Saturday, October 19, 2019

Game 341: Shape Shifter (1992)

          
Shape Shifter
United States
Independently developed and released as shareware
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 17 October 2019
Date Finished: 18 October 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 17
Ranking at time of posting: 61/343 (18%)

Some years ago, I modified my rules to allow myself to reject independent games "if they are clearly amateur efforts with no innovations or accolades attached to them." I have never invoked the rule. The problem with the rule is that it almost seems like there's at least one innovation to explore. It's only after several hours, when you've committed to the game (or else you'll have nothing else to publish), that you realize that you've been hoodwinked.

In the case of Shape Shifter, the element that sucked me in was right there in the title. You play a non-human character who can polymorph from a tiger to a snake to a mouse. The tiger, we learn, is strong and good at combat, but also slow and obvious, thus inviting more encounters. The snake avoids most combat, the mouse almost all of it. I figured the game would feature some interesting puzzles and encounters that relied on the ability to shape-shift.
            
The game opens with the player as a tiger.
           
The manual establishes the land as Vor Terra. Creatures of Chaos are invading the world via a rift in the space-time continuum. To face the threat, Lord Drelx Axtvqar created the Absomal Fxile, a council of the most intelligent (which, ironically, the manual repeatedly spells as "intellegent") creatures in the land. The Absomal Fxile sequestered itself in an impenetrable palace. "It is the goal of every living creature," the manual offers, "to one day join rule with the Absomal Fxile," whatever that means. To gain access to the palace, the character will need to significantly increase his knowledge and solve a variety of puzzles.
              
I explore another part of the world as a snake.
         
Character creation asks only for a name, after which the character begins in tiger form. Statistics are strength, knowledge, speed, and health. The numbers redistribute every time you change forms; for instance, the starting character has 55 strength and 25 speed as a tiger, 25 strength and 45 speed as a snake, and 20 strength and 55 speed as a mouse.
       
Checking my statistics on a city street.
           
As you explore the land, random encounters mess with your statistics. Angry gnats, chill winds, and snare traps sap your health. A "horrible darkness" decreases health and knowledge. The goddess Sona Luna might suddenly decide to increase your health and knowledge, or "friendly wicker people" might give you a boost to strength, speed, and knowledge. Two of the cities have temples to gods who alternately boost and decimate your statistics.
            
A random event costs some health.
           
There are also combat encounters, and here the developer shows something of Chuck Dougherty's (Questron) inventiveness with monster names--if Dougherty had endeavored to make them all unpronounceable. You face off against Illio Mucks, Nubliagg Frimuth Teroptts, MetzoBraums, Altzo Mafts, and Thraxiax Runners, among others. You and they do an amount of damage determined by your speed and strength. You get "credits" with every victory.
          
Combat is a rote exchange of blows with weird creatures.
         
The game takes place on 9 adventure screens arranged 3 x 3. The palace is in the far northwest. There are five other cities and towns to enter, each consisting of a single street of structures. Some of them are random buildings that you can search and talk to the residents. Others are more classic RPG facilities like taverns, healers, temples, and shops selling potions that temporarily increase strength and speed. There are no explicit weapons or armor in the game.

An all-keyboard interface works reasonably well, with arrows for movement and the occasional use of easy-to-remember commands like (E)nter, (I)nventory, and (U)se. The screen shows your available options in special circumstances.
                 
Getting a clue from a tavern patron.
             
So far, none of this sounds too bad, but the game simply doesn't add up to anything interesting or enjoyable. The world is extremely small, and you can explore the 9 screens and 5 cities and towns in significantly less than an hour. There are no puzzles in these locations. You have to acquire an inventory of artifact items, but you simply find them on your first search of the houses in which they're secreted. (And in a bit of amateur programming, you keep finding them every time you search the houses, even if they're already in your inventory.) There are also clues to find, but you get them by simply hitting T)alk in obvious locations.
             
A magical ring just laying about in an abandoned house.
             
Worse, there's really no reason to use the titular shape-shifting ability. No puzzle or encounter requires you to be a particular animal. (I think there's one tavern where they don't talk to snakes, but that's it.) You might want to swap out of tiger form to avoid combat, but combat is how you earn money, and as long as you replenish hit points by paying for healing, combat isn't all that dangerous.

Over the course of the game, you learn that a key artifact--the Crystal Heart--is in a tower in the southwest part of the map. To enter the tower, you need three keys. Two of them are found in deterministic locations in cities, but the third appears as part of a random encounter in the wilderness, meaning you have to wander around until you get it. By then, you've probably assembled most of the other items and clues you need to solve the encounters in the palace. 
         
Only one thing to do in the "tower."
        
You encounter one odd issue in that once you achieve a certain speed threshold--around 25--you successfully avoid all encounters. The problem is that a few key items and clues only appear with random encounters, so you can character-develop yourself out of victory unless you get lucky and pray to a god who takes umbrage and busts you back below the speed threshold.
                  
One of the keys needed for the tower only appears as a random encounter.
        
The hardest part of the game is finding the Fire Lizard's Bladder that you need to--uck--eat to immunize yourself to a poison mist that surrounds the palace. It only shows up in random encounters, possibly after a certain knowledge threshold, and I began to despair that I would ever find it. I finally got it after wandering and fighting for about an hour.

Part of the endgame sequence involves dealing with Earth Demons . . . 

. . . and crossing a "Rainbow Bridge."
              
The endgame takes place at the palace, where you have to use all your artifacts in sequence. You eat the bladder to escape the mists. You use the "silk wings" to get over the wall. You use the Ring of Flame to destroy some Earth Demons. You use an Amulet of Knowledge to safely cross a Rainbow Bridge. You appease a guardian by giving him the Crystal Heart. Finally, you speak five words of entrance at the door to the Absomal Fxile. All of these solutions are provided in very straightforward clues throughout the game.

It would be easy to make a typo on this final screen.
        
The final message tells you that you have achieved the honor of joining the Absomal Fxile, "the most prestigious council in the land." A final victory screen precedes the DOS prompt.
            
I can't decide if it sounds more like a weapon or a tumor.
            
With 1s and 2s across the board, Shape Shifter earns a 17 on the GIMLET. It's ultimately too trite and unchallenging, and it fails to live up to the promise of its premise. 

The game's author was Jeffrey P. Kintz of Waukegan, Illinois. (He goes by "J. Kintz" in all the documentation.) A 1999 biography indicates that Kintz was 19 when he wrote Shifter. He claims his primary inspirations as the Ultima series, Moebius (1985), and the adventure game Below the Root (1984), although it's hard to see the influence of any of them in his own work.

Shifter was his second game; his first was a horror-themed adventure game called Dismal Passages (1992) in which a protagonist tries to avenge his family's death by tracking down a wraith. Over the subsequent decade, he would churn out half a dozen games, including The Dark Convergence (1993) and its sequel (1994), Elkinloor (1995), a 1995 remake of Dismal Passages, Vor Terra (1996), Borderworld (1996), The Darkest Night (1997), Savage Future (1999), and Lost Infinity Part 1: Roquan's Farewell (2001). All of them except Vor Terra seem to be adventure games, although some of them are set in the same world as Shape Shifter. Enough feature non-human protagonists that it seems to have been something of a thing with Kintz, and in his bio he brags about the appearance of several of his games in a "Furry Video Game Database."
        
A shot from Dismal Passages, which appears to have no character creation.
           
He sometimes published under the label of Aries Software and sometimes Midlothian Software. Although there are signs that his games do get better, Kintz strikes me as one of those Ed-Woodish creators (see this entry for more on Wood and developers I associate with him) whose enthusiasm for making games far surpasses his skill. I tried to see what he's been up to in the last couple decades, but my search led me down some weird paths perhaps best left undiscussed in case I accidentally picked up the trail of the wrong Jeff Kintz.

Apparently, registering Shifter got players a free copy of a sequel called The Sun Demon in which the character faced the origin of the Creatures of Chaos. I was unable to find an extant copy.

If nothing else, an independent one-and-done is a good way to build some momentum after a long break. We'll continue with Fantasyland 2041 soon. For those of you wondering about The Magic Candle III, for some reason I was unable to muster any enthusiasm when I fired it up the other day. I figured I'd best table it for a while longer and play a few games that intrigue me more.

36 comments:

  1. How long does it take to bash out one of these one-and-done posts, incl research?

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    1. Generally speaking, it takes me about as long to write the entry, including research, as it does to play the game. So double my playing time and you have my total blogging time.

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  2. Oh, hey, this guy. I remember finding out about him when he apparently released all his old games into the wild for free. The Sun Demon probably doesn't exist if it isn't around anywhere. The Dark Convergence wasn't bad. Probably one of the better shareware adventure games, but that is not a high mark. Never played any of the others, they always sounded weird to me. I think I made the right choice.
    Oh, and trust me, you'll begin to invoke that indie rule around four years from now. Some guy programming in own game from scratch is much more noteworthy, especially when gaming engines like RPG Maker and OHRRPGCE show up, although there are some interesting titles for those engines.

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    1. RPG Maker is certainly going to become an interesting question, especially since I got the impression that Chet doesn't like the generic JRPG all too much, with its reliance on mostly random encounter grind and fixed cutscene-style dialogues with no player input.

      Personally, I don't like those either, so I won't be too sad if the majority of RPG Maker titles were to be skipped.

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    2. Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily have a problem with RPG Maker (and the other kind of engines) titles. They're great if you suck at coding and still want to try your hand at game-making. Its also the problem with it, but I'm trying to be nice. Some of them are very nice. I even like a few that probably qualify as generic JRPG garbage. But I won't be disappointed if Chet reaches, I dunno what's the first that will show up, Abaddon (1998)? And says he's done with them. When RPG Maker shows up the amount of RPGs freaking skyrocket, probably to hundreds, if not thousands a year. I think something like that to someone who isn't going out to play every RPG Maker game ever made is going to wear on someone's sanity.

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    3. Very few RPG maker games get to anything approaching "release", and the franchise was Japanese-only (albeit fan-translated) for a long time. Both of these would go a long way toward reducing the cruft.

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    4. Along with all the Final Fantasy-alikes, there's quite a few that are experimental enough to be worth playing. "It's Our Revolution" is a good one; you get hundreds of party members, each of which has an individual sprite following you in a big conga line that wraps all over the map.

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    5. I think you're either being naive or overly optimistic when you say very few get to release. Assuming you're talking about "RPG Maker games that are on the internet" as opposed to "all games made with RPG Maker". Its hard to tell how many of them are around and there's no central database for them. Old RPG Maker games are a bit like obscure TRS-80 titles at times. It also isn't like "release" is necessarily a problem, since the most famous RPG Maker game was never finished.
      Plus, there are a lot of Japanese games that get translated. And if I'm not mistaken there are many tools dedicated to playing Japanese-only games in other languages.

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    6. Wait, what's the "most famous RPG maker game"? I can think of a number of popular games, but none of them seem obviously unfinished. Maybe you mean Yume Nikki? I could easily believe that that one wasn't done.

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    7. Yume Nikki is supposed to be surreal, mysterious and unexplained. It has plenty of unique events, few (if any) major bugs, and an ending that can be obtained. What would a "finished" Yume Nikki look like, if the current version isn't it?

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    8. Yes, Yume Nikki is supposed to be mysterious, but given how its last released version is 0.10, its obvious that in its current state it isn't the original vision of what it was supposed to be. Chances are the "finished" version would've been less mysterious than it is now. I don't really have any base to support that suggestion beyond the spin-offs, the author having released previous betas of the game and a general suspicion.

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    9. Yeah, some old RPG Maker games are indeed really obscure and hard to find. There was this weird German game parodying the Phantasy Star series I played for a while. But that was in the early 2000s and after changing my computer later the game was lost together with the harddrive it was on.

      Nowadays trying to search for it turned into a fool's errand. Never found it again.

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  3. I guess Chet has a lot on his plate. I found MC3 easy to get into, but that was playing it back to back after 1 and 2.
    Thanks always for all your entries here Mr Addict.

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    1. I don't think it's MC3 specifically. I just think I'm stuck in that annoying place where it's been too long since I started to remember what's happening but to short a time to justify starting over completely.

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    2. I had a friend who recently observed that more games need an "over 30" mode that gives you a helpful summary of what's happened so far, what you're supposed to do next, who's who, and how to play the game. I'm frequently in the position of going a month or more between sessions with a game if it's especially time-demanding. I don't want to restart because the problem will just crop up a month later, but my memory is usually so fuzzy.

      (Obviously somewhat tongue in cheek, but only somewhat.)

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  4. Ha haa, furries. Not to say you're a fogey Chet, but the furry community is generally something younger Internet users are aware of or participate in. It's unusual to see a product labelling itself "furry" this far in the past.

    This discussion could very quickly turn NSFW so I'll leave this comment at your mercy, but if the Jeffrey Kintz you found is the kind of weird I'm thinking of, you may be right on the money.

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    1. I mean, if he's *proud* of his games appearing in a furry game list... yeah, I can imagine what kind of weird he is.

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    2. There was actually an old series of Flash games I liked, Drakojan Skies. The furry aesthetic flew right over my head, I thought it was just a cool game about fighter jets and dragons. Also inspired a lifelong love of metal music. \m/ :P

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    3. I may actually remember that. Dragons vs airplanes and a metal soundtrack sounds familiar. One of the many flash games I played in the mid 00s, back when those things were big. Always saw flash games as short wastes of time compared to the real games you'd install from a CD, but nowadays I think those little games should also be preserved since they are an interesting part of mid 00s internet culture.

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    4. I agree about preserving them, especially since Flash is dying out and it's getting more and more difficult to play the oldest Flash games anymore.

      When I was little in the early to mid-2000s and didn't have a lot of money for games (or in general) I spent a LOT of time playing Flash games at the public library, so some of the best ones have a special place in my heart. God bless you Texas library admins for never changing the password from "password."

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    5. I think there are quite a few archives of flash games around, although I don't think I should link any of them because they usually contain...sultry content.
      Because of the nature of having your games in a single, easily spread file a lot of games are probably spread further than we think. Combine that with standalone Flash players and you can play all those crummy little classics right from your own hard drive.

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  5. It's another one of those odd coincidences that there's a 1992 TurboGrafx-CD game with the same title. Totally different game, of course, beyond the shared mechanic of turning into animals.

    I'm struggling to think of any major RPGs where "animorphing" is a major aspect of its quest design, aside from innate Druid abilities in certain D&D games. Lands of Lore 2, perhaps?

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    1. Shadowcaster by Origin Systems (1993) has some *VERY* light RPG elements, and shape shifting is heavily involved in gameplay.

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    2. Blind Justice (1995), where you're a genetic experiment who can shapeshift. I assume that's the case, I had the demo on a shareware compilation and it never loaded for me.
      Shadowcaster is a neat game too, but its more of an action-adventure game that gets thrown into the RPG/FPS genre because of the company it came from.

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    3. IIRC, a few Infinity Engine games had polymorph scrolls and spells. No idea how important it ends up being.

      Nethack (and derivatives/forks, I imagine) feature polymorphing as yet another hugely detailed subset of the game mechanics. But since it's Nethack that's probably a given.

      Diablo featured shapeshifting starting with the Druid character in Lord of Destruction.

      And of course, in Akalabeth, you can turn into a lizard man... over and over and over...

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    4. There's a major cheese in at least Baldur's Gate 2 that can happen with polymorphing. (Follows the rules exactly, it's just one of those random OP things.)

      Spoiler-y enough that'll I'll rot13, although this doesn't give details to the set-up: zvaq synlre pna xvyy ol qenvavat vagryyvtrapr engure guna uvg cbvagf, znxvat fbzr abeznyyl uneq svtugf gevivny

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    5. The Gothic games have polymorph scrolls, and maybe Risen too if I remember correctly (been a while since I played the Risen games so I'm not 100% sure). I think there were even some small passages you could only get through by turning yourself into a bug.

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    6. Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap is one of the best early ARPGs, and features enjoyable shapeshifting.

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  6. Well, Elder Scrolls games typically give you the option of playing a werewolf. And in World of Warcraft, druids can change into various animal forms (also at one time a tree form, though I think that is obsolete).

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  7. "for instance, the starting character has 55 strength and 25 speed as a tiger,
    [...]
    You encounter one odd issue in that once you achieve a certain speed threshold--around 25--you successfully avoid all encounters."

    Guessing there's a typo there.

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    1. Yeah, I guess I underestimated the "no encounter" threshold. It's more like 35. It's very easy to hit, which is the bigger point.

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  8. By the end of the decade, games like this would be made in Flash and uploaded to Newgrounds. I think even shoddy (but playable) RPGs made from scratch are worth hearing about -- I'm glad for this article, for instance -- but eventually you'll run into the ocean of barely-playable garbage created by teenagers with point-and-click authoring tools.

    I think the best bet for the RPG Maker/Game Maker/Flash era (which is still probably multiple years of blogging away) is to preemptively enforce your notability rule on those games unless you have readers who can recommend examples that are novel/interesting/fun.

    By the mid to late 2000s, you start to see these web-based games actually get some critical attention, often resulting in legitimate careers for the people who worked on them (Ed McMillen and Terry Cavanagh come to mind). But no RPGs come to mind from that movement. Actually, most of the web-based games that count as RPGs I can bring to mind are MMOs, therefore outside your scope.

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  9. I don't really agree with your Ed Wood comparison. People often forget he was a "professional" director. There were Hollywood actors in his movies, he had official distribution in movie theater s.

    In the gaming world, there used to be a clear line between amateur freeware games a professional commercial titles. Digital distribution changed everything and line started to blur in this decade. In my opinion, it doesn't seem fair to judge these games like they were released on steam or some online store. Back then, indie developers used to make games just for fun

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  10. I'm slightly surprised to see what's arguably a furry game here, especially one from the early 90s... although it does make me wonder how many other games on the list touch on similar corners of the internet

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  11. That line wasn't actually totally clear even in the early 1990s. Many indie games were sold via mail order or Shareware, as this title was, so to assume the authors intent was merely for fun and not profits seems premature. BBS, Mail Order, and Shareware compilations were like the digital distribution of their day (many major franchises got their start in similar ways).

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