Saturday, April 10, 2021

Game 408: The Dungeon Masters Assistant (1985)

Nothing about this screen fills you with confidence.
The Dungeon Masters Assistant
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1985 for DOS
Date Started: 7 April 2021
Date Ended: 7 April 2021
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
You learn to recognize certain "bad signs" when you're a CRPG addict. Confusion over the name of the game is one of them; grammatical errors in the game's name is another. The Dungeon Masters [sic] Assistant has both. The file names and the documentation that come with the game suggest that it's called Dungeon Quest. The title screen says otherwise. After that, the game can only improve, and the good news is that it does, a bit. It's not commercial-quality software, but it's a reasonably good amateur take on the Dunjonquest system using mostly Original Dungeons and Dragons rules.
The game begins with a character creation process that seems to draw primarily from OD&D. The game rolls 3-18 for the standard set of attributes (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma) with no re-rolls. If you don't like what you got, you have to finish the process and delete the character later. You choose a class, and here dwarf, elf, and halfling are listed as "class" options along with fighter, cleric, magic-user, and thief. After choosing class, you sometimes get an option to raise the class's prime requisite by one point by sacrificing two points of a less-important attribute.
What if I want an elf magic user?
You name the character and choose from lawful, neutral, and chaotic alignments, then get to see your saving throws against poison, magic wands, paralysis, dragon breath, and rods, staves, or spells.
Created characters then venture into "the supply shoppe" where they must accept or reject one thing at a time, including armor, weapons, backpacks, lanterns, torches, tinder boxes, oil, rope, and a stake and mallet. The store's implementation of classic D&D restrictions is a bit haphazard, although I admittedly don't know the specific rules in OD&D. There are a few weapon restrictions, though not many, and there do not seem to be any armor restrictions at all.
I could have my mage in plate armor wielding a battle axe.
Characters can then enter "the quest," which is a random selection of 9 small, single-screen dungeons. Up to 6 characters can enter at a time. Their icons are given as numbers from 1-6, and they each take turns moving around the dungeon and performing various actions. You can play them cooperatively or competitively. 
Offering independent turn-based movement for six characters is something that even commercial RPGs rarely do (the "blobber" style is more common, even in third-person views), so it's an impressive bit of programming. Unfortunately, it doesn't work very well. Games that implement such a system really need a method of assigning an "active character" in case there's only enough stuff for one person to do. This one not only lacks such a system, but it doesn't even have a command to terminate the remainder of a character's movement for a particular turn. If there's nothing for one character to do, you have to just have him pace back and forth until his turn ends.
A single character fights a roomful of ghouls.
Programming is also moderately impressive when it comes to lighting. The game implements a "fog of war" effect in which the dungeon is only revealed slowly as you explore it--but only if you have a torch or lantern, oil, and an ignition source. This effect is assigned at the character level, so one character with no light source ends up in a room on his own, the room goes dark. The game otherwise automatically uses flint, refills the lantern, and so on, so you don't need to micromanage your light source. You just have to have the items.
Here, I have three characters exploring at the same time. Character #3 is in a room, but he doesn't have a light source. The other two do.
The game stocks the dungeon with monsters appropriate to the characters' levels. You meet ghouls, skeletons, rats, kobolds, and goblins at Level 1 and gorgons, dragons, and vampires at higher levels. The game offers about 50 monsters total, with hit points, special attacks, and weaknesses drawn from the D&D bestiary. Ghouls can paralyze; werewolves can only be harmed by magic or silver weapons; trolls can only be killed by fire (a torch works, but not a lantern). Combat is just a matter of hitting A)ttack and watching the results.
Enemies can have gold and items, and treasure chests are seeded in the dungeons. There's no winning condition for the levels. When you're done exploring, you simply exit the dungeon and Q)uit to get back to the main menu, at which point the game calculates your accumulated experience and gold, automatically leveling up a character who earns enough experience.
The only things I have to do are pay taxes and die . . . and I can evade death.
It's not bad as a bare-bones dungeon crawler, but it lacks anything more interesting, like quests, puzzles, and special encounters. Options during exploration are limited to attacking, searching, casting a spell, opening doors, and a variety of inventory actions.
Unfortunately, it has a couple of things that are either bugs or just unimplemented bits of programming. Spellcasters are supposed to be offered spells in the store, but they aren't. Items you find in the dungeon don't seem to remain in your inventory when you return to the main menu. Since spells are all cast from scrolls in this game, this means that spellcasters never have any spells. Doors often taken four or five tries to open and they don't stay open, so every character who wants to pass through has to open it independently (a feature the game shares with the commercial SpellJammer). Combat is a bit too easy; I had no trouble clearing a dungeon with just a single fighter.
Grabbing the treasure after clearing the dungeon.
The name of the game seems to come from a couple of customization options. You can create your own items to add to the store, plus edit the ones already there, and the manual offers instructions on how to create or modify dungeon files. I think maybe the creator intended that the game be used to accompany tabletop gaming, with the computer handling the mechanics of character creation, inventory, and combat, and the dungeon master making up more interesting descriptions, quests, and encounters. It works slightly better in such a scenario than as a single-player game, but not much. I think any good DM would still chafe at its limitations.
My character sheet after a couple successful explorations.
As for the GIMLET, the game suffers for a lack of game world and backstory, NPCs, and quests (0s), but it doesn't do bad with character creation and development (3), and it programs some of the complexities of Dungeons and Dragons foes (2). While I can't give much to magic and combat without the magic (1), it otherwise does reasonably well for equipment (2) and economy (3). The graphics are nothing to look at; there's no sound except an error beep; and the interface has some rough spots (1). Overall gameplay can be as swift as you want, but it lacks challenge and depth (2). That gives us a total of 15.
The creator was named Bill Chelmowski. He wrote it in GW-BASIC, I was unable to find any information about how he distributed it in 1985, but he would have wanted to stay under the radar because Strategic Simulations, under a license from TSR, released its own title of the same name in 1988.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

BRIEF: Courageous Perseus (1984)

I have no idea why the title screen asks for your birthday.
Courageous Perseus
Cosmos Computer (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for PC-88 and FM-7; 1985 for MSX and Sharp X1
After 11 years and over 400 game, it's hard to use superlatives with any degree of confidence, but I'm pretty sure that Courageous Perseus is the worst game I have played or attempted to play since starting this blog. It is a pointless anti-game, requiring no skill, featuring no story, giving the player the relief of neither luck nor brevity, offering no rewards even for the player who wins, which I would maintain is impossible on the MSX version.
Released in the same year as Hydlide--possibly even before it--Perseus offers superficially the same type of early-Japanese-action-RPG gameplay. You run up to monsters and wave your sword until they die. As you kill monsters, your attack and defense values go up and your energy goes down. The trappings are superficially Greek, with the monsters meant to represent centaurs, griffins, satyrs, pegasuses, and other creatures from mythology. It's hard to imagine that Clash of the Titans (1981) didn't have some influence on the content.
The game begins on the ocean in a raft. The game world wraps, so all directions lead to land.
If that was all there was to the game, it would just be incredibly boring. What makes it uniquely hateful is that of the 15 or so regular enemy types in the game, you can only kill one or two at a time, usually one. When the game begins, you're only strong enough to kill these grey fighters. You have to wipe them out to amass enough strength to kill the next tier of enemies, which is either unicorns or satyrs (they became available to me about the same time). Then you have to kill all of them before you're strong enough to defeat centaurs, and so on.
There are several problems with this approach. First, each type of enemy is not conveniently grouped in one area. The game world consists of 120 screens, arranged 8 x 15, and while enemy types tend to be concentrated by screen, their screens could be scattered anywhere in that grid. The screens make up a long maze that winds its way throughout the island and takes about 15 minutes to run from beginning to end if you don't stop to fight. You have to make multiple loops through this map looking for your current enemy to kill, ensuring that you get every one of them or else you can't move on to the next enemy.
Despite the title, I did not spend a "brief" amount of time with this game. I took the time to stitch together all these screen shots.
Second, there's no way to tell which enemy is next in the order. (I suppose it's possible that the manual told players; I haven't been able to find a copy.) You just have to periodically test yourself against them, letting them whack away your energy, until it's clear that you can't defeat them yet. 
Third and worst of all, there simply aren't enough foes in some tiers to move on to the next tier. Repeatedly, I was unable to move on to any enemy. Fortunately, there is some limited respawning in the game--too rare and unpredictable to actually "grind," but if you run around long enough some low-tier enemies inevitably reappear. Only through a couple hours of finding them one at a time was I finally able to advance a couple of times.
These grey fighters are the only enemies you can kill when the game begins.
But you can't spend forever dithering about the game world, looking for enemies to kill, because even outside of combat, your energy depletes at a rate of roughly 1 per second. You can find five magic items (they look like signs) that boost your energy by 1,000, but even with all of them, the game will be over in less than two hours even if you take no damage from any enemy. Even with liberal save-scumming (reloading if I took too much damage or spent a while in fruitless exploration), I couldn't find enough enemies to advance fast enough.
"Enemies" ought to be in quotes, incidentally. I don't know what the back story is supposed to be, but none of the creatures in the game actually attack Perseus. Indeed, they seem to actively avoid him. You only take damage if you bump into each other. Trying to fight them is actually quite frustrating, as they move randomly around the screen, can walk on terrain that Perseus can't walk on, and don't do you the courtesy of staying in combat range when you're trying to attack. As the game progresses, Perseus slowly depopulates the island of non-hostile fantastic creatures.
Perseus prepares to massacre two satyrs and two unicorns.
The goal of the game has something to do with collecting signs of the Zodiac. These appear occasionally as you slay monsters, and in the MSX version, they're recorded on the game options screen. In the PC-88 version, which has much nicer graphics, they're on the title screen. To get them all, I believe you have to kill essentially all the monsters in the game, including Medusa and a dragon.
The menu screen shows me what Zodiac items I've collected.
The PC-88 version may not have the same problems as the MSX version. There's a YouTube video of someone winning it, at least. I couldn't find that version of the game for download. I wouldn't be above a little hex editing just to see it through, but I can't figure out how to hex edit blueMSX save state files (even if I decompress them, I can't find any of the hex values). I refuse to carry this as a loss, and since my rules say that I can BRIEF a game if it doesn't meet my definition of an RPG, that's what I'm doing here. The game has no inventory.
The winning screen of the PC-88 version.
Despite how much I hated it, Courageous Perseus had some interesting analogues to a game I've been playing this month on the console: Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (2018). Aside from the Greek theme, both feature enemies that are hard-gated by character level, something that the Assassin's Creed series seems to have adapted from The Witcher 3. This level-gating is my least favorite part of these otherwise-good games. If you're not familiar with how it works, basically you functionally cannot prevail against an enemy more than 5 levels higher than you no matter how much you're willing to work at it. To put it mathematically, say you have a Level 20 character who can normally kill a Level 20 enemy in 10 hits. A Level 22 enemy, being harder, takes you 12 hits. A Level 25 enemy takes 15. So far, so good. You thus might expect a Level 30 enemy might take as many as 30 hits to kill. Except it takes more like 300, or even 3,000. Once the enemy is more than 5 levels above you, the normal math goes out the window and the game drastically escalates both his offense and defense far out of proportion to the actual level variance. 
There are a couple of islands and secluded beaches you need a raft to reach.
Odyssey also features what may be the most morally reprehensible character in the entire series. The game takes place during the Peloponnesian War, and the main character by default happily takes contracts from both Athens and Sparta, gleefully slaughtering officers in both armies, destroying their resources, and pillaging their ships. You could role-play it so that you only accept one or the other, but unlike every previous Assassin's Creed title, there's no "evil" side here. The character comes across fort after fort, camp after camp, house after house, and mercilessly slaughters soldiers and steals valuables for no other reason than the game offers such acts as "area objectives." Here again, we have an analogue to the clearly monstrous protagonist of Perseus.
Odyssey, incidentally, has taught me that the pronunciations we generally use for Greek figures are all wrong. It's The-SAY-us, not THEE-see-us. Pi-tha-GOR-as, not Py-THA-gor-as. I assume that Perseus is similarly Per-SAY-us. Come to think of it, that would make Courageous Perseus almost a rhyme. 
Compared to "real" and "adventure," "courageous" is quite difficult to spell. I'm impressed they got it.
Getting back to this game, I'll allow that it's possible I missed something. The game tracks an "S" value and a "P" value. I don't know what either is, but "P" never got higher than 0, so maybe there was something else I was supposed to do to get stronger. I tried all the keys to no avail, but maybe there's some other combat action or command that I missed. I'm open to taking another look if the manual turns up. Otherwise, this one is best left forgotten.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Mission: Thunderbolt: Wrong Place, Wrong Time

If this alert is for the aliens, why is it in English? If it's not for the aliens, who is it for?
Among all the games I played for 1992, it's hard to imagine a worse contender for "last game of the year" than Mission: Thunderbolt. Like most roguelikes, it demands a certain amount of patience as you learn its particular conventions and tricks. Unlike most (or at least many) roguelikes, it isn't well-documented online (there are a couple of woefully inadequate FAQs), meaning that I truly do have to learn those tricks on my own. Recall how long it took me to even get comfortable with NetHack, let alone win it, and you'll understand why you don't want to schedule such a game right when you're trying to wrap up a year. To try to finish Thunderbolt under such circumstances would be horribly unfair to the game, so I think what I'm going to do is wrap up 1992 in a forthcoming entry whether I've finished or not. While there are things I like about Thunderbolt, there really isn't any chance that it's going to vie for "Game of the Year."
Two bots trap me in the corridor and misunderstand my attempts to shove them away.
I played a while longer with my first character, but I eventually ditched him. By the time I made it to Region 6, he was riddled with conditions I didn't understand and couldn't cure, had two robots following him around and blocking his progress constantly, and had lost a bunch of his items to traps. The only Auto-Doc I'd found was back on Level 1, and it was broken, meaning it injured me more often than it healed.
Worse, I kept running into creatures called "Fangwings" that poisoned me. I had no curing options--it's not even available in Auto-Docs--and if I tried to rest it off, I just died. Someone had opined that my strength was too low anyway, so I ultimately reloaded a new character, Lt. Brook. I held out for 18 strength, but I wanted relatively high scores in dexterity, speed, and constitution, too. It took me about 20 minutes of rolling to get a character with acceptable values in each, and even he had a fairly low constitution.
The rest of this brief entry is going to have to be miscellaneous observations about the game, at least until I started taking notes more seriously on Level 5.
  • Giant ants sap your strength and leave you "weakened." Giant centipedes sap your dexterity and leave you "klutzy." Both conditions can be cured at Auto-Docs, one point at a time, for quite a bit of money. I kept having to run up to the Level 1 Auto-Doc throughout the first four levels.

  • The ability to point, click, and run to a previously-visited position is a really nice feature. It makes the backtracking a lot less tedious. The pathfinding is smart enough to avoid traps. It automatically stops you if you meet an enemy or slip on paint.
  • Bashing a hole in a wall takes 10-20 individual "attack" actions even with 18 strength. It's boring, but often less so than going the long way around or spending turn after turn trying to shove a robot out of the way.
  • Traps are way too overpowered in this game. You can activate an "auto-search" function to try to find them, but it doesn't always work and it frequently shuts itself off. Teleport traps are the least of the bunch. There are gravitational traps that hold you in place and slowly deplete your health until you die, and blasts of cold or hot air that damage you and destroy your equipment. 
Failure to hit "search" means that I was blinded and lost 7 items. That seems a little unfair.
  • Enemies like to group on the other sides of doors, so you often find yourself facing half a dozen in a row after you open one. 
  • For melee weapons, I haven't found anything better than a crowbar yet. Ammo for missile weapons is so rare that you can't use them very often.
  • For armor, I progressed from a jacket to a leather jacket to an armored vest to a Kevlar vest.
  • Thunderbolt diverges from games like Rogue and NetHack in gating the power of found objects by level. I don't like that. I like that in NetHack, there's a chance that the first sword you find will be the best weapon in the game.
  • Even though I just care about winning, not the points, seeing my "penalty" increase every time I save still proves to be a deterrent to save-scumming.
  • That penalty increases for other reasons, too, although I don't usually notice when it happens, so I can't say for sure what the reasons are.
  • Thunderbolt has two different types of unknown items: pills of various colors and "strange devices" which aren't differentiated by any descriptors. As we discussed last time, pills are far too dangerous to experiment with just by eating them. If you do determine the properties of a pill, the game uses that descriptor (e.g., "Pill of Improved Hearing") instead of the color from then on. In a departure from most roguelikes, it appears that the same type of pill can have multiple descriptors (e.g., healing pills might be both gold and green).
  • Strange devices I've identified so far have included infrared goggles, light globes, grenades, landmines, and flares. The grenades and landmines are theoretically helpful, but so far light sources haven't been consistent and plentiful enough that I can reliably see enemies coming from far enough away to use them.
Lt. Brook's outing was mostly unstressful until I reached Level 6. When I arrived in the new region, an alarm immediately blared that there was an "intruder," and that someone should "detain and interrogate." Not long after, an invisible "CyberCop" beat me unconscious, and I woke up in a small detention room tied to a chair. I was ultimately able to get out of the chair by breaking it, but I had no inventory and couldn't figure a way out of the cell in multiple rounds.
This is the kind of situation that it's usually fun to just role-play and see what happens. The problem was that the game had subtracted 10,000 points in "penalty," suggesting I'd done something wrong in getting tossed into prison in the first place. After trying some more to get out of the cell, I gave up and reloaded.
This might have been interesting, but the -10,000 points deterred me from continuing.
Reloading didn't help much. The CyberCops were still invisible and able to knock me out in two hits. I was eventually able to kill three of them by leading them one by one to a narrow corridor and shooting them. Throughout my time on the level, the alarms and CyberCops kept reappearing periodically, usually resulting in a few reloads before I killed them.
Region 6 is otherwise uniquely constructed. I've only explored part of it, but it seems to have a large central area with four corner rooms. I started in one of the corner rooms and had to bash my way out of it. Others have doors. The level is full of traps. It also marks the first appearance of a library, a special room where you can have pills and devices identified for a lot of money. Fortunately, there are caches of coins in each of the corner rooms, but the library only takes money directly from your bank account, so I had to keep hustling piles of coins back to the nearest bank on Level 4, deposit them, then return to the library two levels down to use my funds.
Identifying items in the library.
The center of Level 7 seemed to have some kind of prison in which something was repeatedly pounding at a door. When I finally got the door open, I found myself facing a "Zytt," the alien enemy of the setting. He died in a few shots. I expected him to be harder.
Killing a Zytt.
Unfortunately, the fangwings made another appearance, and I still haven't found any pills that cure poison. Even if you're willing to reload a lot, it's tough to find a strategy that works against them. They lurk on the other sides of doors or walls that you bash, and they're quick enough to move and attack the moment they're free, so you can't see them coming and just shoot them. I accidentally saved right next to one of them and put myself in a walking dead situation that is going to require rolling a new character. 
I'll try again with a new character in a week or so, but for now let's wrap up 1992. There might be an intermediate posting on a random game while I get the transition entry together.
Time so far: 8 hours