Saturday, February 6, 2021

Game 400: Dragonsbane (1983)

Quicksilva doomed these authors to anonymity with just those initials.
         
Dragonsbane
United Kingdom
Independently developed; published by Quicksilva
Released 1983 for the ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 24 January 2021
Date Ended: 29 January 2021
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 14
Ranking at Time of Posting: 46/404 (11%)
    
I've made a lot of fun of ZX Spectrum games over the years. With its 16 KB of RAM (base model) and lack of a floppy drive (until 1987), it simply wasn't capable of any serious RPG effort. It never got ports of the best American RPGs, including any Wizardry or Ultima, although somehow someone managed to cram a Bard's Tale port on there. Its default font looks alien, and it has the most limited keyboard of perhaps any popular computer of the era. But I know it has its fans, and I'm sorry for insulting it yet again. I hear Lords of Midnight is a pretty good game. 
    
Thus we have here another limited ZX Spectrum RPG, but Dragonsbane does something a bit different. It doesn't try to compete with high-end RPGs and fail, nor does it deliberately set out to be a low-end RPG. Instead, it uses RPG conventions to offer a game of a different sort entirely--a game that I'm not even sure has a named genre.
           
The game requires you to free the princess from her shackles.
        
The setup is that you're in a 172-room labyrinth. Elsewhere is a princess, locked by two chains that require two keys. A dragon has one of the keys. Roaming the other rooms are 40 creatures, two of each of 20 types, 33 of them hostile (specifically, there are 16 pairs of hostile monsters, and two centaurs, one who is hostile and one who isn't). There are around 32 items, most of them weapons, to defeat the creatures. The rules work like this:
  
  • The dungeon layout is fixed (see below). You always start in Room #59 with 16 meals and a sword.
  • Every new game, the creatures and items are distributed randomly. Monsters can move, but slowly and not very far.
  • Also distributed randomly are chutes that teleport you randomly from any room that has one.
  • Every creature has a weakness to one of the weapons. If you attack him with that weapon, he usually dies in the first round.
  • You can only carry 7 items at a time.
  • You have strength and endurance meters that increase as you eat food. You start with 16 meals and can find more or trade items for them with friendly creatures.
  • Every step you take through the dungeon depletes your endurance and strength. Eating restores them. You can only eat 3 meals at a time without getting sick and halving your strength.
  • If you attack a creature with a weapon that isn't the one for which it has a weakness, he'll only die if your strength is high enough or if you have a strength or skill potion, which are among the randomly-distributed items.
      
A zombie guards a mirror.
         
All of these things come together to create a game whose challenge depends heavily on the randomization. In an ideal configuration, you start in Room #59, find (for instance) a mirror in the next room, find two basilisks (which die when you wield a mirror) in the next two consecutive rooms, then having taken care of them, immediately drop the mirror or sell it for food. But things rarely happen in an ideal order. Instead, you usually encounter enemies before you have the best weapon. (You can flee enemies, but it usually takes several tries and depletes food fast.) Or you encounter all the friendly creatures early in the dungeon and thus have no one to trade for food later on. Or the configuration of teleporters prevents you from getting to the sections of the dungeon that have what you need. It's a bit like playing a game of solitaire: If the deal buries the ace deep in the deck, sometimes there's simply no way to get to it, no matter how creative you otherwise are in moving the cards.
           
This "salesman" looks creepy.
       
A winning game takes only about 30-45 minutes if you're lucky (and you can save), but it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out the different enemies' weaknesses, and even more to get a lucky hand. Even figuring out the weaknesses isn't all that straightforward. If you attack an enemy with the paired weapon, it will kill him if you're at moderate or slightly-low strength and endurance. If you're at high strength and endurance, almost any weapon will work. If you're at low strength and endurance, sometimes even the paired weapon won't work. There are times I wrote down something like "Giant Rat = Sword" only to find out I had just been particularly strong for that fight, and the giant rat's real weakness is the dagger.
        
The "insurance policy" isn't really a weapon. It allows the next player (your putative offspring) to continue the quest with your items.
       
To succeed in the game, I had to first make a map of all the rooms to assist with navigation. Moving is weird in this game. It looks like a standard wireframe dungeon crawler like Wizardry, but the controls don't work the standard way. Every room is a standard square on which every side is either a closed wall or open door. You move with the 5 (left), 6 (back), 7 (forward), and 8 (right) keys. But hitting 5, 6, or 8 both turns and moves you at the same time. There's no way to turn just to face a different direction in the room you're already in (to be fair, I suppose there's no reason to). I think we saw this in one of those French games, too--maybe Tera
         
I'm almost dead, and no match for the dragonlord.
           
You want to then start each new game with a blank version of the map to mark off which rooms you've explored. The teleporters keep you from exploring in any systematic way. You also want to have a list of the monsters and weapons handy and note which rooms have which weapons, if you had to leave any behind, and how many times you've already encountered each monster. This is important, because if you've already met the two jellyfish, for instance, you no longer need the magic arrow and can sell it for food. But even with such careful note-taking--I can't stress this enough--the randomization for each game may make any route impossible. You certainly can't plan on a lot of backtracking. Food depletes too fast for that.
   
My map (click to enlarge). Even this is missing 5 rooms; I assume they're in some of those hollow spaces and only have one-way doors out.

      
I said that the game has "RPG trappings." Combat is a good example. When you meet a creature, the game first asks if you want to try to talk. Trial and error tells you which creatures are hostile and which are friendly. You don't want to attack friendly creatures. Assuming the creature is hostile, you get to choose whether to flee. If not, you can choose what weapon to use against him and whether to use a potion (if you have one). Then the combat screen comes up, narrating how you bashed the creature and left him stunned, or he struck you and wounded you badly. This text, however, is simply flavor; it has no basis in reality. Enemies don't actually have hit points. If you attack with enough strength or the right weapon, you kill the enemy in one round. Otherwise, you don't. Enemies, meanwhile, do a fixed amount of damage to you every round that you don't kill them. These things are true no matter what the text says. 
         
The text suggests the round didn't go well for me, but the next screen said that I killed him.
       
In addition to strength and endurance, which increase when you eat, you also have a skill meter. It increases very slightly with each successful victory, but not enough to make a huge difference. I don't think the game lasts long enough for it to reach the top, and in combat it doesn't matter nearly as much as strength.
         
I'm pretty sure I killed every enemy in the dungeon on this run, and I still didn't reach the top in "Skill."
     
To win, you have to kill the dragonlord and get his key, find the second key elsewhere in the dungeon, and find the princess. There are meters that help you by telling you how close you are to the dragonlord and princess, although a teleporter could change that at any moment. I believe the dragonlord is always in Room #172 (the only times I encountered him were there) and the princess is always in Room #1. 
         
The aftermath of my battle with the dragonlord.
          
After a couple of dozen games, I realized that the winning strategy is to forget about the monsters' weaknesses. When the game begins, immediately eat 3 meals and keep yourself hulked up by eating another one roughly every three moves. That way, you can kill almost any enemy with any weapon. The starting sword, the broadsword, the axe, and the giant axe are all good weapons to favor throughout. Hold on to strength and skill potions. Sell any excess weapons or gold every time you meet friendly creatures; meals are more valuable than anything. When you meet a creature that you don't kill during the first round, flee, take one of your potions, and try again. When you get near the dragonlord's room, eat enough meals to get your strength near-maximum and swallow a potion as the battle begins. That should be enough to kill him with almost any weapon (I haven't tried it with the mirror or the life insurance policy). Hopefully, by then you've found the second key and there aren't too many teleporters on the way between you and the princess. There's a huge chance of starving to death using this method, but I still think it's most likely to be successful.
       
You're damned right.
       
As I said in the beginning, this overall approach is something we haven't really seen before. We've had games in which monsters and items were distributed randomly, but usually in a way that is fair to any player, not in a way where 9 out of 10 distributions are meant to be unwinnable. I suppose the closest we've seen is the roguelike sub-genre, but even there, the difficulty is less about randomness and more about permadeath. Here, you can save wherever you want (at least theoretically; between the VIC-20 I used as a kid and the emulators I've used for the past 11 years, it's possible I've never once successfully saved a game to tape and reloaded it) and still find you were walking dead from the first square. That's the kind of thing I'd mind if the game were longer, but for Dragonsbane, that's the whole point.

As with many games of the era, the box is better than the game.
       
I gave it a 14 on the GIMLET. It gets a series of 1s and 2s mostly for having anything at all in those categories but a relatively high 4 for "Gameplay," which includes bullets favorable to length and replayability.

This is the sort of game for which I'd love to talk to the original authors and see if my experience matches their intentions. There were four of them, but the game credits their first name only by initials: M. Preston, P. Hunt, R. Rose, and D. Moore. I browsed a bunch of other Quicksilva titles from the same period and saw none of the same names, so I assume the four authors worked independently and then brought the game to the publisher. That seems to have been the company's general modus operandi. The prolific publisher released dozens of games between 1983 and 1988, but this was its only (quasi-) RPG.
    
Next up, we finally return to The Magic Candle III. After that, it's just one more game before 1992 comes to an end.

45 comments:

  1. So maybe I missed it, but what enemy does the insurance police work against?

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    1. death obvi. when you die, it will give your surviving offspring gold and a sword so he/she can avenge you. and so the cycle of violence continues.

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    2. Okay, that clears it up. I couldn't figure out why sometimes the character's "son" took over the quest and why sometimes he didn't. I thought the insurance policy was a weapon because of something a review said. That makes sense. I'll edit the entry.

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    3. Oh, and also because it's listed under "your weapons are:", but all items in the game appear in that list.

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  2. Amusing of the adventurer to give the dragon a Christian burial, cross and all!

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    1. It's a little known fact that most dragons are Catholic.

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    2. "It's a little known fact that most dragons are Catholic."

      This is a common misconception. Actually dragons were big proponents of protestantianism early on, and even one of the 95 theses of Martin Luther condemned the hateful and racist worship of saint George by the Catholic church. Unfortunately many of the attrocities of the resulting 30 year war were claimed to have been perpetuated by dragons, and this has resulted in the longtime anti-dragon bias in the west.

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    3. I thought they were Firebreathodists.

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    4. Mikko, how could you resist making a Diet of Wyrms joke?

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  3. The princess seems rather nonplussed about both her captivity and her rescue.

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    1. She will make an excellent queen!

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    2. Am I bad for thinking she looks kind of hot in the shackles, but disappointing out of them? Though maybe it was being shackled that caused those gorilla arms.

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  4. Do you have a list of enemies vs weapons? I'm quite curious what the salesman is weak against

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    1. I gave up trying because of the issues I discussed. It's too hard to tell when an enemy dies because of its weakness to a weapon or because of your strength.

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    2. The salesman's only weakness should have been running away from him!

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  5. From the game description, this sounds like Hunt The Wumpus on steroids. HTW is a 1973 text game that Wikipedia calls an adventure game; it's a fixed system of rooms with randomized hazards and enemies that the player can explore. It has numerous ports and sequels, too.

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    1. We had HTW on our TI99/4A... it was kinda creepy at that young age when the big red jaws started descending on the screen!

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    2. I get the same feeling. If conventional RPGs are evolved from Adventure (eventually), this feels very much like one that evolved from Wumpus instead

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    3. Well, some game historians make a case that Adventure itself is evolved from HTW.

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    4. This article that neither PLATO dnd nor Wumpus were known to the developers of Colossal Cave; and neither was PLATO dnd known to the early developers of Nethack. Since it's a primary source on Nethack, it may be relevant to this blog.

      http://www.catb.org/~esr/open-adventure/history.html

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  6. That title screen...looks a bit like 'Sir, your results are in'.

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  7. Anybody else thinks the green troll(?) on the right in the title screen looks like it's been kicked in the ... ? 😯

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    Replies
    1. The troll is obviously a patient waiting for his coloscopy results.

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  8. This sounds like a fun little game, despite it's simplicity

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  9. Another ZX Spectrum game I missed. But then Speccy piracy was not nearly as ridiculously rampant as it was on the Amiga scene.
    Quicksilva was also the first software house whose name I started recognizing, but then they were early and prolific, but would never reach the heights that Beyond, Gargoyle Games and The Edge did.

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    1. Well, in Spain there was mostly piracy for the Spectrum (I remember buying copied cassettes at the Rastro in Madrid on Sunday mornings). Btw, the Spectrum 16k lasted like one year, right? The standard one was 48k for quite a few years.

      Quicksilva did Time Gate, the first spectrum game I was able to finish. They also distributed the first really good Spanish games (Fred!)

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    2. Btw, the Spectrum 16k lasted like one year, right? The standard one was 48k for quite a few years.

      I had that thought when reading the review, in that citing those specs as evidential in some way might be analogous to saying "I've made a lot of fun of DOS games over the years. With their 640 KB of RAM..."

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    3. I bought a 48K in 1982, I think. and that was pretty much the standard for games, except for a few very early 16K releases. Of the 16K era, I think only PSSST and Lunar Jetman were considered classics.

      (The Spectrum used over 6.5K of RAM for the graphics buffer, so the difference between 16K and 48K was even bigger than it might seem.)

      All the same, it had some damn good games made for it.

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    4. And Manic Miner, I think that was 16K also.

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    5. And some of the first Horace games, but that's it, as I am finding, even on 1982. The 48k was the standard (it was the one my dad brought from London on a work trip). The 16k was just a waste of money.

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  10. I have a soft spot for the ZX Spectrum color pallet.

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    1. Who doesn't. In general I have the feeling that a limited palette gave way to more uniqueness in the aesthetic department: maybe the Spectrum games were a bit limited, but once we got to the 90s you almost could guess who developed which game thanks to the palette, shading, etc.

      Back then I recall the Spectrum palette as you do with crayons when you have a multicoloured base, then apply a black layer, and then scratch on there to make the colours below appear and make shapes.

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    2. I do like it too. Although I realize it might be a kind of imprinting / baby duck syndrome in effect. After all, ZX Spectrum games were the very first form of electronic entertainment I experienced, at an age of 8.

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    3. It does look good on an LCD monitor compared to the Commodore 64/Amstrad CPC due to it having square, unstretched pixels

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  11. It took me some time to think what the special weapon system reminds me of, and then it hit me: Legacy.

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    1. Yes! That vaguely bothered me while I was playing, too.

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  12. Ah, hard to give a name to the genre. I guess it is in the same genre as Desktop Dungeon (2013) or maybe even "Into the Breach", dynamically generated puzzles with RPG (for DD) or Tactical (ItB) trappings.

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  13. I hear Lords of Midnight is a pretty good game.

    It's a better The Lords of the Rings video game than any of the actual The Lords of the Rings video games, with the exception of the first Battle for Middle-Earth RTS, which was simply excellent, in my opinion.

    Lords of Midnight and it's sequel, Doomdark's Revenge, are definitely adventure-strategy though and not at all RPGs. Still worth a play considering they've both been remastered for iPhone/Android devices.

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    1. I had a good time with the Return of the King game for PC, a beat-em-up with some light RPG elements. Not an amazing game, but I liked it.

      There's also the Hobbit game by Sierra, made long before the Peter Jackson Hobbit films. The GBA game is good, the PC and console versions... not so much. Both versions are still highly nostalgic to me though.

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  14. 'The salesman looks creepy'?
    ...
    Obviously you never worked in retail.
    After a while it's impossible to remove the false grin without surgical means. It's sort of an self defense mechanism.

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  15. I know others have said it in the past, but I'll pile on...

    Everything on this site is fantastic, but I often enjoy the write ups on the most obscure games the most.

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    1. I never get tired of positive feedback. Thanks for reading!

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