Friday, January 31, 2020

Paragon of Suffering: An Interview with F.J. Lennon

The first attempt at a history of a troubled company.
Our tour through the games developed and published by Paragon software has included some highly-original (if not highly-rated) titles, including Alien Fires: 2199 A.D. (1987), Wizard Wars (1988), MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy (1990), Space 1889 (1990), MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients (1991), Twilight: 2000 (1991), and most recently Challenge of the Five Realms (1992), developed as Paragon was being purchased by MicroProse. Very little has been written about the history of Paragon, so I spoke to co-founder and game designer F. J. Lennon to get to the bottom of the many questions that were generated during my experience with this series. In addition, I bought and read Lennon's business book, Every Mistake in the Book: A Business How-NOT-To (2001), which informed my coverage below.

Paragon Software began in 1986 in a St. Vincent College dorm room in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, co-founded by Mark Seremet, Antony Davies, and Francis Joseph Lennon III, who has always gone by his initials, "F. J." The students originally started the company to make accounting software, and they released at least one title for the Commodore 128. (Davies was gone before the first title hit the shelves.) But the entrepreneurs behind the company were also fond of playing Karate Champ at their local pizza parlor, and they began to discuss how they could bring such a game to the microcomputer. The result was Master Ninja: Shadow Warrior of Death (1986) for the Amiga and Commodore 64. 

(MobyGames lists a contemporary title from the company as Gemini-2 from 1986, but this was developed by an independent Mississippi developer who also briefly used the name "Paragon Software." The companies are unconnected.)  

The Paragon principals were exhibiting Master Ninja at the 1987 Computer Electronics Show in Chicago when Jeff Simpson and Sky Matthews wandered up. The pair had created Alien Fires: 2199 A.D. for the Amiga and were looking for a publisher. "I don't know if there was much of a game there," Lennon recalls, "But it was dazzling to look at. Breathtaking." (Recall from my coverage that the game had digitized sound, highly original graphics, and incremental movement.) Simpson and Matthews, who were about the same age as their Paragon counterparts, struck up a fast friendship and soon the developers had a publishing deal.
I will always remember Alien Fires for Mangle-Tangle (or was it Mango-Tango?), the pipe-smoking kangaroo/rabbit/horse.
1988 saw Paragon produce two text adventures--Guardians of Infinity: To Save Kennedy and Twilight's Ransom. (The latter was notably set in "Liberty City," which would of course be the setting for a later Grand Theft Auto title.) The same year, Mark Seremet and Christopher Straka designed Wizard Wars. (Straka, a martial arts expert, had been hired to perform karate moves as a reference for the Karate Champ animators. Afterwards, according to Lennon, "he just hung around and worked his way into a design role." Two years later, he and Thomas Holmes staged a "mutiny" and left Paragon to form Event Horizon, later DreamForge.) I mentioned to Lennon how terrible I thought Wizard Wars was, and he conceded that while Seremet was "a really great programmer, he was never much of a creative." Lennon himself was "never a coder," and thus fell into a more natural role as the top-level designer, writer, and team-leader.


In his book, Lennon characterizes these early years unromantically. Paragon was constantly living hand-to-mouth, maxing out its lines of credit, shucking and jiving its investors, running on outdated PCs, at first cramped in an apartment, then subjected to a flood and a burglary when they finally got their own offices, with no clear delineation of responsibilities and few explicit goals and timelines. Guardians of Infinity was a horrible disaster, selling fewer than 1,000 copies; Lennon admits that he wrote the game for himself rather than responding to what the market clearly wanted.
The company might not have lasted long if it had not received a license to create PC games based on Marvel Comics properties. I had long wondered how Paragon, a company with a spotty history of not that many titles, had come to acquire such a valuable property. "It was as simple as walking in and asking them," Lennon said. "No one had gotten there first." (In his book, Lennon also confesses to possessing a certain bravado that led to publishing deals that the company should not otherwise been able to achieve.) Their deal with Marvel led to X-Men (1989), The Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America in Dr. Doom's Revenge! (1989), The Punisher (1990), The Amazing Spider-Man (1990), and X-Men II: The Fall of the Mutants (1991).
Paragon's action/adventure titles based on Marvel properties used an interface similar to the later GDW-based RPGs.
The round of press following the acquisition of the license put Paragon on the map. MicroProse, not too far away in Maryland, called about a distribution deal. More important for our purposes, at the 1989 Gen Con convention, they were approached by Marc Miller of Game Designers' Workshop about developing the GDW properties into games. "I hit it off with Marc Miller pretty quickly," Lennon recalls. Both men had a proficiency for story-telling and world-building. 

I asked about the pace of development--four major RPGs in two years, while half the company was working on the Marvel properties. To my surprise, it turned out that the pace had nothing to do with GDW. Instead, MicroProse set the timetable. "They would tell us that we needed one adventure game and two RPGs by Christmas," Lennon offered as an example. Until speaking to Lennon, I didn't realize how much control the publisher had over the development schedule. I guess I rather assumed that the developers worked at whatever pace they wanted until the game was ready for a box and a manual. I couldn't have been more wrong; publishers had the power to break developers. "Everything had to be done by Christmas or you were dead."

The GDW Titles

Paragon's first title under the Game Designers' Workshop deal was MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy (1990). Reviews of the game were actually mixed (British Amiga magazines loved it), but Lennon recalls them universally negative. "We got skewered. We were lucky we rebounded from that." He remembers the real-time combat being a particular point of contention for fans of the tabletop game. He recalls Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson, who could "make or break your game," and who Lennon actually consulted with in his next attempt at a GDW title, Space 1889.
I didn't like much about MegaTraveller 1, but it had an excellent character creation system.
I summarized my own feelings about the titles and their common lack of character development. I had thought that was perhaps a limitation of their source material--the GDW rules--but Lennon recalls that GDW didn't put much pressure on the team. "Marc Miller recognized that PNP RPGs were not the same as computer RPGs," Lennon says. He adds that even Marvel didn't really insist on much input in content and mechanics. "Stan Lee was involved and really interested in the potential of computer games. If he liked something, that's all you really had to worry about."

Lennon attributes my complaint more to Paragon's lack of experience with traditional RPGs. "I don't know that we really understood the leveling-up process in tabletop games," he says. "We probably didn't understand that concept well enough." Lennon's own experience with computer RPGs was limited to the Ultima titles, which themselves lack strong character-development systems for all their world-building prowess.
Space: 1889 had an interesting quasi-steampunk theme, but it was far more an adventure game than an RPG.
In our discussions, Lennon pointed out something that I probably under-emphasized in my own reviews of the GDW games (and perhaps to some extent, Challenge of the Five Realms): they were designed to flexibly swap out characters. In both the MegaTraveller games and Twilight: 2000, you could have a lot more characters in stasis than were active in the party. Players were supposed to regard the beginning of each mission as a puzzle for which they assembled the right team with the right skills. I agree that I didn't really think about playing the game that way.
Twilight: 2000 let you create 20 characters, so even without "character development," every skill ought to have someone with a high number.
In my unkind review of MegaTraveller 2, I wrote:
MegaTraveller 2 is not a good RPG. It fails in every aspect of RPG mechanics, including character development, combat, and equipment. The story isn't even really that good. Its world-building is minimal. Although you encounter about a dozen races in the game, there's no real characterization attached to them. And yet this bad sequel to a bad game manages to offer something that no other RPG has offered in the chronology: a truly open world with nonlinear gameplay and dozens of side quests. I would really like to know who on the team insisted on that. He should have been working for a better company.
It turns out that person was Lennon himself. "I remember losing that entire summer," he recalls of the sequel. "I wrote every line of that dialogue. There were over one thousand NPCs. I probably had two or three thousand pages of documentation and script." He agreed with me that Challenge of the Five Realms had more dialogue and text, but he points out he had a much larger team to assist by then, including Laura Kampo, who became (and still is) Lennon's wife.
MegaTraveller 2 gave us a large galaxy to explore, with plenty of side-quests, NPCs, and intrigue.
The End

Lennon recalls that the company's games sold well, but never as well as the companies at the top of the industry, like SSI. GDW, one of its principal partners, "never seemed to be financially healthy." Their GDW and Marvel licenses expired in 1992. With things looking a bit bleak, Paragon's owners accepted MicroProse's offer to acquire the company.
Challenge of the Five Realms showed what the Paragon team could do without any licensing restrictions.
Paragon remained mostly intact as a studio within MicroProse and developed Challenge of the Five Realms in 1992 and BloodNet in 1993. GDW's Miller joined the team to help create Challenge. Lennon remains particularly proud of that game. But it was a bad time to be owned by MicroProse. The company was in serious debt from a failed venture into coin-operated games and from general mismanagement. After a couple of years, Lennon says, the old Paragon team "saw the writing on the wall."

"We went to [the MicroProse management] and said, 'we want our studio back.'" Given the parent company's straits, "They basically gave it back for a ham sandwich as long as we agreed to take on the liability, too." Having acquired their freedom but no assets, the team readily entered into a partnership with entrepreneur Ryan Brant to form Take Two Interactive, which of course is still going strong.
MicroProse jumped the gun on this ad.
Lennon himself stayed at Take Two only about two years. He wrote and directed Star Crusader (1994), co-produced Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller (1994), and co-wrote the screenplay for Ripper (1996). These latter two games were at the forefront of a 1990s trend for real-life cinematics, with high-profile actors, in an adventure game setting. Hell included Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones, and Ripper featured Christopher Walken, Burgess Meredith, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, and Paul Giamatti among many others.
But he was almost immediately unhappy. "They were a criminal, criminal organization," he says, referring to Brant's near prison-sentence over stock manipulation a few years later. "I knew if I stayed there," he told me, "I would likely end up in jail." He had harsh words for Brant (who died last year at age 47) in his book:
I now found myself working for a boy--not an immature man or a short guy prone to tantrums, but literally a guy who was barely old enough to drink a beer, a whelp playing office with his trust fund. Worst of all, he was a sinister little manipulator, a true Machiavelli of multimedia . . . As this man-child played business tycoon, I found it impossible to mask my disgust . . . Soon I was living in his doghouse while many others around me were happily residing in his ass [p. 8].
Success has followed most of the Paragon staff. Lennon's wife, Laura Kampo, left Take Two about the same time he did and became a vice president at Disney Interactive. Mark Seremet stayed at Take two for a few other titles (notably 1998's Black Dahlia, starring Dennis Hopper and Teri Garr) and then became the COO and CEO of a series of companies, including Zoo Games (2007-2013), indiePub (2013), and Apostrophe Apps (2015-present). Even Antony Davies, who left the company before its first game was released, became a prestigious economist.
F. J. Lennon (from LinkedIn)
After leaving Take Two, Lennon took at turn towards more children's-oriented "edutainment." He wrote Marvel Comics Spider Man: The Sinister Six (1996) and Spider-Man: Venom Factor (1996) for Byron Preiss Multimedia, consulted with Disney Interactive Studios on some interactive storybooks and online games, and consulted on Sesame Street games for Realtime Associates. He calls "the best game I ever worked on" one that was never released: a noir adventure game called To Die For that used the voice and likeness of Humphrey Bogart. Unfortunately, Engineering Animation, Inc. went out of business before the title saw distribution.

In 2009, Lennon wrote an iPhone game called Soul Trapper: Episode 1 - Ollie Ollie Oxen Free! for Realtime Associates--an "audio adventure that draws from the history of radio mystery dramas and the nostalgia of choose-your-own adventure games" (MobyGames). A few years later, Lennon took the main character from the title, Kane Price, and built a novel trilogy around him. Soul Trapper and Devil's Gate have already been released. Recently, Lennon has been working on educational games for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Although not tied to any specific genre or audience, he has no plans to leave the field any time soon: "One way or another, I'm always going to be in games."

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Dungeons of Avalon II: Summary and Rating

This door brings our explorations to a finish.

Dungeons of Avalon II: Island of Darkness
Zeret (developer); published by CompuTec Verlag (German) and Amiga Mania (English)
Released in 1992 for the Amiga
Date Started: 7 January 2020
Date Ended: 26 January 2020
Total Hours: 29
Difficulty: Average (3/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at time of posting: 199/360 (55%)
Dungeons of Avalon II plays exactly like its predecessor: a multi-leveled dungeon crawler that looks like Dungeon Master but plays more like something of the Wizardry lineage. In a vague quest to investigate the evil that has taken over the city of Isla, a six-character party (drawn from a variety of common class types) explores nine 32 x 32 dungeon levels, contending with fixed encounters, spinners, locked doors, teleporters, switches, pressure plates, and other staples of RPG dungeon navigation. For a diskmag game, Dungeons of Avalon II is slick, with commercial-quality combat and a unique graphical style. But it goes on too long, past its level caps, and the tightly-controlled, linear nature of exploration leaves plenty of occasions for "walking dead" scenarios.


Well, Hakan Akbiyik did it to me twice in a row. I found Dungeons of Avalon unwinnable because of its final combat (which failed to trigger the endgame even when I cheated). I couldn't even make it that far in Dungeons of Avalon II. Here, the problem was the extremely linear nature of gameplay. Although the game has 9 32 x 32 levels, at any given time, "forward" is narrowed down to one or two sections of those levels. Everywhere else, you're waiting for a key to open a door or another "kill magic" scroll, or an item that someone wants. Just as one area closes off, you hopefully find the item necessary to open another.

Well, I ran out of items. There's a web site called "Exploring the Dungeons of Avalon" that seeks to disassemble the two games. In consultation with the site, I see that the three problems I face are:

1. There are fewer Keys #2 than there are doors that require Key 2. I still have one to open and I used up the others.

2. I still have a magic barrier that's blocking my progress, but I've run out of "Kill Magic" scrolls. The web site says there are more scrolls than barriers, but I must have messed something up somewhere. I've looted all the chests that supposedly have them.

3. My party can't open a door in the Tower of Roa that's supposed to be opened by picking it, despite my thief having the highest level. This is the most important of the three. The other two items are only keeping me from getting to some high-level equipment, but this damned door is blocking progress to the final levels. (And no, there's no spell backup to lockpicking.)
My thief has come a long way since his 13 strength and dexterity, but he's still not good enough to open a door.
I'm not blaming the game, yet. It's possible that I just accidentally discarded something I was supposed to keep, and that I'm misinterpreting the disassembly page. But trying again will take at least a dozen hours of going over the same territory, with no guarantees, so I'm not going to do it right now. Plus, I'm hoping the anonymous author of the "Exploring" page gets in touch and helps me out.

In case that doesn't happen and you're really itching to know how it ends, I've already received messages that Lord Roa, the putative "mayor" of Isla, is actually the son of the Dark Lord from the first game, and everything seemed to be channeling towards a final confrontation with him that would mirror the original game. I even found an "anti-aura" spell scroll to cancel his spell immunity. If I was successful at the final combat, I would have gotten the gratitude of the king and 20,000 gold pieces.
I gave the original game 31 points on the GIMLET, but I'll rate this one without checking the individual scores or logic on the first one:
  • 2 points for the game world. There's a bare-bones framing story, but that's about it. The game doesn't even really justify it being set in a dungeon when the backstory deals with a city and the subtitle references an island.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. There's some good stuff in the selection of character types and some tough choices to make about the classes. Character development is steady and rewarding, until you hit the unforgivably low level cap well before the end of the game.
Taliesin levels up for the last time.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. I think I'm being a bit generous. The few NPCs in the game are more like "encounters" in which someone happens to speak.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. Monsters are reasonably well-described and have their own strengths and weaknesses. The non-combat encounters and puzzles are nothing original, but they scratch the dungeon crawler's itch.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The Wizardry/Bard's Tale system is old but venerable, and the selection of spells creates a reasonable number of tactical scenarios. The big problem is how fast spell points go, making most combats a slow matter of slugging it out.
  • 4 points for equipment--a decent selection of weapons, armor, scrolls, potions, helms, shields, rings, and missile items. I think the game offers more equipment upgrades than its predecessor.
I always like a game with lots of inventory slots.
  • 2 points for the economy--famine at the beginning and feast at the end.
  • 3 points for quests. There's a main quest, which automatically gets two points, but also some side quests, such as recovering the "dragon stone" for the dragon. 
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The interface needed more keyboard shortcuts, but I appreciated the automap, the background sound, and in particular the imaginative graphics. If we were judging games just by their monster portraits, I'd have to put the Dungeon of Avalon titles in the top 5% of games played so far.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It earns those mostly for its moderate difficulty and a slight amount of replayability with different classes, but for the most part it's too linear and too long.
That gives us a final score of 30, which is a nice validation of the GIMLET. Reviewing my scores for the original game now, I'm not sure why I gave so much (4 points) to the game world, but the rest of the scores are very similar.

In my wrap-up of the first game, I covered the futures of each of the developers. It mostly worked out well for them. Sorry that it didn't for us.
A reader named LanHawk investigated the problem thoroughly (see his comment below). It appears that a door was placed where there wasn't supposed to be a door. LanHawk finished the game by defeating Lord Roa:
And getting the gratitude of the king:
Based on the problem he described, it is likely that that winning screenshot has never been seen before, unless the previous player hacked the game the same way that LanHawk did. Either way, thanks to LanHawk for figuring it out and giving us some closure.

Edit: See this comment for an alternate explanation.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Game 353: The Legend of Zelda (1986)

Yes, I'm as surprised as you to see this screen on my blog.
The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo (developer and publisher)
Released 1986 for NES in Japan; western release in 1987.
Date Started: 14 January 2020
Date Ended: 25 January 2020
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 20
Ranking at time of posting: 29%

A number of years ago, I participated in a Reddit thread. The original entry was just a funny comic, but at some point the discussion evolved into "generation gap" complaints--about things that people didn't understand about the younger generation. One commenter opined that he didn't understand Pokémon. I replied to agree:
Glad I'm not the only one. They look . . . cute. Since when is "cute" "cool"? Aren't things like dragons and ninjas cool? When I was a kid, I played with robots that changed into trucks. These kids play with . . . little yellow mice or something.
Well, that sparked a furor. More than one respondent wrote to tell me that Pokémon does feature dragons and ninjas. One of them slammed down three image links with the comment "looks pretty cool to me," then left the forum as if he'd dropped the mic. These were the images:
I was so flabbergasted that I couldn't begin to think of a response. Fortunately, another commenter came along to say what was in my head: "They look like toys . . . baby toys." The idea that someone thought these three pictures countered my "cute" argument says as much about the gap as anything could.

I'm not convinced that the gap is strictly about age. After all, I was 14 when The Legend of Zelda was released in the west--not exactly out of the target age range for the title. But I didn't own a Nintendo console and never did, and I guess for that reason never learned to value heroic archetypes different from the traditional western conception. As I put in my "10 most controversial opinions" entry:
If I'm going to play a racing game, I want to race race cars, not goofy little go-karts piloted by mustachioed plumbers. If I'm going to pit monsters against each other in gladiatorial matches, I want them to look like monsters, not characters from the Island of Misfit Toys. And if I'm going to play an action-adventure, I want to play a classic hero, not an effete little elf with bare legs and a pointy hat.
I'm sucking up these prejudices to give The Legend of Zelda a try. Yes, we agreed several times that it's not an RPG. But it's RPG-ish, and its own sequel is an RPG, and had an influence on RPGs. I've always seen that influence as an infantilization--infantilization in character, in complexity, and in controls. But if I'm going to hold such an opinion, it ought to at least be an opinion informed by actual gameplay. At the worst, perhaps it will habituate me a bit, so if I ever deign to play your precious Chrono Trigger--which from videos looks to me like a bunch of children scurrying around--perhaps I'll be inoculated to some of its conventions.
Neither the complexity of controls nor the depiction of the "hero" fill me with interest to play this game.
While I didn't own a Nintendo, I had friends that did, and I remember at least watching them play a little Zelda even if I didn't handle the controls myself. I remember being astonished that the console was capable of saving the game--something that until then I thought was confined to computers--and I wondered without satisfaction how that was accomplished. I now know that there was a battery within the cartridge itself that kept the save files, which is admittedly one thing that would have impressed me in 1987.
I'm beginning to worry that it's not really eight.
As everyone but me knows until now, the Zelda games are set in a kingdom called Hyrule, ruled by Princess Zelda (reportedly named after F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife). Magic in this realm concentrates in golden triangles known as "triforces." As the first game opens, a Prince of Darkness named Gannon has sacked Hyrule and pilfered the Triforce of Power. [Ed. Apparently, this was later changed by the series to "Ganon," but I promise it's spelled "Gannon" every time it appears in this game.] Zelda also had the Triforce of Wisdom, but she broke it into eight pieces and hid them around the realm to prevent its theft. Meanwhile, Zelda's "nursemaid," Impa, fled the castle to find someone to help. (The fact that the heroine of the title is young enough to still have a nursemaid is another strike against it.) She was rescued from Gannon's soldiers by a "young lad" named Link, who vowed to assemble the Triforce of Wisdom and destroy Gannon.

(I gather that the name "Link" is meant to be taken somewhat literally, as in the character is the "link" between the player and the game world. As such, it's not much different than "avatar," although that was a title rather than a name.)
The manual provides a map of most of the overworld, which helps greatly.
Hyrule takes up 16 x 8 screens, with the character starting along the south edge in the center. On 9 of those screens are entrances to dungeons, numbered 1 to 9 in rough order of difficulty. The first eight have pieces of the Triforce, and the ninth has the confrontation with Gannon. There are also numerous entrances to caves where old men and women give hints, offer gems, and sell items. Many of these entrances (including the final dungeon entrance) are hidden and require bombs or other mechanisms to reveal.
An old man in a dungeon gives me a hint.
On just about every screen is a collection of various enemies. The creators did an admirable job giving each enemy its own strengths, weaknesses, and movement and attack patterns. We saw something of this in Deadly Towers, but Zelda carries it to an apex. So you have "ropes" (I had to look up the official names in the manual since they appear nowhere in the game), which are snakes who move around randomly until they get to your column or row, at which they make a sudden and swift attack directly at your character. There are "darknuts," knight-like characters whose shields make them immune from forward attacks. "Peahats" look like chickens, and they can't be damaged while flying; you have to wait for them to land. "Dodongos" are immune to just about everything except that they'll eat any bombs that you leave in their path. There are at least a few dozen enemy types, and you have to learn each one.

Helping you out are a variety of inventory items that Link can find and buy, starting with a wooden sword, found in the cave on the starting screen. Failure swiftly followed any player who didn't go into that cave first. Later, you find a "white sword" and then a magical sword. Once you equip a sword, it is always activated by the "A" button, but the "B" button can cycle through a variety of other things that you can acquire, including boomerangs (regular and magic), bombs, candles, and bows and arrows. There are also artifact items used to solve particular puzzles. For instance, you need a whistle to defeat a particular enemy, a ladder to cross one-square water, and keys to open doors. Shields and rings reduce damage done to the character and potions heal it.
Link gets a magic sword. Note that he has three keys, eight bombs, and eight gems.
Life force is represented by "hearts," of which you have a maximum of three at the beginning. As you explore, you find more "max health" hearts. I suspect there are 15 in the game (plus the original three), but I only ever found 14. Regular hearts, which heal, are dropped randomly by slain enemies, which puts Zelda in that odd genre of games in which when your health gets low, you need to head out and find something to fight.

The game does an interesting thing where when your health is at its maximum, you can fling your sword across the screen like a missile weapon--a weird idea that we seem to find in a lot of Japanese titles--but if you take any damage, you can only swing at the square in front of you. Thus, you have a lot of incentive to keep Link at his maximum. This is pretty hard.
Link's inventory screen about halfway through.
In fact, I was surprised at how hard the game was in general. I had originally thought to explore the world in some kind of systematic order, but that went out the window within the first few minutes, as I got my ass handed to me by enemies only two screens from the starting screen. (I particularly hate "zolas," which live in the water and pop up every few seconds from a random location to spit a missile at you with unerring accuracy. There is no time in the game in which these things aren't a menace.) I tend not to be good at games that require a lot of fast reaction anyway, and Zelda really put me through my paces. Earlier, I had a line that said something like, "If it's a child's game in content, it certainly isn't in difficulty," but on reflection, I suspect children are better equipped to handle the swift reactions that the game requires. It made me feel old.

Balancing the difficulty is a somewhat charitable approach to reloading. When Link "dies," the player need only "Continue" from the starting square of the wilderness or dungeon that he's in, with no loss of items. (In fact, saving requires you to die, then choose the "Save" option.) I "continued" to more dungeon entrances than I cared to count. I deliberately died a lot in the outdoors just to make navigation easier, as most of the shops are more convenient to the starting area than the far-flung dungeon locations.
Confronting the first dungeon boss.
Some commenters have questioned what RPG credentials Zelda lacks, but only a few hours with the game illustrates it perfectly. The character never really gets any better, excepting increases in maximum health. But even that only prolongs death. No matter how many hearts you possess, you have to try to avoid damage as much as possible. Upgrades in weapons and armor make killing enemies faster but don't fundamentally change the tactics that the player has to employ. Winning the game becomes possible when the player improves, not the character. [Edit: I didn't mean to necessarily attach any value to that final statement. Clearly, games in which the player gets better and wins via his own dexterity are fun, too. I was simply distinguishing Zelda from an RPG, in case anyone still wonders what makes it different.]
One of the game's "stores."
No amount of time killing low-level mooks puts Link in a better position to take on the dungeon bosses. Even "grinding" for money to buy things like potions is mostly a hopeless undertaking, since enemies drop money so slowly and rarely. I probably only bought and used five potions in the entire game. Oh, and some action games would allow the player to advance ever-so-slowly by focusing on one enemy at a time, a worthless tactic here since screens respawn.
A bow is the artifact in the first dungeon.
Another aspect of difficulty is found in simple navigation. Each dungeon is a fairly large labyrinth. Eventually, you find a compass, which shows the location of the piece of the Triforce on a little mini-map. Then you find the dungeon map, which fills in the mini-map with rooms. At some point, you find that dungeon's artifact item--I think each one has one--and the whole thing is capped with the dungeon boss and then the piece of the Triforce. Picking up the Triforce piece restores all your health and warps you out of the dungeon.

But getting through all of the dungeon rooms is a huge pain. If you don't find keys in the right order, you could end up facing a locked door with no way through it. Some navigation requires planting bombs against the walls and blowing open secret holes. (You can only carry a maximum of eight bombs at a time, and these go fast, so I was constantly running around, in and out of the dungeons, looking for enemies that dropped bombs.) Other times, you have to push blocks on the floor to reveal secret stairways. Sometimes, you have to kill every enemy in a room before a door will open or a key will drop.
Typical dungeon room swarming with various enemies. Once I kill them all, I'll have to push the west block out of the way to reach the stairway.
In the outdoors, it's almost as bad. You also need bombs there to explore caves, but they're much more sensitive to specific locations, and you can easily miss the secret entrance if you're a pixel off. Basically, you have to bomb every inch of cliff face to make sure you're not missing anything. Trees disguise other entrances, but they can't be bombed. You have to toss a candle on them--a process that works only once per screen until you find the "red candle" late in the game. So to make sure you haven't missed anything, you have to run on and off the screen multiple times, testing the candle on each tree. Some screens have dozens of trees.
Blowing up a wall to find a secret cave.
To be fair, there are hints in the manual and throughout the game that help with this process, but I never found any hint that would have led me to the secret entrance to Death Mountain, the final dungeon, nor to many of the in-dungeon secret areas, and especially not to the dungeon entrance where I had to blow a whistle to drain a lake. [Ed. Apparently, such hints exist. I just never found them.] Then again, I don't think Zelda was meant to be a 12-hour game. I think it was meant to be a 120-hour game in which the player was meant to explore every inch of every screen, to become so familiar with the landscape that he could have thrown away the map that came with the game, and to trade findings with friends. There are RPGs that require such investments of time, too, but at least you're earning levels and experience points in those.

If you sort it all out, you make it through the final dungeon and confront Gannon in a room where unkillable things in the corner shoot fireballs at you. He turns invisible after the first hit, but you can kind of figure out where he is from where his missiles are coming from. You keep running around, attacking, throwing bombs, whatever, until he turns brown, at which point you have to shoot him with a silver arrow (there's a hint to this somewhere), at which point he explodes and drops the Triforce of Power. The final screens show Link presenting the Triforce to Princess Zelda, and the two kids present their respective Triforces while a text screen talks about peace returning to Hyrule.
Gannon is apparently some kind of ape with a Mercedes hood ornament for a belt buckle.
And then something terrifying happens. The screen says: "Another quest will start from here." You're dumped back onto the game map with three hearts, no equipment, and apparently a second mandate to find the pieces of the Triforce and to defeat Gannon, only with the maps changed and items in different locations. I trust a player doesn't have to complete both quests to have "won" the game.
No! What kind of reward is this?!
In any event, I was less interested in "winning" Zelda than experiencing and documenting it. I have to confess to some cheating. Nestopia is about the easiest emulator in the world for save states, requiring you to only hit SHIFT and a number to save, and then just the number to reload. I used these gingerly at first, much more liberally towards the end. I particularly remember one room with three dodongos in which I had six bombs--exactly enough to kill them if none was wasted. I saved after every successful bomb. I also looked up locations of secret areas when I got stuck. The final battle with Gannon took me so many tries that I was motivated to look up an invincibility cheat code, and found one, but I couldn't get it to work, so I defeated him with just regular save-state cheating.

Nonetheless, I got the experience I was looking for, which was mostly negative. I admit there is a natural addictive property with just about every action game. If RPGs pull you along for "just one more screen" with the promise of the next upgrade, action games have a way of propelling you from screen to screen with sheer momentum.

I also like the idea of the occasional "boss enemy" who fights by his own rules and requires the player to discern patterns and test tactics to defeat him. These are common even in RPGs today, but in the 1980s and early 1990s, developers were too concerned with consistency and following an established monster manual. You never meet a formidable warrior with 200 hit points in a Gold Box game who shoots lighting from his swords because there are rules about "hit dice" and there are no Swords of Lightning.
A dragon with multiple heads serves as a dungeon boss.
But overall, Zelda still represents to me a malevolent influence on RPGs: reduction of tactics to a couple of buttons, the kawaii character style, character development via found items rather than earned ones, limited inventories and economies, and ridiculous swarms of floating, flying, spitting, belching enemies on every screen. I'd be more upset about it, but it's not like people stopped making more traditional RPGs. Heck, even if I limited my list to games that I actively wanted to play, I doubt I'd be much further than 1996 by now. The point is, there are plenty of games for everyone's tastes.
This doesn't come anywhere close to ending the story.
And Zelda was clearly to a lot of players' tastes. As with Final Fantasy, I'm not sure it's possible to pin an actual number on the titles in the series, what with all the sequels, spinoffs, expansions, and remakes. The series doesn't show any signs of ending, even 35 years later. There have been cartoons, comics, albums, a television series . . . a freaking cereal. Why doesn't The Witcher have a cereal?

I remain mystified. In their best depictions, Princess Zelda and Link look like pre-teens, and their best games (I based this on reading descriptions of the major sequels), they approach the level of complexity that you find in a good RPG. I don't quite understand what motivates people, let alone full-grown adults, to want to play these titles.

Addendum: Well, clearly I touched a lot of nerves with this entry. But I just reread it, and honestly I don't see what all the fuss is about. I admitted to some prejudices against the main characters in my opening paragraphs, but I believe the rest of the entry after that accurately describes the game's mechanics, offers praise where praise is due, and offers some analysis that distinguishes the game from RPGs. I even went out of my way to note that while I don't particularly care for its influence on some later RPGs, its influence wasn't so pervasive that we need to get worked up about it.

The closing paragraph was a mistake. I was in a hurry to post the entry before I spent the rest of the day on other things, and I offered a tie back to the beginning of the entry that made it sound like I was insulting people who like the game rather than just re-emphasizing my own personal distaste for playing games with particularly young or silly characters--a point that I've previously made much less controversially with games like
Keef the Thief. I would ask all those people feeling wounded and angry whether if you re-read the entry without the final sentences, is it really all that bad?

I would also note that for all the text I spent on that particular issue, it doesn't affect the game's rating except to the extent that any defined PC will score low on the "character creation and development" category.

For those who keep commenting, "Why did you even play it? It's not an RPG," I think I answered that early in the entry. Some people think it IS an RPG. It has some RPG characteristics. It influenced RPGs. And its own sequel is usually given as an RPG. But I perhaps just should have played it and wrote about the experience without giving it a number and including it in the count of RPGs.

The quality of comments has ranged from constructively critical to senselessly insulting. My attempts to clarify or argue further in the comments have simply caused more grief, so I won't be participating in further discussion on this thread. I apologize again if, in explaining my own perspective, I made it seem like I was insulting anyone else's.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Realms of Arkania: Ei im Gesicht

That about sums up this entire session.
Today's subtitle comes from a conversation I had this week with Irene. My wife occasionally takes an interest in my hobby and asks about what I'm playing. She usually begins by asking, "What year are you up to?," to which whatever my reply she responds with "still?" That's always a bit depressing. But a few weeks ago, her first question was about the country.

"Germany," I replied enthusiastically. "This one is based on a German tabletop game called Das Schwarze Auge."
"The . . . black . . . owooga?" she asked, attempting to translate.

"The Black Eye," I corrected, not also mentioning that most people translate schwarze as "dark" in this context. 

Two weeks later, she came into my office while I was playing. I tend to interlace hours of work with hours of play, and without fail, if she opens the door and sees what's on my monitor, it's during one of the hours of play. Sometimes I don't think she thinks I work at all.

"Are you still playing that German game?" she asked. "Egg on Your Face?"

After some confusion, I realized she had confused one metaphor for an embarrassing facial blemish for another. I suspect for the rest of my life, I'm going to mentally translate Das Schwarze Auge as Egg on Your Face. Das Schwarze Auge probably has an actual rule about egg on a character's face, with an associated temporary loss of 3 charisma points.
I definitely don't want these eggs on my face.
This session, I mostly continued my town-to-town explorations, trying to find the pieces of the map that will lead me to Hyggelik's tomb. These travels were interspersed with more side explorations that I sure hope aren't tied to the main quest, because I've been doing awful at them.

Take the spider's cave, where I started. There were two levels to the place, and it was swarming with spiders and some kind of spider cultists. The combats were of average difficulty, made easier because the occultists tended to drop vials of spider venom, which I could then apply to my own weapons and thus do about three times the damage--oddly, even against spiders.

But aside from the combats, I screwed up everything in the caves. First, I chose to burn some spider eggs, and I guess that caused the caverns to fill up with smoke, which caused my characters to choke to death if they kept exploring. I had to reload from before that decision. Then I ran into an alcove where I was asked a riddle: "What is as impenetrable as an iron wall and yet as transparent as glass?" Now, the answer to this is literally nothing, or perhaps "REALLY THICK GLASS," but I suspected the developers were going for WEB or SPIDER WEB or something. No matter what I entered, I couldn't get it right, or at least nothing happened.
Ran out of letters!
I did solve another puzzle, probably the one that commenter Alrik von Prem was talking about last time. The riddle was in the basement, behind a one way door, and getting it right was the only way out of the area. It was, "Who is the lord of all spiders?" I figured the answer had something to do with a statue I'd seen on the first level, where "the letters S, N, A, T, C, A and M form a heptagram." I probably could have figured it out anyway just from trying different combinations, but I've known for years--god knows why--that the scientific name for the black widow spider is Latrodectus mactans, and thus figured correctly that's what they were going for.
Or else the authors were fans of SCATMAN Crothers.
That was probably my only success. I fell into several traps and damaged my party horribly. I set off several chest traps, and there were at least two chests that I never got open because of the traps. I found a bunch of crystals and two Amulets of Someone that I never found any use for. I finally left the caves dispirited and annoyed. One condition I didn't experience, to my surprise, was poison.

I returned to the road and made it to the harbor city of Ottarje, where a visit to Hjore Ahrensson produced another piece of the map as well as a new name in Clanegh (where I've already been).
This was prescient of him, as I was never able to find any Thinmarsdotters living in Clanegh.
From Ottarje, I took a ship to Prem--a huge town without much interesting except an abandoned mine. I wasted a bunch of time exploring the mine, which had no enemies but lots of locked doors and traps. The mine kept caving in, which took half a day or more for my characters to clear, and they started starving and complaining of thirst. Some things that I thought would be promising treasures turned out to be nothing. I broke my only set of lockpicks in a locked door. I left a second dungeon dispirited.

I kept circling the game's western "horn" with the goal of hitting Hjalsingor and then reaching the island of Manrek, both of which were clue locations. From Prem, we sailed to Treban, Kord, Guddasunden, and finally Hjalsingor. Algrid Trondesdotter said she used to have a map, but she sold it to merchant named "Kollborn or something." She also gave me a new name in Breida.
This NPC wasn't very useful.
From Hjalsingor, we sailed to Royik and then across the strait to the city of Manrin in Manrek. I had been told that my quarry was on Manrek, but not which of the two cities. Manrin was a bust, so I set out overland for Brendhil. On the way, I stumbled upon a third cave and had my third failure, largely because I hadn't been able to find a new set of lockpicks at any shop since my original set broke. I frankly don't even remember where I bought the originals. I opened some doors with spells but soon ran out of points. I fought some pirates, failed to figure out how to work a lever puzzle, and to cap it all off, decided to sail out of the caves in a boat we found at the back. In a scripted event (I'm not sure if high skill in anything would have prevented it), the boat foundered and sank and I had to reload from back in Manrin. I didn't even bother to stop at the cave on my second trip to Brendhil.
Why did we sail out into the open ocean anyway?
In Brendhil, Thomas Swarfnildsson gave me my fifth map piece but nothing much else happened. We hopped a boat for Liskor back on the mainland and then walked to Clanegh for the second time. I was utterly unable to find Yasma Thinmarsdotter, who was supposed to have another map clue. I checked every building and got drunk in every tavern hoping for a clue.
This is where I am at this point.
My pub crawl in Clanegh paid off in another way, however, when my first NPC companion joined the party in a tavern. Nariell, a huntress, comes with a bow and 40 arrows. I haven't done much with missile weapons since my early unsuccessful attempts, so I thought I'd keep her and see how it goes. She is highly skilled in nature-related skills and at Level 6 is much higher than my own characters. The downside is that NPCs exist in their own box off to the side, which means you can't put them at the front of the party, which means you can't take advantage of a lot of their skills.
Whether accepting or rejecting the NPC's offer to join, the party leader is a jerk.
My next clue was way over in Phexcaer, a long journey overland back to Felsteyn, then down the river branch to Vilnhome, then east along the river through a long wilderness stretch. On we went through Orkanger, Felsteyn, Upper Orcam, and Vilnhome, fighting some random bandit battles on the way, stopping in each town for a proper meal and bed rest. In Vilnhome, we loaded up on rations and water for the long trip upriver.

After a couple of uneventful days, the game warned that we were entering orcish lands, an event punctuated with a skull stuck on a stick. In a scripted encounter, we got stuck in a marsh for a while, and Dormauera got some kind of disease that miraculously Halberman was able to treat.
My first battle with orcs.
The fourth day out, we fought our first party of orcs--a pack of four, which wasn't so bad. The next day, we were ambushed by eight, which was much harder. On Day 6, we met a traveler who warned us that Phexcaer is swarming with thieves--unwelcome news, as Halberman's pocket had been picked back in Brendhil for about 80 ducats.
It turned out that I didn't get anything for anything.
We finally reached Phexcaer after a week on the road. Halberman immediately leveled up to 4 from the fights in transit. Another large city, Phexcaer had a few features I hadn't found in other cities, including a "gentleman's club." It was interesting for several reasons. First, a detailed screen that showed several scantily-clad workers or patrons, plus an animated woman dancing, was almost immediately and continually covered up by text boxes. Second, upon entering, the party was approached by a young man who asked if we wanted to purchase sex. Two of the three resulting options are to express outrage at even being asked (in which case you get thrown out) and to get down to business and ask about Hyggelik (although, oddly, the game has us say that we're looking for Hyggelik rather than his tomb or descendants). But if you do want to take the brothel up on its services, the only option to do so is within the context of the party unanimously declaring themselves to be pansexual.
Three weird choices.
Meanwhile, if you ask about Hyggelik, the young man asks you to meet him in half an hour, "two houses to the north." The problem is that the building two squares to the north is an armory, not a house, and none of the nearby houses had any resulting encounters. Moreover, the game doesn't even track time in increments smaller than a whole hour. I tried nearby houses in all cardinal directions to no avail.

There's a "gambling hall," but you can't actually play any gambling games. I just lost 15 ducats in a scripted encounter. A town hall had a promising option to "use its archives," but after we paid a 10 ducat fee, we were told that a decision would be made at the next city council meeting in 3 weeks.

There were several options to talk with NPCs about Hyggelik, but they all acted like he was still alive. A guy in a bar told us he had "moved to Hermit's Lake," and a healer said that he had gone to Riva, which isn't even on my map.
I'm pretty sure he died centuries ago. Are we talking about the same person?
Unfortunately, I seem to have come all the way upriver for nothing. The person I was looking for, "Gerbald," turned out to be a smith running a shop in the southeast part of town. But no dialogue options would get anything out of him, and the most aggressive options turned into a brawl. I left the city frustrated and confused.

I figured while I was already so far east, I'd check out nearby Groenvelden--the furthest-east town on the map. But it was a tiny place with no special encounters. So now I have to make my way all the way back down the river to Thorwal and turn my explorations to the cities south of it. Maybe while I'm back in the big city, I'll see if I have any luck in the lower levels of the old fortress.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • I'm having major inventory annoyances. Between all the equipment that I feel like I should keep for when it's necessary, backup weapons, rations and water, potions and poisons, and herbs, I'm constantly running out of room.
  • Potions would be a great money sink if they stacked.
  • Sometimes, the game doesn't seem to apply its Scandinavian naming conventions accurately.
Or else that's one ugly daughter.
  • Treasure chests never seem to have anything I actually want, such as weapon and armor upgrades.
A bonanza for a party of mountaineers.
  • I continue to be amused by the absurd dialogue options when dealing with shopkeepers.
No comment.
  • I give 50 silver pieces to every temple I come across and yet my prayers are never answered. I don't even know what they're supposed to do in theory.
  • I've had some weapons break, but it's so annoying to wait the 6 hours it takes to repair them that I've been throwing them away and replacing them.
One thing that really struck me during this session was the overwhelming purposelessness of most of the cities and towns. Even the smallest is maybe 20 x 20 squares with a dozen buildings. In any given town, about half its buildings will have random citizens or will be empty, and the others will consist of interchangeable shops, inns, taverns, and temples. Maybe 1 in 3 cities has an NPC's house. Prem was like 20 x 60 but hardly had anything more interesting than the smallest town. And there are over 50 cities! The developers spent an awful lot of time building numerous large spaces in which not much of anything happens.

This was also true of Spirit of Adventure, but that game had only like 3 towns. This one has several dozen. It takes forever to fully explore each one, but you must lest you miss that one important house.

I've just crossed the game's 20th hour. By the same time in most Gold Box games, I was over halfway through the plot, had leveled up 5 times, and had six or seven magic items among the party members. For this game, I still feel like I've just started, I've leveled up twice, I still mostly have my starting inventory, and I keep spending hours exploring places that offer no sense of reward or resolution. I'm beginning to think that this isn't a very good game.

Time so far: 23 hours