Thursday, March 11, 2021

Game 405: Lord of the Balrogs (1983)

A lot of hyperbole at the beginning of the game.
        
Lord of the Balrogs
United Kingdom
Supersoft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1983 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 7 March 2021
Date Ended: 7 March 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
      
Lord of the Balrogs plays exactly how you might expect when you hear that it was an early 1980s game, from a UK developer, released only on cassette, and not catalogued on MobyGames until 2015. Only if it had been released exclusively for the ZX Spectrum would we hit "shlock RPG" bingo. 
    
A bit of backstory at the game's beginning.
     
I grant you that the beginning is kind of fun. "It's not too late to flee from the . . . LORD OF THE BALROGS" the opening screen offers, before going into the backstory and then the instructions. Each opening screen asks you to "press SPACE if ye dare go on," at which point you get another bit of text about the LORD OF THE BALROGS before the next screen of instructions.
    
  • Ye are very foolish to go up against the . . . LORD OF THE BALROGS
  • Ye should heed the warnings of the . . . LORD OF THE BALROGS
  • Ye will rue the day ye met the . . . LORD OF THE BALROGS
  • Fool! Will ye not listen to the . . . LORD OF THE BALROGS
  • Run! Run! Before ye anger the . . . LORD OF THE BALROGS
  • Ye are indeed brave to challenge the . . . LORD OF THE BALROGS
   
The final screen is at the top. Ever since I met a traveler who said she prefers the middle seat on airplanes, I've decided that there's at least one of every type of person out there. I thus like to think there was at least one player who was planning to play the game, but balked in the face of all these warnings and chose to turn it off.
      
"Thank God it's not too late!" Colin cried, before turning off the game, repackaging it, and returning it to the store.
     
The back story is that a warrior, amazon, hobbit, cleric, and sorcerer have come together to explore the Fortress of Zorg and slay the titular balrog. He is found on the sixth floor of a six-floor dungeon, and you'll want to collect as many magic relics as possible before you encounter him. The magic relics are the Armour of Eternity, the Book of Dragons (it's given as "Book of Balrogs" in instructions, but it's "dragons" when you find it), the Cloak of Virtue, the Dagger of Fire, the Eye of Smaug, and the Flag of Purity.
      
Late in the game, I have 5 out of 6.
       
After naming your five characters, you start in the northwest corner of Level 1 of a randomly-generated dungeon. The dungeon levels are all 12 x 6, although none of the perimeter rooms ever have anything, so functionally they're 10 x 4. Each junction of row and column might have:
   
  • Nothing.
  • A stairway.
  • A room with a monster, which may or may not have a relic or treasure once you kill it.
  • A room with a chest, which may contain healing food, poison, or a spell.
        
This one had a spell.
        
This approach, using grids of discrete rooms, makes the game functionally similar to The Wizard's Castle (1980) of a few years prior.
    
Each character has a "power" statistic that starts between 130 and 162. It serves as both a strength attribute and a health meter. Your power goes up as you kill enemies (although sometimes not as much as the wounds you take during the same encounter), as you find healing food, and if you use one of the treasures called a Wand of Power. It goes down from taking wounds in combat or eating poison.
       
My characters at their apex.
      
Enemies are drawn from the Dungeons and Dragons bestiary, sometimes with slight alterations. Examples include giant ants, shambling mounds, bloodbears, thought-eaters, gobblers, pit fiends, titans, and purple oozes. Their difficulty is based more on the level where you encounter them than the type of enemy. In combat, you have only two options. The first is to B)attle, after which you specify which character. If he dies, you can have another one resume the fight. The second is to use M)agic, but you have to have found a spell first. You also have to write down or remember which spells you've found, because the game doesn't keep track. Examples are "Cone of Cold," "Sleep," and "Fear." Using magic is odd. Sometimes the spell kills the enemy right away. If it doesn't, the sorcerer has to engage in melee combat until one of the two is dead. If the sorcerer is already dead, the cleric becomes the default spellcaster.
       
This would be an epic scene in Tolkien.
       
The food mechanic is annoying because the results are completely random. You get a description of the food that you find in each chest, but there's no correlation between the description and what it does. A "disgusting black custard" could heal you and a "luscious bowl of cherries" could cause poison or weakness. I would advise players to eat everything on Level 1 (restarting if there's a net loss) and nothing after that.
   
Aside from the six relics, monsters can have treasures, some of them useful. The Wand of Power will increase everyone's strength a few times, and the Chalice of Life will resurrect a slain companion. The Lamp of Daybright or the Orb of Light will maintain a map of where you've been in the dungeon; otherwise, you only ever see your current room. 
          
Chester runs into trouble on the last level.
         
That's about it. I found that Levels 1-4 were pretty easy, but things got a lot harder on Level 5. Every monster on Level 6 is some kind of balrog--glass, platinum, red, silver, copper, bone, and so forth--plus the one Lord of the Balrogs. When you encounter him, you get taken to a special screen in which he taunts you, and then you have a chance to "use" one of the relics you've found. I think what happens next is random. Either he laughs and says "I have no fear of" whatever relic you've used, then both destroys the relic and kills the first player, or the relic kills him instantly. There seems to be a roughly 20% chance of the latter, so if you have all 6 relics, odds are good that one of them will slay him before you run out. Whether that happens before you've run out of characters depends upon your luck up to that point.
      
To be fair, I wouldn't expect him to "fear" armor.

This is a fun callback to the text at the beginning.
     
Win or lose, each game takes no longer than 30 minutes, which is good because there's no way to save.
       
Were commas too much to ask?
       
I should probably get out of the habit of just stating the GIMLET total rather than adding it up for you, so here goes:
    
  • 1 point for the game world and its bare-bones backstory.
  • 1 point for extremely limited character creation and development.
  • 0 points for no NPCS.
  • 1 point for interchangeable encounters and foes.
  • 1 point for very basic magic and combat.
     
My Amazon isn't as graceful as her namesake.
      
  • 1 point for a few useful pieces of equipment.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest. There's even an alternate way to "win," or at least exit the game; just take your treasure back to the entrance on Level 1.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets these primarily for the all-keyboard interface, which uses individual keys effectively, like a roguelike. The sound effects are painful.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It's the right difficulty and short.
     
That gives us a total of 12
       
It looks like we got him out of bed.
    
I listed Supersoft as the "developer and publisher" on this one because they're the only name on the packaging, but Supersoft's modus operandi seems to have been publishing games from independent developers. I played their Halls of Death (1981) back in 2014, but unlike that game, this one offers no indication who the authors are. The game box does feature an odd conception of a "balrog," however. Supersoft published mostly simple text adventures and action games before they closed up in 1984 or 1985. We shouldn't see them again, but gods know we'll see quite a few more games of this ilk.


76 comments:

  1. Somewhat surprised this didn't get the stamp of death by the Tolkien estate, but maybe it just didn't get enough traction/publicity for them to care.

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    1. It was probably as obscure back then as it is today, so it slipped under their radar.

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    2. I feel like there have been even more blatant ripoffs on this blog that escaped legal notice. Even back in the 80's I imagine Tolkien's lawyers had bigger fish to fry than basement coders and their cassette games.

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    3. Companies just didn't care about that back then; Ubisoft made unlicensed adaptations of horror films; Dozens of games Xenomorphs in their game; Revenge of Shinobi had a bunch of obvious copyright infringement in it. Of note, I think only Shinobi actually got sued over something. Video games in general were beneath notice.

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    4. Surprisingly, one of the few companies that did care back then was TSR, authors of Dungeons and Dragons. Gamers would mockingly say it stands for "They Sure Regularly" and/or spell it "T$R"; and early-internet discussion of the game (and especially homebrew additions to it) was rife with disclaimers and with attempts to appear generic instead of D&D-specific.

      Which is pretty ironic considering TRS itself used intellectual property from (among others) Lovecraft, without bothering to ask.

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    5. It wasn't until Napster that the US copyright industry began relentlessly educating everyone that nobody must infringe their imaginary property. Before that, nobody really cared. If you wanted to use Bilbo Baggins in your game, you just did.

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    6. Nevertheless, many games (including D&D) go out of their way to find a different name for "hobbit" (e.g. halfling, bobbit) as well as "balrog" (such as balron, balor) and "mithril" (like mithral, milrith). This game is a clear exception.

      So I suppose the Tolkien estate was a forerunner in the area of intellectual property lawsuits.

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    7. No, intellectual property claims far predate Napster (or even the Tolkien estate suing D&D). There's plenty of cases dating back to the time of Elizabeth I, and copyright law was among the largest single fields of US law at the start of the 20th century.

      The casual infringement of trademarks and copyright in the early software scene was not because nobody cared about intellectual property, it was because nobody cared about software - if they even knew such a thing existed in the first place, it was too obscure to keep track of.

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    8. The widespread knowledge that intellectual property is something dangerous that shouldn't be touched never made it to the mainstream before Napster. Yes there were always copyrights and such. But the common folk couldn't tell you what they were or how they worked.

      But today? Oh my there are countless unpaid police working ceaselessly on the side of the megacorps, well versed in copyright law and ready to delete your post should you pique the smallest infraction. People never knew what copyrights were or how to detect infringement until the copyright industry got things rolling when Napster came out. They struck back against the little guy with massive public education campaigns. Now everyone knows the difference between copyright, trademark and patent and there is vigorous enforcement on behalf of the megacorps even when no actual attorneys are involved, or any rights holder is harmed in any way.

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    9. D&D only introduced the "balor" term after Tolkien's estate yelled at them for sticking a balrog in one of their earliest modules, so...it is definitely not the case that no one cared there.

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    10. D&D is much higher profile than some lone dev's casette game. And D&D was printed in an actual book, not just one of these newfangled computer games.

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    11. The "Home Taping Is Killing Music" campaign started in 1981. Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., the court case that laid waste to hip hop sampling, was in 1991. "Don't Copy That Floppy" was in 1992. It's probably true that the Napster era resulted in a lot more discussion of copyright law online, in the same way the first drunk driving laws were passed around the same time the Model T came out.

      In any case, the entire endeavor of this website is only really possible because of lax enforcement of copyright laws (many of these games would be impossible to obtain strictly legally), so it's a good thing we don't have a bunch of those unpaid copyright police here.

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    12. As someone who was alive before Napster and doing creative things, I can attest that average people were well aware of intellectual property law well before the internet.

      What the internet changed was how likely it was for the copyright holder to become aware of infringements. But it's always been the case that in niche media, it's relatively unlikely for the copyright holder to notice, or decide it's worth suing, and even today we have properties like Zombicide blatantly basing characters on e.g. Iron Man despite very shaky legal rights to do so.

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    13. I remember "Amazon Women on the Moon" (1987) had a segment where pirates plundered a ship and found a chest of all the latest movies to copy. When the FBI warning comes up they laugh "I'm so scared" the Captain says.

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  2. Judging by the cover, the balrog's only crime seems to be wearing pants.

    I love when these little games try to make up for their inherent nothingness with ridiculous ALL CAPS presentation, trying to make a simple scavenger hunt seem like an epic quest.

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    1. That's just the C64. While it can display lower case letters, the default character set just contains upper case letters and a larger set of symbols. I'm pretty sure the maps were drawn using these symbols. Well, C64 experts may correct me, I never worked with one.

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    2. Yeah, the c64’s default font is uppercase, though it does have lowercase as well. It’s also has the PETSCI symbols which this is using for its map. The c64 also has the ability to use custom characters (which was used for both fancy fonts and also for doing background graphics). This reeks of lazy basic programming though.

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    3. The balrog blinks sleepily at the party. It growls in the Black Speech: "You kids are way too early for the pool party. Why are you already changed into swimsuits? Could somebody help put this bowl of chips and tiki torch next to the grill?"

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    4. Hmm, is it possible to change the character set mid-screen or does that affect everything on it?

      I'm getting "trick or treat" from the cover image (in an alternate universe where monsters dress up as humans on Halloween).

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    5. "I just want some pants. A decent pair of pants!"
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r98uVJW7pYk

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  3. My first thought was "Hunt the Wumpus" with some basic stats.

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  4. ARRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH

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    1. You feeling okay, buddy?

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    2. I guess we just figured out who is... THE LORD OF THE BALROGS!!!

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    3. It’s always nice when someone famous associated with the game shows up!

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    4. Anyone else read this in the voice of a dying Oblivion NPC?

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  5. "some kind of balrog--glass, platinum, red, silver, copper, bone, and so forth--"

    I suspect at some point in development these enemies were intended to be dragons. That would explain the Book of Dragons/Book of Balrogs mix-up in the manual too.

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    1. Whoah... nice catch! I wonder if they paid a licensing fee to the Tolkien estate to use the Balrog name... or just decided they wouldn't get caught.

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    2. That's a sensible hypothesis.

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    3. arthurdawg: It's possible that the programmer/publisher didn't realize that the concept of a Balrog was the IP of the Tolkien estate. Gygax put Balrogs in the original version of D&D, and Richard Garriot put them in the first couple of Ultimas.

      My guess is that the author changed "Dragons" to "Balrogs" because he wanted a cooler monster, or this is a hasty rip-off of another game which did use Dragons (much like that Yendor's Castle game Chet reviewed years ago).

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    4. Akalabeth (Ultima 0) has a balrog, but the first Ultima already calls it a balron instead (and in some games, barlon).

      As far as I can tell, all Tolkien-related names were dropped from D&D somewhere between 1974 and 1977. This was the direct result of a lawsuit (or threat thereof) from the Tolkien estate.

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    5. I think the Tolkien estate started to protect it's IP more aggressively in the late 70s from what I've read. Which was fully proper and legal for them to do.

      Charlie P. - D&D fell afoul of copyrights with the Deities and Demigods book after they added chapters for Elric and Cthulu in the initial volume! Oops...

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    6. Too bad they didn't register "Eldar". Then the utter scumbags™® Games Workshop would have had to come up with another name for their space elves.

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    8. "D&D fell afoul of copyrights with the Deities and Demigods book after they added chapters for Elric and Cthulu in the initial volume!"

      That's a commonly repeated myth, but it's not true. It's true that those chapters were in the initial printings of the Deities & Demigods book, and it's true they were removed from later printings, so it's natural to assume it must have been because they got called out for copyright violation, but it wasn't. It's more complicated than that. And stupider.

      TSR, the company that then published D&D, in fact had approached both Michael Moorcock (the creator of Elric) and Arkham House (the company that claimed to hold the rights to Lovecraft's works) for permission to use their respective properties—and had received it! (Either they'd learned their lesson from the Tolkien matter, or they were a big enough company by then to have an actual legal department, or both.) They had full legal permission from the owners of both properties to include them in the book. There was no copyright issue.

      However... another RPG publishing company, Chaosium (which is still around today and now best known as the publisher of Call of Cthulhu), had previously received permission to create games based on those two properties, and threatened legal action over TSR's proposed use of them. Whether Chaosium really had any legal standing to raise these objections is dubious at best. TSR had, after all, received permission from the copyright holders, and the fact that Chaosium had received that permission first doesn't mean they had the right to prevent anyone else from doing so. If the matter had gone to court, I think TSR probably would have won. But instead, they worked out a deal with Chaosium in which Chaosium would retract its objections to TSR's use of these properties, and in return TSR would include in the introduction to the book an acknowledgement thanking Chaosium for permission to include them.

      And so it was. The Cthulhu Mythos and and the Melnibonean Mythos made it into the book, but there was a note below the preface giving "Special thanks... to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonean Mythos".

      But then there was a change in management at TSR, and the new owners didn't like the idea of thanking a rival company in one of their books. So rather than include that reference to Chaosium in the introduction to Deities & Demigods, they decided they'd rather just remove those chapters altogether. So that's why the chapters got taken out of the book. Not because TSR ran afoul of copyright issues, but just, well, more or less out of spite.

      There's one final twist to the story, though: when the new owners had those chapters taken out of the book... they forgot to have the acknowledgment removed. You know, the whole reason they wanted to take those chapters out in the first place. So for several printings, the introduction to Deities & Demigods continued to give special thanks to Chaosium for permission to use material that wasn't even in the book. Whoops. This oversight eventually did get corrected in later printings.

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    9. I think Balrog was deliberately taken from Tolkien because the game also has the eye of smaug.

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    10. Thanks, Jalen, for such a well-researched and thorough comment.

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  6. My goodness, those opening screens. There is so much potential to work with.

    - R-E-S-P-E-C-T, that is what it means to... THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

    - This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to... THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

    - In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and... THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

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    1. Hey Lady! You call him... THE LORD OF THE BALROGS!

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    2. I guess the killer was......THE LORD OF THE BALROGS!

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    3. But did THE LORD OF THE BALROGS have wings? That's the questions that launched a thousand flame wars.

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    4. The answer to the question of Life, The Universe, and Everything? ...THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

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    5. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into... THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

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    6. Oh my God! They killed... THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

      would've been an appropriate ending screen.

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    7. Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks? ...THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

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  7. Reading the title, I was reminded that there was a champion named Gothmog in Dungeon Master. Early CRPG players truly could not escape the... LORD OF THE BALROGS. (Though that said, I guess half those DM champions were in-jokes and references.)

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  8. "If the sorcerer is already dead, the wizard becomes the default spellcaster."

    Guessing that should be "cleric," not "wizard."

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  9. Dude, I love your sense of humor. The caption for the third picture had me dying

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    1. I always laugh when a game asks a question like, "Are you sure you want to enter . . . THE TOMB OF TERROR!?!" 99.9% of players are going to be like, "Yeah, of course. I bought the game, didn't I?" But I always imagine that there's some tiny percentage of players who say, "Gosh, no. That sounds scarier than what the game box suggested."

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    2. I remember in the dark old days of the 90s, I was going through a shovelware CD, being uninspired by crappy game after crappy game. After watching this one game's uninspired into, it did indeed ask "DOESEST THOU DARE TO ENTER?" or some other grammatically poor sentence. I answered "N" and said, OK on to the next one.

      BTW, there's a Youtuber who is going through every single game on a crappy shovelware CD one by one. It's not a flash in the pan, he's on episode #224 by now. The archive currently being unearthed is the Softkey 2000 Shareware Games collection. You can find it at Pixelmusement. If you join the Patreon you can dig through the CD and come up with a game and he'll play it.

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    3. BTW, as someone who subscribed to your Youtube channel and forgot about it, I already saw the new video! You should do more videos. With commentary. It's fun just to hang out and go through the blow-by-blow. Although I still do love the blog format with pictures and text.

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    4. Harland! My man! A positive-toned comment! I knew you had it in you!

      I also love the blog format.

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    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    7. What is the outcome if you're overcome by fear and choose not to "dare" hit the space key? I wondered that as soon as I read the line...

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  10. I love these forgotten old games. It's great to see someone play them for real and see exactly what it is they offer.

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  11. Ok, but forget about this game for a moment (the world seems to have, and for good reason!) and let's get back to this weirdo that prefers the middle seat. We have to hear more about such a truly sick and unique individual.

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    1. It's not too late to flee from the... ONE WHO SITS IN THE MIDDLE SEAT!

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    2. Aisle can suck if you fall asleep and get hit by the food cart - it's happened to me. Window can suck if you have a fear of flying. I guess if both those things are true, middle is reasonable?

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    3. You are very brave to comment on the... ONE WHO SITS IN THE MIDDLE SEAT!!

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    4. It was a relatively small woman. If I remember correctly, her reasoning was that you have twice the number of potential people to talk with.

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    5. So interesting to learn more of the... ONE WHO SITS IN THE MIDDLE SEAT!!!

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    6. @CRPG Addict: as someone who hates talking to people on airplanes, this sounds like my personal hell.

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    7. I fly on airplanes so rarely that talking to strangers is part of the appeal. I get that for people who fly regularly that's annoying and stupid. Still, enjoying that SO MUCH as to prefer the middle?!

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    8. I mean, the entire point of the anecdote was that no matter what the issue is, there's always going to be at least one weird outlier. If you understood her reasoning, the anecdote wouldn't make sense.

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    9. The man who sits on the middle seat is… THE LORD OF THE BALROGS

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  12. Not so much a comment or observation on the game, however when I saw it was a C64 release and on cassette only, it made me think of this bit of recent news... https://netherlandsnewslive.com/inventor-of-cassette-tape-lou-ottens-passed-away-financial/107722/

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    1. I grew up in the era of cassettes, 5.25" floppies, and VHS... had a blast with them all!

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    2. No matter how old I get or what kind of TV I have, I'll always own a VCR. There's certain movies from my childhood where the experience just can't be replaced by blu-ray or streaming. Nothing like a big bowl of frosted sugar "cereal," a mountain of blankets, and the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS.

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  13. I keep seeing Doomdark's Revenge in the play list, but when I look closer it's
    Doomsday 2000 (1987)
    Siege of Darkwood (1993)
    Demon Venture (1982)

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  14. Chester the Warrior getting his head kicked off by a balrog made me smile.

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  15. There is a certain appeal in wearing the Cloak of Virtue and brandishing the Flag of Purity while bashing monsters.

    Is the hobbit any use in the game ?

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    1. Ultimately, everyone is useful, since when one character falls, the next takes his place. Either the hobbit takes some of the early damage and increases the chance that one of the other characters will survive at the end, or he picks up the sword after the warrior dies while weakening the enemy.

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  16. Hey, just because he's lord of the... ahem, excuse me - LORD OF THE BALROGS doesn't mean he's a Balrog too. Plenty of human dragon lords kicking around, after all.

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