Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Game 379: The Masters of Serebal (1984)

You would think these portraits are the Masters of Serebal, but instead they're the bridge guardians that you have to fight throughout the game.
The Masters of Serebal
United Kingdom
M. C. Lothlorien (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 3 July 2020
Date Ended: 9 July 2020
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at time of posting: 29/379 (8%)
I was looking for an "afternoon RPG"--an entry I could bank in case I ran out of time in September. I figured a ZX Spectrum game from 1984 couldn't possibly be that long. As usual, I underestimated the ability of 1980s developers to really drag out a game, this time by repeating essentially the same quest 10 times. Still, The Masters of Serebal showed me a few new things, and the experience overall was worthwhile.
Serebal is a cassette game from Cheshire-based M. C. Lothlorien, which sounds like the worst hip-hop name of all time. (Its author, Keith Hunt, is credited on a spy adventure from the same year called Special Operations and nothing else.) The word Serebal is never really explained in the game or its backstory, but it seems to mean something akin to "magic." The story goes that 5,000 years ago, the eleven races of the world were united by the Masters of Serebal under the Eleven Scrolls of Law. Each scroll was trusted to a different race, and together their power kept darkness at bay. But now millennia have passed and the power of the scrolls is waning. Only humans have kept the faith; the other races have mutated and crossbred into around 400 different species today. Now it's time for a hero to unite the Eleven Scrolls, with the help of a modern Serebal master named Altaborn.
Meeting Altaborn for the first time.
There's no character creation process. The player is already assumed to be a famous warrior who has agreed to take on this quest.  He begins in his village, in the southwest corner of a map of 48 x 48 squares. Half of the screen is dedicated to the game map; the other half shows the character's current resources as colored dots in two rows. From top to bottom, those resources are stamina, food, gold, gems, armor, healing potions, and the scrolls. Each yellow dot represents one while each blue dot represents 10, so the starting character has 67 stamina, 24 food, and 45 gold.
The action begins.
The keyboard and joystick have redundant controls for movement, but the keyboard is used for most game actions, including options like B)uy (only works on towns), D)rink a potion, and R)est to trade food for health. Controls are easy to master but execute so slow at era-accurate speeds that the only way to make the game tolerable is to crank up the emulator.
The game map has roads, towns (where you can buy more food and armor), and various terrain features in which you find the scrolls. Altaborn holds the first scroll, so once you start the game and visit his castle, you only need to find 10 more. The game's gimmick is that each scroll has a clue for how to find the next one. The clues refer to the terrain features on the map, and figuring them out is perhaps the most fun part of the game. The first, as an example, is:

Between the waters
So wide and so bare
With death all around
You'll find me there
The riddle refers to the northern central part of the map, where an expanse of desert lies between two rivers. There's a single patch of grass in the desert, and that's where I found the dungeon containing the first scroll. Altaborn gives you a ring that tells you when you've stepped on the right square. You have to do them in a precise order, so you can't just lawnmow the game and get all 11.
This clue led me to the headwaters of a river.
You wouldn't want to do that anyway because of the food and combat systems, which together ruin most of the enjoyment the game otherwise offers. The game is particularly proud of its bestiary, which includes some 400 monsters (the "races" of the backstory). You can scroll through and admire their icons at any time by hitting the G)uide option. The developer basically put 20 different heads onto 20 different bodies. The effort is a bit wasted since none of the monsters are named and none do anything different than the others.
Some of the monsters, of which the game is very proud.
Encounters happen randomly every 15 steps on average, but with a large variance. Combats are a miniature arcade game. Both foes are assumed to be using special three-pronged ranged weapons called "triorangs," which are functionally just dots that zip across the screen when you hit FIRE on the joystick. You and the enemy maneuver around an area full of obstacles (including deadly plants that can damage you if you bump them) and try to shoot at each other. The weapons don't work if you're immediately adjacent to the enemy, which is too bad because every foe is like a clinching boxer who makes a beeline for you and does his best not to leave your side. You end up running around and using obstacles to trap enemies with the game's limited pathfinding, then popping around corners to shoot them. This is hard because the moment you have a clear shot against the enemy, he also has a clear shot against you. It's very hard to put yourself in a situation in which you can fire with impunity, although sometimes the obstacles arrange themselves in just a way that you can shoot through them but not travel; the enemy never exploits such an arrangement while you can.
The combat screen. I was able to trap this enemy where I could shoot at him but he couldn't squeeze himself.
Ultimately, though, the fighter with the highest number of hit points (a combination of stamina and armor) is heavily favored to win the battle. The good news is that because of the Eleven Laws, enemies don't actually kill each other in this setting; they just knock each other unconscious and take some of their food and gold. You can lose a fair number of combats and still keep questing. The economy is tight enough that you want to be sure to win at least two out of three, however.
As if random combats weren't enough, every bridge crossing in the game requires you to fight the "guardian of the bridge" or pay a gem (worth 1000 gold pieces) as a toll. For some reason, these jackasses get their portraits on the title screen.
My life would be more interesting if the Tobin Bridge adopted this rule.
The food system is also a source of constant annoyance. You eat some every step, and once it's gone, you start losing stamina instead until you die. You're capped as to how much food you can carry by your current stamina, and even at the maximum, it's not enough to do much random exploring before you have to hustle back to town and buy more. If you run out of money, you're really screwed. Altaborn gives you a nice cash boost every time you return with a scroll, but in between those times, you're limited to making money from combats and random encounters, neither of which supplies enough to offset the food you eat while trying to find those encounters. The system thus heavily encourages you to save the game, explore until you find the next scroll--deliberately taking a dive on each combat just to hustle things along--then reload and go directly to the scroll location, thus saving all the food, stamina, and gold you would have otherwise wasted wandering around. Weirdly, even as your maximum stamina and thus maximum food increase as the game goes along, you still seem to consume at the same rate throughout the game. That is, you can only walk about 30 steps (depending a bit on terrain) before you run out of food, no matter whether you start with 24 units or 104.
Running out of resources.
The game has a variety of fun random encounters to offer some variety during exploration. You might meet some friendly peasants who give you some food, or you might lose health running from a leper colony. You can find gold and gems in unexpected caches. Occasionally, a wandering trader will sell you food, which is almost always welcome. And if you wander too long looking for the next scroll, a helpful adventurer will show up and give you a hint.
How do you know?
Once you have a sense of the terrain, however, the scrolls' clues are relatively easy to interpret. When you reach their locations, the game has another surprise. To find them, you have to descend into a dungeon, which you explore in a first-person view. Confusingly, the directional commands do not change with the new perspective, so even if you're facing east, you still move the joystick to the right to move east; in other words, pushing the joystick upwards always moves you north rather than the direction that you're facing.
The color of the ring is supposed to help you figure out the location of the scroll. Supposedly, it gets yellow when you're "warm" and white when you're "hot." In practice, I didn't find it very useful because the corridor layout made strict geographic proximity to the scroll a bit meaningless.
The scroll lies somewhere beyond.

The dungeons are all 16 x 16 and have the same random encounters as the outside. Each one has a secret door, which you find by moving into it, and behind the secret door is always one fixed encounter with the enemy holding the scroll. These are the only enemies that you must defeat, as a loss will just loop you into combat again. Once you have the scroll, a single key gets you out of the dungeon and back on the map. You return to Altaborn, who rewards you with gold and healing before interpreting the next clue.
Winning the scroll in dungeon combat.

Once you bring the final scroll to Altaborn, he has a bit of a speech:
Tolidor be praised--the scrolls are once again reunited! [Tolidor is an ancient Master of Serebal, Altaborn's ancestor.] At last the Law can be restored to the Land. Your accomplishment will be forever remembered by all the peoples of the Earth and your deeds will rank alongside those of the greatest of the Serebal Masters. My gratitude to you is boundless and anything your heart desires is yours.
My heart really wants to know what "Serebal" means.
It took me six hours to win, but that's with a cranked emulator, save states, and a lot of "exploration scumming" as outlined above. I suspect that back in the day, this could have kept a player going for a couple of dozen. I don't think I would have been able to put up with the combats that long. They're what justifies the "hard" difficulty rating. They weren't so hard for me, because I could just reload with a single keypress, but if I had used the game's in-game cassette save, reloading would have been annoying enough that I would have had to shrug off a lot more losses, thus extending the game as I compensated for the associated loss of stamina and food.
So . . . the "triorang" is just a trident, then.
Serebal isn't really even an RPG by my definitions, lacking attribute-based combat and any type of inventory beyond potions. There isn't even much development. Every scroll adds a bit to your maximum health, but enemies get harder at the same time. It thus earns a low 13 on my GIMLET, with 1s and 2s throughout. I couldn't find any contemporary reviews or any sign that anyone else had played the game except for a brief YouTube video.
We thus must continue to wait for the truly legendary ZX Spectrum RPG. I'll keep at it.


  1. "Each yellow dot represents one while each blue dot represents 10"

    Hmmm, so you see them as blue dots? They're actually purple.

    "We thus must continue to wait for the truly legendary ZX Spectrum RPG. I'll keep at it."

    Yeah, I don't think such a thing exists. The Spectrum was a neat little machine, but its RPG library is rather mediocre, mostly consisting of games you've already played on better platforms.

    But who knows? Maybe there's a buried gem somewhere.

    1. My wife and I are always having this discussion.

      ME: can you grab my white shirt?
      HER (looking): You don’t have a white shirt. You have a light green shirt and a black one.
      ME: And which do you think I was more likely to be talking about when I said “white“? The black one!?

      Color blind people are happy enough if we just get the right shade. We don’t understand why everybody else always wants to be so specific. Clearly, you knew what I meant by yellow and blue – blue being one of the colors in purple after all – but you still couldn’t let it go. I like to think the color blind people or more agreeable people for this reason.

    2. Addict, my father suffered from colour blindness as well, and when playing cricket, on certain fields (any with dark trees on its fringes), he found the red ball almost invisible to him.

      Do you have similar issues, or are there 'levels' or 'degrees' of colour-blindness?

      Not all that relevant, just curious!

    3. Ask an old japanese if its purple or blue... or green

    4. It's illuminating to run the "action begins" screenshot through the Color Blindness Simulator:


      I don't know whether Red-Weak/Protanomaly or Red-Blind/Protanopia is a better simulation of the Addict's situation, but both yield blue dots.

    5. Chet, I know you're not trying to offend but it's a bit offensive to characterize color-enabled people as more disagreeable. Speaking as a color-enabled person, it's not an issue of agreeability, but mindset. Color-sighted people think of blue and purple, or light green and white as completely different shades, similar to how you see black or white. To use an analogy, it would be like Irene asking you to play "that CRPG for me", while pointing at the area occupied by two games: Doom and Pirates!. Neither one is really a CRPG, and while one is closer to a CRPG than the other, it's not the lack of agreeability that prevents us from picking one, but confusion over what you really want. Or if that analogy doesn't work, going to an whiskey enthusiast and asking for that bourbon when pointing at a scotch and a rye. I hope you can forgive people for not acting immediately in that scenario.

    6. I want it to be satire, yet I fear it's not.

    7. Chris: I do have issues like that. It depends less on the hue than on a combination of the hue and shade. Dark red stands out from light green, for instance. According to the tests I've taken, I'm a strong deutan and a weak tritan. I often can't distinguish red from green, blue from purple, green from brown, red from orange, or yellow from orange. But a lot depends on the specific shade and saturation and other things I don't understand. Red and green traffic lights look nothing alike to me, for instance, although I'd have to say the "green" looks more like white to me.

    8. ~~~ WE ARE ALL COLORBLIND ~~~

      ...Because, apparently, there is a small percentage of women who can see far more colours than anyone else.

      I will try to be short.

      The majority of people has THREE cell types in the eyes that can perceive one primary colour each: red, yellow/green, and blue.

      Colourblind people have one or more of these cell types that are malfunctioning. In some cases, the "red detector" is shifted towards yellow and it results in an "orange detector".

      Some women, daughters of one colourblind parent, inherit FOUR different "primary colour cell" types. Thus, for example, they can see two different shades of pink (e.g. salmon and peach) as two completely different colours. We are all literally colourblind compared to them.

    9. "And which do you think I was more likely to be talking about when I said “white“? The black one!?" - given the great dress debacle of 2015 (black and blue vs. white and gold), the answer to that might not be all that obvious.

    10. For me, my nemeses are color-coded maps. This is an occupational hazard for me. I can't tell you how many ethnographic maps I've stared at, trying to figure out the distribution of various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups ostensibly distinguished by different shades of color, usually to get hopelessly frustrated and give up.

    11. Yeah, that's a big problem for me, too, and I use maps a lot in my work. It drives me crazy when someone plots something like changes in population density on a ramp that goes from green to neutral to red.

    12. In this specific case, because there are other blue things on the screen, I was genuinely confused with that sentence; I thought maybe you meant the blue ... hills? ... on the map somehow at first.

      While I don't usually need to interpret things in color for my job, I have to create things in color (and field the occasional user report from someone who had trouble reading a diagram). I use the color-blind testing site quite a lot and will sometimes forward images I'm uncertain about to a color-blind co-worker.

    13. I'm not color-blind but I've had to deal with a lot of crappy black and white scans of ethnographic maps with color-coded shadings. So I feel you.

    14. One time I looked up the 1910 census of Austria Hungary and was surprised the National library of Austria has huge colourful maps scanned online, in good quality too

  2. "each blue dot represents 10" - I feel like an asshole for pointing that out, but they're magenta.

    "We thus must continue to wait for the truly legendary ZX Spectrum RPG" - Lords of Midnight fulfills the "legendary" part but whether it can count as an RPG is debatable.

    1. My suggestion too. But you can play it either as a strategy game or an RPG. (Also true of the sequel.)

    2. That's also true of Singleton's other series, Midwinter. And supposedly Midwinter 2 is a real RPG with stat growth, but I never saw any indication of that in the time I played it.

    3. Both Midwinter games also have a rather bad control schemes. It really puts a dent in the enjoyment of the otherwise very innovative games predating RPG / FPS sandboxes, like the latter installments of the Far Cry franchise, by many years.

    4. VK: Yeah, I know that, was more talking in comparison to Gerry's statement.
      VY: A bigger problem with Midwinter is that both games are basically spam homing missiles and hope you hit something.

    5. I would call Midwinter an RPG, but not a CRPG. By that I mean that for every member you recruit in your team, you have to consider what role fits them best and play that role accordingly. E.g. an old lady with great social skills is best used as a recruiter far away from combat, a great skier is good for scouting and sabotage missions etc. But there is no character development, stats or inventory, or anything that makes it a "C"RPG. Good game though. I don't remember problems with the controls, unlike Midwinter 2. That felt very unresponsive, at least on the Atari ST.

    6. I liked the contacts system in midwinter II. The combat however felt really iffy to me, the best way to take out enemy vehicles seemed just to be, jump into them and hijack them all!

  3. Is the armor ablative or damage reducing?

    Is there any difference between the monsters? Will the same kind of monster always be hard or easy? Can you do anything with that information like run away?

    1. Armor adds to your hit point pool in combat. I didn’t notice any correlation between enemy type in enemy difficulty, but there are freaking 400 of them, so it’s not like it’s easy to remember them all. It’s possible I never faced the same enemy twice.

  4. I'd be amazed if there's a good Spectrum exclusive RPG. Having a maximum of 128k of memory, with 48k being far more common, plus the main storage medium being cassettes is not conductive to complex RPGs. You'd either have to make the game simple enough to fit into memory, require rewinding and fast forwarding the tape to get to the data the game needs, or have the game structured so you can't backtrack so you wouldn't have to rewind during gameplay

  5. "Lords of Midnight" definitely qualifies as "legendary".
    Based on that i would strongly support the idea to have it at least covered as a BRIEF.
    The gameplay heavily depends on the chosen characters, so atleast you have a significant crossover between adventure, roleplaying and strategic/tactical wargame.

    Additionally, it was technically groundreaking in the render concept for the scenery.

    Definitely worth visiting as specific piece of computer gaming history with RPG elements. Maybe in a BRIEF?

    1. My plan was to do a BRIEF for games that I reject in the future and ultimately go back and pick up the old ones. I'm finding that the problem with the system is that it takes a couple hours even to do a BRIEF and at some point, I start to think, "Might as well just finish the game."

  6. Although not an RPG, it seems like a decent enough treasure hunt for the Spectrum. It's got a world, keyboard controls, and graphics that actually look like something.

    1. Yeah, considering the Speccy's specs, this is the legendary grand ZX Spectrum RPG we've been looking for. It ain't gonna get any grander than this (and if it does, I'll be surprised)

    2. The already mentioned Lords of Midnight is imho some steps up in "grandness". Tbh I first heard of the game when a HD version got dropped at GoG some years ago, but it's really impressive for such an old hardware.

    3. Oh, LoM was released on the Speccy? I wasn't aware of that, I only knew of the DOS version which I played. Good game.

    4. The original wasn't released on DOS, you sure you're not thinking about the sequels?

    5. I've only played the GoG release, which seems to be the Spectrum version with upscaled Graphics and better UI.

      Googling the DOS game it looks different, yeah.

      Btw, it seems to be free now on GoG:


    6. LoM III (which in no way could ever run on spectrum or c64) for the PC included PC ports of the first two lords of midnight as a bonus.

    7. The fansite icemark.com has both LoM and DDR still available. And the DDR audio story as well.

      I am a huge fan of Lords of Midnight but I'm not sure it's worth a BRIEF. I think it's a fun experience for anyone interested in 8-bit games, but it really is a just a unique strategy game with some (not a lot) evocative world building.

  7. "The word Serebal is never really explained in the game or its backstory, but it seems to mean something akin to "magic.""

    I just took the name to be a perversion of the word 'Cerebral'

    Kind of works by definition, with intelligence/the mind usually the key attribute in regard to magic

  8. Lone hero overcomes overwhelming odds to uphold the Law of a mystical authority, and to preserve racial purity? It's basically Hitler: The Computer Game.

    1. It definitely has some weird subtext. Plenty of works depict nonhuman sentients as practically identical (elves, dwarves, Klingons, etc. all have exactly one personality) but the crossbreeding thing is a strange addition to the mix.

    2. "It's basically Hitler: The Computer Game."

      Incoming 4chan raid in 3... 2... 1...

    3. Given the icons, I don't think the other "races" i this game were even supposed to be humanoid.

    4. @Alex, in fairness, in many of the more popular fantasy IPs the reverse is also true, and non-human races often see humans as impetuous and hasty to a fault.

      I suppose the things that make a species different are the ones that are most notable. Sure, elves and humans do 90% of things the same, but it's the 10% that's different that draws your attention (otherwise they'd just be pointy-eared men, and what's the point of that?).

  9. Weirdly, even as your maximum stamina and thus maximum food increase as the game goes along, you still seem to consume at the same rate throughout the game. That is, you can only walk about 30 steps (depending a bit on terrain) before you run out of food, no matter whether you start with 24 units or 104.

    Put simply: ugggggggggggggggggh. What a terrible mechanic!

    1. This seems like something where he accidentally put in "use 3% of food per step" instead of "use 1 foot unit per step". I can't imagine you would ever intentionally do it, right?

  10. "I couldn't find any contemporary reviews or any sign that anyone else had played the game except for a brief YouTube video."

    That explains why I can't remember this game at all.

    I remember Lothlorien, though, as one of the minor software houses. It's not a "hip-hop name", but taken form Lord of the Rings; an alternative name for the forest/realm of Lorien.

    There were many legendary ZX Spectrum games, but none of them strictly RPGS. The closest is probably Heavy on the Magic which you have already played, but even that was more of an action adventure game play wise, just like Fairlight and Tir Na Nog to mention some of the legendary ones. Nearly all the Spectrum fantasy games were more about puzzles than character development and combat.
    The most true, original (if heavily derived from Rogue-likes) RPG for the Spectrum was probably Out of the Shadows.
    There's also Mindstone, which I thought was an RPG. I remember it was a very short, but enjoyable game, but I think you discarded it at some point.

    1. The "hip-hop name" part comes from the M.C. part, I'm sure. Many hip-hop artists through the 80's and 90's took stage names in the form of "M.C. ____," as in emcee, the person who presents and runs a live show.

    2. Or M.C. as in 'Master of Ceremonies' :p

    3. Ah, now that you mention it, I remember MC Hammer. I was more of a metalhead myself, though.
      Listening to "Midnight Mover" and "Cold Winter Nights" by Accept when playing Lords of Midnight; those were the days...

    4. It was the specific pairing of M.C. with a Tolkien reference that made the joke. How could anyone think that I don't know what "Lothlorien" is?

    5. Why not? I didn't know what an "M. C." is.

    6. I'd say that the author and average audience of the blog are more likely to be knowledgeble of Tolkien than hip-hop :)

    7. What's so improbable about liking both CRPGs and hip hop? I enjoy both and I'm about the most average person you could find.

    8. I've read Tolkien several years ago but Lothlorien didn't ring a bell. The MC - hip-hop connection on the other hand I thought would be obvious to anyone who was alive during the 80s and 90, without knowing anything about hip-hop. But what's obvious to one person can be totally obscure for another. I wondered how many people got the WAR reference from the entry about The Summoning, and how many references I am missing myself.

    9. I don't think liking CRPGs and hip-hop would be rarer than liking CRPGs and jazz :p

      If there was an over-representation of a preferred music genre among CRPG nerds my guess would be 'metal'.

    10. I thought MCs came from the dub scene (as most of what defines British electronica, on other hand). That's it. That's all I have to add here.

    11. I don't like hip hop at all (I'm a metalhead but also open to other genres: jazz, classical, synthwave, city pop, elevator music, classic rock, etc etc... hip hop is one of the very few genres I absolutely can't stand, with rare exceptions) but I know M.C. Mind you, I don't know what it stands for but I know that hip hop artists like to use it as a title, with M.C. Hammer being the most well-known.

    12. In the '70s dance party scene that hip hop grew out of, the DJ would play records and also engage in patter to hype up the crowd. When more involved DJ techniques were introduced (the break, scratching, etc.), the job of engaging with the crowd was given to a second person, the MC (master of ceremonies). The patter and exhortations of the MC developed into what we now call rapping. When hip hop moved from the dancefloor to the studio the titles moved with it -- DJs make beats, MCs rap over them -- although "MC" is kind of an old-fashioned term now, while "DJ" has long since moved on from the literal meaning of disc jockeying.

    13. There is a 'your mileage may vary' -level 2000s shortlived joke hiphop duo called Lords of the Rhymes.

      The crap we carry around in our heads.

  11. "The quest will now pass to your eldest son."

    How convenient not only that it was a son, but you were able to do so before adventuring! These guys' wives must be pissed.

    A similar contrivance (in both every descendant having a kid and that kid always being female) will appear in the latest few Zelda games (Skyward Sword/Breath of the Wild). Some things never change!

  12. Altaborn! Whoa! I never realized that 2020 me was in a 1984 videogame! It's an astonishing likeness.

  13. I'am a hardcore punk mohawk and all and i also Love crpg's, so I don't think your musical preferences have influence.

  14. Hey, did you get my comment? I'm starting a quest to play hundreds of games, too! Super Smash Bros. source games, specifically! SSB Historia!


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