Friday, February 26, 2021

Game 404: Time Traveler (1980)

Stony Brook is on Long Island. It has a decent jazz club. It's probably closed now.
Time Traveler
United States
Krell Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80
Expanded and released again as Odyssey in Time in 1981
Date Started: 20 February 2021
Date Ended: 21 February 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Partly user-definable but ultimately easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at Time of Posting: 64/404 (16%)
I rejected Time Traveler years ago, thinking it was so manifestly an adventure game that whoever categorized it as an RPG on MobyGames ought to have his account revoked. I finally sat down to BRIEF it today and discovered that I was wrong. It's not much of an RPG (but honestly, what was in 1980?), but it's certainly not an adventure game.
It is, specifically, a variant on The Wizard's Castle from the same year, where you explore a grid in which any square might hold encounters, traps, and treasure. Instead of a single map with multiple levels, there are 14 maps (each 5 x 4) in different eras of human history, ranging from ancient Egypt (1300 BCE) to World War II Germany. You play a time traveler visiting each era with a quest to retrieve a magical ring.
I can't help but hear "where to?" in the Clouds of Xeen mining cart voice.
It's an interesting concept. A modern game could have a lot of fun with it, and the player could learn a lot about history while he plays, as I inevitably do every time I pick up an Assassin's Creed. In this case, however, the various "eras" just determine what text is inserted in various encounters, all of which otherwise play exactly the same. You can envision the programming as you play:

Where A$ is set to "GEORGE WASHINGTON" in 1779 or KING RICHARD during the crusades. I don't want anyone to get the impression from these screenshots (as I originally did) that the game offered textual descriptions of various scenes in each era. It's nothing like that. You don't stroll past pyramids in ancient Egypt or get to foil Nazis in World War II. Everything that happens in the eras is purely mechanical. There isn't even a bit of flavor text describing the era when you first arrive.
I did learn one thing, however. As you arrive in each new area from the main menu, you immediately have to choose a "side" in whatever conflict they're experiencing. If you go to Denmark in 1000, it's the Vikings or the villagers. Japan in 1790 puts you between samurai and peasants. For 50 BCE Rome, you choose between Caesar and the "aristocrats." "England 1644" has you choose between "roundheads" and "cavaliers." I vaguely knew that the year would have been during the English Civil War, but I didn't know those were the terms, respectively, for supporters of parliament and supporters of Charles I. So that's something.
You face this same type of choice as you enter each era.
After making your selection, you arrive in a random square on the 20-square grid. Each era has the same selection of potential squares: dock, house, arsenal, treasury, prison, barracks, market, field, [local ruler's] headquarters, cave, town square. Some of these have buildings which offer an additional set of encounters inside. You start each era unarmed and with 1,000 gold pieces; any weapons or wealth you amassed in your last era disappears when you leave.
The game tells you what you see in your current area, which can include any combination of the following: a crowd of commoners, guards, a sign, gold, weapons, or one of the rings. The latter three options only show up if your last action was to search. After seeing what each square holds, you have a number of potential options. I'm going to list them all out because I otherwise couldn't find a manual, and someone might come along needing assistance. Your success in all of these areas is influenced by a "difficulty" variable that you can set from 1 to 6 at the outset of the game.
  • B)ribe: If there are guards in the area, this will make them go away. You want to do this to avoid them spontaneously attacking you, or to get them to stop blocking the way into a structure in that square.
  • D)rop weapons. The only reason I can think to do this is that sometimes guards won't let you into a building if you're armed.
  • F)ight. Gets rid of guards the old fashioned way.
  • G)o. Leave the square by going any cardinal direction or IN or OUT of a building. If you're in a market square, you can also attempt to go to your time machine.
  • I)nformation about what rings you've collected and which are still outstanding.
  • M)ap
The game map.
  • P)ersuade. If there's a group of commoners in the square, you can try to get them to join you. Success depends on your "eloquence" skill (and maybe whether you sided with the "commoner" faction), which goes up if you pass and down if you fail. Once allies join you, they remain in your party for the duration of the era and make combat a lot easier.
  • Q)uit the game.
  • R)ead a sign. Sometimes you can't read it; sometimes it says "Keep off the Grass"; sometimes it tells you where to find the era's ring.
Signs aren't always accurate, but I think this one was.
  • S)earch. This is how you find gold, weapons, and the ring. 
  • T)ake anything that came up during a search. If you take weapons, the game will show you as "armed" from that point, and your chances of surviving combat improve. The same goes for your group.
  • U)se the power of a ring. More on this below.
  • W)ait. Causes a turn to pass. This happens automatically if you don't act within a few seconds.
There are a number of spontaneous things that can occur, too. You can experience a "time machine malfunction" that whisks you suddenly to a new era. An informant can turn up and offer to tell you the location of a ring for a certain amount of gold. Guards can demand half your wealth in taxes. The local ruler can spontaneously order your arrest (this seems less likely if you sided with his faction). Finally, guards can just decide to attack you for no reason.
That's gratitude for you.
Combat is resolved automatically. As it begins, you're told how many people are on your side how many are on theirs, and whether either side is armed. The game automatically calculates a probability of winning based on these variables, generates the appropriate random numbers, and tells you the result. If you win, your "combat skill" variable goes up; if you lose, it goes down. Your "health" may also go up or down. If you win, generally all that you "gain" is that there are no more guards on the screen. If you lose, you might be imprisoned in the "prison" square and have to escape or fight your way free. You can also die, but the time machine rescues you and zaps you to a new era when that happens.
I hadn't picked up the weapons yet, so I'm unarmed with a low combat skill. My probability of winning is just 40%.
Here, I have allies, weapons, and a much higher score.
As you can imagine, your success in each era depends partly on strategy but a lot on luck. You might arrive in an era and immediately get approached by an informant who, for 800 gold pieces, tells you that the ring is in a market. A market square is one move away from your starting square. You go there, search, find the ring, and immediately GO to your time machine and make your escape.
On the other hand, you might spend a dozen rounds manually searching each square, finding no allies, getting no informants or helpful signs, fighting off packs of guards ordered to arrest you, eventually defeated and imprisoned, stripped of weapons and gold, stuck in a loop where you can't seem to get free of the prison but the guards won't actually kill you.
Stuck in an Italian prison with a low probability of fighting my way free.
The good news is that you can't die, so there's no way to lose permanently. Even on the highest difficulty, you just have to roll with the punches until you can start fresh in a new era, where you might get lucky. I found that a good strategy was to try to enlist allies as soon as possible and find weapons to arm them. That way, I could usually explore most of the map with a high probability of winning any combats that came along. The bad news is that there's no way to save, so you do have to win in a reasonable time if you don't want to keep the program running permanently.
I pay for a hint.
Each of the rings has a useful power that you can invoke if you're carrying it, and you can carry up to three rings between eras. I admire some of the clever things that the author made the rings do within its limited mechanics:
  • The Ring of Thoth (Egypt) ensures you can always read signs.
  • The Ring of Hammurabi (Babylon) increases your eloquence.
  • The Ring of Solon (Athens) speeds up healing.
  • The Ring of Romulus (Rome) helps you locate other rings.
I find the Ring of Romulus in a marketplace
  • The Ring of Joshua (Jerusalem) makes you invulnerable.
  • The Ring of Rune (Denmark) lets you warp out of the era and back to the time machine from anywhere, with perfect success.
  • The Ring of Paul (Crusades) does something called "anachrony." I have no idea.
  • The Ring of Augustus (Italy) stops the other rings from disappearing. See below.
  • The Ring of Alfred (England) lets you escape prison with 100% success.
  • The Ring of Eagles (USA) increases your gold.
  • The Ring of Gaul (France) slows time or something. I never tried it.
  • The Ring of Jimmu (Japan) automatically searches as you move around squares.
  • The Ring of Nevsky (Russia) lets you start each era with weapons.
  • The Ring of Loki (Germany) makes you invisible.
The problem with carrying all of the rings is that there's a good chance that they'll disappear or get stolen and return to their own eras. Having the Ring of Augustus stops this from happening, I guess, but I always got nervous carrying the rings and generally found the best strategy was to deposit them in my time vault as soon as I could, ensuring I didn't have to replay their eras. (Once you deposit a ring, you can't pick it up again.) I won on a difficulty level of 3, and I suppose at a higher level, it might be necessary to make the rings a greater part of your strategy. Romulus and Rune would be a particularly potent combination: Warp in, find the ring, and immediately warp out. But without Augustus, you probably lose one or both of them in short order. Augustus with either Romulus or Rune might be better.
Unfortunately, nothing happened after I had found and deposited all 14 rings. I'm not sure if there was something else to do, as I never found a copy of the manual. I did inspect the code, and there's a line that tells the program to flash "THE GAME IS OVER," but my interpretation of the rest of the code is that you would never reach that particular line. Then again, my knowledge of even BASIC is only, well, basic. I can't otherwise find any winning text in the program, so I'm going to call it a win anyway. I'll score it as a 15 on my GIMLET, with 1s and 2s in all categories.
I got and deposited all of them. I don't know what the game wants me to do. (I think the asterisks mean that you don't to "Use" those rings; their powers are active as long as you possess it.)
I didn't have a great time with Time Traveler, but it was almost . . . acceptable. With a few more variables, a little more use of the themes of the eras, and a little more complexity, this could have been a decent game. It perhaps was for 1980. A reviewer named Terry Romine covered it in the first issue of Computer Gaming World and gave it a medium-rare review, ultimately concluding that "after a person develops a strategy, the game will quickly become a series of stale replays." In the December 1980 issue of Dragon, Mark Herro says that when he started to play, he intended to "roast" the game, but later had some fun as he tried to figure out the best approach through the eras. Still, the idea that this game sold for the equivalent of $80 today ($24.95 in 1980) is mind-blowing.
This ad clip shows Krell selling the upgrade alongside the original.
We've seen New York-based Krell Software before, most recently with Sword of Zedek (1981). That game used a similar approach--grid-based exploration with a variety of potential encounters in each square, including the ability to P)ersuade groups of monsters to join as allies. The "Search" and "Take" functions are essentially the same between the two games, and combat is resolved similarly. I'm relatively sure they were programmed by the same author.  The company was around only a short time (roughly 1980-1983) and never developed anything graphical. In 1981, they repackaged Time Traveler as Odyssey in Time, which offered 10 additional eras and a save feature for $39.95, or about $120 in today's dollars. I was unable to find it, but unless it offers a lot new, I'm not particularly interested in finding another 10 rings.
I had a major project due this week, so you might see another "easy" one before I get back into either of my primary games.


  1. These are the sort of games that emphasize the "addict" in your blog's title. I do not envy you the task of pushing this particular rock up a hill.

    I do, however, enjoy reading your take on obscure games like this.

    I have mixed emotions.

    1. Having played a bunch of shareware games along this level back in the 80s... I still find them fascinating little side trips when mixed in with the commercial heavy hitters!

    2. Yeah, the fact that almost no one will remember this (there isn't even a manual online) paradoxically makes it more important to write about than a game that's been played, explained, shown, and strategized to death like Xeen. I especially get a real kick out of it when Chet can contact the original author(s).

    3. Fully agreed P-Tux7, especially because hunting down obscure stuff is a big hobby of mine (much to Chet's annoyance, as I have informed him about more than 40 games that weren't on his list yet :p). There's something fascinating about those forgotten artifacts of the past, much more so than the well-known classics.

      I've spent the recent weeks deep diving through abandonware sites and the Steam store in search of really obscure stuff, and I found plenty of it. I'm searching through the RPG tag in the Steam store and listing the games by price, starting with the lowest (because the really cheap stuff is usually the most obscure). I'm around page 500 of over 700 and have discovered several really interesting games that all have less than 10 reviews.

  2. Love seeing that chunky Apple II text, and a text-based game that I could have coded myself, had I been about 10 years older at the relevant time...

  3. If you go to Denmark in 1000, it's the Vikings or the villagers. Japan in 1970 puts you between samurai and peasants. For 50 BCE Rome, you choose between Caesar and the "aristocrats."

    If you find yourself in Japan in 1970, there are way better things to do than rehash centuries old feudal conflicts.

    1. It's a simple typo: look at the screenshots, it's Japan in 1790...

    2. He just transcribed 1790 incorrectly - not that I can find any significant samurai vs peasant encounters in that period. There was a a small Ainu uprising about then but it’d be an unusual choice considering the scale of the other events listed.

    3. Also, am I wrong in thinking that in Denmark in 1000 AD, the villagers and vikings are probably the same group of people?

    4. @Daniel: eh, kind of but also not really. Viking was more of a job than anything, so its really kinda more like "pirates attacking local citizens". It's possible some of those villagers also go a-viking themselves on other occasions, but in any particular conflict they could still be totally different groups.

    5. The ruler of Denmark, Sweyn Forkbeard was a viking, but from what I'm reading, he seemed more like a typical European Christian ruler, rather than a Ragnar Lodbrok type, though he allegedly descended from him.

    6. By 1000 AD, the viking era was already coming to a close. 800-900 was the height of it, later on the Scandinavian areas feudalized and formed their own united kingdoms (such as Norway which was famously united by Harald Fairhair, who vowed not to comb his hair until he became the king of all Norway... once he did so, he combed his hair again and became known as Harald Fairhair).

  4. Where did you get the source code? This looks like it could be easily ported to a modern language for a little fun and exercise.

    1. Seconded, a look at the source code would be interesting...

    2. I think it is interpreted Basic. The program is only source code, there are1 no compiled files.

    3. Basic isn't *easily* ported to anything, but it's likely to be short enough that reimplementing it in another language would be simple enough to be a hobby challenge if you had the code.

    4. I took a look at the code, and wow, this is GOTO spaghetti city. Take a look at this gem:
      802 [Stuff]: ON KJ GOTO 803,3000,114,114
      803: GOTO 808

      The "THE GAME IS OVER" line can, in fact, be reached. Line 804 has conditional GOTO logic to reach that part. But I can't for the life of me figure out what that logic actually is. The variable "I" is used to decide where to go from there, it's a multipurpose variable, and figuring out how it can get set to exactly the value it needs to be to win the game and still reach that line in the flow is going deeper into the woods than I care to.

    5. Yeah, I'm trying to sort out the code right now, and it's an absolute drag due to wildly GOTOing and GOSUBing all over the place. It's the worst spaghetti code I've seen in my life, to the point where it almost looks like it was deliberately scrambled after development to obfuscate the code that was released. Not having readable variable names (due to language limitations) doesn't help, either.

      Line 804 is where the user's command is evaluated. The variable I contains the number corresponding to the letter entered (A = 1 etc.), and the "ON I GOTO ..." instruction selects the I'th entry from the list of line numbers that follows and GOTOs there. 804 is in the place of Q(uit), so it looks like the only way to see that game over message is to manually exit the game – there is no win condition check.

    6. That's funny because "GOTO Considered Harmful" predates this game by over a decade.

      As I recall, some BASIC interpreters even allowed things like "GOTO KJ * 10".

    7. Thanks for taking a look, everyone. I forgot that the "Game Over" message comes up when you quit. It sounds like there really is no "winning message," then.

  5. This would be a pretty neat framework for a modern indie roguelite on mobile. Just need to give the eras a bit more character.

    P(Win) tickles me.

  6. "before I get back into either of my primary games" Ouch, next thing we know, Magic Candle 3 is put on the back burner for another year!

    Like a lot of your readers, I really enjoy the posts about these old games. The games are usually not very good because of the technological limitations of the time, but there are a lot of original ideas in them that are fun to read about.

  7. Could the ring that prevents "anachrony" be something that stops you from "randomly skipping" through time? That would make some sense from a word that seems to be related to "anachronistic"

    (I tried Googling it, but just found a board game with the same name)

    1. It may also suggest allowing you to retain weapons or gold between eras.

    2. Looking at the code, i *think* if you are wearing a ring which came from a time zone which is earlier than the time zone you are in, you will loose the ring, unless you wear the ring of anachrony.

    3. Sorry - should be "wearing a ring from a time zone which is *after* the time zone you are in".

  8. Krell software made a number of strange titles, all of which seemed to promise more than they delivered. This was the one Krell game on Mobygames I didn't add, so don't blame me for this one.

  9. Damn, that's a waste of a cool premise. All these time periods are pretty interesting! I love ancient Mesopotamia so visiting Babylon in a game would be awesome... there are so few games in that setting.

    And then you also get Egypt, Athens, Rome, Renaissance Italy, WW2 Germany... but none of it has any real character to it. Meh. I would have been disappointed had I bought this.

    1. Btw. There seem to be a new game Set in Mesopotamia Out now. "Neppuchadnezza" (surely spelled it wrong...) Which Looks Like the old Pharao/Ceasar Games with Updated graphics

    2. Seriously, it's a 1980 game.

      No Wizardry, no Ultima, no King's Quest; Zork and Akalabeth are from the same year.

      What expectations one could have about a game in 1980 that would lead to disappointment?

    3. I wasn't alive until 1988 so I would have bought it a decade later :p

  10. I had this on my list as a potential adventure but discarded it as an rpg.

    Makes me wonder if there's any you discarded as being an adventure and I did the reverse. "You take it! No, you take it!"

    Some of these just defy categories, tbh.

    1. One thing the Adventure Gamer has taught me is not to regard "adventure game" as some kind of default category--a game that didn't quite make it to RPG status. So even if this one lacked the RPG elements, I don't think I'd call it an adventure game.

    2. Well, there was The Legacy a while ago, which Chet put down as seriously lacking for an RPG but maybe Advgamer will like it; whereas Advgamer put it down as pretty bad for an adventure game but maybe CRPGaddict would enjoy it. Turns out the game is not very good for either genre.

    3. As the guy who did the review for TAG, I didn't say it was bad for an adventure game, I actually said it wasn't an adventure game. Didn't really feel to me as anymore of an adventure than a random Dungeon Master clone, and even then it wasn't very impressive. Out of all the RPG games to get stuck with the adventure label, it felt less adventure-like than something like that Conan game from 1991.

    4. So I guess we need an adventure-RPG addict after all.

    5. So Chet, if you no longer regard adventure games as games that "didn't quite make it to RPG status", maybe you should remove that very phrase from the always-visible side panel of your blog.

  11. Off-topic, but I'm curious what the jazz club was in Stony Brook. Stony Brook also has a very good public university!

    1. Ah, it was years ago. I don't remember. It was on the main drag through town, and I think it shared the same building with a Chinese restaurant.

  12. One could draw parallels between you supporting George Washington yet he calls for your arrest, and supporters of a certain president today. I guess this is the realism of emergent gameplay!

  13. Granted, it's not a RPG but this game makes me think of the Timequest. . The player doesn't pick sides, but there's a lot of meddling with the history:)

    1. Ha, wow, you beat me to it. I hadn't refreshed the page before I posted my recommendation.

  14. Jumping around through time to these different eras most reminds me of the hybrid text adventure Timequest, from Legend. I did the TAG review for that one, and one thing I noted was that some of the locations were much more detailed than others, to the point where some look nearly identical in every era. Of course, having some graphics is bound to be better than no graphics at all. So if you like the idea of the eras from Time Traveler but want more historical flavor and puzzles, try Timequest.

  15. I'm just posting to say, for the first time in several years, I'm completely caught up on the blog!

    1. Good to hear! Give a hand to Canageek when you get a chance. He's reading stuff I wrote when Obama was still president.


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