons are BRUTAL. Jeff was like "Wow... I must have HATED my players" when I showed him the maps.

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    3. Thanks again for driving this, Adam. It's been really fun to look at all these old maps again.
      -Jeff

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  8. http://crpg.adamantyr.com/misc/Seventh-Link-Hint-Guide.zip

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    Replies
    1. Oh, my word--those dungeons. More than 30 screens per dungeon? That's crazy. I'd still be playing it now if I'd kept going.

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    2. Yeah, the average dungeon level is 22x22. Makes Ultima III look like a cakewalk.

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    3. I take it that means you won't be giving it another try? ;)

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    4. It seems unlikely. You know, this would be a great topic for a guest post.

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    5. My primary obsession with this one was getting the maps and content out there. As for playing the game, I hacked the save file to give myself 16K food and Elira. ;)

      Money, as far as I can see, is the real bottleneck in the game. Chests only give you 11-44 Elira (curiously always in a multiple of 11). Poison, while not as instantly lethal as old Ultima, is still a major pain. You can buy Rods of Curing for 400 Elira, which is 100 cheaper than a healer, but they are one use and burn an inventory slot.

      The attribute potions are 1K apiece, and if you have your full party of six characters, you could spend a LONG time trying to get attributes raised. I don't think you really need to though; I hacked all my attributes to 50 for my character and the effect on actual gameplay seems minimal. I was playing a fighter though so no idea how that impacted magic use.

      Once you level up a certain amount, monsters everywhere scale up. At level 11 (which I achieved with no cheating at all) I was getting attacked by Lich Captains, Gorgons, and Evil Knights who do 50hp of damage per hit even with Reflect Armor protecting you. This is where unlike Ultima you actually benefit a bit from the leveling system being in guilds and optional; you can keep your guys all around level 5 until you've gotten the equipment to deal with encounters. Levels are mainly just a reflection of total HP.

      With dungeon maps, a concerted effort to deep-dive dungeons with energy packs and get them out seems the best tactic. Once you have six packs then you deep-dive again to recharging stations. (The seventh energy pack is RIGHT near a recharging station so may as well get that done right then.)

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    6. One thing that IS possible is to change the cost of some items.

      1K Elir for a potion that raises an attribute 1 point is pretty excessive, but if they were 100 Elir each, that may go far in balancing the game.

      The code for healing services and buying ships is, regrettably, baked into source code somewhere and not easily alterable.

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  9. Hi Chet,
    I saw the article about you in PCGamer, and came wandering back and noticed you'd added some more data on Link. To answer your question: no, the towns didn't have names, with the exception of Castle Thoro. (The original notion was that Thoro was the landed colonization ship...).
    There actually is a primitive auto-map feature: equip a "gem o' seeing" in dungeons, and you'll get a top-down map of the nearby area in the unused bottom-left portion of the screen. If you use a gem in a town, you'll get a map of the whole town overlaid on the inventory screen that goes away when you press a key, and consumes the gem. As Adam pointed out, I apparently hated my players :-). Not sure if I expected people to take a polaroid of the screen, or what.

    BTW and FWIW I think your rating is pretty fair, and perhaps more than link deserved. I didn't know a thing about game design back then, and that is reflected in the paper-thin NPC interactions, variety of items, etc. I still feel a vague urge to apologize to the players about how bad it was from that point of view...
    I'm still proud of the 3D dungeons, though :-). Getting a 1.9 MHz 6809 CPU to do that at ~ 1 Hz was a lot of effort.

    Take care, and have a great 2021.

    -Jeff

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jeff. I'm glad you weren't disappointed with my coverage. The gems don't sound familiar, so I either never found any or never noticed them. It certainly wouldn't have been above me to take a save state, view the gem, take a screenshot, and reload.

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  10. Oh, and FWIW, I wouldn't suggest going back to Link. The other planets are more of the same, really, and the end-game experience is, um, underwhelming shall we say.

    -Jeff

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