Saturday, February 13, 2021

Game 402: Theseus and the Minotaur (1982)

 
Since this game never references Dungeon!, I'm not sure why TSR wants us to know that it's a trademark.
         
Theseus and the Minotaur
United States
TSR Hobbies (developer and publisher)
Released 1982 for Apple II
Date Started: 6 February 2021
Date Ended: 7 February 2021
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: User-adjustable, but ultimately very easy (1/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)    
     
Although TSR never tried to bring Dungeons & Dragons to computers on their own, they did make a brief one-year foray into computer game design. In 1981, the company hired a couple of young programmers to write three games for the Apple II: the awkwardly-punctuated Dungeon! Computer Adventure Game, Theseus and the Minotaur, and Dawn Patrol. None of them are RPGs, though they're close. Dungeon! is a computer adaptation of a 1975 TSR board game that might be considered a "lite" version of Dungeons & Dragons. Dawn Patrol is a fighting simulator that draws themes from TSR's World War I RPG of the same name. Theseus is an original maze game that recounts the adventures of the Greek hero as he saves King Minos's daughter from the labyrinth.
      
The games are important to CRPG history for a couple of reasons. The lesser one is that TSR must have been dissatisfied with the experiment, because they never tried to make another game on their own after 1982. They would partner with other developers from here on. More important, one of the young developers, Bruce Nesmith, discovered that he liked designing games more than he liked programming them. He stayed on at TSR for the next 13 years, writing modules and books for the various Dungeons & Dragons settings. When he left the company during its mid-1990s decline, it was to return to computer gaming--as a senior game designer for Bethesda Softworks. He worked on The Elder Scrolls: Chapter II - Daggerfall (1996), left the company for a few years, and returned in time to write quests for Oblivion (2006) and Fallout 3 (2008) and ultimately serve as the lead designer for Skyrim (2011). 
         
One of the minor denizens of the labyrinth.
          
Little of Nesmith's future glory is evident in Theseus, a minor maze game meant to be random and replayable. The backstory of Theseus generally follows the myth: The son of King Minos of Crete was assassinated in Athens during the Olympic games, leading to a war between Athens and Crete. As a peace condition, Minos demanded that Athens annually send seven boys and seven girls to Crete, where they were fed to the minotaur, a shameful product of Minos's wife's coupling with a bull (there were extenuating factors not worth exploring,, but it was ultimately Minos's fault). To stop the carnage, Theseus, son of King Aegeas of Greece, volunteered to go with the next tribute so he could slay the beast. Whereas in legend, Minos's daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of string so he could find his way out of the labyrinth, here Ariadne has been kidnapped by the minotaur and must be rescued.
       
Enemies include a female minotaur in a dress with a rolling pin.
       
The game takes place in a labyrinth of three procedurally-generated levels, each taking up no more than 10 x 10 spaces. There are multiple up and down stairways connecting the levels. Somewhere in the complex are Ariadne, the Minotaur, about half a dozen other minotaur-esque foes, and a handful of snakes. You start with 100 hit points and no equipment.
         
The game asks you some questions as you set up.
        
At the outset of the game, the player specifies a maze "complexity" from 1 to 100. You get more points for higher complexity, but it's supposed to be a lot harder. In truth, I didn't find more complex dungeons any harder. They just had more staircases. Since you have to map no matter what, extra staircases don't mean very much. Neither do the other settings that you get to tweak during setup. One is whether the maze has any secret doors. If so, you have to bump into walls to search for them; if not, you don't. The other is whether the maze has "mirror rooms." These are like combinations of teleporters and spinners from other games; when you enter one, you get confused, and your next move immediately casts you out of the room in a random direction and then faces you a random direction. Both elements make the game longer, but not particularly harder. Since you get more points for more complex dungeons, you might as go hog wild--although not all the way, because I found that the game crashed when I tried to create dungeons with a complexity of 100.
     
The top row represents the three levels of the labyrinth with a complexity of 1. The bottom row are the three levels with a complexity of 50.
        
That brings us to the biggest issue with the game, which isn't evident in a modern emulator: it's slow. The 2-3 minutes it takes to build the dungeon is nothing compared to the roughly 7 seconds it takes the game to register your commands and redraw the screen. Only by cranking the emulator to about 700% did I find it tolerable.
   
Mitigating all of this is an opposite factor: the game is easy. Technically, your only winning condition is to escape the dungeon. The moment you enter, you can turn around and leave. If you set a relatively high complexity level, you'll even get a pretty high score. The other supposed quest elements--rescuing Ariadne and killing the Minotaur--simply serve to increase your score when you do leave. Other killed monsters also add to the score, but every turn you spent in the dungeon subtracts a bit from it.
        
The Minotaur attacks as I turn a corner.
       
Even if you decide to stay and handle the other tasks, the game isn't very hard. For the first roughly 150 turns, you can restore any lost health by simply hitting the W)ait option, so in the early game, you just want to charge through the corridors, killing everything you see, then waiting to restore health afterwards. There are two types of enemies: snakes, which must be fought within the same square as you; and other enemies, which you fight from one square away. Either way, you only have one option in combat. You start only with fists, but once you kill a creature, you can search his body for weapons. If you find one, it's usually a bone (yuck!). Eventually, you'll come across a message with a "magic word." If you use T)alk to say that magic word out loud, you get a magic sword.
        
An inventory check after looting a slain foe (on top of a down stairway) reveals that Ariadne is in my inventory.
           
After the game stops letting you rest and heal, it becomes more strategic. You generally want to save your health for the Minotaur, so you simply map until you find him (it's best to get the magic sword first), taking alternate routes to avoid enemies when you see them. They don't pursue you. Ariadne is hidden in a random square, and you can't see her from a distance, so you have to explore every square until you find her. Both times I found her, the message flashed so quickly that I didn't notice. I just happened to notice later that she was in my "inventory." If you rescue Ariadne before you meet the Minotaur, he'll kidnap her again when you run into him, and after you kill him, you'll have to find her wherever he stashed her the second time.
         
Winning the game after rescuing Ariadne and killing the Minotaur on a complexity of 50. On a complexity of 1, rescuing Ariadne but not killing the Minotaur, I got a score of 1,345.
            
That's about it. A winning game on a high complexity takes no more than about 30 minutes, and most of that is mapping. There are a couple of mysteries. In addition to the message telling you the secret word, you get another that says, "Flee from the magic word" (maybe it's trying to trick you), and still another offering you the "secret." For instance, in my last game, the message said, "The Secret is the Zebulon." I have no idea what that meant; speaking the word causes the screen to redraw, but I'm not sure what actually happens. There's also a note in the manual about not killing friendly creatures, but I don't think I ever encountered any.
         
I have no idea what this is about.
         
I've seen some web sites claim that Theseus is a computer adaptation of Robert Abbott's 1962 pen-and-paper logic maze of the same name. In the game, one "character" (Theseus), who has the ability to move wherever he wants, tries to escape a maze in which a second character ("The Minotaur"), moves each round according to fixed rules. If the first character encounters the second, he loses. The problem is that while Abbott published a logic maze of that type in 1962, he didn't call it Theseus and the Minotaur until his 1990 book, Mad Mazes. This version has been adapted to a number of computer applets of the same name, but the 1982 game is really nothing like it.
          
The halls of mirrors have a fun in-game graphic, but they don't amount to much.
         
However, it does seem to me that Theseus draws a lot from the previous Apple II game Dragon Maze (1978), which plays a lot like a pen-and-paper logic maze. In general, there was an early fascination on the Apple II with 3D mazes and the associated graphics. The point of Theseus is not so much to kill the Minotaur and rescue the Princess but to map the dungeon. As I made the maps above, it occurred to me how trivial a task it was for me, having done hundreds of them, but it must have been relatively novel for many players of the era. Simply figuring out a path to follow, aligning staircases, remembering that right is east, and getting oneself untangled from the "halls of mirrors" would have been challenges by themselves. On the other hand, I don't want to over-emphasize this. When Theseus was published, Akalabeth, Ultima, and Wizardry had all been out for at least a year, and they offered the same sort of maze challenges in the context of the type of role-playing to which you'd think TSR would have aspired.
          
The box art is the best part of the game.
       
The game GIMLETs poorly. Like many non-RPGs (it fails all three of my criteria), it gets the highest rating (3) in "Gameplay," as it is meant to be replayable and short. Nothing else tops a 1. The total is 9. When we next encounter Bruce Nesmith, we should see those numbers go a lot higher.

 

47 comments:

  1. One more on the list, congratulations.

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  2. Kudos to you for having the patience to finish this. I gave this a spin in MAME since I was curious, and as it turns out, its Apple //e driver can successfully create dungeons with a complexity of 100, although it took what felt like an eternity. Not as long as the time it takes for a Commodore 1541 to copy Ultima III's scenario disk, but still very long. Even building simple mazes seems to be a time-consuming affair.

    While I applaud the game's devotion to its motif and find the actual maze element entertaining, I have to agree with you on the game ultimately being too slow to be enjoyable. Turning is quick, but it takes several seconds just to move a single space forward, making Wizardry feel like Sonic the Hedgehog in comparison.

    What's funny is that I actually managed to pass by a pin-wielding minotauress without being attacked. I was able to bump into her without initiating combat, and while she wasted no time retaliating when I struck her - dealing about three times as much damage as I was doing with my fists - when I ceased combat, turned, and moved past her, she made no effort to continue attacking or give chase. At first I thought she might have been one of the friendly creatures described in the manual, but since enemies can't move and fight in the same turn, it's possible that she just never caught up to me. Or maybe it's like Wizardry in that any enemy can randomly decide to be friendly.

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    1. Turning around, walking out, and getting a screen that says "You have won!" really does a lot to eliminate "patience" as a requirement to finish a game.

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    2. You aren't kidding when you say "any enemy". The very first time I reached level 10 in the original Wizardry, I encountered a "friendly Werdna". I (and the friend with whom I was playing) thought that was so hilarious we left without fighting, only to discover this put us in a walking dead scenario because there is no way to escape the dungeon without the amulet you get from killing Werdna.

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    3. Encountering a friendly Werdna sounds like the start of a fantastic twist ending.

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    4. Didn't the Addict also encounter a friendly Vecna?

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    5. I'd give my left hand and eye to see that.

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    6. No, I just got teleported directly to his lair by my thief failing a "Teleport" trap. But Kyle told his story before on my Wizardry entry, so that's probably what you remember.

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  3. So when do we next encounter Bill Nesmith? You have me really curious. I tried googling him, but there are a lot of Bill Nesmith.

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    1. Based on the blog post, seems we'll encounter him at Daggerfall.

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    2. The credits of the game (and Skyrim's as I see) refer to him as Bruce Nesmith. Is he the same person?

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    3. That was just me being sloppy. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  4. Why is there a minotaur with a rolling pin?

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    1. Maybe it's Mrs. Minotaur searching for her husband to talk with him about his interest in a certain human female.

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    2. This Mrs. Minotaur reminds me Hotline Miami style. She would suit well in that world with her deadly rolling pin.

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    3. So she can serve mankind in a pie, of course. What did you think the Minotaur did with the humans?

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    4. My apologies. Reading this again is sounds snarky but it was just meant as a joke. Maybe I should have said "what else would the Minotaur do with the humans" or something like that.

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  5. D&D and video games in general love to pluralize creatures that were unique individuals in Greek legend. When I saw the title "THE Minotaur" I briefly thought this game would go against the grain. But no, minotaurs are again treated is a species and have some sort of '50s domestic ecosystem inside a labyrinth.

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    1. I would really, really like a CRPG where monsters are unique, or at least low in number. It's so much more epic to fight THE minotaur or THE dragon than to slay your way through hordes of either.

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    2. I don't know of any RPGs that do this exclusively, but many games do treat very powerful enemies as unique encounters. In my opinion, the best part of Dragon Age 3 was hunting down each dragon since every fight was both unique, but similar to the others. You had to really think about what you learned in the last encounter and how you'd need to adapt to the powers of the current dragon and the environment in which you fight it. Truly enjoyable.

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  6. The saddest thing about this post is realizing Skyrim is 10 years old and still doesn't have a sequel :(

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    1. The saddest thing about Skyrim and Oblivion existing is that we'll never get a proper sequel to Morrowind :(

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    2. Do you mean that the specific mechanics used by Morrowind won't be coming back, or that you felt there were plot threads left unaddressed by the end of Morrowind?

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    3. Specific mechanics likely won't be coming back (complex spellmaking, layered equipment slots [although Fallout 4 had armoe customization so maybe this might come back], levitation and locations that are designed around it, the quest compass is here to stay so we won't have to read NPCs' directions to know where to go... if they even give any), but it's also about the setting and how it's been neutered/retconned.

      Morrowind had a supplemental text describing the other provinces of the empire: The Pocket Guide to the Empire. Cyrodiil and Skyrim were a lot more exotic and had much more in-depth cultures than what we got in Morrowind's sequels. The worldbuilding just isn't the same anymore. Elder Scrolls has become way more "standard" fantasy after Morrowind, and there's less effort put into diversifying the local cultures, too.

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    4. We haven't seen the next game yet, so for all you know, those things DO come back. In particular, "survival mode" in Fallout 4 got such positive feedback that I have hopes they'll implement something like that, or at least give the player the option to turn off quest markers.

      "Complex spellmaking" hit its zenith in Oblivion, not Morrowind. As for exotic locales, I still have hope that either the next or a future edition will be set in Akavir. And while I agree that Morrowind was the apex of worldbuilding, I still think it was better in the next two games than 90% of RPG titles out there.

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    5. On the levitation point, I just replayed Morrowind, and I have to point out that while levitation is fun, it's also _extremely_ broken. There's a (non-engine) reason that the DLCs force it off for all the final areas - it makes any melee enemies and really most outdoor exploration into a complete triviality.

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    6. Morrowind is an interesting game, but it is seriously broken in a lot of ways. Like its sequels, it's a better base for modding than it is a game in its own right. It's very much a "make your own fun" game, in the sense that its most annoying qualities can be averted by a player who understands the mechanics well, but such a player will also not face a lot of challenge unless they intentionally choose to avoid the game's more cheesy exploits.

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  7. "Nothing else tops a 1." should be "everything"? I might be wrong, a lot of things you write seems invalid to me but in the end they are fine and it is my English that is... Invalid :)

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    1. I'm no native speaker myself, but "nothing else tops a 1" would mean "nothing else > 1".
      If you use *at* instead of *a*, you could say it the other way around: "everything else tops at 1" -> "everything else ≤ 1" (although I'm not sure if that could be read as "everything else == 1", which would be something else and have a higher sum than 9).

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    2. mitch's interpretation of what I meant is correct. "Tops" means "is greater than," so "nothing else tops a 1" means "nothing else is greater than a [score of] 1."

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  8. "The box art is the best part of the game."

    Larry Elmore delivers!

    Thanks for covering this one, I was always a little bit curious after documenting its advertisement seven years ago, but not enough to go out and get my hands dirty. http://videogamecomicads.blogspot.com/2014/01/tsr-hobbies-computer-games-apple-ii-1982.html

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    1. I absolutely are in love with his artworks. I will always remember the time when I was at a German boardgame fair years ago and to my surprise (hadn't checked or expected any VIP attendants before) there he sat, THE Larry Elmore drawing his wonderful art.

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  9. I played ‘Dungeon!’ when I was 6, but thought it was called ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, so was rather disappointed with the red box I got for Christmas....

    Dungeon! Is a bit of a strange game, and about the only thing it has in common with D&D is the setting. Mechanically it is quite simple, short and random.

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    1. I remember coming up with some house rules to make it more D&Dish, but I forget what they were.

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  10. The monsters look like they were taken from another game, with a bull head pasted on.

    Also, I saw a butt in the ingame title picture and now I can't unsee it.

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  11. Hey, if all the 80+ games on your mop-up list are 3 hours max., you'll be done with them in a week.

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    1. I'm not sure I agree 100% with your math.

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    2. If there are 80 games and you average 2.1 hours per game, you'll be done in a week as long as you don't take any breaks to eat and sleep.

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    3. Or write.

      Still, there's an intriguing possibility here. Some week this summer when I'm off from work and have nothing else to do, I should see how many games I can burn through in a single week, sleeping as little as possible.

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    4. That sounds like a bad idea.

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    5. To me it sounds like a decent way to get rainy day entries for when life gets in the way

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  12. I can't help it: The title screen looks like a posterior with glued on horns.

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  13. I guess you could argue the real name is "Theseus and the Minotaur Game", since they seemed intent on clarifying the fact it is a game on the title screen.

    Now excuse me, I'm off to go play Skyrim Game.

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  14. Zebulon? Aren't zebu cattle? Haha

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