Friday, November 27, 2020

Secrets of Bharas: Across the Mighty Ocean

The party exits its clipper to take on some enemies.
Secrets of Bharas continues to be a relatively well-designed game mechanically, but it's also turning into a bit of a grind. The game assigns "titles" at various level intervals; for instance, a Level 3 mage is a "Conjurer," and a Level 15 warrior is a "Hero." These titles go all the way up to Level 50. I don't know if that's a level cap or just a point after which there are no more new titles. Either way, I thought it might be a distant aspiration. Now, it's looking like I'll need to hit that level to survive the game.
My characters are about Level 18 now, and that's taken a lot of grinding. After the last entry, I kept up my pattern, looping around the world, fighting combats, purchasing the next weapon or armor upgrade whenever I had enough money, and testing myself against the dungeons every few loops. Throughout this process, I wondered what would happen first: being able to survive a dungeon, or running out of weapons and armor to purchase and still having enough for a clipper.
Early in the session.
It turned out to be the latter, although by only a hair. By Level 13, my characters could survive individual dungeon combats reliably. A few levels later, they could clear out a level. By Level 17, the only thing keeping them from fully exploring dungeons was running out of magic points necessary for keeping everyone alive with healing spells. I thus bought a ship, which seems to be the intended thing to do, since I technically haven't received any quests that require dungeon exploration yet.
Dungeons are relatively boring. Levels are a short 16 x 16 with a worm tunnel design and no navigation puzzles so far. You enter on an "elevator," which might immediately take you to other floors, or you may have to find a second and subsequent elevators deeper in the level. I followed one dungeon to Level 6 before I had to turn around, so I'm not sure what the maximum level is. Other than monsters, the only thing I've found in dungeons so far is treasure chests. They're rare but a good deal, proving as much gold as 20 combats.
This dungeon lets you access the first three levels from the entrance.
Combats don't seem to scale in difficulty in dungeons, but they do outdoors. Again, the scaling is of the maximum difficulty, not the minimum or average, which is how I like it. But the maximum is getting tougher. Spellcasting enemies appeared around Level 10, and enemies in transports (which have special attacks and defenses) appeared around Level 16. I started losing characters even if they started combat with full health. This prompted me to do a more thorough job at my own combat spellcasting.
Mixing a "Full Heal" spell.
Dungeon exploration allowed me to leapfrog a couple of weapon and armor categories, particularly since the equipment I was finding was +1. Eventually, I had everyone clad in plate mail, copper gauntlets, bronze helms, and large shields, wielding the best melee and missile weapons their classes could support. I had bought plenty of reagents for spell mixtures, and I still had plenty of money. It was time to purchase a ship.
Ships come in four varieties: single-mast, double-mast, "gallion," and clipper ships. Clippers are the most expensive, but since they're not that much more than the lowest class of ship, I figured I might as well start at the top. There are also land transports--carts and chariots--that I haven't yet explored.
Purchasing a ship--a milestone in any game..
Boarding and disembarking from a transport is needlessly complex. You have to go into the combat formation and drag characters on and off the transport. If you enter combat while in the transport, you use the transport's weapons (I'm not yet sure how this works for carts and chariots, but enemies in those transports seem to have some kind of missile weapon). For characters in a ship, this tends to work pretty well. They no longer get individual turns, but the ship's weapon is a cannon, and it reliably kills one enemy per round, no matter how tough, which isn't necessarily true of my regular attacks. Any damage is taken by the transport (which has its own hit points, and can be repaired in towns), not the characters. The characters still get the same experience and money for killing enemies this way.
From Surya to Dharthi, in the shade of Wairan . . .
Yajiv the Big-Nosed, the seer, had asked me to see him after I purchased a ship. His dialogue changed to offer this:
Three lands remain unexplored; these are Wairan, Nadhi, and Jalamuki. [Ed. It's rare to find a properly-used semicolon in a CRPG; it's particularly noticeable after all the mistakes in Defender of Boston.] Jalamuki is by far the most dangerous, but your travels will eventually lead you there. The land of Nadhi consists of several large islands, all strewn by great rivers. On the other hand, the land of Wairan is a vast desert. Nadhi lies to the east and Wairan to the southeast.

Seek out the Gem of Vision, the Amulet of the Third Eye, and the Helmet of Goat Empathy. I will speak with you then.
I've heard nothing of these artifacts, but I assume they're in the dungeons and I'll hear more about them in the towns on other continents. In these objects, we see some Indian themes that go beyond the simple use of Hindi names that has characterized the game so far. In interests of cultural respect, I have avoided snickering at the "Helmet of Goat Empathy," though I admit it took some effort.
Later dialogue suggests that Gems of Vision and Amulets of the Third Eye are not unique artifacts.
With the visit to Yajiv out of the way, I took to the seas. Nothing seems to attack you on the water. I expected vast ocean distances between continents, but in fact the next continent is on the next screen. The six continents of the world are arranged tightly together in this configuration:
The lands of Bharas.
The world wraps, so you can get from Surya to Jalamuki by going north. I decided to explore Dharthi first, the land of the dwarves, but I was discouraged by early combats on the continent. My ship's cannons didn't perform as well as in Surya; I couldn't even hit most of the enemies I encountered. You can't cast spells while on a ship; you have to move the ship to land and then have the characters disembark. Also, the computer never casts spells if you leave combat in its control--one of the weaknesses to an otherwise impressive autocombat calibration system.
Spells are the saviors of large, otherwise-long combats, and I wonder if by the end of the game, I'm going to wish I'd made a party of three mages and three healers. There aren't many spells in the game, but a few of them--particularly the mage's "Vallum Flammae" (flame wind) and the healer's "Somnum" (sleep)--make combat a lot easier. I still have three spells to acquire, but I have to learn these from NPCs rather than gaining them automatically by leveling up.
"Flame Wind" streaks towards my enemies.
Dharthi looks like a large, unified continent, but in fact a river cuts through the middle and divides it in two. I scouted the coast and find the town of Amiens in the southeast; I know there are at least three other cites, Parthenay, Normandy, and Toulon, plus the dwarven palace.
As I start to speak with the NPCs in Dharthi, I again realize that there's a complexity to NPCs in this game that we've never quite seen, not even in Ultima. A lot of them have authentically interesting perspectives and stories. The first one I meet is an elf named Dolpon. He has a long screed about how since the Summit, all the people of the world have started to think of themselves as citizens of the world rather than their nations of origin. Travel has gotten so much easier between continents that people can find better lives for themselves in faraway places. Dolpon himself came to Dharthi from Hawa because in Hawa, he had trouble escaping his family's reputation for piracy. A dwarf woman named Nolipa is fiercely proud of her nation's development of healing spells, but she didn't have the magical skill to become a healer herself. A dwarf named Nevaal has been traumatized by his service as a soldier and now wanders the land as an explorer, content that he will never have to kill anyone again. As with 2088, these NPCs are written by educated, thoughtful developers who use them to make both subtle and overt commentaries on politics and society. They almost feel a bit out-sized for such a limited game. 
Speaking of out-sized.
Many of them convey essential information, of course. From a dwarf named Kilthorpe, I learn about the history of the coal mines in Dharthi, now abandoned. These seem to be the continent's only dungeon. Loferrin, a half-elf, half-dwarf, tells me that Yaniv the Powerful will only speak to someone who has the Orb of Sparks; I can get one from his former student, Sita, in Orthos. 
Miscellaneous notes:
  • A lot of the NPCs talk about how reagent prices vary from town to town, just like they did in Ultima IV, and how by noting the prices, you can get the best deals. While this is true, reagents are never so expensive that it's worth trying to keep track of relative costs.
  • Having all my characters' names start with "VI" seemed like a funny homage. Now I wish I'd varied them more. It's tough to remember who's who.
  • Death reduces the character's maximum health for a while even after resurrection. The game notifies you where you've "returned to full health."
  • Selling weapons, which you often find at the end of combats, is one way to make a lot of money fast. However, there doesn't seem to be any way to sell magic weapons.
  • Both Dharthi and Surya have pyramids in the landscape which, when you try to enter them, ask which god we pray to. "All" is filled in by default, but it doesn't accomplish anything.
Maybe I should try "None."
As I close, I've just found the second dwarf town, Normandy. I'm having mixed feelings about the game. It's competently programmed, and interesting for the reasons I've outlined, but also a bit padded. An Ultima-esque romp through a few islands, towns, and dungeons should take closer to the dozen hours I've invested already, not the 25 or 30 that the game seems destined for. I'll give it one more session to see if I can get anywhere with the plot.
Time so far: 12 hours

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Defender of Boston: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The closing screen suggests that I was more a Defender of Beverly.
Defender of Boston: The Rock Island Mystery
United States
Independently developed and published as shareware
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 26 October 2020
Date Ended: 23 November 2020
Total Hours: 22
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 41
Ranking at Time of Posting: 334/392 (85%)
Defender of Boston is an adventure/survival horror game with an RPG-like character creation process. Independently developed, it is amateurish in everything except its plot, which is sure to delight some players and frustrate others to the brink of insanity. Based on the tabletop Call of Cthulhu RPG, the game casts the player as a representative of the Faunus Foundation, arrived on a Massachusetts island in 1920 to investigate the disappearance of a colleague. The player soon discovers that not all is right on the island, and he helps its residents fend off aliens, sea monsters, and trans-dimensional monstrosities alike. The interface will deter all but the most dedicated players, although even it has moments of brilliance. Defender is not for the casual player, but persistent ones will be rewarded.
In eleven years, I don't think I have been more relieved at a winning screen than the one for Defender of Boston. It is the most original amateur game that I've ever played. It is so rough around the edges that most players will immediately dismiss it, but I'm glad I didn't. Winning the game honestly felt like overcoming something that was sincerely trying to either kill me or drive me mad.
My previous entries on the game under-emphasized some of the more important elements of gameplay, partly because it's not a style of game that I usually encounter, and partly because those elements don't become fully revealed until later. Defender has a surprisingly robust survival game buried beneath its adventure and RPG trappings. You don't quite sense this in the early hours, when you're picking up plentiful ears of corn and fending off wild dogs with a stick. As the game goes along, however, food becomes more and more scarce, all the island's animals turn against you, and you suffer frostbite as you desperately move from place to place. Late in one of my attempts, I had to fashion a fishing pole and go fishing--fending off hostile elk and lighting sticks on fire to stay warm--just to avoid dying of hunger. Thirst is a lesser issue since most houses have running water. Lots of things you might eat can make you sick, however, for which you need to use the game's crafting system to prepare a stomach-cleansing tonic.
Fishing in less-than-ideal circumstances.
Enemies become essentially unfightable. Deep Ones come out not only at night but linger during the day. Just looking at them drives you mad, until you find a special pair of crystal glasses. Moose, bears, bobcats, and even a lion attack as you try to get around. One swipe from some of these creatures is enough to break a bone. You find yourself trying to run away from them, but it's easy to get stuck in mires and bogs in this game. Every nightmare you've ever had where you tried to run but seemed to be stuck in molasses comes back to you in this game.
I ended up fielding several characters. My original Chester got hopelessly screwed up, partly because I didn't realize how the game's saving system works. Technically, you only have one save file, and it's overwritten when you die; permadeath was the author's intention. To avoid this, I got in the habit of killing the emulator when death was near and reloading from my last save. The problem is that the game continually saves inventory and time data independently from the character file. This started to cause all kinds of issues with missing inventory, plus the game started to insist that my character had been active for a negative number of days. It was night for 96 straight hours, something that I assumed was part of the plot. I eventually had to abandon the character and instead of killing the emulator, back up all of the save files periodically. For my winning character, though, I only had to restore a couple of times.
The hardest part of Defender of Boston is figuring out exactly what you're supposed to do, and then doing those things in the proper time and place. The best part is that you can figure these things out by carefully examining the clues. The "story" is fragmented among dozens of NPC dialogues, journals, other writings, and even cave paintings. Even though I "solved" it, I think I missed large chunks of it. There were locations and clues I never quite figured out, and NPCs I never met. These factors plus a randomization of equipment for each new character makes the game eminently replayable even if you think you know the solution.
A cave painting depicts the island and some of its landmarks. I'm not sure what it's telling me.
By the end of the game, you realize that although a lot of things are happening on Rock Island, they're not all interrelated. It's possible that I don't have this 100% correct, but I think the alien plot is the "main" plot; a lot of the rest are just side-quests that go along with the setting. The mystery that kicks off the game--the disappearance of Fred Black--is solved relatively quickly. An alien spacecraft crashed on the island on 13 July 1920, summoning a trio of men-in-black, who took over a farmhouse and imprisoned a recovered alien. Fred Black started snooping around and found an artifact that the MIBs were looking for. To get rid of Black while avoiding blood on their own hands, the MIBs sent a fake letter from Black to some bootleggers on the south side of the island, threatening to report their activities to the FBI. The mob killed Black and his wife and burned down their house, allowing the MIBs to swoop in and recover the artifact. Come to think of it, though, I never did learn definitively what happened to Fred Black. He was seen being marched away from his house, and I don't think I ever found his body.
An alien crash-landing is just another Tuesday for Rock Island, where walking horrors called Deep Ones emerge from the seas and swamps every night to attack anyone outdoors. A clash of titans in 1902 resulted in the deaths of most of the people on the island, as both a couple of old diaries and cemetery markers attest. This is a setting steeped in lore.
Uri's journal tells of the events of 1902.

I'll try to summarize the rest of the plot, but understand that some events are triggered by the player and some on their own, and I'd only be able to sort them all out through multiple replays. I spent most of the first few days just gathering items and clues, doing as little as possible to influence other events on the island. My winning character didn't kill the MIBs or free the alien and recover the artifact until much later. In fact, I spent a lot of days just resting inside of my house so I could see events as they unfolded naturally. One thing I did do, however, was show the MIBs' mission journal to the mob boss, causing him to scream, "Why da nerve! Doze guys are gonna pay!"
On the night of the third day, the game said that I heard the cries of troubled animals. The next day, a lot of the smaller wildlife on the island was gone. I was never sure what this was about or what triggered it. I think this coincided with the other animals on the island turning hostile.
Day 5 opened with gunshots in the distance that continued all day. This seems to have been the mob taking action against the MIBs, because when I later visited the MIB farm, they were all dead. About this time, a couple new conversation options became available for all the island's NPCs: "Strange Dreams" and "Odd Animals."
A mob war that I instigated rages in the distance.
On Day 6, there was a droning sound in the background and everything was filtered through a red hue. On Day 7, bad weather started--rain, then torrential rain, then freezing cold. My first couple of characters took continual damage despite having what sounded like warm outerwear. I had my third character pick up every coat, hat, and blanket that he came across, and some combination seemed to do the trick. "The Storm" becomes a dialogue option at some point, and Scotty claims that the Deep Ones caused it to hinder the aliens' efforts to find their artifact. Scotty may be an alien himself, incidentally. I was never clear on that point. Equally unclear was the use of a "scalar altogenerator," which you have to power by climbing a lighthouse, blasting the door to the roof with a bomb, and plugging into a solar generator. This item also seems to summon a storm for a few days, but afterwards the weather seems a lot calmer.
I thought I was already wearing heavy clothes.
As the days progress, you get dialogue options for a "Light in the Sky" and an "Odd Glow in the Sky," neither of which I actually noticed. During one of these options, Scotty gives you a device to call the aliens. He tells you to use it in the stone circle near his house after you've discovered their "pod." By this, he seems to mean the artifact; I don't know why he's calling it a "pod." Anyway, this took me a long time to solve. I don't think the device he gives you shows up in your inventory until the moment at which you have to use it. I got it confused with a "hormonic emi sender" and didn't understand why the aliens weren't showing up.
In the meantime, you learn from NPCs that Dice wants to see you because he's getting strange transmissions over his radio. If you return to his house and listen to the transmission, a thick voice tells you a sequence of colors that corresponds with the buttons on the artifact. If you enter the sequence, the game--and the world--ends instantly. This is apparently a trick by the Deep Ones to get you to destroy the world.
Oh. A "frog-like tone to the voice." Sure. That makes sense.
I eventually figured out the right way to summon the aliens. They kidnapped me, took the artifact, and dumped me back on the island, some distance from where I summoned them.
Having all these people standing around just makes it weirder.
At this point, you've technically solved the main quest. The next quest has to do with Nygol, the sentient black ooze buried beneath a seal in Bob's dungeon. (The chamber, incidentally, has the remains of an adventurer with a leather jacket, fedora, and whip.) Bob's father, Uri, apparently figured out how to trap it there, first by summoning an extra-dimensional being called Cthaga. It's up to you to replicate Uri's success, but there's no point in doing so unless the creature is freed first. I think one of the MIBs does this if you don't; otherwise, you might do it just by poking around the area and thinking, "I wonder what happens if you lift this seal."
Yeah, damn those . . . "pinkboys."
What happens is that a constant menacing drone appears in the background, and you get a new dialogue option for "Bizarre Events." Bob blames the release of Nygol on the MIBs even if you did it. The solution seems to be to climb to the top of the stone tower on Bob's property and read the "Ob Pisro Roll Yam" scroll, which summons Cthaga. The cure here might be worse than the disease. For the rest of the game, no matter how long I tried to wait it out, every time I looked at the sky, the game told me:

A bright cloud of flame wanders about the sky. You hear a deep sound as an eldritch heaviness presses down on you. Your mind feels a blanket of dread creeping over the countryside. You feel you MUST HIDE. The SKY seems to be ALIVE and possesses a hideous unearthly intelligence.
But Cthaga's scrutiny at least seems to drive Nygol back underground. You can't replace the seal--Nygol comes out and kills you if you try--but you can drop a bomb in the chamber and detonate it, bringing down tons of rock and dirt, which is apparently enough to trap Nygol permanently. You get thousands of points for doing this even if he hasn't been released yet, which means that a quick character can prevent the need for summoning Cthaga in the first place.
Bombs solve everything.
If there's a way to get rid of Cthaga, I don't know what it is. Out of ideas, I used the radio in Dice's house to summon a Foundation plane. The Foundation said the plane would land north of me at Green Lake. It took hours of gameplay for me to figure out what to do next. I wasn't sure if the voice meant at the lake itself or on an airstrip nearby, so I kept going back and forth between them--getting attacked the entire time by all kinds of things--and not finding anything. I circled the shores of the lake several times. It turns out that the plane doesn't arrive for about 12 hours, and then it lands in the middle of the lake. You have to swim out to it. Once you're there, it appears as a "landmark," and you can fly away.
Get me out of this nightmare!

Boarding the plane at the end. Note all of the NPCs still hanging around me.
The final map is interesting. I don't know if it's Tim Wisseman's invention or whether it's derived from the Cthulhu materials. It shows Rock Island quite far northeast of Boston, off the coast of Cape Ann. Along the way is the real-life city of Lynn and a place labeled "Arkham," which I'm guessing is a fictionalized version of the old State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers. (The hospital also appears fictionalized in Fallout 4 as the Parsons State Insane Asylum.) I lived and worked in the areas for years and even looked at an apartment there after they converted the complex to residences in the 2000s.
Rock Island could be Great Misery Island or Bakers Island in Salem Harbor. Great Misery Island had a fire that burned most of the inhabited part of the island down in 1920.
In a GIMLET, I award the game:
  • 7 points for the game world. Creepy, atmospheric, and highly-original, Defender checks nearly all my boxes in this category, including the way the setting progresses over time and responds to the player's actions. I don't know how much to credit to Wisseman and how much to credit to Cthulhu, but I'm not sure I care.
The game serves as an exemplar of epistolary fiction.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. I don't believe there is any development. Skills do not seem to increase as you use them in the game. If they do, it's so subtle as to be unnoticeable. But creation is a relatively memorable process, and the skills you choose during creation make a big difference in how you approach puzzle-solving, dialogue, and combat. I would warn that at least three bars in "First Aid" and "Chemistry" seem to be necessary to get anywhere in the game.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. There are a couple dozen NPCs wandering the island, each with their own motivations and backstories, some (inexplicably) hostile. Finding and talking with them is absolutely necessary for moving forward. Unfortunately, there are no real "dialogue options," nor can you even get NPCs to repeat anything already said. The "give" mechanic is under-utilized; it would have been great if NPCs would have commented on mysterious equipment.
Some of the later dialogue options. The fact that it's dark adds to the creepiness of the dialogue.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. It gets these from a combination of puzzle and survival aspects.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. I'm being a little generous here, but I think there are probably angles to combat that I didn't explore. Against most enemies, I typically emptied my .45 and then swing away with a shovel. But you can craft and throw bombs and spears, fight hand-to-hand (with appropriate skill), and I think maybe even use some of the weirder pieces of equipment. 
  • 5 points for equipment. It's not a standard RPG set, but there's still a long and interesting list of items to find and craft. Water and bird droppings turn into saltpeter which helps make a detonator, which combined with fuses and explosives make a bomb. Unravel a shirt to make string, combine it with a stick and a twist of iron wire (itself crafted from barbed wire), and you have a fishing pole. Use it at a lake and cook the resulting fish with a mess kit to make dinner. Great stuff.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 4 points for a main quest, several side-quests, and perhaps even different options for solving those quests.
An alternate ending from a character who never gave the artifact back to the aliens. But the mission was still a "complete success!"
  • 3 point for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets a couple points for some innovative sound effects like driving rain and crashes of waves near the ocean, plus creepy monster sounds at night. The interface is a mixed bag of too-much-clicking with occasional keyboard backups but also some interesting interface elements like a map and the "targeting" system in combat. As for graphics, part of me wants to say the low quality contributes somewhat to the atmosphere, but mostly they're just bad.
  • 6 points for gameplay. Non-linear, highly replayable, and reasonably well-paced, the game suffers only from being a bit obtuse. I honestly don't know if that was intentional or part of the mystery.
That gives us a final score of 41, a pretty high score for an independent title that looks like this. While that's well in my "recommended" territory, it's hard for me to actually recommend it. It's not much of a classic RPG, for one thing, and it only rewards very patient gameplay. The spelling errors are tough to forgive; like someone speaking with a stutter or a lisp, they often occlude elements of genius in world-building and lore. (Wisseman admits he's always had a problem with spelling and grammar.) The game is mostly forgotten online, but check out some of the message boards and YouTube videos that mention it; those who give it a try inevitably become fascinated with it.
The author, Tim Wisseman, strikes me as almost as interesting as his game. Still living high in the Sierra Nevadas where he grew up, he operates a workshop that makes "magic props." (You can see his gallery here.) He says he wrote Defender over a long, cold winter when his regular job as a logger was in its off-season. He expected that he would "make it big in the shareware world with this game," but he only ever got about 10 shareware registrations. (I was happy to make it 11 last week.) Fortunately, his next game, VGA Planets (1993), "made it big--really big." In fact, it's still being played. (Wisseman gave away the source code several years ago.) He's also the author of a long-running multiplayer Star Trek game called MTREK (1985). He still occasionally programs for his business, but he says he is "glad to be out of the gaming business--it was soul-crushing."
I'm glad I was able to take part in giving Defender of Boston a bit more life. I'm not sure I solved anywhere near every quest on the island or got anywhere near the highest potential score. For instance, I never figured out the use of the Geiger Counter, except that it goes off in the presence of a glowing rock you find at the Williams farm. Never found a use for that rock, either. Other equipment that went unused includes a "p vortex inductor," the "hormonic emi sender," an "extorneutronic gun," and a couple of coils. If there's any way to clear the island of Deep Ones, I never found it. I never quite figured out what the vampiric owls were all about. There are message boards online that talk about shipwreck survivors I never met and fairies I never saw. I may have only scratched the surface of Rock Island. I dare you to visit and fill in some of these gaps.

Addendum: here's what happens if you radio for the plane without fulfilling any of your objectives:

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Game 390: Super Rambo Special (1986)

Super Rambo Special
Pack-in-Video (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for the MSX2
Date Started: 19 November 2020
Date Ended: 19 November 2020
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 10
Ranking at Time of Posting: 14/392 (4%)
Super Rambo Special appears on Wikipedia's list of role-playing video games, with its designation as an "action RPG" cited to a 2009 Hardcore Gaming 101 article that no longer appears on the site. I would like to shake the author by his lapels and demand that he articulate precisely what RPG elements he feels that the game has. It isn't an RPG at all--it's an axonometric action game with elements so simplistic that it might easily have been found in an arcade. My policy on such games these days is to reject them, offer a BRIEF in case someone comes looking for coverage, and move on. The only reason you're getting a full article is because Rambo is so short that to BRIEF it is to cover it entirely.
The game is officially licensed from Carolco, the production company that made the first three Rambo films. In 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II had smashed international box office records, leading to a slew of tie-in video games, many of which make no sense at all. The earliest seems to be the Japanese Rambo (1985) for the MSX, a game that I seem to have previously rejected. If I had remembered it before playing this one, I would have revisited it first. It's an action game for the original MSX with more limited gameplay than this one, which is really saying something. The same year, Mindscape released Rambo: First Blood Part II as a text adventure, of all things. Two games with that same title hit the shelves in 1986, one for PCs in the United Kingdom and the other for the SEGA Master System in Japan, the U.K., and the United States. The NES had Rambo (1987). Altogether, these titles satisfied the need for jingoistic violence until a slew of games based on Rambo III emerged in 1988 and 1989. It's strange how few video games were made based on the original First Blood (1982). 
When Rambo wields the M-60 in the film, he shoots up an American military base.
Super Rambo Special never made it out of Japan, but all the screen text is in English, except for one setup screen in which the player is asked if he wants to enter a save code. (Although the MSX was a proper PC, the game was released as a cartridge.)  I was unable to find a manual for it, but the joystick-based controls were simple enough that I didn't need one.
The game begins with Rambo in a tropical-looking landscape of shrubs, rocks, and thatch-roof huts. From my gameplay experience, I suspect the official mission is to find an MIA and then find your way to an escape helicopter. You start near the lower-right corner of a map of about 200 screens (my best guess is that it's 12 x 16), and the helicopter is in the far upper-right. A north-south river bisects the game world, and rocks, hedges, and buildings make it impossible to travel anywhere in a straight line.
Each screen has up to half a dozen enemies, and may have a building containing up to another half dozen. Rambo begins with nothing but a knife, and buildings are the only places to find other weapons and ammunition, which include a handgun, a bow, an automatic rifle, a bow with exploding arrowheads, grenades, and a rocket launcher. Some buildings are locked and require keys found in the wilderness. Also found in the wilderness are flowers that provide a bit of healing when you find them and even more healing when you later use them. There are other flowers that are poisonous.
Two guards patrol a locked building. Fortunately, I have two keys, plus 33 automatic weapon rounds, 31 grenades, and 37 rockets for my launcher.
The player moves Rambo with the joystick and attacks with one of the buttons. A second button pauses the game and allows the player to scroll through the weapon and object selections.
There are no RPG elements in anything I've said so far, but the worse part is, the game sucks even as an action game. I don't claim to be an expert on action games, but the few that I've played usually start the player weak in weapons and slowly reward him with better weapons while at the same time escalating the difficulty of enemies. Here, the game world is entirely uniform in difficulty. You can find a rocket launcher three screens from the beginning. Enemies, of which there are only a few different types, remain the same throughout the game and actually seem to decrease in number as you approach the end.
A screen has four enemies plus a key and healing herbs on the other side of the hut. I'll have to destroy the hut or come in from the northern screen to get those items.
Then there's the matter of the weapons making no difference in the first place. This part is tough to explain. Enemy AI is bizarre. There are rare moments in which the enemies seem to sense your presence and deliberately move towards you, but usually they wander randomly--back and forth, up and down. If they happen to see you in front of them, they will sometimes start shooting. Since you die in just a couple of shots, you don't want to be standing there when they do.
Shooting enemies from afar with your own weapons doesn't work as well as it should, mostly because if you can shoot at them, they can shoot at you. You want to avoid their line-of-fire entirely. Fortunately, enemies have one major weakness: if you're immediately adjacent to them, they don't attack at all.
The best way to play the game, then, is to approach enemies cautiously on the diagonal (neither you nor they can shoot diagonally), then rush up and shoot or stab them from an adjacent square. The only problem with this approach is that other enemies might wander into a line-of-sight while you're doing it, but after only a little practice, I was able to clear maps of half a dozen enemies without getting hit once. And I'm not very good at action games. 
I dispatch five guards with careful timing and a knife.
Because of this quirk, there's hardly any need to enter any of the buildings looking for guns or ammo. You can keep your knife equipped the entire time and just rush through the screens, stopping to fight only those enemies who are literally standing in your way.
There are a couple of exceptions. First, there are several points at which you need a rocket launcher to blast a building or rock to move to the next area. Failure to find one early in the game can put you in a "walking dead" situation. The early-game rocket launcher is behind a locked door in the southwest corner of the map. There are fewer keys than locked doors, so if you run out of keys before you find the rocket launcher, you have no way to progress forward. But once you've found one and have 25 or 30 shots, that's all you need for the game.
I blow apart a hut so I can progress north and out of this area.
Second, some of the huts are special locations in which you learn a save code. Assuming the one near the end is the last one, there are nine of them throughout the game. If you die, reloading from a save code is the only way to continue. Since the game has no idea how your character was doing (the save codes are only positional), "reloading" this way gets you a default amount of ammunition, keys, and flowers. I mostly used save states instead, but it wouldn't have been much harder or longer if I'd used the codes. Anyway, the need for rocket launchers and these safe havens means that it's always a good idea to at least duck into each building and check things out, immediately leaving if you don't care what it offers.
An empty hut offers a keycode.
The rest of it is just maze navigation. You have to work your way up the left side of the map and then over to the river. The river is three screens wide, and you have to swim across. Swimming involves an awkward process of hitting both the joystick button and the directional at the same time. You progress slowly across the river, and its current carries you continually south as you do. If you reach the bottom of the map still in the river, you die. So you thus have to start as far north as possible and work your way across before the river runs out.
Fording the Mekong.
On the east side of the river are several places with illusory bushes. If you walk into them, you can pass through. There are other places with obstacles that must be destroyed. At one point, you find a map of the final maze, but I navigated that easy enough by just following one wall.
A map appears in the lower-right corner. I later died and didn't go back and pick it up the second time.
There are some "companions" who can join you for a while. I found two. Near the starting area, a fellow commando pops out of the bushes and follows you, turning and shooting enemies when they enter his line of fire. He died relatively quickly for me, I'm afraid, and I think it might be hard to keep him going through the entire game.
A POW follows me from a hut. I didn't check every hut int he game, so there might be more.
In the southeast corner, in a locked hut, you find an emaciated looking figure who follows you for the rest of the game. He has no combat ability, but he can take damage and die. Fortunately, this is close to the endgame. If you navigate through a long maze in the northeast quadrant, you eventually come to a helicopter. 
The final battle is against one guard.
Entering the helicopter fundamentally ends the game All your weapons, keys, and healing flowers disappear, and you get a "rocket launcher" with around 100 shots. You can fly around the map blowing up your enemies if you want.
I think this might fit the definition of a "war crime."
When you're finished, you fly off the edge of the map. The game ends with a patriotic display of U.S. flags.
I would argue that all this flag-waving misses the point of the first two films.
I feel like it's vaguely weird for a Japanese developer to be glorifying U.S. military prowess, but this game isn't worthy enough to serve as the basis for discussion of such a complex issue. It doesn't even make sense for me to give it a GIMLET score, but I will anyway, under the "if I play it, I rate it" philosophy. It gets a 10. A low rating would be fitting even if I was rating action games.
You've probably noticed by now that every fifth or so entry, I've been plunging my hand into a random grab-bag of games previously overlooked or rejected, regardless of what my "upcoming" list says. I've come to look forward to these "off" entries for the surprise alone, even if the games never seem to amount to much.   

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Secrets of Bharas: Windows on the World

An angry peasant approaches as I discover the town of Vashi.
I haven't done much since the first entry except loop around the land of Surya about 500 times, slowly leveling up, making money, and purchasing better equipment. I have only just got to the point that I can survive maybe one battle in any of the dungeons, so I still have some grinding to go.
It hasn't been a completely unpleasant experience. There's something satisfying about the process of steady, incremental improvement. I basically established the coastal city of Vashi as my home base. It has a full set of basic services: healing, food, weapons, armor. It doesn't have a reagent shop, but it was a long time before I was ready to explore magic anyway. My routine was to follow the coast out of Vashi and keep hugging the coast all the way around the land and its various peninsulas, fighting random combats as they came along. Usually by the time I reached Vashi again, maybe 15 minutes later, I had amassed enough gold to purchase the next level of weapons and armor.
Buying armor.
Once I had 300 gold (minus what I had to spend to restock food), I could buy everyone small shields. Another 300, and everyone had cloth armor. Another 240, I could replace their starting daggers with maces, and at 480, their maces with flails. You get the picture. As I write this, everyone has large shields, short swords or great swords (only warriors can wield the latter), chainmail, leather gauntlets, and leather helmets. I'm still waiting for enough for bronze helmets (2,700), crossbows (3,000), copper gauntlets (3,300), and plate mail (3,750). That's the limit to what you can purchase. There are magic items to be found in the dungeons.
Equipping an armor upgrade.
My characters have reached about Level 6. Each level increase is accompanied by a boost in maximum hit points and an increase in random attributes. Spellcasters occasionally get access to a new spell. As my character levels have increased, so has the difficulty of random combats, but not in a 1:1 manner. Bharas, rather, does what I like: it increases the maximum difficulty rather than the average or minimum. When I first started playing, a wilderness encounter might consist of one warrior or two thieves. Nowadays, there are giant tarantulas and "porcine demons" wandering around, but I still occasionally face one warrior or two thieves. 
I got luck on this one.
Forty gold pieces to the healer restores all of your hit points. I've been trying to save money by occasionally camping instead, but a night's rest only restores about 40-60 hit points, and my characters have upwards of 800. The day/night cycle is about as annoying here as in Ultima VI. The cycle is far too frequent. Each move passes about 10 minutes on grass, 30 in mountains. It's hard to get any significant exploration done before night closes in around you, making it impossible to see anything.
The camping menu is one of many interesting interfaces in the game.
In my first session, I found the cities of Varnas and Kota. As I mentioned above, this one began with my discovery of Vashi, a much larger city. Some key intelligence from NPCs in that city included:
  • George the Righteous (one of three brothers named George) told me that an evil being is rising on the continent of Jalamuki. He seeks to rule the world.
  • A cleric named Bobby said that a priest named Keviv in Dharthi (Voltgloss called it!) knows a miraculous healing spell.
  • A dwarf named Sajat related that travelers need a special amulet to enter the palace of Dharthi and speak to the king. He suggested I get one from Dave the Short at the palace.
I get to use the "Ask Object" system for the first time.
This was the second or third time I heard about the Suryan palace, but in multiple trips around the continent, I never encountered it. I started to assume that it, along with some mines, might be on some of the islands that I would need to reach with a boat. Later, however, after I had circled the perimeter of the land dozens of times, I explored a section of the interior that I'd missed and found both the palace and some kind of triangular temple. It wants to know what god I worship; I haven't heard the names of any gods yet. 
Stumbling upon a carefully-hidden castle.
The palace also had a full set of services and plenty of NPCs. Dave the Short gave me his amulet. I heard more rumors about an evil being emerging from some kind of chasm in Jalamuki. Most important, an NPC named Xera told me that Andreas in Varnas has a set of the "tassels" that one needs to speak to the sage Yajiv.
As with the developers' previous 2088, the proper names used in Bharas are an odd mix of origins. As I looked through my notes, however, I saw a couple of themes. Elves from Hawa tend to have German-sounding names, such as Gunther and Klaus. Dwarves from Dharthi often have French-sounding names, like Jean-Claude from Toulon. Suryans are a mix of English names and Indian names. (A lot of characters in the palace have Arthurian names, including Gawain, Arthur, and Merlin.) This might be selective observation, though. If not, it's an early example of a trend taken to an extreme in Dragon Age, where the various peoples of Thedas are clearly modeled on European nations, languages, and customs.
Someone's been reading The Once and Future King.
A visit to King Narayan put us on the path of the main quest. He complained that the peace he had spent so long engineering was now in danger because of these rumors of a rising evil. He told us that as our first step, we'd need to consult with the sage Yajiv the Big-Nosed in Varnas. We already knew this, of course, but it was nice to have it confirmed. 
We returned to Varnas, got the tassels from Andreas, and were able to speak with Yajiv. Unfortunately, all he had for me is that we should continue to travel around the land talking to people knowledgeable about the seas, then return to Yajiv when we'd purchased a boat. That's going to involve some more grinding.
The oracle offers nothing . . . yet.
The combat system works pretty well. I've mostly been letting the computer fight--as we discussed last time, the calibration of autocombat is superb--but I'll probably take over more often now that I'm getting a handle on spells. Mages and healers both have unique spellbooks. Each gets nine spells, all named in pseudo-Latin. Mages get a balls, cones, and walls of both fire and frost, plus tremor, death, and summon demon. These latter three must be learned from teachers. Healers get several levels of healing, create food, protection, sleep, resurrection, and a couple of buffing spells.
The party mixes it up with some "lifesaps."
Each spell requires a mixture of reagents, sold at shops throughout the land. They also require a number of magic points, which replenish as you walk around. I'll report more on spells later.
The game continues to impress me with its interface. Everything from combat settings to equipping weapons and armor has an easy-to-use series of checkboxes and buttons. (I usually prefer keyboard commands for such things, but I realize that's not going to be possible as mechanics for inventory and combat become more and more complex.) Not only are the interface elements easy to understand, but the developers offer multiple ways to get the same information. For instance, if I want to know how the party is doing, I can choose "Quick Player Summaries" to get a rundown of hit points in the message window, or I can choose "Stats (Player Summaries)" to get a pop-up window with each character, his class, his hit points, his magic points, and his armor class. Or I can select the player and choose "Stats (Players)" to get the full character sheet.
A clever combat option lets you see what spoils and experience await you at the end of combat, to help you determine whether to continue.
Sorry for the short entry, but this has been a crazy week, and it's a wonder I'm getting any gaming done at all. Stick with me, and I'll pick up the pace after the Thanksgiving break.
Time so far: 7 hours