Thursday, September 10, 2020

Game 378: Goodcode's Cavern (1982) and Romero/Carmack Corrections

            
Goodcode's Cavern
United States
Gebelli Software (publisher)
Released 1982 for Atari 800
Date Started: 3 September 2020
Date Ended: 3 September 2020
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 10
Ranking at time of posting:  13/379 (3%)
     
In today's edition of "If It Were Any Good, It Wouldn't Have Taken 10 Years to Show Up on MobyGames," we have Goodcode's Cavern, also known as Dr. Goodcode's Cavern (the box cover, title screen, and manual all slightly disagree). This all-text game plays like a combination of The Devil's Dungeon (1978), with its numbered rooms and magic wand as the only piece of player inventory, and Rodney Nelsen's Dragon Fire (1981), with its randomly-generated room descriptions. Its concepts are basic enough, however, that it might have been influenced by neither.
     
The setup is that Doctor Goodcode has purchased a mansion and found the caverns beneath it inhabited by monsters. He wants you, an adventurer, to clean it out. Thus begins your exploration of a randomly-generated three-level dungeon with 80 rooms per level. Your goal is to make it to the exit with as much treasure and as many kills as possible.
             
Stepping into the first room.
        
There's no character creation process. Everyone seems to start with a strength of 86 and no assets except a magic wand with three charges. The dungeon is laid out like a node map, with each room connecting to up to four others in the four cardinal directions. You can wind your way through all 80 rooms on each level in numerical order or watch for the occasional opportunity to jump from, say, Room 40 to Room 57. That's about the only "choice" you get in the game.
  
As you enter each room, the game draws from a collection of random terms and phrases, so one might be described as a "light blue room with a wooden floor" and the next a "ruby red room with a dirt floor." A selection of atmospheric effects finalizes the description: "There is a pool of blood"; "It smells like a fire"; "It is very musty in here." Each room can have nothing, some gold pieces strewn about, or an encounter with a monster.
          
This room is pink with a thick carpet and there's moaning.
           
Monsters include snakes, orcs, alligators, tigers, vampires, wild dogs, frogs, and cave bears. Each has a randomly-selected descriptor and color, so you might get a "mean white snake" or a "gruesome russet wild dog" or a "mammoth yellow vampire." Not only that, but there's a random exclamation before the monster ("Hot tacos!"; "Jiminy Cricket!") and each monster has a random behavioral descriptor after his name; for instance, "he is starting towards you" or "he is looking hungry." Each monster also has a strength level. Your only options are to "Defend" (which seems to do nothing), "Attack," or zap the creature with your magic wand. The latter kills everything instantly, but you only have three charges to start.
              
Hot tacos indeed. Although I suspect if I saw a blue grizzly bear, I'd start blaming something else I got in Mexico.
             
Attacking pits your strength against the monster level, and behind a bunch of colorful flashes, the game calculates how much health you and the monster lose. Some battles take up to three rounds. If you win, you get whatever treasure that monster was carrying, which again is drawn from a list of random descriptions and values. You might find an "ugly iron ring" worth nothing or a "bright gold chalice" worth 11,000 gold pieces. You only have 20 treasure slots, so you often find yourself discarding cheap treasures to make room for more expensive ones. There are no other inventory items in the game.
          
Finding a "nickel headband" and then checking my status.
        
As you defeat monsters, your level goes up, and I guess maybe it improves your odds in future combats. If so, it's not really palpable. Leveling is a bit weird, because it's expressed as two numbers, like "1-40" or "2-67." I couldn't tell where the first number rolls over; I think my winning character got to "2-110." Equally mysterious is how health regenerates. Your health is represented as a percentage--the higher the more you're wounded--and sometimes it seems to drop as you move between safe areas, but other times it remains stubbornly the same.
        
The mammoth russet vampire was a little too much for me, so I zapped him with the wand. I'm glad I did, because the colossal gold knife was worth a lot of money.
        
In addition to regular monsters, demons of various colors and descriptions (e.g., "yellow cave demon"; "pink sewer demon") pop up randomly and extort gold from you under a variety of excuses, including loans, protection money, and buying tickets to the "demon's ball." They ask for relatively little gold, and you can't fight them anyway, so there's nothing to do but hit B)ribe and pay them. Their demands don't even get more expensive on lower levels. It's a very weird dynamic.
          
A demon convinces me to pay reparations.
         
The game has an odd fixation with color. Not only do you get color descriptions for the rooms, monsters, and treasure, but the main screen frequently changes color, flashes different colors when combat is happening, and sticks different colored boxes randomly on the sides of the screen. I guess the developer was just showing off the capabilities of the system. It didn't affect my experience either way; I just found it strange.
    
If you die at any point, you can quickly hit the joystick button to resurrect in the same room for a minimal cost, but it fails about half the time.
              
No, but you can resurrect me.
         
Room 80 of the first two levels is a special room where a demon will buy your treasures for cash and then sell you food, a compass, information, or an extra two "zaps" for the wand. I have no idea what food does; buying it seemed to have no effect. Ditto the compass. "Information" resulted in nonsense clues (e.g., "you will meet a tall dark stranger") whenever I tried. The extra zaps are priceless, though, and you can make more than enough money on Level 1 to ensure that you can just use your wand to blast through the next two levels, although using the wand nets you no experience.
         
Room 80 on Level 1.
        
Room 80 on Level 3 presents you with a "wizened old man" seated at an organ. The door slams shut behind you, and your wand starts to flicker. This seems like an obvious clue to Z)ap the wand, but in fact it doesn't matter what action you take; the outcome is the same: you win the game and the program recaps the amount of treasure you collected and the number and strength of monsters you killed. Presumably, you're meant to keep replaying for higher scores.
    
The winning screens.
         
This is the sort of game that I would have seen in a bargain bin at Electronics Boutique in 1984. I would have been suspicious of its $7.95 price sticker, assuming it couldn't possibly deliver much content for that price, but I would have bought it with hope anyway, taken it home, and tried my best to supplement my wanderings with my own imagination, pretending I was having fun, but feeling in some vague way that there must be more to life than this.
           
Cavern barely passes as an RPG. It has one inventory item that you can choose to use; I guess it has some statistics behind the combat; and there is that mysterious "level." It gets only a 10 on the GIMLET, with 2s in economy, interface, and gameplay and 0s and 1s in everything else. I can't find the game even mentioned in a contemporary source, let alone reviewed.
         
I have no idea what's happening here.
                  
Dr. Goodcode, whoever he was, never made another appearance (search the name without Cavern and you get nothing). The rest of the title screen is equally mysterious. If the dedicatee, "Kitty Goodcode," wasn't a James Bond girl, she also wasn't anyone else as far as I can tell. Perhaps the only notable thing is that it was published by Gebelli Software, which was a short-lived California-based enterprise from Nasir Gebelli, the famed Apple II developer who went on to work on the Final Fantasy series at Square. I'm participating in a podcast with John Romero later in September, and I know he knows Gebelli, and I suppose I could ask him to ask Gebelli to confirm who Dr. Goodcode was, but .  . . there are times that tracking down the original developers to some of these 1980s games honors them, and there are times that it doxxes them. This seems like one of the latter.
   
But since I was only able to get 1,200 words out of Goodcode's Cavern, let me use the rest of this space to explore a lesson that I recently learned about secondhand journalism. A few years ago, in writing about Dark Designs III: Retribution! (1991), I wrote the following:
            
1991 was a major transition year for Carmack and his new partner, John Romero. At the age of 20, Carmack had gotten a job two years prior at Softdisk, largely on the strength of his Dark Designs series. But he and the other developers grew to despise the sweatshop-like atmosphere of Softdisk and the monthly programming demands. He and Romero began moonlighting by selling their own games--principally the Commander Keen series--as shareware on bulletin board services. When Softdisk found out about these games, and that the pair had been using the company's computers to write them, both threats of a lawsuit and offers of a contract followed. The messy result was that Carmack and Romero left the company but agreed to continue to produce one game every 2 months for Softdisk's magazines. Thus, a couple years later, after the team had changed the gaming world forever with Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, you see them credited on the occasional diskmag title like Cyberchess and Dangerous Dave Goes Nutz!
            
I had consulted several sources to assemble that paragraph, including one that purported to have interviewed both Carmack and Romero in detail, and I was pretty confident in what I had. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when John Romero (who I didn't even know was aware of my blog) invited me to participate in a podcast interview of Stuart Smith. (We're recording in mid-September; I'll let you know when it's out.) I took the opportunity to run the paragraph by him and found out that almost everything I'd written was wrong. To wit:
          
  • I was a year late; 1990 was the year most of this happened. Romero worked at Softdisk prior to Carmack and was actually the one who hired Carmack, not because of Dark Designs but because of a tennis game plus his obvious facility with programming.
  • Romero and Carmack loved working at Softdisk and only left because it was the wrong sort of publisher to take advantage of the horizontal scrolling technology that the duo would use in Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM.
  • It was actually the president of Softdisk, Al Vekovius, who suggested that Carmack, Romero, and Tom Hall start their own company. There were no lawsuits and no threats; Carmack and Romero kept working for Softdisk for a year to avoid leaving the company in a lurch.
  • The reason Carmack and Romero are credited on so many Softdisk titles stretching into the mid-1990s is that those titles used technology and code that Carmack and Romero had created. They otherwise had no involvement in games like Cyberchess and Dangerous Dave Goes Nutz!
      
All of this has been a lesson in putting too much faith in secondary sources, even when they agree and everything seems to fit together logically. I didn't get into this gig to be a journalist, and I have no formal training in journalism, but clearly my blog has veered in that direction at least occasionally, and as such, I need to adopt stricter rules for my use of sources, to make it clear when I'm speculating based on limited evidence, and to always see primary sources when they're available. I'm still working on these "rules," but they stopped me here in speculating on the identity of Dr. Goodcode even though I have a pretty good idea of who he is.
     
Sorry for the otherwise short entry, but you'll see a few more of these in September, as I have to devote more time to getting my classes going. Hopefully for the next entry, I can make some progress on The Summoning.
    

59 comments:

  1. Not sure what there is to wonder about with that game cover: an adventurer with a glowing short sword timidly enters a cavern. Never mind that the only inventory item in the game is a wand, as you reported. Looks like the illustration may have taken some inspiration from Frazetta and/or The Hobbit (1977), pretty typical of that time period.

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    1. Well, to start, where you see "an adventurer," I see a toddler with some kind of mushroom growing out of his head.

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    2. Its a toddlerhobbit out for adventure in his piratehat made of a mushroom

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    3. Well, hence the 'hobbit' reference. Because, yeah, I'd prefer to think they didn't intend to draw a kid. And a very loosely drawn tricorne hat rather than a mushroom.

      Just goes to show with illustration, though: you get what you pay for. This being before the gaming concept art boom and after modernism had wreaked havoc on realist art instruction in America, there probably weren't a ton of excellent, realist artists that Dr. Goodcode would have been able/willing to afford for a product this humble.

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    4. I think it's meant to be an adult, it's just a bad drawing of one. If you ignore the babyface, he's a bit too tall and buff to be a child or hobbit.

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  2. You, Romero and Stuart Smith is not a podcast I would have anticipated!

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  3. "sticks different colored boxes randomly on the sides of the screen" - their placement seems to correspond to exits from the current room rather than being completely random. Maybe the colors also indicate the color of the rooms they lead to? Is there by any chance any correlation between the room color and the quality of monsters you meet there?

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    1. "Maybe the colors also indicate the color of the rooms they lead to?" I'm the wrong person to ask. I don't THINK there's a correlation between room color and difficulty, but that would add a slight amount to strategy if there was.

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    2. All I can see are Post-Its affixed to the cardinal directions of the screen. I honestly thought it was a weird interface skin for a second.

      I think the color thing is pretty typical of Atari 8-bit games. The port of Colossal Cave Adventure used colors heavily to differentiate between areas (at least, I think it was that game that did it).

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    3. I think VKs first assumption is right, in all screenshots the placement of the boxes corresponds with the layout of the room numbers. And in the screenshots of rooms 66 and 64, the boxes on the side where room 65 is are the same dark color.

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  4. I am absolutely green with envy. Despite Romero's later career at Ion Storm, he is absolutely a legend, the closest thing action games have to a figure like Richard Garriot. If Carmack was the brain of id Software, he was the soul. He STILL occasionally releases level packs for DOOM--not for money, just because he enjoys the process and (rightly) believes in the game after all these years. Besides, he seems like a cool, down-to-earth dude in every conference, interview and presentation I've watched.

    If you haven't already read Masters of DOOM (and assuming it's not one of the incorrect secondary sources) I highly recommend it. It's a bit overdramatic at points, and many years out of date concerning the status of Carmack and Romero's relationship and careers, but I feel it perfectly captures the drama and personality of the two.

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    1. Also, you have to be pretty damn confident if you call yourself "Dr. Goodcode" on the package of your first game. Especially considering the game itself looks as if the "doctor" purchased his Atari, borrowed a programming text from the library, and wrote the game all in the same day.

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    2. I feel like 'Masters of Doom' is where a lot of these little inaccuracies got cemented into the "general knowledge" that persists of early id Software. Still absolutely a hoot to read, to be sure, but maybe not great as an actual source.

      I also maintain that Daikatana was not THAT bad. It is an idiosyncratic game as far as shooters go - bit off a lot more than it could chew, but really intresting in other ways. It has a lot of really cool level design touches, at least once you get past the dreadful first sewer section. It's actually kind of worth playing, but only with the patch that lets you turn off the AI companions.

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    3. I often give games credit for what they were trying to do as opposed to what they actually accomplished, but I draw the line at games that are only enjoyable after drastic modification. The AI companions, flawed, useless and annoying as they are, were a very intentional addition to the game. Modding the game to omit them makes that game no longer Daikatana.

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    4. I would argue that Ion Storm was a bit of genius in its own way - not because of Daikatana, but because of the other games that came from it, Deus Ex and Anachronox. The company might have been horribly mismanaged and Daikatana a real stinker, but Deus Ex is a crowning gem of an achievement and Anachronox is a very competent RPG. I feel like there is a lot of good in there along with the bad and wish that the massive egos and personalities had had the maturity level then that they seem to have today - they might have really accomplished some truly incredible things that would have further revolutionized the world of gaming.

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    5. Regarding the author's handle: It's only "Dr. Goodcode," not "Professor Greatcode" or "Lord Bestcode..." Quite restrained, really.

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    6. Deus Ex was developed by Ion Storm's Austin branch, which was founded and staffed (by Warren Spector) separately from Romero's Dallas branch. And both of them were essentially Eidos subsidiaries by the time Deus Ex came out.

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    7. Romero does deserve some amount of credit from Deus Ex, as Spector had been trying to make Deus Ex for years at Origin-under-EA. Romero poached him by promising him whatever he needed to realize Deus Ex (then called Troubleshooter) and the rest is history.

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  5. Congrats for attracting the attention of THE John Romero. I'm very excited about the podcast!

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    1. It's well-deserved; the CRPG Addict is well on the way towards becoming a legend in his own right...the world's foremost expert on RPGs by an indisputable margin.

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    2. I was upset I didn't have more to ask him about, but he never really did much in the world of RPGs.

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    3. I had the chance to interview him once, and it was fantastic - he remembered every game and development he worked on, which is pretty unique in itself. I don't know if you want to, but maybe you could ask him to talk about the original version of Quake which was supposedly the tale of their (id Soft's) D&D campaign in videogame form. I'm very curious what were Romero's ideas for an id RPG in the mid 90s.

      As a bonus, here is a video where Romero interviews Gebelli in 1998: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/294330/Watch_John_Romeros_90s_chat_with_Nasir_Gebelli_about_coding_Final_Fantasy.php

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    4. You should ask him what it was like playing the bad guy in The Crow.

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    5. I've never listened to a podcast before, but this one is going to definitely be my first. Possibly my only.

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  6. I wouldn't call your work here journalism as much as I'd call it research in game archeology. ;)

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    1. I second the statement. Although, in many ways your work reminds me of history. I have a degree and I have written and taught. It is not easy to fact check information at times and correlating primary and secondary sources is a demanding task. My field is Byzantine history, and given the multiple dating systems and different sources and languages, it can be hard to get the story straight. Good work on resuscitating this old game. In many ways, I would call you a cultural historian.

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    2. Well, regardless, if I'm going to be reporting on people and what they did and how they felt about it, it's important to get facts right. Otherwise, I shouldn't include those bits in my entries.

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    3. If I ever meet someone who plays these games, I will eventually be referring to your blog and directing them to it. In addition to discussing the games, I like that you have common themes, such as the nature of saving and resting in games, economies, the debate between real time vs turn based, and so on. These threads give your blog an eclat that I rarely see elsewhere. My compliments.

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    4. I have read published works on serious historical topics that had worse fact checking than your blog entries.

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    5. (and by published I mean by serious historians with a degree, in serious publishing houses affiliated with respectable universities)

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    6. There was recently a small scandal where a historian spent two or three years on a major book - only to find out after publication that her entire thesis was nonsense because she misunderstood a period legal term.

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    7. I remember that one. Her work was about the death penalty for homosexuality in England, right? And it turned out that it was almost always commuted to imprisonment after a certain date, but she hadn't understood that, so she was claiming a far higher execution rate than actually took place. As I recall she was very gracious about it.

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    8. Yeah, it was Naomi Wolf's most recent book, Outrages -- she thought she'd discovered dozens of executions for homosexuality in the Victorian era, when the actual number was zero. She also apparently didn't realize that the "sodomy" charges she was looking at usually indicated child sexual abuse, rather than consensual relationships. And she found this out during a live radio interview! She apparently was rather graceful about it in the event, but stood by her thesis which seems like it takes some chutzpah (the publisher eventually cancelled the US version though it had already come out in the UK).

      https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/books/review-outrages-naomi-wolf.html

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    9. That's the one. She thought "Death Recorded" meant "defendant was executed" not "we are recording this sentence of death but not carrying it out".

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    10. I think that what our host is doing is more akin to an "experimental archeology" or "experimental history", since he is actually playing the games. I suppose that "experimental" and "history" can be used together for the first time only with the advent of the digital age, when you can effectively "experience" the history through the old digital artifacts.

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  7. Dr Goodcode, what a weird bad game. I actually had it as a kid, and I have strange memories of it. See, for some reason I always remembered there being *four* levels to the cavern, and you had to find a "secret" code on the burma-shave signs to get past the old man in the organ room. Naturally, I can't find any evidence that this actually existed; there's certainly nothing like it in the version of the game you can find online. Did I have a different version? Did I just dream it and get my memories jumbled? Probably the second one.

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    1. I often remember games from my childhood differently than they actually are. They're usually better in my memories, but I also didn't have as many games to compare them to as I have now.

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  8. You write, "there are times that tracking down the original developers to some of these 1980s games honors them, and there are times that it doxxes them." Well, it's only doxxing when the person doesn't want to be publically identified. So I certainly don't think it would hurt to simply ask Romero to (privately) pass on your query and contact details to Gebelli. If Gebelli knows the developer and is in touch with them, then he can ask them to contact you. Then you can ask if they would mind your revealing their real-life identity. That way everything is kept consensual.

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    1. Yeah, maybe I'll ask. I don't know if it's a good enough game that I even care.

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    2. Comes across as low-effort shovelware. Or written by a kid learning to program.

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  9. 'Godcode's cavern'...?
    ...oh.
    Aha.
    *Sigh*
    Why don't come todays' games with cheat codes any more.

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    1. Because now cheat codes are called "boosters" and they charge you money for them. Welcome to the Horse Armour industry!

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    2. True, Ubisoft is even selling XP boosters for Assassin's Creed Odyssey. A single player game. It's ridiculous.

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  10. Dr. Goodcode is quite the moniker to use lol. Looking at some of the history of Gebelli Software I wouldn't be surprised if it was adopted with all the programmer poaching happening between Sirius and Gebelli in that era. Releasing a game under a pseudonym for a company while contracted at their competitor seems like something that would happen.

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  11. Once again, I apologise for discovering these terrible old games for you. :P

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    1. Keep finding them... amazing the interesting little stubs that didn't survive the early 80s...

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    2. Dungy I Love what you are doing

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  12. "HOT TACOS!" is the industry standard thing to yell when you encounter a yellow sewer demon.

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    1. Having a room with a thick pink carpet filled with moaning is probably a standard in some industries as well. The shortcut of software ad-libs strikes again.

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  13. Could your level be a damage range? As in, you progress from 1-40 damage per attack to 2-110 per attack?

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  14. It seems like the game made a solid start in creating a bit of atmosphere, but fell down on mechanics and strategy. A bit more of those and it sounds like it would actually be enjoyable.

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    1. I got a very Akalabeth vibe from this entry - it feels like an embryonic form of something that could be much better. Unfortunate that this line was culled.

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  15. I don't know about journalist. I see you as a historian.

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    1. Or a true gaming entusiast who makes internet a better place for rpg-gamers that lacks his endurance

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  16. That title screen is incredible for 1982, highly reminiscent of the crack screens to come.

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  17. You mention that that the future id crew formed a new company to better "take advantage of the horizontal scrolling technology that the duo would use in Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM."

    I believe you intended to say Commander Keen there (id's side-scrolling platformer-type game in the vein of Mario, etc. Enjoyable articles on Filfre on the topic, I should mention).


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  18. Those room descriptions are very Arduin.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arduin if you don't know Dave Hargrave's work.

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    1. Wow. I thought I'd heard of all the tabletop RPGs by now, but I missed this one.

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