Wednesday, May 5, 2021

BRIEF: Reign of the Red Dragon (1982)

Reign of the Red Dragon
United States
Independently developed; published by Adventure International
Released 1982 for TRS-80
You have to cut these early developers a little bit of slack, particularly if they were writing for an under-served platform like the TRS-80. They were all trying to figure out the best way to bring the tabletop role-playing experience to the computer, and to some degree we have to be grateful for the variation in approaches. 
A dragon guards a treasure chest.
Red Dragon was written by David W. Daring, who narrates a sample of gameplay on his YouTube channel, and published by Florida-based Adventure International. It was supposed to be the first of a series, published under the master label of Demon Venture, and many sites give the official name with that master title, but it doesn't appear in the manual or on the title screen. Daring wrote a follow-up, Mystery of the Four Doors, which AI apparently declined to publish. 
The box is the only place you find the Demon Venture title.
Some sites claim that Red Dragon is the first "graphical adventure" for the TRS-80, but unless I'm using a different definition of that term, I don't think it's even close. Knight's Quest was out in 1978; 1979 offered three Dunjonquest titles, and 1980 had three more. The first three Warrior of Ras games, plus a port of Telengard, came out the same year as Red Dragon.
The game concerns a quest to find eight pieces of a broken scepter and slay the titular red dragon. The party can consist of up to five characters, drawn from dwarf, elf, human, and hobbit races and warrior, magician, cleric, and thief classes. Each character is rolled for values in strength, intelligence, experience, constitution, dexterity, and charisma; you can re-roll if you want, but there's a chance the game will get annoyed and force you to accept the last roll. 
Creating a new character.
You then spend your gold on supplies. The supply list is differentiated by character, with warriors buying more martial items but clerics and magicians having spell options. One tip, learned the hard way, is to buy plenty of torches, as you're screwed if they run out mid-dungeon. Arrows or javelins are also important for flying creatures, and elixirs for healing. Most items have an associated menu command; this is a rare game in which the inventory list and the interface are roughly the same thing.
Equipment the warrior can buy.
The game begins on the first level of the dungeon. The dungeon has two levels, but also at least one special area. The first level is 30 x 15. There are about 10 squares on the level that offer you the option of opening a trap door and entering a room below. It's in these rooms that most of the action takes place. 
You choose a "leader" for the party, who is less a leader and more a permanently active character. The other characters don't do much until the active character changes or dies. 
Setting a new leader after my warrior dies.
Rooms may have any combination of monsters or treasure. When you encounter a monster, you can attack with a melee or ranged weapon, cast a spell, or flee. The best action is determined by the type of monster. Melee weapons work well against physical creatures, but not flying one. Those are best taken down by arrows. Javelins work well against large creatures. Undead and spiritual creatures can only be harmed by magic. If the active character doesn't have the appropriate weapon or skill, the best thing to do is flee. Otherwise, killing the creature allows you to take the room's treasure.
In a room with a snake and silver bars. The message to the left indicates that I can shoot an arrow, attack with my mace, attack with a javelin, use my "Vermin ID" (basically an "Identify Monster" object), use my pole, eat a yam, or drink wine. I can also flee.
If you use an arrow, javelin, or lance, you have to play a little mini-game by which a cursor moves back and forth along the bottom of the screen. You hit SPACE when you want it to stop and fire. I've never seen anything quite like it this early in RPG history. 
Shooting arrows at bats. The black line in the white area at the bottom bounces back and forth. You have to time it and hit the SPACE as the optimal time to hit a bat.
In between these rooms are twisty hallways and a plethora of squares that trigger wall sections to open or close. Some of these triggers so radically reconfigure the dungeon that it's virtually impossible to map. There are also trap squares, but some of these are the same as trigger squares, and I'm not sure what toggles them. Exploration is quite a challenge.
The square containing my asterisk in the first shot is the same square that is above the asterisk in the second shot. The area reconfigures significantly depending on which direction you approach from.
From what I can tell, the pieces of the scepter are all found in regular hallways, usually at dead ends, rather than in rooms. I found three of them on Level 1. I suspect a fourth is in a room to the southwest, but I can't figure out how to get in there. There's a trigger square in the northwest that opens a passage, but other triggers squares close the same passage as you approach.
A trigger square opens a door elsewhere.
Getting to Level 2 requires you to find a room with a tunnel, then use the pole to vault into it. Level 2 seems even crazier than Level 1, with numerous squares of lava that you have to either find a trigger to drain or trust your dexterity to jump over. I found a weird creature offering to sell things in one of the rooms, including valuable torches, arrows, and elixirs, but we kept getting attacked by monsters during the transactions.
Some spider-thing offers to sell me arrows.
There's also a teleporter square that takes you to a special area called . . . damn it. My computer crashed and I lost the notepad on which I wrote it down. It was something like "Maze From Hell." It's a single screen with six exits that leads to identical-looking screens whichever way you go.
I never found my way out of this area.
Unfortunately, my attempts to play and win the game seem doomed by its extreme fragility. This might be an artifact of the original program, a modern emulation problem, or some combination of the two. I don't even understand the issues that I faced trying to get the program to run, something that both Dungy and Jason Dyer helped me with extensively. My understanding is that the program is so big that in order to have room for the saved characters, you can't have the TRS-80 boot files on the same disk, so you have to boot with one disk, then swap in the game disk, a process that didn't work for me for various reasons. But the problems go deeper than that. The game would refuse to recognize characters after I created them. If you try to clean out old characters to make space, you sometimes get stuck in an endless loop. Every errant keypress seems to cause it to dump to the system prompt. It often gets stuck loading areas. My main character, who had good stats to start, suddenly ended up with everything set to 9. And after successfully getting to Level 2 once, I found myself unable to get there again, even with a new party. The game either crashed or froze every time I tried, even after re-downloading a clean version of the disk.
One of many deaths. Fortunately, you can save anywhere. Unfortunately, reloading a saved game doesn't often work.
Some of these issues may still be solvable, but I feel like I've wasted enough of my time and my readers' time on the game. We'll chalk up these difficulties to issues with modern emulation and give Red Dragon its due for offering some interesting game elements in a time when the best mechanics for CRPGs was still an open question.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: Here Today to Introduce the Next Phase

Terrorizing people wherever he goes.
After that rambling entry on finding the right exploration pattern, while waiting for your responses, I started re-exploring the Clouds side, including clearing out the towns and doing a loop around the roads just to see if I could. I ended up re-purchasing most of the skills from Clouds and frankly many of the spells. I realize this goes against the experience many of you wanted to read for Darkside, but I guess the fundamental problem is that the two games seem like one game, and thus it seemed silly to take five huge leaps backwards.
At some point, I realized that if I didn't cut it out, I would probably end up just re-exploring Clouds again with a new party. So I reloaded with the party I ended Clouds with and decided to continue with them. They probably provide a greater challenge than training up a new party, since a) I have non-optimal classes; and b) I sold all their items at the end of the game, so they're starting Darkside with nothing.
The short-lived "new" party cleans out Nightshadow before I came to my senses.
I discovered one amusing thing along the way. In Clouds, I made liberal use of the +10 level fountain in Nightshadow. A lot of you thought that was overkill, opining that you had never used the fountain. This confused me a bit because I was barely winning some battles even with the bonus. However, I realized during this last session that I hardly ever had the bonus at all. My usual M.O., after getting the bonus, was to return to Vertigo and go to the temple to get the temple bonuses (eventually, I got "Day of Protection" and "Day of Sorcery," but I rarely cast them because I became paranoid about wasting gems). But because the +10 level fountain had increased my maximum hit points, I also usually paid the temple for "healing" (i.e., bringing my actual hit point total up to the new maximum). What I didn't realize was that getting healed at the temple, for whatever reason, removes fountain bonuses. Through the entirety of Clouds, I was using fountains to buff and then immediately undoing the buffing before entering battle. No wonder I didn't notice a significant difference.
Wiping out the goblins and gremlins in Castleview again.
I thus re-cleared Castleview with the old party and re-contacted Ellinger in his tower. I had missed a secret area in the tower the first time, which led to the clouds above it. This side of Xeen also has explorable areas and walkways above its towers. However, where these areas were isolated on the Clouds side, they're interconnected on the Darkside. A "skyroad" winds its way around the entire map and provides access to its towers from the top down. There was at least one suggestion from an NPC that I might have to use these pathways to reach towers for which I can't find a key. I explored for a little while but didn't linger.
The skies of the Darkside are more linear and connected.
Castleview is in A4 along with Castle Kalindra, which as per Ellinger's intelligence was "out of phase" with reality and thus inaccessible. A bottle in a nearby river held a message from Queen Kalindra: "Help! I am being held captive in Castle Blackfang!" Nearby, another bottle had a message from Xanthus the Sorcerer, inviting us to visit him 25 squares west of Castle Blackfang.
I thought the Dragon Pharaoh was the ruler of Darkside.
The area is full of fields and plains swarming with "electropedes," which weren't too hard. Almost immediately, I found an encounter that I would not have enjoyed if not for finishing Clouds: Falista the Unicorn had relocated to the meadows of the Darkside and restored my magic points every time I visited.
We should domesticate and harness the power of these creatures.
I got 500,000 experience points for saying PALINDROME to another Drawkcab Monk named Reger. A fountain raised my armor class by 10 temporarily; another gave +25 might and a third offered +100 luck. Luna the Druid asked me to recover three stolen golden statuettes that she needs to use her healing powers. The thieves in the Great Southern Tower probably stole them; I can get a key from the keeper of the fountain near Venom Pond.
Area B4 started with more meadows. In a hut, Nibbler the Monkeydog asked me to recover Mongo Melons for him. Fortunately, I'd already found a bunch in A4. In return, he suggested we visit the dungeon in the Sprite Forest, and he gave us a key.
For a small world, Xeen sure does have a lot of sentient creatures.
In Might and Magic III and Clouds of Xeen, I had complained that the small 16 x 16 maps didn't allow enough terrain space for the different points on the map to be memorable. I doubt anyone remembers the "Barbaric Mountains" or the "Land of the Giants" of the Clouds side because they only occupy a single small map. Perhaps aware of this, the creators did something a bit different on the Darkside. There are fewer distinct geographic zones, and thus these are larger, stretching across multiple areas. The "Sprite Forest" starts in B4 and extends to F4, although it is called the "Aging Forest" by the time it gets to the far east side. Four maps in a row were mostly dense thicket that prevented us from seeing into the next square (the need for the "Pathfinder" skill was perhaps more justified). 
The guardian of dungeons on this side.
Encounters held across multiple maps, too. Early in B4, the party tumbled unceremoniously into a "troll hole" and found themselves fighting trolls (grunts and chiefs) in the dark. There were about eight such holes. I tried to avoid falling down them by keeping "Day of Sorcery" (which includes "Levitate") active, but time passes so quickly outdoors and spells wear off. Usually, falling down yet another hole was my reminder to cast the spell again.
It's hard to imagine how these two things are connected.
Each troll hole was a small dungeon with dead adventurers. There were notes indicating that the trolls had stolen gold from the thieves' guild, and the suggestion was that many of the dead adventurers were thieves who had died trying to reclaim it. A few chests held gold and gems. The best part of the troll holes was a series of barrels labeled "troll juice" that poisoned the character drinking it but raised all attributes by 1. Eventually, in the last troll hole, we met Hobstadt the Troll King. We had options to surrender to him or fight. We killed him, of course.
Here's a troll in the light.

I like that the series is doing more of this, but come on.
For B4, C4, and D4, the primary enemy in the outdoor map were "medusa sprites." They sound like they have some kind of paralysis attack, but they died so easily that I never experienced it. A hut in the forest belonged to Sharla the Sprite, who wanted our help rescuing her sister from "the orcs." I had options to help, help in demand for a reward, or try to rob Sharla. Again, it's nice to see more role-playing choices in the series, even if I did the obvious thing (offer to help). She's supposedly located in the Temple of Bark, which is just a few steps from Sharla. It wasn't until later that I got the key from Nibbler, and I thus haven't visited yet.
Throughout the forests, all the way through E4, were a series of huts that offered "forbidden fruit." Sometimes, these caused some effect--unconsciousness, confusion, insanity--no matter what. Usually, though, they provided a permanent +10 boost to some statistic to whoever ate the fruit. There was no way to tell ahead of time what the statistic would be, so I just gave them all to my paladin.
This one didn't work out for us.
C4 had the South Tower, for which I didn't have a key on my first pass. A well offered +50 elemental resistance (temporary), and an altar offered +10 to all statistics (temporary). 
As we got into D4, the medusa sprites were replaced with dark wolves. They weren't very hard, either. But E4 and F4 confronted me with much more difficult enemies: mantis ants and giant killer cobras. These were the first enemies in the game so far clearly meant for higher-level parties. Both were hard to hit and took several rounds to kill in melee, particularly the cobras. Mantis ants caused poison, and the cobras' special attack magically aged the characters by 5 years. Fighting both of them let me to experiment more with spells. I really like "Shrapmetal," which does a fair amount of damage but uses no gems. If I'm willing to sacrifice some gems, both "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt," which scale with the caster's level (as does the cost) do a fair amount of damage. However, my experience with them reinforced what most commenters have said: this is a game of physical attacks. It's rare to find a spell that outperforms a physical attack, and when you do find one, it's almost always a very high-level spell that wipes out half (or more) of your spell points. The only problem with physical attacks is hitting. The game does some steep scaling of THAC0 (or whatever this series calls it) by character level. 
The toughest enemies so far.
Character level, in fact, seems to matter more than anything else for combat success. As I mentioned, I started this session with no equipment. I slowly gathered some as the session progressed, but by the end I still didn't have a full set of armor pieces for every character, and only three of the four characters capable of wielding a bow had actually found one. None of it really seemed to make any difference. Fighting with their fists, my characters seemed to do nearly as much damage as they did with swords. When I had trouble hitting the killer cobras and mantis ants, a visit to the well of +50 accuracy barely helped. A visit to the well of +10 levels, on the other hand, helped a great deal. I'd love to work out the specific math, but it appears to me that levels provide a significant multiplier to the other statistics.
This is some bull@#&.
There fortunately weren't that many killer cobras and mantis ants. F4 brought a stupid and annoying "encounter" in which characters would get randomly brained by low-hanging branches and knocked out, no matter how high their hit points had been before. There was also a "Venom Pond" that poisoned us when we stepped in it. As promised, the nearby fountain keeper, Thaddeus, gave us a key to the Great Southern Tower. We had to promise to try to find the lost Jewel of Ages, which will restore the life-giving waters of the fountain.
I don't know what we expected.
On the far east side of the bottom row, we met Celia and Derek. We had saved Celia from zombies on the Clouds side. They had relocated here and they gave us a platinum sword. 
An encounter I wouldn't have gotten if I hadn't played the previous game.
Having finished the bottom row, we returned to the Great Southern Tower. There are three other great towers on the Darkside map. This one was inhabited by rogues, who fell before us by the score without even touching us. A logbook indicated that they had stolen Luna's statuettes and the Jewel of Ages and sold them to various people throughout the land. There were a number of trapped chests that required reloading (they wiped out my entire party), plus some kind of puzzle involving buttons that I'm not sure I solved. I did find two energy discs, though, which brought my total up to five.
The thieves on the other side looked more menacing.
The skyroad above the tower had a combat with an "air golem," which wasn't hard. But then a group of "sky bandits" ambushed us and demanded money. When we refused, they turned into dragons and wiped out the entire party in a single combat round. We'll have to return there later.
If you just appeared in this form, I'm sure more people would turn over their money.
With the energy discs in hand, I returned to Ellinger, who used them to restore the first floor of Castle Kalindra. We explored it, but there wasn't much. A number of locked cabinets had magic items; in a weird dynamic, the cabinets had combination locks, but the game told us what we "sensed" was the number, and in all cases, it was right.
How do we have any idea? Is this a check against thief skill?
There were a number of NPCs at tables and such. Kenneth the Butler thanked us for freeing them, as they were about to run out of food. Audrey the Cook said they survived on sun-dried lizard innards. Terry the Waiter said that Alamar stole the Cube of Power. Jones the Spy said that he heard Alamar claiming to have Prince Roland (from the Clouds side) in his basement. There were trainers for "Armsmaster" and "Danger Sense," but of course my party already had those. The throne was empty.
Of course. The queen is in another castle.
As we finished the first level of Castle Kalindra, we took stock of our open quests and noted the following. The ones with asterisks (*) we could do right now; the ones with pluses (+) are waiting for a higher level; the ones with at symbols (@) are waiting for an item; and the ones with question marks (?) probably have some kind of precursor, but I don't know what it is yet.
    @ CL A2 11,9: Southern sphinx; need key.
    @ CL B3 11,0: Tower for which I don't have the key.
    @ CL D1 10,15: Tower for which I don't have the key.    
    @ CL E1 14,12: Dragon Cave.
    + CL E1 15,2: Volcano Cave.
    + CL E3 3,4: Dungeon for which I don't have the key.
    @ DS A4 13,15. Return to Luna with the three golden statuettes.
    * DS B2: Recover griffin statue from Sandro in Necropolis.
    * DS C4: Explore the Temple of Bark and free the sprite.
    @ DS C4 1,7: Return after freeing sprite.
    * DS E1 1, 11: Location on treasure map found in Castleview.
    * DS E1: Visit Xanthus the Sorcerer.
    ? DS F1: Castle Blackfang. Free Queen Kalindra.
    * DS F2: Get dragon statuette from head witch of Lakeside.
    @ DS F3: Recover the Jewel of Ages from the Great Eastern Tower.
    @ DS F4 6,7: Return the Jewel of Ages to Thaddeus.
    ? Find energy discs and bring them to Ellinger to restore Castle Kalindra. 
    ? Get the pegasus statuette from the "head heretical cleric."
A few miscellaneous notes:
  • The series seems to have abandoned the idea of "lairs" (monster headquarters that you could destroy for extra experience and items). Although the Clouds side had them, I haven't seen any here.
  • I keep stashing excess money and gems in the bank. My gold total is over 2 million, and I have almost 40,000 gems. (These totals include the big haul I got below.) So far, training has escalated to about 4,500 gold per session, so no problems with money yet.
  • There are no special elemental "corners" with reflectors on the Darkside. Whatever those are, only the Clouds side seems to have them.
  • While I was playing Clouds, I made a joke that there are hardly any elves and dwarves to be found in the game world, let alone the other official races. I'm not sure you ever meet a single gnome or half-orc who isn't part of the party. This session made me realize how many other sentient creatures exist in the world. We've got talking monkeys, unicorns, leprechauns, minotaurs, fairies, dragons, and various humanoids pictured in cut scenes. It feels a little overcrowded, frankly. Where are the other "monkeydogs?" Is Nibbler the only one? If so, is he immortal? Where did he come from otherwise?
  • This game seems to really love button puzzles. About four of the dungeons I've explored so far have numerous buttons. I just hit them and hope something happens, but I rarely get any confirmation that it does. For all I know, I've missed half a dozen secret areas.      
I finished off this session by going to the Temple of Bark, which is guarded by some kind of minotaur-like creature. There were orcs inhabiting the place, looking nothing like the orcs from the Clouds side, though I guess this is true of all the shared monsters. Neither the orcs nor their shamans were capable of doing any serious damage to us, although there were a number of spear traps that occasioned a lot of swearing and healing. I freed the sprite plus several other prisoners held in cages. There were two energy discs.
These orcs look more serious than the other side's.
The dungeon was full of attribute-boosting bonuses, including potions and barrels (which unfortunately also had a magical aging effect). A button and lever puzzle that culminated in drinking from a fountain gained us +19 to all attributes! My characters started this session with many attributes still in their 20s and ended with hardly anything below 60. There were also some fountains that provided a +50 boost (permanent) to all elemental resistances.
Even better: each of these potions could be used twice.
The more interesting part of the Temple of Bark was the lore, as provided by numerous books. As often when it comes to Might and Magic, a lot of it is silly and perhaps I'm reading too much into it. The Temple of Bark was dedicated to a primordial being called Bark or Barkman. His own history claims that he was the first living being on Xeen, sharing the world with Sky and Sun. (To add to the oddities: one of the prisoners I freed was named Sky.) Seeking other living things to speak with, he convinced Sky to rain on him and Sun to shine on him, and all the living beings of Xeen grew from spores that he dropped. Later, the Weed sought to corrupt other living beings.
The age-old saga of the battle between Bark and Weed.
It could be just a bunch of nonsense, but there's a line ("something was not 100% confidence") that suggests Bark may be another Ancient creation. Perhaps his origin myth preserves some truth about how the Ancients seeded Xeen with life. More interesting, a document about "morning ceremonies" tells the Disciples of Bark to:
Take ye then the Bark of the Tre, and sprinkle it with ash. The ash symbolizes the Yak, the Bark the Moo. March ye congregation in a circle about the Tree, directing the half of them to chant "Yak" and the other half "Moo." After three circuits of the Tree, command the worshippers to sit where they are and clasp hands, all the while continuing the holy "Yak" and "Moo" chant . . . then plan the Holy Bark of the Tree (with the ash sprinkled upon it) into the ground next to all the other Holy Bark implantations.
It's hard to know what to make of this. There was a Temple of Moo in Might and Magic III and a Temple of Yak on the Clouds side. Remove that silliness from the ritual, and basically you have instructions for taking cuttings from a tree and planting it in ash-rich soil to make another tree. Did the Ancients convince primitive beings to seed the world with trees by turning it into a ritual? Are the Temples of Moo and Yak examples of cults that lost their original purpose? As usual, it's tough to determine if there's deep stuff below the surface here, or if the authors are just screwing around.
Evidence, perhaps, for the latter.
Bark was encountered in the flesh on the lowest level of the dungeon, a sprawling area shaped a bit like a tree. There had been warnings not to feed the "branches" (the northern extremities) but rather to feed the "roots" (the southern ones). Feeding the roots enabled the fountains that caused the +50 resistances. But I fed the branches, too, which brought Bark out of his secret area in the center. He had 37,000 hit points. My first battle with him went poorly. My spell points had already been low, and my casters were unable to keep up with "Power Cure." We succumbed after about 15 rounds. I reloaded, "Lloyd's Beacon-ed" out of there, rested, buffed a bit, and returned. We killed him in about 20 rounds.
His death unlocked some treasure chests, which gave us 25,000 gems and 2 million gold pieces, the largest treasure haul in either side of Xeen so far. 
Prepare to be depressed, economy!
I ended with a quick visit back to the Clouds side to run the circuit of the four druids and thus cure our magical aging.
I probably won't continue to explore the Darkside map in rows; instead, I'll do it by quest. Either way, I've fretted enough about exploration patterns. Might and Magic games pack their areas with so much content that you really never feel bored even if you're over-leveled and exploring "artificially."  
Time so far: 10 hours (including 5 spent with previous party)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Game 411: The Amulet (1983)

The Amulet
Numenor Microsystems (developer); Tri-Micro (publisher)
Released 1983 for DOS
Date Started: 29 April 2021
Date Ended: 29 April 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
The Amulet is a relatively shameless plagiarism of The Valley from the previous year. I covered it in 2014. The Valley had been published as type-in code in the April 1982 Computing Today in the United Kingdom. Somehow it made its way to P. K. Winter in Toronto, who would have had to adapt it to a different platform. You would think in so adapting, he would have maybe added or modified some elements, but all he seems to have done is change the proper names in the needlessly-complicated backstory offered by the original.
This is just the same story as The Valley with the proper names changed.
In creating your character, you choose from five classes: wizard, thinker, barbarian, warrior, and druid. If you screw up and hit an invalid key, you become a "peasant." These classes are the same as The Valley except that "druid" replaces "cleric."
Both games take place on a single screen. A jagged path, looking a bit like a mountain range, cuts through the map and offers safe spaces to rest and travel. Two castles anchor the path at the end. There are some fixed locations on the map that open into six secondary screens: two swamps, two forests, four dungeons, and a castle. The goal is to collect an amulet, six stones, and a helm, all of which are necessary to save the land from an evil wizard. You have to collect them in a particular order--the amulet first, found in the Temple of Rhyangioth; then the six stones, found in Scylfdun Castle; finally the helm, in the Lair of Eoghan.
Fighting a centaur.

Comparable screen from The Valley (1982).
All the "action" takes place on the random black squares that you traverse from point to point. Every time you step on one, one of seven things can happen--the same seven things as in The Valley:

  • Nothing
  • Combat with one of the game's 19 enemies, including orcs, ogres, fire giants, rock trolls, harpies, centaurs, and balrogs
  • A hoard of gold, which does nothing except increase your score
  • A "circle of evil" that supposedly drains stamina and "psy" power, but it doesn't seem to do anything
  • A "place of ancient power" that restores stamina and power
  • An "aura of deep magic" that increases maximum strength and psy power commensurate with the experience you've earned since the last aura
Combat is extremely basic. Sometimes you surprise the enemy and get a chance to retreat. Otherwise, you strike at the head, body, or legs, with the chance to hit decreasing but the damage increasing in that order. You can also try to cast one of the game's three spells, which become available at various experience thresholds. The spells aren't named, but their lurid descriptions when you cast them correspond with something like "Confusion," "Fire Bolt," and "Death Bolt." Again, this is all from The Valley, which offered the same combat options and the same basic three spells.
The spell descriptions are a bit much.
The different classes have slightly different balances in strength and psy power, but not enough to make any significant difference. The game is fundamentally easy because there's no escalation in monster difficulty by time or area. You can defeat the most difficult monsters with your starting strength. Since your strength only grows from there, you spend 90% of the game way overpowered.
Finding the Amulet. Now for the stones.
The key inputs are easy to master, but the interface is otherwise annoying as hell. You spend most of the time waiting for messages to finish so that you can type in your next command. During combat, you only have a split second to type what you want to do, or the game says "too slow," and the enemy gets a free hit. If you accidentally hit a key too many times, the commands stack in the buffer. Very often, enemies got the first half dozen combat rounds to strike at me without penalty because the game was still acting on the directional keys I had been pounding before combat begins.
But persevere and you can collect the items easily in a couple of hours. Just like The Valley, the only acknowledgement that you've "won" comes from the score you get when you check in at a castle. Except I can't get it to say my rating is higher than 2 despite having the amulet, all six stones, and the helm. The only way you can tell that for sure is by looking at the saved game roster.
Why is it so low?

At least the character screen shows I have the amulet, six stones, and the helm.
The Amulet deserves no more than the 11 points that The Valley got in the GIMLET. (It has no inventory, no NPCs, and only the barest character development.) I'm tempted to subtract some for plagiarism, but I've never done that before. The author appears never to have worked on another game, although he did self-publish some fantasy books.
I had to reach past a couple of games to get to The Amulet (and even then, I needed LanHawk's help with a file issue). Dragon Maze for the Macintosh wasn't working, although after drafting this entry, I found a version that did. I'm still playing Mission: Thunderbolt, but I won't have anything to report until I survive a bit longer. Darkside of Xeen will be up next.
Demon Venture: Reign of the Red Dragon is a 1982 game for the TRS-80. Commenter Dungy has been a big help finding it and almost getting it to work. The game is a bit fragile, but Dungy found that he could get it to work if he mounted a system disk in Drive 0 and the game disk in Drive 1, then loaded the relevant file on the game disk. The problem is that when I try it, I get a "File not found" error for anything on the disk in Drive 1. If I switch it to Drive 0, it finds the file, but then the game doesn't work for other reasons. As far as I can tell, we're using the same configuration (TRS-80 Model I), so neither of us can figure out what's wrong. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. I'm using the TRS-32 emulator.

Monday, April 26, 2021

BRIEF: The Missing Ring (1982)

The Missing Ring
United States
Datamost (developer and publisher)
Released in 1982 for Apple II
Re-released in 1988 for Apple II by SoftDisk
The 1980-1983 period was a crazy time for RPGs on the Apple II. The predominance of the models set by Wizardry and Ultima had not yet taken hold, and developers were still trying all kinds of wacky things like Crown of Arthain's hex-based movement, The Dragon's Eye's side-view action combat, and the way that monsters could gain experience and level up in Stuart Smith's Fracas. There was the weirdness of the entire Empire series and the modular text adventure approach of Eamon. Most of the features of these games were evolutionary dead ends--mutations that offered no reproductive advantage, if you will. The Missing Ring fits neatly into this time period.
The SoftDisk version has introductory text lacking in the original.
The game concerns the attempt of the hero to find a missing ring of power in an Enchanted Palace. I don't know what the original backstory said, as I haven't found any documentation that accompanied it. The 1988 SoftDisk rerelease calls the hero the "Ambassador of Llahmot" and the creators of the ring the "Council of Reliew." These names are clearly taken from SoftDisk employees Tom Hall and James Weiler and thus almost certainly were not mentioned in the original, written by a Terry Romine (who has no other credits).
The diskmag really hyped things up for the re-release.
With up to four other characters, the hero enters a maze of numbered rooms full of monsters and treasure, including the titular ring. You don't create a party so much as just choose from a list of archetypes, including "fighter with sword" or "elf with bow." The characters otherwise have no equipment, no attributes, and no names. The maze, including placement of monsters and treasures, is randomized for each new game. 
The various character options.
The control scheme is the first oddity. There are two sets of controls, ostensibly one for left-handed players and one for right-handed players. Some sites report that the scheme allows for two players to play at once. I guess that would work, but you'd have to have agreement over which player controlled which characters.
Entering the dungeon.
Movement keys are RDEF on the left and OLKP on the right, with those keys respectively corresponding with forward, back, left, and right. The clusters make sense if you angle your hand slightly towards the center of the keyboard. Similarly, both "T" and "U" get treasure, and both "B" and "M" use magic. A couple of commands are shared.
You control each character individually. Each gets 5 or 6 moves per turn, with the game passing for you if you haven't done anything in about a second. You can keep the characters together or fan out throughout the dungeon, which is a pretty cool feature for the year, although it's better in theory than in practice. Guiding every character across the room and through the door gets old fast, and if the game was working for me, I suspect I'd try to get through it with a single character.
Enemies include goblins, orcs, and hell hounds. When you fight them (with the SPACE bar), you get a crosshair that you can put over the enemy you want to attack. At least, that's the theory. One of the reasons this is a BRIEF is that the game crashes for me every time I encounter an enemy.
The game crashes before the hell hound appears.
My sense is that the purpose of the game is simply to explore, fight, and grab treasure until you finally find the ring. You can exit to the lobby at any time and visit a merchant for healing potions (the only inventory item you have) or to convert gold to experience. I'm not sure what experience does. There are no designated levels. I assume that your prowess is somehow enhanced as your experience grows. 
Finding treasures, which I can convert to healing potions or gold.
I've tried six versions of this game and I can't get any of them to work right. I've tried both the original version and the SoftDisk re-release, which has an introductory menu with the instructions and backstory. The ones on Virtual Apple and Asimov have unreadable text. A commenter sent me two copies back in 2016; one of them hangs after party creation, the other one crashes every time I encounter a monster. I know that playing is possible because there are screen shots on MobyGames and a video on YouTube, but I'll be damned if I can get it. I've tried every possible configuration in AppleWin.
I could fight in this version; I just couldn't read it.
If someone gets it working for their own purposes or already has it working without these problems, then feel free to send me your configuration and version, and maybe I'll try again. (I do not want anyone to try to get the game working specifically for me, and I'll go so far as to refuse to play it or even acknowledge your message if it's clear that's what you've done.) Lacking inventory, and possibly lacking attribute-based combat, it's not really an RPG by my definitions anyway, and I'm happy to leave this as a BRIEF.
[Ed. The parenthetical in the above paragraph was a bad idea. Certain readers and I have a long, I hope friendly history in which they take any obstacle I face as a personal challenge and "help" me even when I've suggested based on the quality of the game that I don't realy want any help. In the end, they always come through anyway, as they did here, and I always play the game, as I did below. And in the end, I always appreciate their efforts in holding me true to the mission I have laid out, even if I act grouchy about it. I was making a commentary on this dynamic, but it comes across as harsh and ungrateful if you don't know the rest of the context. Perhaps it comes across as harsh as ungrateful even if you do. I apologize either way. I realize this is a dangerous thing to be joking around with if I honestly want readers to come forward and help, so I won't be doing it anymore.]
All right, a reader helped me with yet another version of the 1982 original. This one sometimes froze when opening chests, but otherwise it worked.
Now that I've experienced more, it's clear to me that the author was influenced heavily by Dunjonquest, albeit with a party instead of a single character. The similarities are less in the specific mechanics of gameplay and more in the basic structure. Both games have numbered rooms, for instance. In both, the character converts his accumulated treasure to gold when he exits the dungeon, and can then visit a merchant for upgrades. Both have one-time-use potions that can be purchased before your next expedition to offer an advantage.
You can purchase a variety of potions to aid you in the next foray.
The Missing Ring has more randomization than Dunjonquest. The general layout--an 8 x 10 grid of rooms--remains the same between games, but a lot is randomized, including which doors become secret doors, which doors are locked, which doors are one-way, which room in the top row serves as the entry room, and the placement of monsters and treasures, including the titular ring. The dungeon wraps horizontally and I assume vertically; I only once found a southern wall with a door in it, and it was locked. The wrapping is a bit odd, though, as the game finds a way to nudge you one row south as you wrap to the east. Thus, Room 7 takes you to Room 8, and Room 47 takes you to Room 48. If there were no walls, you could explore all the rooms by just heading east.
The dungeon layout. Some elements may vary.
There are a few treasures in addition to gold and gems. You find goblets that may poison or heal you, a magic mirror that tells you what the goblets do, keys to open locked doors, and a statue that for me always crumbled into living enemies. Rings are also there; more on that below.
Sure, if I can take it out of the dungeon and run it through the washer first.
There are several types of combat. Melee characters have to get close to enemies and waive their weapons by hitting the SPACE bar. Missile characters can shoot from anywhere in the room, targeting enemies with a crosshair. Spellcasters can fire spells like "Magic Missile" using the same sort of targeting cursor. Although I "won" with a fighter with a bow, I eventually found the extra step associated with missile combat annoying. I ended up cranking the emulator, moving my character so that the monster was in the default location where the targeting cursor appeared, and just leaned on the SPACE bar.
Aiming a bow at a huge spider.
Enemies include dogs of war, hellhounds, orcs, goblins, zombies, gargoyles, skeletons, huge spiders, giant rats, and something called a "wraight," which I assume is a cross between a wight and a wraith. Some of them have missile or magic attacks and can thus target you from a distance. I found that they were universally awful with their aim, however, and I thus rarely had to worry about death with any character. Take that with a grain of salt because I think that futzing with the emulator speed might have had something to do with their ineptitude. I also bought Potions of Speed before most of my sessions, so perhaps those are just way overpowered. I was just trying to document the game, so I didn't question it much.
You only get one or two points per defeated monster, no matter how tough they are. I was wrong about the game not having attributes or explicit levels. It's a bit complicated. Once you leave the dungeon the first time, you can save your characters. Only then can you give them names. After saving them, you can see their statistics, and they do have strength, wisdom, constitution, intellect, dexterity, an armor class, and levels. Attributes seem to increase in levels. Leaving the dungeon and saving the character ends the current session, and you thus re-enter a newly randomized dungeon.
Stats are only visible once you've saved the character after at least one exploration session.
There's some semi-sophisticated stuff going on with spells. I didn't play a wizard very long, but the program suggests that as he gains levels, he can acquire some fairly sophisticated spells, including "Charm Person," "Sleep," "Dancing Lights," and a spell called "Locate Ring." 
Casting a "Magic Missile" at a large spider.
I still don't understand what's going on with the rings. I managed to map the entire dungeon and find at least one ring, in the hands of an evil mage. Once I killed the mage, I opened the treasure chest in the room, and I was told I'd found a "Golden Ring." I assumed this was the ring and started to write this addendum as if I'd won the game. I got no acknowledgement when I left the dungeon, but I assumed that the game was like the Dunjonquest sequels where the only acknowledgement you get is the screen in which you find the treasure.
For a while, I thought I had won.
But I searched the programming code and I found a place where someone says, "Ah, I see you have a golden ring! I can summon a wizard to cast a spell on it if you desire." This seems to come from the merchant, although I never got such an option when I spoke to him. Presumably this spell either identifies or enchants the ring, because later in the code are different types of rings: Ring of the Djinn, Ring of Regeneration, Ring of Storing, Ring of Weakness, and Ring of Teleport. (There's also an Amulet of Secrecy, apparently.) Finally, there's a bit of code that says, "[Hero's Name] has collected all of the rings. He will be added to the winner's circle!" 
The evil mage guards the golden ring.
I don't know for sure, but this suggests that a winning character will have to make multiple trips into the dungeon, each time finding a new ring within the one room that has a special treasure, until he has all of them. Even if I was willing to spend the time to do this, it's not going to work if the game won't acknowledge that I have a ring in the first place.