Friday, April 30, 2021

Game 411: The Amulet (1983)

The Amulet
Numenor Microsystems (developer); Tri-Micro (publisher)
Released 1983 for DOS
Date Started: 29 April 2021
Date Ended: 29 April 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 11
Ranking at Time of Posting: 29/412 (7%)
The Amulet is a relatively shameless plagiarism of The Valley from the previous year. I covered it in 2014. The Valley had been published as type-in code in the April 1982 Computing Today in the United Kingdom. Somehow it made its way to P. K. Winter in Toronto, who would have had to adapt it to a different platform. You would think in so adapting, he would have maybe added or modified some elements, but all he seems to have done is change the proper names in the needlessly-complicated backstory offered by the original.
This is just the same story as The Valley with the proper names changed.
In creating your character, you choose from five classes: wizard, thinker, barbarian, warrior, and druid. If you screw up and hit an invalid key, you become a "peasant." These classes are the same as The Valley except that "druid" replaces "cleric."
Both games take place on a single screen. A jagged path, looking a bit like a mountain range, cuts through the map and offers safe spaces to rest and travel. Two castles anchor the path at the end. There are some fixed locations on the map that open into six secondary screens: two swamps, two forests, four dungeons, and a castle. The goal is to collect an amulet, six stones, and a helm, all of which are necessary to save the land from an evil wizard. You have to collect them in a particular order--the amulet first, found in the Temple of Rhyangioth; then the six stones, found in Scylfdun Castle; finally the helm, in the Lair of Eoghan.
Fighting a centaur.

Comparable screen from The Valley (1982).
All the "action" takes place on the random black squares that you traverse from point to point. Every time you step on one, one of seven things can happen--the same seven things as in The Valley:

  • Nothing
  • Combat with one of the game's 19 enemies, including orcs, ogres, fire giants, rock trolls, harpies, centaurs, and balrogs
  • A hoard of gold, which does nothing except increase your score
  • A "circle of evil" that supposedly drains stamina and "psy" power, but it doesn't seem to do anything
  • A "place of ancient power" that restores stamina and power
  • An "aura of deep magic" that increases maximum strength and psy power commensurate with the experience you've earned since the last aura
Combat is extremely basic. Sometimes you surprise the enemy and get a chance to retreat. Otherwise, you strike at the head, body, or legs, with the chance to hit decreasing but the damage increasing in that order. You can also try to cast one of the game's three spells, which become available at various experience thresholds. The spells aren't named, but their lurid descriptions when you cast them correspond with something like "Confusion," "Fire Bolt," and "Death Bolt." Again, this is all from The Valley, which offered the same combat options and the same basic three spells.
The spell descriptions are a bit much.
The different classes have slightly different balances in strength and psy power, but not enough to make any significant difference. The game is fundamentally easy because there's no escalation in monster difficulty by time or area. You can defeat the most difficult monsters with your starting strength. Since your strength only grows from there, you spend 90% of the game way overpowered.
Finding the Amulet. Now for the stones.
The key inputs are easy to master, but the interface is otherwise annoying as hell. You spend most of the time waiting for messages to finish so that you can type in your next command. During combat, you only have a split second to type what you want to do, or the game says "too slow," and the enemy gets a free hit. If you accidentally hit a key too many times, the commands stack in the buffer. Very often, enemies got the first half dozen combat rounds to strike at me without penalty because the game was still acting on the directional keys I had been pounding before combat begins.
But persevere and you can collect the items easily in a couple of hours. Just like The Valley, the only acknowledgement that you've "won" comes from the score you get when you check in at a castle. Except I can't get it to say my rating is higher than 2 despite having the amulet, all six stones, and the helm. The only way you can tell that for sure is by looking at the saved game roster.
Why is it so low?

At least the character screen shows I have the amulet, six stones, and the helm.
The Amulet deserves no more than the 11 points that The Valley got in the GIMLET. (It has no inventory, no NPCs, and only the barest character development.) I'm tempted to subtract some for plagiarism, but I've never done that before. The author appears never to have worked on another game, although he did self-publish some fantasy books.
I had to reach past a couple of games to get to The Amulet (and even then, I needed LanHawk's help with a file issue). Dragon Maze for the Macintosh wasn't working, although after drafting this entry, I found a version that did. I'm still playing Mission: Thunderbolt, but I won't have anything to report until I survive a bit longer. Darkside of Xeen will be up next.
Demon Venture: Reign of the Red Dragon is a 1982 game for the TRS-80. Commenter Dungy has been a big help finding it and almost getting it to work. The game is a bit fragile, but Dungy found that he could get it to work if he mounted a system disk in Drive 0 and the game disk in Drive 1, then loaded the relevant file on the game disk. The problem is that when I try it, I get a "File not found" error for anything on the disk in Drive 1. If I switch it to Drive 0, it finds the file, but then the game doesn't work for other reasons. As far as I can tell, we're using the same configuration (TRS-80 Model I), so neither of us can figure out what's wrong. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. I'm using the TRS-32 emulator.

Monday, April 26, 2021

BRIEF: The Missing Ring (1982)

The Missing Ring
United States
Datamost (developer and publisher)
Released in 1982 for Apple II
Re-released in 1988 for Apple II by SoftDisk
The 1980-1983 period was a crazy time for RPGs on the Apple II. The predominance of the models set by Wizardry and Ultima had not yet taken hold, and developers were still trying all kinds of wacky things like Crown of Arthain's hex-based movement, The Dragon's Eye's side-view action combat, and the way that monsters could gain experience and level up in Stuart Smith's Fracas. There was the weirdness of the entire Empire series and the modular text adventure approach of Eamon. Most of the features of these games were evolutionary dead ends--mutations that offered no reproductive advantage, if you will. The Missing Ring fits neatly into this time period.
The SoftDisk version has introductory text lacking in the original.
The game concerns the attempt of the hero to find a missing ring of power in an Enchanted Palace. I don't know what the original backstory said, as I haven't found any documentation that accompanied it. The 1988 SoftDisk rerelease calls the hero the "Ambassador of Llahmot" and the creators of the ring the "Council of Reliew." These names are clearly taken from SoftDisk employees Tom Hall and James Weiler and thus almost certainly were not mentioned in the original, written by a Terry Romine (who has no other credits).
The diskmag really hyped things up for the re-release.
With up to four other characters, the hero enters a maze of numbered rooms full of monsters and treasure, including the titular ring. You don't create a party so much as just choose from a list of archetypes, including "fighter with sword" or "elf with bow." The characters otherwise have no equipment, no attributes, and no names. The maze, including placement of monsters and treasures, is randomized for each new game. 
The various character options.
The control scheme is the first oddity. There are two sets of controls, ostensibly one for left-handed players and one for right-handed players. Some sites report that the scheme allows for two players to play at once. I guess that would work, but you'd have to have agreement over which player controlled which characters.
Entering the dungeon.
Movement keys are RDEF on the left and OLKP on the right, with those keys respectively corresponding with forward, back, left, and right. The clusters make sense if you angle your hand slightly towards the center of the keyboard. Similarly, both "T" and "U" get treasure, and both "B" and "M" use magic. A couple of commands are shared.
You control each character individually. Each gets 5 or 6 moves per turn, with the game passing for you if you haven't done anything in about a second. You can keep the characters together or fan out throughout the dungeon, which is a pretty cool feature for the year, although it's better in theory than in practice. Guiding every character across the room and through the door gets old fast, and if the game was working for me, I suspect I'd try to get through it with a single character.
Enemies include goblins, orcs, and hell hounds. When you fight them (with the SPACE bar), you get a crosshair that you can put over the enemy you want to attack. At least, that's the theory. One of the reasons this is a BRIEF is that the game crashes for me every time I encounter an enemy.
The game crashes before the hell hound appears.
My sense is that the purpose of the game is simply to explore, fight, and grab treasure until you finally find the ring. You can exit to the lobby at any time and visit a merchant for healing potions (the only inventory item you have) or to convert gold to experience. I'm not sure what experience does. There are no designated levels. I assume that your prowess is somehow enhanced as your experience grows. 
Finding treasures, which I can convert to healing potions or gold.
I've tried six versions of this game and I can't get any of them to work right. I've tried both the original version and the SoftDisk re-release, which has an introductory menu with the instructions and backstory. The ones on Virtual Apple and Asimov have unreadable text. A commenter sent me two copies back in 2016; one of them hangs after party creation, the other one crashes every time I encounter a monster. I know that playing is possible because there are screen shots on MobyGames and a video on YouTube, but I'll be damned if I can get it. I've tried every possible configuration in AppleWin.
I could fight in this version; I just couldn't read it.
If someone gets it working for their own purposes or already has it working without these problems, then feel free to send me your configuration and version, and maybe I'll try again. (I do not want anyone to try to get the game working specifically for me, and I'll go so far as to refuse to play it or even acknowledge your message if it's clear that's what you've done.) Lacking inventory, and possibly lacking attribute-based combat, it's not really an RPG by my definitions anyway, and I'm happy to leave this as a BRIEF.
[Ed. The parenthetical in the above paragraph was a bad idea. Certain readers and I have a long, I hope friendly history in which they take any obstacle I face as a personal challenge and "help" me even when I've suggested based on the quality of the game that I don't really want any help. In the end, they always come through anyway, as they did here, and I always play the game, as I did below. And in the end, I always appreciate their efforts in holding me true to the mission I have laid out, even if I act grouchy about it. I was making a commentary on this dynamic, but it comes across as harsh and ungrateful if you don't know the rest of the context. Perhaps it comes across as harsh as ungrateful even if you do. I apologize either way. I realize this is a dangerous thing to be joking around with if I honestly want readers to come forward and help, so I won't be doing it anymore.]
All right, a reader helped me with yet another version of the 1982 original. This one sometimes froze when opening chests, but otherwise it worked.
Now that I've experienced more, it's clear to me that the author was influenced heavily by Dunjonquest, albeit with a party instead of a single character. The similarities are less in the specific mechanics of gameplay and more in the basic structure. Both games have numbered rooms, for instance. In both, the character converts his accumulated treasure to gold when he exits the dungeon, and can then visit a merchant for upgrades. Both have one-time-use potions that can be purchased before your next expedition to offer an advantage.
You can purchase a variety of potions to aid you in the next foray.
The Missing Ring has more randomization than Dunjonquest. The general layout--an 8 x 10 grid of rooms--remains the same between games, but a lot is randomized, including which doors become secret doors, which doors are locked, which doors are one-way, which room in the top row serves as the entry room, and the placement of monsters and treasures, including the titular ring. The dungeon wraps horizontally and I assume vertically; I only once found a southern wall with a door in it, and it was locked. The wrapping is a bit odd, though, as the game finds a way to nudge you one row south as you wrap to the east. Thus, Room 7 takes you to Room 8, and Room 47 takes you to Room 48. If there were no walls, you could explore all the rooms by just heading east.
The dungeon layout. Some elements may vary.
There are a few treasures in addition to gold and gems. You find goblets that may poison or heal you, a magic mirror that tells you what the goblets do, keys to open locked doors, and a statue that for me always crumbled into living enemies. Rings are also there; more on that below.
Sure, if I can take it out of the dungeon and run it through the washer first.
There are several types of combat. Melee characters have to get close to enemies and wave their weapons by hitting the SPACE bar. Missile characters can shoot from anywhere in the room, targeting enemies with a crosshair. Spellcasters can fire spells like "Magic Missile" using the same sort of targeting cursor. Although I "won" with a fighter with a bow, I eventually found the extra step associated with missile combat annoying. I ended up cranking the emulator, moving my character so that the monster was in the default location where the targeting cursor appeared, and just leaned on the SPACE bar.
Aiming a bow at a huge spider.
Enemies include dogs of war, hellhounds, orcs, goblins, zombies, gargoyles, skeletons, huge spiders, giant rats, and something called a "wraight," which I assume is a cross between a wight and a wraith. Some of them have missile or magic attacks and can thus target you from a distance. I found that they were universally awful with their aim, however, and I thus rarely had to worry about death with any character. Take that with a grain of salt because I think that futzing with the emulator speed might have had something to do with their ineptitude. I also bought Potions of Speed before most of my sessions, so perhaps those are just way overpowered. I was just trying to document the game, so I didn't question it much.
You only get one or two points per defeated monster, no matter how tough they are. I was wrong about the game not having attributes or explicit levels. It's a bit complicated. Once you leave the dungeon the first time, you can save your characters. Only then can you give them names. After saving them, you can see their statistics, and they do have strength, wisdom, constitution, intellect, dexterity, an armor class, and levels. Attributes seem to increase in levels. Leaving the dungeon and saving the character ends the current session, and you thus re-enter a newly randomized dungeon.
Stats are only visible once you've saved the character after at least one exploration session.
There's some semi-sophisticated stuff going on with spells. I didn't play a wizard very long, but the program suggests that as he gains levels, he can acquire some fairly sophisticated spells, including "Charm Person," "Sleep," "Dancing Lights," and a spell called "Locate Ring." 
Casting a "Magic Missile" at a large spider.
I still don't understand what's going on with the rings. I managed to map the entire dungeon and find at least one ring, in the hands of an evil mage. Once I killed the mage, I opened the treasure chest in the room, and I was told I'd found a "Golden Ring." I assumed this was the ring and started to write this addendum as if I'd won the game. I got no acknowledgement when I left the dungeon, but I assumed that the game was like the Dunjonquest sequels where the only acknowledgement you get is the screen in which you find the treasure.
For a while, I thought I had won.
But I searched the programming code and I found a place where someone says, "Ah, I see you have a golden ring! I can summon a wizard to cast a spell on it if you desire." This seems to come from the merchant, although I never got such an option when I spoke to him. Presumably this spell either identifies or enchants the ring, because later in the code are different types of rings: Ring of the Djinn, Ring of Regeneration, Ring of Storing, Ring of Weakness, and Ring of Teleport. (There's also an Amulet of Secrecy, apparently.) Finally, there's a bit of code that says, "[Hero's Name] has collected all of the rings. He will be added to the winner's circle!" 
The evil mage guards the golden ring.
I don't know for sure, but this suggests that a winning character will have to make multiple trips into the dungeon, each time finding a new ring within the one room that has a special treasure, until he has all of them. Even if I was willing to spend the time to do this, it's not going to work if the game won't acknowledge that I have a ring in the first place.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Exploration Pattern Paralysis (ft. Darkside of Xeen)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler, long I stood.
My experience this session with Darkside of Xeen led me to a long contemplation of exploration patterns in RPGs and why I find the Xeen games particularly confounding in this area. To understand, it's probably worth first considering the extremes.
One extreme would be a dungeon crawler like Wizardry. It would certainly be possible to win the game without mapping the entire 10-level dungeon, but I doubt any serious player would try. Too much depends on finding key items and encounters in key squares. Even when there's nothing to find in a particular corridor, the act of exploring it generates random encounters that you need for character development. This is why when I replay a game, I almost always make a new set of maps. Sure, I could use the old ones, but then I wouldn't have anything to do while trying to build experience points.
At the same time, there's also little mystery in how to explore the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. You map each level completely, then move to the next one. Since this system also works with enemy difficulty and character development, it's a no-brainer. To do something different--say, roll a random number from 1 to 10 and head directly for that level--would not only be weird, you'd probably just end up dying.
When I'm mapping a walled dungeon, there's no exploration angst. It's just right or left.
At the other extreme would be the game that's currently occupying my console time--Assassin's Creed: Odyssey--but also any of the open-world titles in the Elder Scrolls or Fallout series. Only the most insane player would try to explore everything. In a continuous-surface game (which almost all games are after the mid-1990s), what does it even mean to "explore everything"? To look behind every rock? To map every tree? Your exploration patterns in such games are heavily quest-driven, and while many players take time to stop and smell the roses, investigating ruins or stopping at encounters along the way, their tendency is to move from quest to quest. Nobody plays Skyrim by starting in the northwest corner and moving systematically eastward in north-south strips, yet using this system to explore Xeen doesn't feel quite as risible.
A related question, of course, is how much content you feel comfortable missing. The player who insists on solving every quest and clearing every dungeon in Skyrim makes as much sense to me as the tourist who insists on walking down every street in whatever city he's visiting. If your friend told you he was going to visit Manhattan and his plan was to visit every single building--whether systematically or randomly--you'd think he was mental. And yet thousands of players cheerfully say, "I'm a completionist!" as if they weren't essentially announcing that they have a crippling disorder. (And yes, I understand the irony of someone who's spent 11 years on a quest to play every RPG ever made commenting on someone else's mental health.) That isn't to say that when I play those games, I simply follow the main quest line. I guess I would describe myself as a serendipitist. I work my way through quests organically, systematically, or even sometimes randomly, and if I encounter something interesting along the way, I'm happy to explore it, but I otherwise don't mind if I finish the game leaving large parts of it unexplored.
Odyssey and Skyrim, however, were made well past the era in which a player needed to explore every corner to get strong enough to win. In the era I'm playing in, it was generally understood that you had to do everything, or almost everything, to prepare yourself for the final battle. There are some exceptions even in these years--Darklands, Legends of Valour, and Realms of Arkania all spring to mind--but needing to do all the precursor quests is the norm. I don't think that Clouds and Darkside require you to do all their quests to get strong enough to win, but they certainly require you to do a good portion of them.
Put all of this together, and you find that no approach is entirely satisfying. Lawnmowing (systematically exploring each map in rows or columns) seems artificial. Simply pursuing the main quest would leave you too weak to win (and you'd miss a lot of great content). The tiled nature of the game makes it difficult to explore organically. There's no natural pattern to the geography the way there was in Might and Magic III or, say, Ishar. And the difficultly level ramps up too quickly between areas to do something like, for instance, exploring the road network before everything else. I tried this and got stomped by an "armadillo" five minutes in.
What "organic" exploration gets you.
By starting a new party, I was hoping to limit my options a bit, as the new party doesn't have "Pathfinding," "Mountaineering," or "Swimming." But these skills never really made any sense anyway--I can't walk through a frigging forest without a special skill?--and the lack of them just makes the terrain feel artificially restrictive. Plus, I know where I can get them, so honestly, what am I waiting for? Do I need to somehow prove myself exploring more limited terrain before I can feel comfortable buying the skill? What milestone am I looking for? And in the meantime, do I just lawn-mow the terrain that I can explore, or do I try to do it "organically"? Honestly, those of you who encouraged me to start Darkside without those abilities, what did you expect I was going to gain from the experience? What do you get out of it?
"Organic" exploration isn't really possible at this point anyway because the game gives you no idea where to go. All I know is that I need a bunch of power discs. I know that most of the dungeons and towers will require stones and keys I haven't found yet, so heading directly for them seems like a waste of time. My only thought was to go look for hints in the next town's tavern, which is east across the map. That got me eaten by an armadillo.
For at least a 3 x 3 area ahead of me, there's nothing to find. Is it somehow better role-playing if I refuse to step on those squares?
There's yet another element to consider: the Xeen games feature visible encounters. Unlike most tiled games, NPCs, treasures, and enemies never just pop up in otherwise generic squares. You can see that there's something there from several squares away. It's not necessary to hit every one in Clouds or Darkside; you just have to look in the direction of every one. But try something like that and you'll drive yourself crazy. The game keeps track of the tiles you've stepped on, not the ones you've "seen." Are you really going to leave three grass tiles gray on your map just because you can tell there's nothing there? Please. But then you get to a lava area, and you start to wonder if you're really epitomizing the spirit of role-playing by forcing your party to walk on it.
Given all of this, you can understand why I found myself wishing I could just start in the southwest corner of the world and mow my way eastward. Doesn't it make more sense to explore the area around the starting town before tearing across the map? And if I'm going to do that, how do I do it? Rows and columns are "artificial." So is concentric circles around the town. How do you comprehensively explore a tiled open world in a way that isn't fundamentally "artificial"?
This started as a Darkside of Xeen posting, but I realized I wanted to hear your thoughts about exploration patterns before committing to one for Darkside, so I'll put this out as more of a "special topic" instead. In the meantime, here's the basic approach I've taken to some recent games, both on this blog and off:
  • Assassin's Creed: Origins and Odyssey: Select the next quest in order of level, find the location (or most likely location) on the map, and mark it. (I try to avoid the actual quest markers.) Head there in as direct a path as possible, but if any unexplored sites (annotated with a ?) appear on my radar on the way, I have to detour to explore them before continuing. If there are multiple ?s, I detour to the closest one. This method has me backtracking a lot, sometimes over very long distances, but I don't mind because the terrain is gorgeous and the random encounters and natural resources you find on the way leave you wealthier. Last year, I played The Witcher 3 basically the same way.
Looks like I have an oasis to explore.
  • Far Cry 5: Pretty much the same as above except I selected the quests more organically (e.g., which seemed the most pressing).
  • Mission: Thunderbolt: Moot point because it's a mostly-linear game. Fully explore each level using the "rightmost wall" approach.
  • The Magic Candle III: Went systematically across the game world from west to east. This was a fairly dumb way to do it. Top-down open-world games often leave me with the same angst (cf. Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan) as Xeen. The Magic Candle III is a bit different because you don't reveal squares as you explore, but you still have to hit most of them because hidden locations only show up if you're in an adjacent square. This meant that I had to explore the world like Xeen but also remember where I had been.
  • Ultima Underworld: Not tiled, so you don't have to hit every spot, just enough to basically fill in the auto-map, which ensure that you've seen everything. At the same time, it's not quite an open-world game, so there's a natural linear pattern to vertical exploration, at least, and I used the "right wall" approach for lateral exploration.
  • Ultima VII: The Black Gate: I tried to do this one organically, setting destinations in a logical order, but after creating a role-playing reason not to do things in the order that the game clearly wanted me to do. This created some problems, as we saw, but it also created some fun moments and probably led me to experience more of the game world than if I'd done things in the "official" order.
Exploring serendipitously meant that I found interesting places like this.
  • Legends of Valour: It's an open-world game with a fairly linear quest order. I just went in the natural order of quests. I made small detours if I saw something interesting, but I mostly didn't worry if I didn't explore 50% of the buildings in the city. The nature of character development (i.e., there is none) doesn't reward dallying, nor does the game's inventory system (you only ever find three items). If the game had proper experience or leveling, I think my approach would have been different.
  • The Dark Queen of Krynn: All of the Gold Box games with overworlds lack visible encounters. You have to step on every square to ensure you find anything--and the nature of character development makes you want to find everything. I went between locations in the natural order of the somewhat linear quests, but I made sure to step on all the squares in between.
  • Fallout 4: I did the quests in a relatively organic order, but my rule was that if my quest marker touched any unexplored icon in the 3D compass, I had to go there before continuing.
From this list, we can see how other factors--side quests, difficulty, character development, the economy, the possibility of finding treasures--all affects the decision for what feels like the "right" exploration pattern. Thus, in most games, I don't really struggle with it; some combination of the above leaves me with a single path that feels natural. My paralysis here is yet another way in which the Might and Magic games are unique.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Game 410: Siege of Darkwood (1993)

Chancellor has moved from La Verne to El Segundo since we saw him last.
Siege of Darkwood
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1993 for Macintosh
Date Started: 20 April 2021
Date Ended: 21 April 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 22
Ranking at Time of Posting: 159/412 (39%)
Siege of Darkwood is a sequel to 1992's Darkwood from Robert Chancellor, future Blizzard and Amazon Game Studios employee. Like its predecessor, it's an afternoon RPG, competently programmed but somewhat lacking in content.
In Darkwood, the main character, Derek Silverhand, rose from penniless orphan to Captain of the Guard by defeating successively more powerful monsters in the arena. Here, in his role as captain, he must oversee the defense of the city as it is besieged by an evil being named Torque. Derek must have gone soft as captain, because as the game begins, he's back down to Level 1 and has 80 gold and no equipment. He has a full set of Dungeons and Dragons attributes, but intelligence and wisdom don't come into play in the game.
The quest is introduced.
The siege takes 10 rounds, the first 9 of which feature a handful of monster parties scattered around the city of Darkwood. The appearance of the screen initially made me think there was a strategy element to the game, but there isn't. Instead, you simply click on the monster party that you want to fight and hit "attack." Once in combat, you can click on an enemy to make a physical attack, use a magic item, use a potion, retreat, or surrender (which ends the game).
Once you defeat each group, you can take whatever time you need to heal at the temple, buy new items, or gamble before engaging the next group. Once all the groups are defeated, the next round starts. The "map" is just an interface for selecting the enemies; you don't move around it at all. Enemy groups move closer to the city as rounds pass, and if any are adjacent to the city, they can attack the city's "hit points," the depletion of which is another way to lose the game. It's easy enough just to prioritize the closest enemies, though.
Enemy parties surround Darkwood. The one I've selected has one orc.
Until about Round 4, each "group" has only one monster, progressing in order of difficulty from kobolds to orcs, warriors, hobgoblins, ogres, and hill giants. Groups start featuring two monsters in Round 4 and three in Round 7. Higher-level creatures include weapon masters, minotaurs, stone giants, trolls, and stone golems.
Winning combats and earning gold is the name of the game.
Unlike Darkwood, there's no way to grind against lower-level enemies, so you have to be ready for each new round. Since there are so few tactics in combat, a lot depends on the choices you make between combats, including weapon and armor upgrades, attribute-boosting potions, healing, and magic items. The game's primary strategy is figuring out the best way to spend your limited funds on these boosts. My experience suggests that the order of priority is:

  • Fully heal at the temple between each combat.
  • Buy at least decent weapons and armor (e.g., long sword and scale mail).
  • Buy Potions of Charisma until you have 18 charisma, which makes everything else cheaper.
Until your attributes hit the max of 18, potions are a good purchase.
  • Keep 2 Potions of Heal in your inventory. If you need to use one in combat, buy another.
  • Buy Potions of Constitution and Dexterity until you have 18 of those.
  • Buy Potions of Strength until that's at 18.
  • Buy a Ring of Protection +2.  
  • Upgrade weapons and armor to the best available every 2 rounds or so.
  • Buy a Wand of Destruction when you can afford it. Ignore Wands of Fire and Lightning.
  • Buy the Sword of Justice when it becomes available in the 9th round.
The gambling hall somewhat ruins what would otherwise be a tight economy. In addition to simply allowing players to save scum for favorable outcomes, one of the games ("Treasure Hoarde") is rigged for the player. You roll two dice, and if the sum is 10 or greater, you win 1000 gold pieces for 100 bet. That's 10:1 winnings on 6:1 odds, an average return of 167 for every 100 bet. Fortunately, you can only gamble so many rounds before a guardsman arrives to remind you that you have a city to defend. My recommendation is to ignore the gambling hall. That way, the money you earn just barely allows you to stay ahead of the monsters, and creates more nail-biting situations. Even if you have to reload a lot, you'll win within a couple of hours.
This one, on the other hand, has exactly 1:1 odds.
That's about it. The clanks and screams of combat get a bit repetitive by the end, but the game is over quickly. By the eighth round, when you're facing groups of 3 monsters, the Wand of Destruction mostly carries the day. In Round 10, Torque attacks alone and is laughably easy to defeat, particularly with the Sword of Justice. A final congratulatory message closes the game.
Fighting the final boss.
On a GIMLET, Siege earns:
  • 2 points for the game world. I like the whole "city defense" setup, but there still isn't much to the backstory. This game gives Derek himself a bit more of an origin story.
Derek reminisces about where he came from.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There's no creation. You gain 7 or 8 levels during the game, and advancement is reasonably satisfying.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
The character sheet, somewhat late in the game.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. The foes are D&D standards with no special attacks. Higher-level monsters just hit harder.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. You have a couple of options. There are some limited tactics inherent in the order that you choose to attack enemies in groups.
I blast a stack of three enemies with a wand.
  • 3 points for equipment. Figuring out what to buy, in what order, is the most important part of the game.
  • 4 points for the economy. Simple but tightly structured.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
What happens if you die.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There's nothing spectacular about any of them but nothing terribly wrong, either.
  • 3 points for gameplay. Though linear and not replayable, Siege offers a quick game with a moderate challenge.
That gives us a final score of 22, a few points higher than I gave Darkwood, recognizing a few additions. It was a decent title to fill the breaks between grading papers today. 
Without exclamation points, it just sounds sarcastic.
Let's hope 1993 brings us a lot of one-off titles like this. It will get us through the year a lot faster than the sheer number of games otherwise suggests.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Game 409: Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen (1993)

This image, which is showing the Dragon Pharaoh's pyramid on the dark side, suggests that there's another planet in very close proximity.
Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen
United States
New World Computing (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS and PC-98, 1994 for FM Towns
Repackaged with Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen and released as World of Xeen in 1994
Date Started: 20 April 2021
I decided it was time to jump right to Darkside of Xeen and pick up some momentum, despite some commenters who felt I should still dither longer with Clouds. I would have preferred to post again on Mission: Thunderbolt first, but that game is giving me all sorts of trouble.
To recap what we covered a couple months ago, Darkside of Xeen was released in 1993 as a standalone game, although players who installed it in the same directory as Clouds of Xeen could enjoy both games at once, plus some special endgame content that involves both sides of the world. This is naturally what I will be doing. Although I'm nominally playing Darkside, I will have to return to the Clouds side several times. There are two towers, one dungeon, and a sphinx that all require keys from the Darkside, plus I have vowed to finish the Dragon Cave and the Volcano Cave once my new characters are up to strength. 

The Dragon Pharaoh learns that his ally has become a vampire.
The backstory of Darkside is told in both the manual and the opening cinematic. The Dragon Pharaoh, who seems to rule all or part of the Darkside, is excited about the upcoming fulfillment of a prophecy. One night, he sees two meteors crash into the world, which he initially regards as a good omen. (I'm not 100% sure, but I'm willing to bet that the two "meteors" are actually Sheltem's and Corak's ships from Might and Magic III.) A dispatched agent fails to return from the crash site, and the Dragon Pharaoh's readings of the omens start to go haywire. In his journal, he repeatedly expresses his confidence in fulfilling the prophecy in exact percentages, which drop alarmingly as events unfold.
There's that planet again. What are we to make of it?
The pharaoh soon learns that one of his allies, Queen Kalindra, has taken in a "mysterious but charming guest named Alamar," which is of course the alias that Sheltem used in the first Might and Magic. Alamar usurps and imprisons the queen and somehow turns her into a vampire. Scouts return to the pharaoh with reports of a rebel army amassing near the crash site. One by one, the pharaoh's allies abandon him for Alamar. Soon, his very pyramid is under siege. In desperation, he magically seals off the last level of his pyramid, keeping himself safe but also trapping him inside. He entrusts a magic orb to a winged familiar, but the creature is blasted out of the sky soon after it leaves the pyramid, and the orb falls to the ground. It is found by Zelda the Herbalist and given to the party immediately upon their arrival on the Darkside. 
The little creature doesn't get very far.
As I began the game, I considered the recommendations from various commenters and ended up doing something odd. Although I didn't have to combine things this way, I was curious to see how fast I could win Clouds. An anonymous commenter linked me to a speedrun where the player had done it in less than five minutes. Winning this quickly requires prior knowledge of the maps and names of places, but it's still legitimate. I was prepared to try to win even faster by using the I LOST IT cheat at a mirror to get the Xeen Slayer Sword. 
An NPC lives up to his name.
In my first attempt, I started with a new party, ran up to the mirror, grabbed the sword, and asked the mirror to take me directly to LORD XEEN. Alas, my characters were unable to hit him, and he soon slaughtered all of us. My next thought was to try the leveling fountain in Nightshadow before going to Xeen, but the problem there is surviving the vampires on the way to the fountain. (Ed: I later remembered that this fountain doesn't work until you clear the town anyway.) My party would need either a quick means of leveling up or a quick 1,000 gold pieces to afford the "Teleport" spell in Shangri-La. Unfortunately, having the teleport spell is only half the battle. You also have to have enough spell points to use it, and the starting sorcerer doesn't. The +150 spell point fountain in Rivercity isn't available until you complete the town's quest, so that's out. You also need gems to do all that teleporting. Because of terrain and monsters, the +250 spell point fountain in the Land of the Giants isn't reachable unless you already have a boost. Neither is the +50 accuracy fountain. The +5 level fountain near Vertigo lets you hit Xeen a couple of times but not defeat him.
I needed a way to gain at least a few legitimate levels. After some experimentation, the fastest way I could find was to actually complete the Vertigo quest. You don't have to kill all the monsters; you just have to return with proof that Bob's Extermination actually caused the infestation. That's enough to get everyone to Level 3, which provides enough points for the sorcerer to cast a couple of "Teleports" and maybe a stray "Lloyd's Beacon."
I rolled a new party for Darkside.
To implement this plan, I created a new party so that I could experience Darkside without all the levels and skills and spells from the first game. But as a concession, I decided to curate the party rather than relying on random rolls. Thus, I ended up with:

  • Saoirse, human female paladin. She was the only character from Clouds I really liked.
  • Gnaart, half-orc male knight.
  • Glean, gnome female ninja.
  • The elf brother-and-sister archer duo of Shaft and Feather.
  • Sasha, human female ranger, short for "Sashayer" (cf., Walker, Strider).
Not having a pure sorcerer created a problem, because my best archer only just had enough spell points for a "Teleport" at Level 3. But I was able to slay Lord Xeen by:
  • Clearing out Vertigo and getting the associated reward.
  • Using the reward money to purchase "Water Walk," "Lloyd's Beacon," and "Teleport" in Shangri-la.
  • Using the +5 level fountain near Vertigo (you have to kill some orcs on the way).
  • Using the +50 luck fountain near Vertigo.
  • Using the +50 accuracy fountain in B3. This was the hardest. To get there, I had to use the magic mirror to go to the CAVE OF ILLUSION, "Water Walk" north 4 squares, and "Teleport" west 7 squares. That gets you to the fountain, but you only have a couple of turns to use it before nearby ninjas start blasting you with electrical spells, requiring you to "Lloyd's Beacon" back to Vertigo.
"Winning" Clouds with about the lowest score possible.
Even with these advantages, it took me about 10 tries to kill Xeen, then about 10 more to kill him and have enough characters left alive that I could afford to raise the ones who Xeen killed. I also made a lot of mistakes along the way, such as drinking from the fountains too late in the day, so that the 05:00 rollover wiped them out. Because of all of this, a planned video of my "speedrun" fell apart, and I ended up spending far more time than if I'd just copied the YouTuber and done it the longer way.
Zelda gives us the Dragon Pharaoh's Orb as we arrive.
Nonetheless, as I began Darkside, my party had accomplished nothing on the Clouds side except clearing Vertigo and killing Xeen. What makes me happy about this is that the various attribute-raising barrels are still around if I decide I need them. But otherwise let me know if you think having accomplished virtually no quests in Clouds will be a problem, and I'll start over with my saved game. As you've pointed out, I can still create new characters.
This new party entered Darkside at around Level 5, but with no decent equipment, no spells except the ones I bought in Shangri-la, and no skills. Thus, I could not immediately start lawnmowing my way through the dark side. Theoretically, it should make for a more challenging, interesting experience.
I thought this was a pretty cool image.
Darkside gameplay began in Castleview, a large 30 x 30 town with the usual services, a sprawling sewer beneath it (Darkside restores the Might and Magic tradition of a dungeon beneath each town), and a tower belonging to the mage Ellinger, to whom the Dragon Pharaoh had intended to send the magic globe. Castleview had been invaded by goblins and gremlins, looking here like no goblins and gremlins you've ever seen before. Mayor Snorfblad wanted us to clean them out. 
This puzzle required me to close the chests in an order that spelled PITCHFORK. I had to use an online anagram tool to figure it out.
The entire town seemed designed to level the party to Cloud levels as soon as possible. I got 100,000 experience points for solving a letter puzzle for Miles the Cartographer. He gave a string of gibberish letters and then asked us to eliminate letters based on the dark side's physical features (e.g., "if the Great Northern Tower is east of Lakeside, cross out all S's and D's"). Rescuing a man named Jasper from prison netted another 10,000. Two chest puzzles--one involved opening chests in a particular order, the other closing them--earned me 300,000. Another 25,000 came from simply talking to a succession of five "Drawkcab Monks," all of whom have palindromic names and speak in palindromes. Some of them were clever:

  • I moan, "Live on, o evil Naomi!"
  • Do nine men interpret? "Nine men," I nod.
  • Eva, can I stab bats in a cave?

To defeat the gremlins and goblins, I had to contend with Gettlewaithe the Gremlin King, who sits in a tent in the midst of a field. For I believe the first time in the series, I had dialogue options when I talked to him, but all of the options seem to ultimately provoke a combat, so the choice is illusory. He agrees to stop bothering the town once you wipe out his guards. The mayor provides gold and 50,000 experience points.
The Gremlin King is a bit full of himself.
Dialogue options for the first time in the series.
The result of any of the dialogue options.
In the sewers--where I found a few endurance and strength barrels--Valio the Simple gives 25,000 experience for killing the Queen Rat.
Valio is actually an evil wizard. I wonder if the "School of Evil Wizardry" is something that I can find.
Both the town and sewer combats were moderately hard, particularly since I couldn't afford any useful spells yet. Temple blessings got me through most of them, but I had to do a lot of healing and armor repair with the limited funds I was earning.

Madam Oorla the Gypsy told me that I needed to take the orb to Ellinger, but his tower required a key to enter. On the dark side, the tower guardian is a cyberpunkish chick who says, "You need a key, orc breath" before you have the key and, "How did you get a key?" after you have one. The key was held by Nadia the Hoarder, who first wanted me to retrieve her lost onyx necklace from some sewer rats. That gives you another 100,000.
Once again, this is not how "keys" work.
I have to return to Ellinger's Tower at some point. There were a few items I didn't pick up because I had to walk on lava to get them, plus a button puzzle I never solved. (Ellinger seems to have a fetish for boots. Most of the treasures you find in his tower are boots, and he's written an Ode to Boots.) But I did make my way up to the top of the tower to talk with the wizard. He laid out the main quest: To save the Dragon Pharaoh, I'll need to enter his pyramid with a key. The only key is in Queen Kalindra's Castle, but Alamar did something to move the castle "out of phase" with the world, and to correct that, I'll have to find 20 energy discs. I already got three from Gettlewaithe.
Ellinger explains the main quest.
Talking with Ellinger got us a final 250,000 experience. By the end of the episode, we had enough experience to get everyone up to about Level 12. The greater problem for most of this session was money. I had to bypass the mage's guild, a guy offering a treasure map, and trainers providing the "Pathfinder" and "Swimming" skills because every penny I made went to healing and leveling up. Only at the very end of the session, when I found a few hidden treasure chests and got Ellinger's treasure, did the situation change.
It was pretty pathetic not to be able to afford this.
A few miscellaneous notes:
  • I expected the dark side to be dark. But the daytime sky is lit, if a bit dim, and a tavern tip suggests that its towers have their own walkable clouds.
Exploring the somewhat-dusky side of Xeen.
  • Ellinger's full name is Ellinger J. Hofenhager. "Hofenhager" sounds like a real last name, but a Google search suggests that it's never been used except for this game.
I'm going to need a drink to go along with this game.
  • One negative consequence of using the magic mirror to get six Xeen Slayer Swords is that I can't drop them or sell them, so I have six fewer inventory weapon slots. 
  • The tavern screen includes a character who looks so much like a Dr. Seuss figure that I assume it must have been intentional. In general, the dark side seems to be populated with monstrous races, only a few of which are ever identified.
I swear I saw his guy in Horton Fireballs a Who.
  • I finally have a party in which everyone can wield missile weapons, but I've been very slow to acquire them. At the end of this session, I've only found two, and both were in stores.
Thus, while my party certainly isn't as powerful as its end-of-Clouds counterpart, I head out into the larger world of Darkside much more powerful than I expected.
Castleview is in area A4, in the southwest of the overall Darkside world map. The map shows a little less terrain variance than the Clouds side, with the center dominated by the Desert of Doom. (I originally wrote that this was "odd, given that the world receives little to no direct sunlight," but then it occurred to me that the sun has nothing to do with making sand. In fact, it's the other way around: lots of sand "causes" more direct sunlight by offering little water vapor to be condensed into clouds. Also, this is a manufactured world.) The map suggests that from Castleview, I can either go east through a forest and ultimately to the city of Sandcaster, or west to Castle Kalindra (no point in visiting there yet, I guess) and the Great Western Tower.
The game world.
I think I'm going to pretend that I don't have "Pathfinding" yet and see where the eastern road network takes me. That's if I don't start completely over with my old save game.
Time so far: 3 hours (Darkside content only)