Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

I guess the likelihood of any two players getting a tie is pretty low.
Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 8 February 2021
Date Ended: 18 March 2021
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 43
Ranking at Time of Posting: 357/412 (87%)
The first half of the World of Xeen package showcases some of the strengths of the Might and Magic series, including its dedication to side quests, frequent character development, and open world exploration. The game uses an upgraded version of the decent Might and Magic III engine, a first-person tile-based blobber that supports six characters with a satisfying variety of race, class, and attribute options. The game world is a bit empty and silly and the plot is a bit too basic. Nonetheless, the sheer number of side quests and the relatively rapidity with which you clear maps and dungeons keeps you from ever getting really bored.
At the end of the last entry, we had rescued Crodo and found Lord Xeen's castle, but we lacked the special magic sword necessary to kill Lord Xeen. It was supposedly buried in the basement of Newcastle, which raises a lot of questions regarding why a special magic sword is needed to kill Xeen and how it got into the basement of a ruined castle in the first place.
I'm glad you understand because I'm not sure I do.
In any event, we returned to Artemus, the king's advisor, who gave us a permit to construct the dungeon. Emerson, the engineer, took another 5 King's Mega Credits to order the work done, which was fine, because we still had 18 of them. We ended the game with 13. I hope there's some use for them on the Darkside.
Actually entering the dungeon required a password, but that was written all over the castle as individual syllables on statues: LABORATORY. (I had overlooked one when I reported on it last time.) Sure enough, the dungeon had a special "Xeen Slayer Sword" on a pedestal, plus a few Potions of the Gods, which I have yet to try, but I'm guessing cure you of all ailments.
How does an ancient "Xeen Slayer Sword" exist when Xeen himself didn't exist until recently?
I had Saoirse equip the sword, and we returned to the clouds above Darzog's Tower to get to Xeen's Tower. At the front door, we were told that to enter Xeen's Tower, we would require a "cupie doll." If you want to know what that is, Google it under the proper spelling of kewpie doll. Carnivals offering kewpie dolls showed up in Might and Magic III and will recur in VI. It's one of those nonsense things that shows up in multiple Might and Magics that I usually excuse but for which I am now rapidly losing patience. Anyway, to win the doll, we had to first win a bunch of individual dolls by proving our accuracy, endurance, speed, and strength at various carnival tents scattered around the area. We had returned to the area fully buffed, so it wasn't hard.
Is there anyone who thinks there's even a germ of a good idea here?
Xeen's Tower was a quick trip up several floors guarded by "Xeen's Guards," which are clearly robots. The first floor had a bunch of traps, but we disabled them by destroying poison, fire, cold, and electricity generators hidden in the four corners of the level. There was also a "guard making machine" whose destruction prevented more guards from spawning.
Why does the "fire generator" need a curtain?
The top level had combats with a huge dragon called Xeen's Pet and Xeen himself. Again, we were fully buffed and hastened, so although we couldn't have lasted more than a couple of rounds with these foes, we didn't need more than a couple of rounds. The dragon died in three or four hits.  Lord Xeen was a bit tougher because only Saoirse could hurt him. Still, killing him only took two rounds, and all he managed to do to us during those rounds was knock Mica unconscious.
I'm guessing the king hasn't really spent any quality time with his brother for a while.
Near where Lord Xeen had attacked us, we found the Sixth Mirror. Only then did I remember that I'd forgotten to go seeking it in the lava area. Before we could do anything with it, Xeen's Scepter emitted a high-pitched whine and caused the mirror to shatter. This precipitated a chain reaction by which Xeen's entire tower crumbled and got sucked into some kind of portal.
Is that anything like fingernails on a chalk board?
A laugh emerged from the portal and a masked face appeared. "You have defeated my general, Lord Xeen, and foiled my plans to conquer this world, but the Darkside shall always be mine!" He then laughed as if he hadn't just, you know, lost.
Xeen's Tower didn't seem this elaborate from the inside.
"Later, at Castle Burlock," a title screen said before transitioning us to the king's throne room. There's a quick pan through the throne room that shows a number of different individuals looking at King Burlock, and essentially none of them are from the setting's known races. I don't know what to take from that. 
Who the hell are these people? What are these people?
"Congratulations, adventurers!" Burlock said. "Crodo and I are eternally grateful. Let us review your fantastic campaign." What follows is a two-minute video of the attack and "getting hit" animations of every single enemy in the game. I was then given my "final score" and encouraged to send it to New World Computing's headquarters in Hollywood, California, to be added to the Hall of Legends. I know New World Computing doesn't exist anymore, but I wonder if whoever bought their property kept the Hall of Legends intact. I'm picturing a grand, open room in a building next to the Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, in which you can find busts of all the players who won Clouds of Xeen.  
Crodo looks so unhappy I'm beginning to suspect he was secretly working with Xeen.
I remember those guys from 35 hours ago!
After the endgame sequence, the party appeared back in Vertigo. I guess it's time to hit the Darkside. A few final notes, though:
  • If you return to Castle Burlock, the king is still going on about the mirror. What was so special about the mirror, anyway, that you can't accomplish with a combination of the existing mirrors and "Town Portal" or "Lloyd's Beacon"?
If it helps, I still think you're fairest of them all.
  • King Burlock also thanks me for "rescuing Xeen from that foul spirit." If you'll recall, the back story has "Lord Xeen" starting out as Burlock's brother, Roland. So it sounds like we somehow saved Roland. Roland is nowhere to be found, though, and one wonders why Burlock is still referring to him as "Xeen."
  • My quest log still has finding the Sixth Mirror as an active quest. It also says I'm supposed to "free Celia from the clutches of zombies in the forest and return her to Derek"; I don't know how I possibly missed that. It also has that druid quest in there, which I'm pretty sure is never-ending.
  • The game tracks accomplishments for each character. "DEFEATED LORD XEEN" is now one of them.
I'm going to put that on my c.v.
  • No trainer on this side has the ability to train higher than Level 20.
  • I kept forgetting to mention it during individual entries, but I got into the habit of banking my excess gold and gems. I end the game with almost half a million gold pieces and 10,000 gems earning an interest rate of 1% per day.
I guess I could trust these guys after all.
I had expected more interactivity between the two sides of Xeen even as I focused on the Clouds material. Since this didn't happen, it makes sense to me to rate Clouds of Xeen as a unique game and then apply a separate rating to Darkside of Xeen later. 
Going into the preliminary rating, I would say that while Clouds certainly kept me busy, I didn't find it an entirely enjoyable experience. The engine is still modestly strong (albeit with limited shelf life since Ultima Underworld made its debut), but the content is weak--probably the weakest of the Might and Magic series. Xeen simply isn't a believable place. Although in literal squares it may be larger than some of the previous games, it feels absurdly small. Three of its five towns are in the hands of monsters. Except for the dwarves presumably living in the Red Dwarf Mines, there are no signs of any of the game's canonical races. The king, his advisor, his engineer, his tax collector, and the idiot dwarf who shows up every time you try to enter one of the mines seem to be the only permanent people in the world. The quests all feel imported from better games, and the game strays too often into silliness. The main quest is about as bare and boilerplate as it gets, and yet even within its limited content, it manages to make little sense. I thus expect the rating for this one to be comparatively low.
  • 3 points for the game world. I think there's something to be said for the Might and Magic universe, but none of it is on display in the first half of Xeen. Instead, it's just a cookie-cutter high fantasy location with unrealistically small biomes.
  • 5 points for character creation and development. This aspect of the series remains moderately strong. You get a fair number of options in creation, the choice of party members does make a significant difference, and the game rewards you continually in both experience and attribute boosts.
  • 2 points for NPCs. The game doesn't so much have "NPCs" as it does a bunch of faces who first give you a quest, then reward you for that quest. You have no dialogue options and you get no lore from the NPCs that you find. The loss of hirelings is also too bad.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. Also relatively strong. The enemies have a satisfying variety of strengths and weaknesses to figure out, there are contextual encounters everywhere, and the dungeons offer a few slight navigation puzzles. Only a lack of role-playing keeps this category from going anywhere.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The game has a nice variety of spells, but I hardly used any of them. Combat mostly comes down to buffing and whacking. Spells become obsolete awfully fast. I miss the huge mobs that offered nail-biting tactical combat in the first two games.
  • 5 points for equipment. Not much of it is that interesting, but there's a lot of it, and I liked how just about every dungeon gave me a pile of stuff to sort through. I like the sheer number of wearable equipment slots and the number of items that duplicate spells, which I probably used far more often than the spells themselves. The materials don't make any sense, and I could have done without the breakage system.
  • 3 points for economy. You need money for a lot of things, but the game is pretty generous. By the fifth hour, I was just depositing large amounts in the bank despite spending a liberal amount on training, item repair, healing, and item identification.
  • 5 points for quests. The series remains one of the few that actually understands the concept of "side quests," to the extent that it tracks them for you in a log. There are no role-playing options for those quests.
  • 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are perfectly nice; the sound is a bit overdone but otherwise fine; the interface has a number of excellent elements that I covered in the first entry. This is about as high as a game can score until graphics and sound get good enough that they're truly immersive.
  • 6 points for gameplay. It has about the right length, and I appreciate the open-world nature. It's maybe a bit too easy with all the buffing and a bit too hard without it. I wouldn't call it replayable except for mega-fans who want to try challenging party combinations.
On that last point, I might recommend replaying it with something like an all-knight or all-ninja party just to see how it goes. You certainly wouldn't abuse the fountains, since the only "Lloyd's Beacon" and "Town Portal" spells at your disposal would be from magic items. You probably would want to vector half of the attribute upgrades into a single character, since one powerful character is more important than a bunch of weak ones. 
Anyway, the final score is 43, still high enough that I think you could have some fun with it, but quite a bit lower than the 52 I gave to Might and Magic III and the 60 I gave to the first Might and Magic. This is a good time to remind readers that the 60 I gave to the original game isn't inflated out of consideration of its year. All of my rankings are meant to stand on their own and provide direct comparisons to games of different eras. I honestly had about 33% more fun playing the 1987 Might and Magic than I did playing Clouds of Xeen, and I thus recommend it 33% more.
Scorpia and I were in lockstep on this one. In the January 1993 Computer Gaming World--her first review of a Might and Magic since the third one portrayed her in grotesque parody--she approves of the new shortcut spells ("Day of Sorcery" and "Day of Protection"), several interface changes, and the lack of bugs, but she has the same complaints that I do about the threadbare plot and the emptiness of the world. She's particularly critical of the final battle with Xeen, noting (correctly) that average diamond golems and other enemies are a lot harder. In contrast, the reviewers in the March 1993 Dragon absolutely gushed over it, giving it 5/5 stars.
The good news is: by all accounts, Darkside gets better. We'll have a look after the transition.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Game 407: Mission: Thunderbolt (1992)

At least the enemies look as silly on the title screen as they do in-game.
Mission: Thunderbolt
United States
MegaCorp (developer); Casady & Greene (publisher)
Based on a module originally released as Doomsday 2000 on mainframes in 1987
Released in 1992 for Macintosh, 1993 for Windows 3 
Re-released as JauntTrooper - Mission: Thunderbolt in 1995 for Macintosh
Date Started: 16 March 2021
Exposure to the roguelike subgenre is one of the best things to have come out of this project, and I'm always happy when I see a roguelike coming up on the list. It is, however, difficult not to think of them as variants of the same game. (I suppose that to some degree they are; hence, Roguelike.) If they don't offer enough new or fresh or original, I often find myself wishing I could just play Rogue or NetHack again. I imagine this will change as evolution leads roguelikes in very different directions and starts to introduce more complex plots and NPC interaction.
This leads to the fundamental problem with Mission: Thunderbolt. It's a good roguelike, no question. It just isn't as good as NetHack, and it doesn't do enough that's new and interesting, like Ragnarok, so at some point I wonder why I'm playing it except to catalogue its existence for my insane project. (These things are true so far, in any event.) But it's quite competent and fun if I force myself to stop comparing it to other roguelikes. Players who take more readily to science fiction games will rate it more highly. 
Like most roguelikes, Mission: Thunderbolt has complex characters, maze-like maps, detailed inventories, and a variety of statuses. Unlike most roguelikes, it has graphics.
Mission: Thunderbolt began on the VAX mainframe of Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts. Employee Dave Scheifler conceived of it as a multi-mission game with the overall title of Doomsday 2000. Operation: Thunderbolt was the first module, released in 1987, and it was followed by Operation: Firestorm and Operation: Quicksilver. Operation: Tsunami was planned but never finished. The game was such a hit with Scheifler's co-workers that he founded MegaCorp (of Natick, Massachusetts, famous as the eponym of becoming naticked in crosswords) to sell the game commercially. He ported the first module, Mission: Thunderbolt, for Macintosh in 1992 and published it through the California-based Casady and Greene. (The prefix was changed from Operation to Mission because of an action game from Taito called Operation Thunderbolt.) The game sold poorly, but Scheifler tried again in 1995, self-publishing an upgraded Macintosh release of Mission: Thunderbolt as well as Mission: Firestorm. For the 1995 releases, both games had the master title of JauntTrooper. A Windows 3 version of Thunderbolt happened somewhere in there, but sources differ as to whether it came out in 1992 or 1995. The 1995 version has long been the only one available online, so I was fortunate that a reader and fan of the game was able to provide a copy of the 1992 version.
The backstory is related in-game.
The setup is that in the year 2000, aliens spur mankind into a global biological, chemical, and nuclear war, then invade the wreckage. A small group of survivors forms a resistance group called "Operation Thunderbolt." Its first mission is to recover an anti-matter bomb from the underground research labs of MegaCorp International. Unfortunately, the team is wiped out by aliens early in the mission, leaving a sole survivor to brave the ruins and return with the bomb.
The default character is named "Captain Hazard," but you can change this. You also set a difficulty level on a scale of 4 options from "beginner" to "expert." (I'm playing on "Normal.") Character creation involves rolling values from 3 to 18 for strength, dexterity, speed, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. The difficulty setting determines how generous the rolls are. You begin with only a laser pistol (which only has a few shots) and a butcher knife.
Character creation.
The rest will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a roguelike, although the game is notable for how it deviates as much as for how it adopts the standards. Some examples: 
  • As you can see, Thunderbolt offers iconographs and a GUI rather than the ASCII characters and keyboard-only interface of pure roguelikes. The graphics are quite tiny in the main window, but see below.
  • There are several dozen commands using the full range of the keyboard, such as a)ttack, e)at, g)et, and o)pen. As with most roguelikes, many keys have to do double duty with the SHIFT key, as in the case of w)ield and W)ear. Unique to this game is the use of the TAB key to push letters into triple or quadruple duty, as in f)ire, TAB-f)ill, F)ix (something adjacent to you), and TAB-F)ix (inventory item). There are also menu commands for everything, and many commands can be executed by clicking in the map window; for instance, clicking on a door opens it and clicking on an enemy attacks it. I mostly get by with keyboard commands, but there is a particularly useful option to click a part of the map and have the character automatically proceed there.
  • Levels alternate between those with a fixed layout and those that are randomly generated. Even the randomly generated ones completely fill the available space, which makes it easy to find areas that ought to have secret doors.
  • As you kill enemies, you gain experience, which leads to occasional leveling.
Always a welcome message.
  • Unlike most roguelikes, you can save this one, but you're assessed a penalty to your score based on your level and how frequently you save. Various other blunders can cause penalties. The manual advises newer players not to worry about penalties and just save whenever they want. I've been limiting myself to once per level.
  • There is an economy. It runs on found coins. (I'm not sure what to do with equally-common "oddly-shaped" coins.) Instead of NPCs and stores, Thunderbolt offers ATMs, auto-docs, and vending machines. 
An ATM lets you deposit and withdraw funds.
  • Health doesn't auto-regenerate as you move, but you can retreat to a safe area and "rest" to fully restore it.
  • Weapons include both melee and missile options, the latter of which require ammunition. Armor options are jackets and helmets and such. The game has a "weapon class" statistic that helps you track the relative power of weapons.
  • Pills take the place of potions in fantasy roguelikes. Their colors are randomized for each new game. However, the penalty for eating a bad pill can be disastrous. Pills of Ineptitude permanently damage your dexterity, for instance. There are supposedly machines (I haven't encountered any yet) that tell you what pills do; I wouldn't think of taking one, except in a dire emergency, without consulting these machines.
  • There is blessedly no hunger mechanic in the game. You do have the option of eating corpses, but I'm not sure if this ever provides any benefit. The manual doesn't mention any.
  • Although the progression of levels is generally linear, there are occasional holes that connect across multiple levels, plus "transmat booths" that will move you from one place to another in the dungeon if you have a code.
So far, I've only survived up to Level 5 ("Region" 5 as the game has it). The early levels featured a lot of junk on the floor that appears to have no use, like rocks, broken bottles, and dirty rags. There were lots of pills and coins--so many of the latter that I was often in danger of over-encumbrance; fortunately, ATMs let you deposit coins for safekeeping. Enemies have included mutated animals like giant bats, spiders, ants, and rats, as well as aliens like eyeless things and hairy things. So far, the most frustrating (hostile) creature has been "slimy things," whose slime attacks destroy your entire inventory of pills, plus leave you "slimy," which prevents you from clicking to walk. There have also been "Kiddie Kommando Units" with paintball guns that blind you with paint.
The "fog of war" effect in this game is such that until you've explored an area, you can only see one square away. This makes missile weapons of questionable utility since you can rarely shoot at an enemy from a distance. Perhaps I'll find some device that lets me see across more squares and that will change. Melee weapons have included rusty pipes and crowbars; armor has included jackets and a cap.
Fighting a couple of enemies early in the game.
There have been lots of unusual events that I suppose I'll have to learn the significance of through experience--things like power drains, crackling of energy, getting drowsy after noticing the scent of violets, "unseen forces" that prevent me from accessing certain squares, and various noises in the distance of the dungeon.
By far, the most annoying creatures have been non-hostile automatons called utility bots. You start to meet them on Level 2 or 3. Once they acquire you, they follow you around mercilessly asking for information about where they should clean. They do perform some helpful services, such as automatically cleaning you of paint or slime. The problem I keep having is that they trap me in dead-end corridors and won't get out of the way. They're too dangerous to attack (and thus turn hostile). You can try to jump over them, but if you fail, you end up crashing into them--and they turn hostile. I lost a couple of characters to them.
A utility bot won't leave me alone.
Like NetHack, however, Thunderbolt offers a relatively complex set of interactions between inventory items and between inventory items and the environment. The solution to my utility bot problem was just taking the crowbar to the nearest wall and carving my own way out. These are the sorts of things that you have to learn through trial and error--or by looking at spoiler sheets. I've tried to avoid the latter so far, but some spoilers have been impossible to avoid; a lot of sites have them in the basic description of the game. Thus, I know that when you encounter a hazardous waste spill, you can dump rubble into it until a pathway becomes clear. Instead of throwing individual grenades at very hard enemies, you can store multiple grenades in a box and then throw the box at them. You can fill the same containers with radioactive waste and use them as missile weapons. Somehow, there's a way to tame animals. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that I'm going to be with the game long enough to develop true mastery of all of these options the way I did with NetHack. I realize that if I did, I would start to better differentiate Thunderbolt from other roguelikes and thus temper my first two paragraphs. 
One area in which the author is to be particularly commended is in the interface. The four default windows--character, status, messages, inventory, and the main view--are all movable and sizable. The status and inventory windows can even be dismissed. There are additional windows not activated by default that players might find helpful, including a command window that lets you play by double-clicking commands, a button window that lets you do the same with buttons, a zoom window that zooms out and lets you see the entire level, and a detail window that zooms in and shows you larger iconography for a smaller area. I confess I've mocked some Mac games in the past for being so obsessed with their individual windows, but there's something to be said about offering such customization to the user. Plus, at least Thunderbolt arranges its default windows tightly so you don't see the Mac desktop underneath everything. 
An alternate configuration of windows.
Things just got a little hairy for Captain Chet. Shortly after discovering that I could lure enemies to holes in the floor and let them fall, I fell down a hole myself. There was a horde of enemies waiting for me, so I retreated to a nearby hallway to try to take them on one at a time. Fortunately, I found a power pack for my laser pistol and was able to use it to good advantage. On the unfortunate side, my klutziness caused me to drop my pile of coins and my crowbar, and I was never able to get them back.
An enemy is swallowed by a hole--or something in the hole.
By the time I was done with the combat, Chet's status effects were "klutzy," "spotted," "slimy," "injured," and "paint-spattered." I saved the game and tried to experiment with some pills to see if I could get rid of some of those effects. Most of the pills turned out to be bad--forgetfulness, monster agitation, clumsiness--but one group turned out to be "pills of perception," which allow you to see the entire level map. That was helpful. I'd also been carrying two "strange devices"; activating one showed them to be light beacons. Between the two of them, missile combat (and simply avoiding enemies) became easier for the rest of the level.
I eventually found my way back to Level 4 and a utility bot who cleaned off the slime and paint. But shortly after I returned to Level 5, I got a sudden message that said "you briefly feel a bit lighter," and then found myself on an unknown level. I'll end there.
My first character didn't make it very far.
For those who have played this game before, feel free to be liberal with spoilers. I simply don't have time to learn all of the game's secrets for myself, so at least help me document it in the comments, and hopefully I can pull off a win.
Time so far: 4 hours

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Game 406: Dungeon! Computer Adventure Game (1982)

I feel like we've seen that dragon before.
Dungeon! Computer Adventure Game
United States
TSR Hobbies (developer and publisher)
Released in 1982 for Apple II
Date Started: 14 March 2021
Date Ended: 14 March 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5) as a single player game
Final Rating: 12
Ranking at Time of Posting: 37/412 (9%)
Dungeon! is the second of TSR's three attempts to make computer versions of its own intellectual property; the other two were the recently-reviewed Theseus and the Minotaur (1982) and an air combat simulator called Dawn Patrol (1982). Either the company was unhappy with sales or dissatisfied employing computer game programmers, as they never again tried to develop their own properties, instead relying on selling their licenses to developers like Strategic Simulations. But the effort did launch the career of Bruce Nesmith, who stayed on with TSR to develop modules and eventually transitioned back into computer games in time to work on The Elder Scrolls.
The board game that this was based on.
This game is a computer adaptation of a 1975 board game that the company published as a kind of "lite" Dungeons and Dragons. Both the board and computer games feature maps that you could regard as somewhat basic, unimaginative D&D modules, consisting of nothing but hallways, secret doors, and rooms, monsters, traps, and treasures. The goal is to be the first player to collect a designated amount of gold and return to the starting room. The specific amount varies depending on the class you choose to play. Elves and heroes have lower odds and fewer resources and have to collect only 10,000 pieces. Superheroes get easier rolls and have to collect 20,000. Wizards have the most resources (including "Lightning Bolt," "Fireball," and "Teleport" spells) and have to collect 40,000.
Irene moves through the maze. I believe the third square from the top in the center is the color that indicates the active player. I lose track of myself unless I'm actually moving.
There are five "levels" to explore--really just five screens. Tougher enemies are found on higher levels, but so are the more valuable treasures. Smart players go to levels consistent with their characters' abilities. In addition to gold, you can find magical swords of +1 or +2 (necessary for a couple of foes), secret door maps (if you have one, the game treats the door as a normal door), ESP medallions (let you see what creature is in the adjacent room), and crystal balls (let you see the creature and treasure in any room). 
The only equipment upgrade in the game.
Unless you're the wizard, there really isn't anything to combat except random rolls. The game tells you what roll you need to defeat the creature, then rolls something like 2D6+2 (more if you have a magic sword). The specific math isn't offered, but I don't think I ever got anything lower than 4, and I didn't find it as uncommon to get rolls of 9-12 as a regular 2D6 would offer. If you hit, the creature dies and you find his treasure. Monsters respawn after you leave the room but the treasure doesn't.
A goblin occupies this room. I have to roll a 3 or better to defeat him. I don't think it's possible to roll lower.
Wizards have to decide whether to cast "Lighting Bolt" or "Fireball" before they enter a room. ("Teleport" just lets you navigate faster, moving you between random rooms on different levels.) If they do, as far as I can tell, the spell is 100% successful. You only get 12 spells when you start the game, however.
The spell graphics are fun.
If you miss, the creature gets a chance to attack you. If he misses, you get another round. If he hits you, you drop some treasure and get shoved out of the room, but you can go right back in if you want. If he hits you badly, you drop half or all your treasure and wake up back in the starting room. Either way, your treasure remains where you dropped it, and nothing stops you from throwing yourself repeatedly at the same creature until you win (except, of course, what other players are doing). 
This is the closest you can come to "losing" the game in single player.
Playing Dungeon! as a single-player game is hardly an epic experience, but neither is it much worse than a lot of other quasi-RPGs of the early 1980s. The only problem is that you can't really lose, so there's no suspense. On the other hand, when I invited Irene to join me for a two-player game, it suddenly became a lot of fun--not as an RPG, of course, but as a computerized board game. She played a wizard and had a great time blasting enemies. She wanted to know what all the enemies were despite it not making any difference except for numbers. I did my best to let her win, but she wasted all of her spells on lower levels and couldn't get the 40,000 before my hero got 10,000.
I stopped in some extra rooms on my way back to the entrance.
Regardless of my definitions, I finished it so I'll GIMLET it:
  • 0 points for no attempt at a game world.
  • 2 points for character creation; the choice of character does make a difference and significantly affects gameplay, but there's no development.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for the most basic encounters and foes.
  • 1 point for a very basic magic and combat system.
A superhero defeats a giant lizard.
  • 1 point for a little equipment.
  • 0 points for no economy. Yes, there's gold in the game, but it's a winning condition already rewarded under "quests," not something you can use to buy things.
This is the highest-value treasure that I found.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for acceptable graphics and a very basic interface consisting of R)ight, L)eft, U)p, and D)own. One key problem is that you have to keep track of your own gold, as the game doesn't show it anywhere.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It gets that for being replayable and quick.
The final score of 12 is pretty abysmal for an RPG, but I could see playing this again with Irene, or getting the board game version. I've been looking for something that evokes some feeling of a role-playing game but in a more bounded system.
It really is a bit odd that this is the best that TSR could do given how thoroughly they dominated tabletop role-playing during the same period. On the other hand, their decision to license D&D instead of developing it internally was probably better for us in the long run.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

BRIEF: The Tomb of Drewan (1982)

The Tomb of Drewan
United Kingdom
Audiogenic (developer and publisher)
Released in 1982 for Commodore VIC-20; 1983 for Commodore 64
The Tomb of Drewan sends an adventurer on a quest to recover the Amulet of Kartos and the stones of earth, fire, air, and water from the titular Tomb of Drewan, an ancient prince who built the tomb to protect the amulet from those who would use it for evil. Now the evil gods have filled the land with monsters, and a white warrior must reassemble the amulet.
The tomb is organized into 400 rooms of a 20 x 20 configuration, randomized for each new adventurer. Each room contains exactly four treasures and four guardians. The guardians, distinguished by both icon and color, are divided into three types of "mortal guards" and three types of "magical guards"; the former can attack you only in melee, the latter with spells from up to five squares away. You have to kill or avoid the guards while assaying the treasure.
A Tomb of Drewan room. I'm facing a mortal guard and attacking with my sword. I have "Chaos," "Fire," "Jump," and "Petrify" spells, plus an elixir. There are four treasures remaining in this room, any of which could be the amulet or one of the stones.
The game's originality lies in the various tools at your disposal to kill or avoid the guards. If nothing else, you always have a sword that does a predictable 3 points of damage per round. The enemies also do predictable amounts of damage per round. No amount of luck or cleverness avoids this, so every room becomes a question of the hard math. If you see a black mortal guard in a room, you know that you can kill him with your sword in 2 rounds but he'll do 8 points of damage to you in those rounds.
To avoid taking damage, you can use a variety of spells. "Fire," "Water," and "Chaos" all do predictable damage. You can temporarily "Paralyze," use a "Mirror" spell to deflect an enemy's attack, or shoot a golden arrow at him. You can also use a "Remover" spell to get rid of a section of wall or simply evade or leap over the enemy. You can also "Jump" to a random room. You can only carry one copy of each of these spells at a time, as well as one elixir to fully restore your health. Every chamber is an exercise in analysis and math, although the enemies are moving in real-time, and the pathfinding is pretty good, so you can't take too long. If that's not enough to keep track of, vampire bats occasionally enter the room, fly up to you, and bite you. The only way to stop them is to have a "Vampire" spell handy. 
A useful "Help" screen goes through the spells.
Some of the treasures are gold. Carrying it causes your strength to deplete more rapidly (this isn't a huge issue since standing still causes it to return to 100%). If you die, the Tomb Lord will appear and demand a bribe of anywhere from 1 to 100 gold pieces and resurrect you if you can afford to pay. Otherwise, death is permanent, but you can save and reload to tape.
Fortunately, I can afford this.
The game would be fun except for a couple of things. The first is a nightmare of a control system. I grant you that the movement cluster (@ ; : /) makes sense on the Commodore keyboards, but what is less supportable is having separate keys for turning right and left (L and =) irrespective of movement. You have to be facing enemies to attack them, and you have to be facing treasures to inspect and take them. This means, infuriatingly, that you cannot attack enemies (or inspect or take treasures) that are above or below you, only right or left. Enemies have no such weakness. A ton of the game is trying to get sequences of move-turn-attack right with unfamiliar keys. Irrespective of movement, the game otherwise does a great job mapping each individual action to a unique key and making it clear (with asterisks) on the screen at all times which actions you can take.
I only explored about 12 of 400 rooms this time.
The second problem is the sheer size: 400 rooms is far too many to search for the pieces of the amulet. I spent 40 minutes with the game and didn't even finish the first column. It would take over ten hours to explore half the rooms (with no way to guarantee victory without abusing save states). That's too much time for a game of such limited content. As it doesn't have any character growth and combat success is based solely on your inventory, it fails my definition of an RPG.
Still, it's an interesting game. I can't identify its pedigree. It plays a little like the Dunjonquest series, perhaps as filtered by the simpler Quest games, but I'm not 100% sure about that. It doesn't really share any of the same commands or terminology. I can't find any evidence that its author, Trevor Pitts, worked on any other games or that its publisher, Audiogenic, published another RPG.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Clouds of Xeen: Well-Trod Ground

The "entire Elf kingdom" would be what, exactly? You're the only elf I've met since the game began.
I began this session by working on some of the "to do" items in my backpath:
  • Pulling the plug in the Cave of Illusions released a bunch of magical floating skulls called "Guardians." It made a few treasure chests real, but it made all the traps real, too. I used "Teleport" to avoid what traps I could, but ultimately I ended up making several trips in and out of the cave for healing and spell point replenishing.
  • The Stone of a Thousand Terrors opened the way into the Tomb of a Thousand Terrors in B4. It was a dungeon full of undead and traps (bladed pendulums and chopping meat cleavers were popular) that all seemed capable of making my characters insane. However, it also had several King's Mega Credits and potions that permanently improved my statistics. Afterwards, the uncursing and healing cost almost 5,000 gold.
Note that everyone here is cursed and insane.
  • I returned to the Witches' Tower to explore the clouds above. This time, I could read the plaque on the statue: "Golem, Terror, and Yak, it's told / Have credits for king to hold." Urrrr. Anyway, I've already cleared two of those, so that's not news. Another said, "The clerics of Yak you must outwit / Taxman then must have his bit." This tradition of putting the solution to the game on statues goes back to the first one, but it's always been a bit weird. Who is creating these statues? Where does he get his awful sense of scansion? Anyway, there were gems to pick up and harpies to kill. The clouds extended for a while. I had assumed that the cloud area was an extra "layer" on top of the lower world, but no matter how far I went, the map was titled "Witch Clouds," so I guess they're just tied to the specific towers.
Part of the witch cloud level.
  • I noticed a cloud "island" off to the southwest of the Witch Clouds and teleported there. A statue dubbed us "Super Explorers" and gave us all 1 level. I probably should have saved that for later.
How a statue dubs anyone anything is unexplained.
  • The scrolls in Castle Basenji, which I could now read, provided +10 boosts in resistances in exchange for doing horrible things to you, like confusion and depression.
This doesn't seem like a good trade.
  • The dungeon of the Northern Sphinx had a bunch of hieroglyphics indicating that the sphinx's name was GOLUX. This password got me to the third floor, where there were thrones that conferred 500,000 experience points to each character; the "Starburst" and "Divine Intervention" spells; and piles of gems.
I sat down in a comfortable chair. Alert the chroniclers.
  • On a return trip to Castle Burlock, I paid five more King's Mega Credits to build a keep on my land. Newcastle is now a wall with a moat inside and a keep inside the moat. The new keep offers a training facility, a store, a temple, a bedroom, barrels that fill my food inventory, and various notes that have the syllables BO, LO, RA, and RY. Unfortunately, there is no magic mirror, so I can't use the place as my main adventuring hub. 
Could a statue in our honor be maybe less grotesque?
  • The king's engineers gave me the Golem Stone of Admittance, which they found while building the keep. The stone opened the way to the Golem Dungeon in B4. The place was full of wood, iron, stone, and diamond golems. The latter were the toughest creatures I've faced so far, capable of devastating a character with a single punch, and breaking our weapons besides. To defeat them, I had to load up on every fountain buff I've found so far, and even then I had to warp out to heal and restore spell points in the middle of the dungeon. The reward was about 10 King's Mega Credits, a chest with 3,000 gems, and a statue that dubbed us "Golem Masters" and gave us an experience level.
You'd think these guys would be worth a fortune once you killed them.
  • The only thing left for our castle is a basement, and the king's engineer won't build us that until we get a permit. I don't know where we get that, but it's not anywhere in the castle as far as I can tell, so we finally hit the road and continued our exploration of the surface.
D2, where Castle Burlock is, finished up with more jousters and a redundant Well of (temporary) Might. In C2, we met the Autumn Druid, who wanted the Last Flower of Summer before he could give us the Last Fallen Leaf of Autumn. This is the third druid I've met who wanted something before he'd give us something else, and I still don't know why I'd want any of them. There were more jousters and ogres and a couple of barbarians in the northwest. In a tent, we met Carlawna the Cleric, who thanked us for recovering her scarab (I don't remember exactly where we did that) and taught us "Moon Ray." 
I think we meet him again.
A guy named Captain Nystar asked us to kill all the ogres in the area so that they'd stop tossing boulders at ships, ruining the shipping trade. This is again one of those areas where it's simply impossible to suspend disbelief and imagine this tiny lake in the middle of the game map supports a robust maritime trade business. Anyway, we did it and got 20,000 gold and 40,000 experience. Falagar the Wizard (isn't that the name of the guy who rescues the party at the beginning of Might and Magic VI?), brother of Carlawna, needs us to find his Crystals of Piezoelectricity.
In the center-north of C2 was the city of Asp, the only city we hadn't yet explored. It was swarming with snake men and guardian asps, both easy enough to defeat without running around getting buffed. It turns out that the snake men were hapless residents, turned into snakes by a machine in the northwest corner of the city. (Two of the residents who tell you about the problem are "Adam" and "Eve." Ho-ho-ho.) A couple pieces of doggerel told me that to destroy the machine, which can repel people who get near it, I would have to alternate colors of balls on the pedestals around the town well. I followed the instructions, destroyed the machine, and got experience for saving the town. The town otherwise had no services except a guild, where I finally got "Town Portal." The machine had been powered by Falagar's crystals, and he rewarded us with the "Megavolts" spell. 
These are some seriously scientifically-advanced snakes.
All Might and Magic games have an arena, but they differ whether the arena is discoverable through regular exploration. Sometimes it occupies a null space to which you have to travel via a portal or coach. In this case, you can wander right up to it in B2. Inside, you speak to the arena master, and you can fight 1-20 creatures of levels 1-20. When you win, the arena master warps you back to Vertigo. I fought a host of Level 2 creatures but put off any more arena battles until later.
I don't think I even got anything for winning.
Most of the rest of B2 was desert landscape, with associated creatures, continuing what we had already experienced in A1 and B1. But I at last found the Summer Druid, who gave us the Last Flower of Summer to take to the Autumn Druid and thus "bring summer to an end." I'm not sure why I want to do that, but I had no choice but to take the flower.
B3 transitioned unreasonably quickly to snow. We fought ninjas in this area and discovered the Wells of (temporary) Accuracy, Intellect, and Personality. The Well of Accuracy is close enough to the Cave of Illusions that I can probably use the latter as a waypoint for the mirrors, thus allowing me to save "Lloyd's Beacon" locations for more faraway places. More on that in a bit. As we moved east, we met "evil archers," capable of a lightning-based attack. A talking tree called Thickbark the Civilized rewarded us for previously destroying trolls. Halon the Efficient rewarded us for bringing him the lava rock we'd discovered ages ago. We found a tower for which we did not have a key.
The most normal-looking foe in the game.
C3, being in roughly the center of the map, was a mélange of themes from the maps around it. We faced ogres in the northwest, evil rangers in the southwest, killer sprite in the southeast, and the lake with its monsters in the northeast. Tito the Elf Priest rewarded us for recovering the Book of Elvenkind, and Danulf the Faery King for recovering the Wand of Faery Magic. (We're like Santa Claus this trip, just running around handing out things we'd already recovered.) C3 offered a shrine that increased magic resistance by +50 and a fountain that increased might, endurance, speed, and accuracy by +10. That sounds useful, but if I really need the buffs, I'm probably still going to have to run around to the individual +50 fountains.
D3 was the last outdoor map to explore. I took this one carefully because I knew I would encounter water dragons to the north. I started with the southern rows. I kept encountering killer sprites there, which can curse you, and I didn't want to have to pay for uncursing multiple times. 
I did this with glee.
Once the lakeshore came into view, before starting to take on the water dragons, I decided to try to work out the optimal maximum buffing path. As I've noted before, all your buffs vanish at 05:00 every morning no matter when you acquired them. Indoors, time passes at a rate of only 1 minute per action, so it's worth buffing almost anytime, but outdoors it passes at a rate of 10 minutes per action. (Curiously, the "cloud" parts of towers cost only 1 minute per action despite being ostensibly outdoors.) With optimal timing, you could explore just about half a game map before your buffs disappear.
Optimal involves using "Town Portal," "Lloyd's Beacon," (I have two characters capable of it, and each can set his own return point), the mirrors, and maybe even "Teleport" to minimize walking, especially outdoors. You want to be rested and at full health and at your first fountain at exactly 05:00. After looking at my notes and maps, I think this is the ideal situation for a "normal" buff:
  • Cast one "Lloyd's Beacon" at the map point closest to where you're going to need the buffs; cast the other in front of any magic mirror.
  • At 05:00, be in Nightshadow at the fountain that gives you +10 levels. That takes you to 05:06, because each character using is an action.
  • Walk to Nightshadow's magic mirror and use it to get to Vertigo (05:16). Walk to Vertigo's fountain and get everyone's health to maximum (05:39). This is because the Fountain of Health gives you +250 health when you're at or below your maximum.
  • Walk to Vertigo's temple and donate until you get their buffs (05:53), unless you want to spend the points on "Day of Protection" and "Day of Sorcery" on your own. Those cost a lot of magic and gems.
  • Walk to Vertigo's magic mirror (06:16) and take it to Winterkill. Walk to the Fountain of Might and use it for all characters (06:26).
  • Walk to Winterkill's exit (06:32). Outside, take one step west, face south, and cast "Teleport" twice for 9 squares each, then walk forward two squares (07:22). This puts you at the Waters of Great Magic. Use it on your spellcasting characters. For me, that's only three (07:52). 
  • "Lloyd's Beacon" back to your magic mirror and use it to go to CASTLE BASENJI. Go one step north and one step west, then use the Fountain of Health on all characters (09:22).
  • "Lloyd's Beacon" back to your magic mirror. Use it to go to CAVE OF ILLUSIONS. Walk three steps north and two steps west and use the Fountain of Accuracy for everyone (11:02). 
  • Finally, cast "Lloyd's Beacon" to return to the original location (11:12). From there, you have about 18 hours of exploration time.
This method doesn't include any fountains that increase personality, endurance, speed, intelligence, or armor class, nor any shrines that increase resistances. That would take longer to figure out. I'm aware I can save more time with "Town Portal" (but that costs a lot in points and gems) and magic items that allow you to set additional "Lloyd's Beacon" spells. I also didn't maximize the use of "Teleport" or "Jump" here, but that level of micromanaging is tough to swallow. Of all of the things above, I think the +10 levels in Nightshadow is most important. You could do a lesser round that included that, the +50 might fountain in Winterkill, and maybe the Fountain of Health and be prepared enough for most situations. 
Shrines like this would be necessary for a maximal buff.
This method was enough to let me finish D4 and destroy the water dragons around Darzog's Tower, then make it into Darzog's Tower and set a "Lloyd's Beacon" in case I need to teleport out and do another round of buffing to complete the location.
The first level of Darzog's Tower was full of floating "carnage hands." A square near the entrance completely wiped out all our spell points, which was a problem when we reached the second floor and found an unavoidable square that teleported us back to the first floor. I had a "Horn of Jumping" that allowed us to avoid it. The entire floor was full of these teleportation squares, making it a kind of puzzle where we had to figure out the optimal way to "Jump" to get around. My horn soon ran out, and I had to use a Wand of Town Portals to get us back to Rivercity and restore our spell points. There were books that offered +20 permanent increases to attributes for one character, so that took the edge off the annoyance of the puzzle.
Floating heads, floating hands, floating feet . . . What's next? Floating . . . you know what? Never mind.
The third level brought me face-to-face with several "Darzog Clones" and then Darzog himself. The clones weren't hard, but Darzog was capable of turning us to stone. After dying to him once, I coupled my standard buffs with a visit to the Shrine of Magic Resistance, plus spent the spell points and gems on a proper "Day of Sorcery" and "Day of Protection." When we returned to Darzog's Tower, we saw him across a table, cast "Jump" to put us in his square, and killed him with a single blow. 
Darzog is tough if you let his anti-magic squares cancel your buffs.
The same level had a secret area. I guess you're supposed to access it from a rope ladder on Level 4, but I got there by teleporting. The secret area was Crodo's prison chamber. I freed him for 1 million experience points. He alluded to some other "adventurers" working on a sword in Newcastle's dungeon that would defeat Lord Xeen. Xeen's tower is apparently in the clouds above Darzog's Tower, and Xeen is planning to conquer the world with an army from the Darkside.
One million experience points sounds like a lot, but it's basically just one level.
I climbed up to the cloud level and explored it. It was the largest of the areas, full of combats with rocs and cloud golems, as well as statues and treasure. Many of the treasures were on far away platforms of clouds that I had to detect with "Wizard Eye" and access with "Teleport." I explored as much as I could, set a "Lloyd's Beacon" in front of Xeen's Tower, and returned to Newcastle to level up. Suss the ninja maxed her level at 20. The others are at 19.
A shield offering on an isolated cloud platform.
Before wrapping up, I decided to figure out the druid quests. It turns out that you just take items around the four druids, allowing the year to "renew," which cures your magical aging and gives you 150,000 experience points.
Well, isn't that cute.
It feels like I should be able to wrap this up next time. I'll probably try exploring the volcanic area to see if I can recover the Sixth Mirror before taking on Xeen. There's also one dungeon, one tower, and the southern sphinx for which I never found the keys.
Time so far: 32 hours