Wednesday, June 30, 2021

BRIEF: Everything We Know About 1970s Mainframe RPGs We Can No Longer Play

A PLATO terminal in a museum case at the University of Illinois; photo taken by the author in 2013.
This entry summarizes a series of 1970s mainframe games that have been so lost we don't even have screenshots. 
Before posting this entry, I scoured available books, magazines, web sites (including those archived), and message boards. I also asked several dozen PLATO authors, administrators, and former CRPG Addict contributors--everyone I could find--for any additional recollections about the games. I stopped only when I was confident there was nothing left to learn. If you have any new or conflicting information about any of the games below, I welcome your comments below or an e-mail to I will update the information below with any new material discovered. However, please do not take it upon yourself to try to track down and contact any of the people listed here on my behalf; it is likely that I have already reached out and they either declined to respond or already told me all they could.
Except for Don Daglow's Dungeon, all the games listed below were written in a language called TUTOR for the PLATO educational mainframe hosted by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Some of the authors of these games come from schools that had PLATO links, like Purdue University, Iowa State University, and Indiana University.) Many of the games written on this system have been preserved and are playable today at Cyber1. Games that are not lost, and that I've already covered, include The Dungeon (1975), The Game of Dungeons (1975), Orthanc (1975), Moria (1975), Oubliette (1977), Swords and Sorcery (1978), Avatar (1979), and Camelot (1982).
Students began writing these games almost immediately after the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The developers were aware of the games being written by other students, and there was a healthy mix of cooperation and competition. It's tough to nail down specific dates, or a specific order, for some of the games because they were continuously updated throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. (Some of them, like Orthanc, even had new coding added well into the 2000s.) What is the "release year" of games developed under such circumstances? There was no distinction between "beta testing" and actual gameplay.
The other important thing to understand about these early games is that they were bootlegging computer space. In the early years, university administrators and system operators frowned upon wasting precious system resources for games (not an entirely unreasonable perspective given the number of stories I've heard about students neglecting their studies to write and play games). Authors tried to disguise their games by giving them educational-sounding names or prefixes used by the lesson spaces allotted to various university departments. pedit5 (The Dungeon) had that file name because it was created on the space allotted to the Population and Energy group. I don't know what the prefix for m199h meant, but that was almost certainly a file name, not the actual name of the game, just like almost no game in Daniel Lawrence's DND line, including Lawrence's, was actually called DND.
Many PLATO RPGs were started, deleted, re-started, and deleted again. When Reginald Rutherford's pedit5 was deleted, students re-created it as Orthanc. When Orthanc got axed, they brazenly followed up with Orthanc2. An entire series of games beginning with the word Think was chased off the system one by one and re-created. Eventually, university officials gave up and allowed the games to remain, which is why the post-1976 games are much better preserved, sometimes in multiple versions. 
m199h (1976, possibly earlier)
Long offered as the legendary lost "first" PLATO CRPG, recent evidence has suggested that instead it was a remake-expansion of The Dungeon ("pedit5") of 1975. Information about the game is inconsistent, many sources drawing from a note file on PLATO written by Dirk Pellett, one of the contributors to The Game of Dungeons. It covers the history of RPGs on PLATO. He says:
It is "common knowledge" that someone created the very first dungeon simulation game in a lesson called "m199h" which was NOT created by the account director for the purpose of gamers playing games. When it was discovered, it got the axe. Unfortunately, little else is known about m199h, either the author, or what it was like, and no known copy exists.
This would seem to be the source of Brian Dear's brief mention of the game (which he accidentally calls m119h) in The Friendly Orange Glow, the basis of numerous subsequent citations.
Adding to the mythology, a Cyber1 administrator wrote in the PLATO notes files in 2011 that "m199h" was based at least partly based on a game called Monster Maze written by a Terry O'Brian on a CDC 6600. My colleague, El Explorador de RPGs, demonstrated conclusively that in fact Monster Maze was based on "pedit5."

In August 2023, I was sent some screenshots and hand-copied images from the game by a contemporary player, as documented in the link above. I now believe.
  • "m199h" was the file name, but the proper name of the game was Dungeon.
  • It was created in 1976 and deleted by early 1977.
  • It was an expansion of The Dungeon ("pedit5") and thus not the first CRPG. It was a top-down dungeon crawler.
  • The main character was a combination fighter/magic-user/cleric/thief on a mission to get enough experience points to get into the Hall of Fame.
  • Its monster list included griffins, harpies, demons, dragons, deaths, wizards, werewolves, dwarves, thieves, Spirits of Christmas, vampires, dwarf wizards, medusas, cockatrices, ogres, goblins, hobgoblins, zombies, nazguls, and wraiths. Many of these shared the same graphics. There may also have been some punny monsters with names like "hisnia" and "yourgraine" (after hernia and migraine).
  • Its spell list promised every spell available in the Greyhawk supplement (March 1975) the D&D rules, whereas "pedit5" only offered about a third of them. Whether all of these spells were actually programmed is uncertain; "pedit5" had listed more than actually worked, with the yet-to-be-programmed spells identified in the instructions with an asterisk.
  • It introduced teleporters and chest traps.
For more information about the recent findings, see my October 2023 article. We still do not know who created it, but the file name suggests a lesson space reserved for the mathematics department.
Dungeon (1975)
Dungeon, credited to John Daleske, Gary Fritz, Jon Good, Bill Gammel, and Mark Nakada, is in some ways as much of a mystery as m199h. John Daleske is famous in PLATO circles for creating Empire when he was an Iowa State University student in 1973. Numerous game histories and PLATO histories mention him and Empire, but none of them seem to be aware of Dungeon. The game doesn't show up in Dirk Pellett's history, either. I wouldn't have known about it at all except I was trying obvious keywords in PLATO, and up popped the title screen you see below. The copyright dates show that someone visited it as late as 2004.
The one game for which I can show an image.
In any event, the game doesn't seem to be any more than the title screen. The key commands that would normally run the program or take you to the documentation do nothing.
Daleske's notes say that the game was "incomplete," which is probably why we cannot play it today. He also says that it was a "predecessor to Moria," which currently has the distinction of being the earliest complete first-person, multi-character CRPG. Does "predecessor" mean that it inspired Moria or that it simply preceded it? 

Edit from December 2021: Commenter "half" managed to inspect some more elements of the file and extract and reassemble the game's icons:

half's analysis shows files edited as early as 1977 and as late as 2004.
Dungeon (1975)
Dungeon is the only game on this list not hosted on PLATO. It was written in 1975 or 1976 by Don Daglow, then a graduate student at Claremont University Center in California, on the university's DEC PDP-10. Daglow is one of the only student developers from this era to make a career in game design and programming. He worked for Mattel (programming for Intellivision titles) in the early 1980s and Electronic Arts in the mid- to late 1980s, where he produced Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set (1984) and wrote a module for it. After a brief stint at Brøderbund at the end of the decade, he founded Stormfront Studios and designed the two Savage Frontier games (1991 and 1992), Neverwinter Nights (1991), and Stronghold (1993), among many non-RPGs. Later switching to more of an executive role, he oversaw the production of Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (2001) and Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone (2004), again among many others.
What we know about Dungeon goes back to May 1986, when Daglow wrote an article titled "The Dark Ages of Computer Game Design" for Computer Gaming World. Amid a long discussion about the difficulties programming games on overburdened mainframes and hiding them from system administrators, he mentions his "first adventure game, which continually updated a 40 x 80 map to show what your party had seen, so excruciatingly slow as to be unplayable." In a subsequent article in the August 1998 issue, he mentions that the game had "both ranged and melee combat, lines of sight, auto-mapping, and NPCs with discrete AI."
Daglow has dropped other tidbits in a variety of interviews, but the most complete account comes from a 2015 interview with a French blogger. Here, we learn that in contrast to endless randomly-generated content of his PLATO contemporaries, Daglow designed his Dungeon more like a Dungeons & Dragons module, with both fixed encounters and "wandering monsters" on a fixed map. It was a single-player game with a party of six characters. (Multiple players could huddle around the same computer and control their own characters, but that's not the same as the multiplayer experience on PLATO, where the students could literally communicate and cooperate from different terminals.) Daglow "religiously followed all the D&D rules," which included slow combat and even slower leveling ("getting to the 4th level was a big deal"). "Graphics" were all text characters. A lot of sites, including Wikipedia, seem to rely on this interview in reporting that Daglow's line-of-sight programming included considerations of torchlight and infravision, but I'm not sure that's exactly what Daglow says in the interview. Specifically, he says that rules about lighting and infravision in D&D inspired his use of line-of-sight in the game, but not necessarily that he implemented those specific features. Nonetheless, I suppose we can extrapolate based on his claims of strict adherence to D&D rules.
Some sites continue to report Daglow's Dungeon as the "first computer role-playing game," a status that remains uncertain without more clarification of the dates of his game. But I don't get the sense from his writings and interviews that his Dungeon was played to the extent that the PLATO games were played. The Dungeon, Orthanc, and The Game of Dungeons, all 1975 contemporaries, had thousands of eager players competing for playing time and saved game slots. We also have recollections from dozens of actual players of the PLATO games (and can, of course, play many of them ourselves right now), whereas we have only Daglow's recollections on Dungeon. I don't mean this to cast doubt on Daglow's account, just to emphasize that the PLATO games had an influence--felt directly in later commercial titles like Wizardry (1981)--that Dungeon did not, and I would thus continue to favor them as the true "first CRPGs."
The Think Series (1975-1977)
The Think series was a succession of games, or variants of the same game, with file names like Think2 and Think15. Don Gillies told me that they had been written by students of the University Laboratory High School (basically a high school run by the University of Illinois). The original was written by a Jim Mayeda. As with many of the other early RPGs, the file names were meant to disguise from university administrators the fact that the file contained a game; the lesson spaces had been created for programs to teach students about programming. The games supposedly took the grid-based gameplay of Mike Mayfield's Star Trek (1971) and ported it to a high-fantasy wilderness setting. The files were eventually deleted, but Don Gillies used the concept to write Swords and Sorcery (1978), which I covered in 2019.
DND World (1976, maybe late 1975)
DND World is another lost PLATO game written by now-retired Boeing engineer Fred Banks. Inspired by The Dungeon ("pedit5"), it took place on an outdoor map. A party of characters, controlled by a single player, explored the world, fought randomly-generated monsters, and gained in experience and treasure. Characters acted sequentially in combat. There was no winning condition. In an email to me, Banks said that the character avatars were randomly-generated, with classes and attributes following Dungeons & Dragons rules. He also said that, the overworld was "based on an octagonal circular grid, thus allowing the person to come back to the original position by walking the same direction," something that I cannot wrap my mind around. Banks did not lock the code, and other students were free to copy it and make their own modifications.

Monster Maze (1976, maybe late 1975)
Knowledge of this game came from El Explorador de RPG's research into the earliest PLATO games. For a while, it looked like it might pre-date The Dungeon on PLATO, making it the earliest known RPG. But El Explorador was able to show that the reverse as true: author Terry O'Brien created it on the CDC 6600 at Indiana University after being exposed to The Dungeon (1975; also known as "pedit5") on PLATO. The game is simplified from The Dungeon, copying the same backstory but using an all-text interface, no secret doors, no winning condition, and a slightly different spell/combat system. El Explorador was able to get access to a private server with a recreation of the game's code, and I would regard his coverage (linked above) as complete.

Pits of Baradur (1976 or 1977)
The limited information we have about Pits of Baradur mostly seems to come from a single source: a Griffith M. Morgan III, who wrote an article about the PLATO games in the Spring 2012 issue of the hobby magazine Irregular. He says that the game was created by his two friends, Justin Grunau and Michael Stecyk, and that he himself had designed one of the dungeon levels. Morgan is almost certain the same person as "Blackmoor," who provided essentially the same information on a message board in 2019, adding only that the file name was "baradur." Per recollections of a former student in the comments section below, it was apparently a top-down dungeon crawl (thus in the "pedit5" Dungeon line), "Tolkien-themed, brutally hard, not partiularly fun, and not super popular."
Bugs and Drugs (1978)
Image from Brian Dear's The Friendly Orange Glow,
Brian Dear has a little more information about this Game of Dungeons reskin by medical students Mike Gorback and David Tanaka. It predictably used the lesson name bnd. Instead of a dungeon, the game took place in a hospital. "As you walked the corridors of the hospital, you would encounter 'monsters,' but in bnd they were bacteria or germs, and your 'weapons' to fight them were various antibiotics." Dear is the sole source on this one, but Gorback confirmed the game (without supplying any more details) in an Amazon product review. In the comments section below, former student Felix Gallo says that it was ostensibly meant to be educational.
[Edit: Bugs and Drugs turned up! My coverage starts here.]
Educational Dungeon (1979)
Yet another game that someone decided had to be added to MobyGames despite the only thing we know about it being the author's assertion that it once existed (apparently for the PDP-10). Wikipedia, with no citation, asserts that the game was: "An attempt to make rote computer-aided instruction (CAI) programs more interesting by taking Dungeon and making correct answers propel the story." An article on Game Developer says that it was based on an earlier game. I have it on full authority that that earlier game was an RPG for Windows 11 called Vedder's Folly (1976), and thus I expect that MobyGames will be willing to list it based solely on this vague assertion.

KARNATH (1979)
I wouldn't know anything about this game if not for El Explorador de RPG, and everything I do know is from his article; I haven't been able to find any other sources:

KARNATH was created on a CDC Cyber ​​computer at the University of Minnesota by Tom Arachtingi with a friend while he was studying there, around 1979. It was a text-only multiplayer dungeon crawler game, inspired by the tabletop role-playing game The Fantasy Trip [1977]/

The dungeon was a cube of 16 levels, each with 16x16 rooms, and was randomly generated each time the person running the game started a new game. Players could chat with each other and receive automatic messages about each other's level ups or deaths.

Today the game is gone, but the main author keeps hard copies of the code and apparently tried to translate it into Java without success.
Drygulch (1980)
Drygulch is perhaps the best-documented game in this list, partly because it was developed as a commercial product. (Here I am continuing to rely on Dear's well-researched book.) In the mid-1970s, Control Data Corporation (CDC), which had been supplying hardware and software for the PLATO system for years, obtained a license from the University of Illinois to commercialize PLATO. Around 1980, the company began selling home terminals and terminal software for micro-computers, plus a service called "Homelink" that allowed home computers to connect to CDC's data center for $5 per hour.
The service failed for a variety of reasons, but one of its outcomes was Drygulch, a western-themed MMO written by CDC employee Mike Johnson. A write-up in the November 1984 Antic magazine describes the gameplay:
PLATO's Drygulch is set in an Old West town. You are a miner trying to live long and prosper, which is not easy when hazards abound in the mines and in the wastelands surrounding the town. You must eat and drink enough to keep healthy, make sure you have enough prospecting equipment, etc. There are elections for sheriff, mayor, and mine inspector. Each position offers potential for added fun and profit.
The game featured stores, a stable, a hotel, a jail, and a cemetery. Players could play good or bad characters, and the former could bounty-hunt the latter and send them to jail. The interface contrasted a two-dimensional town with a three-dimensional mine that served in place of a dungeon, allowing players to fight enemies and return with heaps of gold.
As Drygulch was played well into the mid-1980s, I can't help but think that some photographs, if not screen shots, must still exist somewhere, but there don't seem to be any online. I don't know why Drygulch wasn't preserved by efforts like Cyber1, but I suspect it's because the game was owned by CDC and not the University of Illinois. 
Emprise (1980)
Another lost PLATO game to which we owe everything to El Explorador, whose research in this area has been unimpeachable: "Emprise was created on PLATO in 1980 by John T. Bryan, Laura J. Bryan, and Walter G. Brooks. It was a multiplayer dungeon crawling game with first-person graphics simulating 3 dimensions similar to, and inspired by, Avatar."
Tunnels and Trolls (1980)
And yet another from El Explorador: "Created on PLATO in 1980 by Mike Medved, James Foster and more authors, probably based on the tabletop role-playing game of the same name, published in 1975. It consisted of a dungeon 15 levels deep with considerably more items and types of monsters than Oubliette, which seems to have been the authors' other source of inspiration."

Monday, June 28, 2021

Perihelion: A Fabulous Place with Great Ambiance

The emperor is a freaky-looking guy
As I closed my first entry on Perihelion, I was trying to figure out the combat system. The game does little to ease the player into an understanding of the mechanics. It begins with what many of my commenters characterized as the most difficult battle of the game. It's not even really clear why you're fighting it, except that some hooligans and priests have decided to riot, and the party gets caught in the middle.
For all it's difficulty, the combat system is conceptually easy to understand. Combat takes place on a small tactical map with various corridors and rooms (unlike the Gold Box games, they do not mimic the map pattern on which combat started). Characters act in an order that I assume has something to do with their speed. During a character's round, he can move, attack with a weapon, attack with a spell, use combat medicine, defend against physical attacks, defend against spells, pass, or change inventory. He can also open the network interface, but I'm not sure this has any purpose in combat. When I tried to TALK to the enemies, they just shouted insults at me.
Talking to a foe in the middle of combat.
Turn-based games usually fall into two categories. The first goes back to Wizardry: You specify actions for each character and then hit an "OK" button, which causes the actions to execute in turn, threaded with the enemies' actions. You have to anticipate the likely consequences of earlier characters' actions to avoid wasting the round. For instance, if characters 1 and 3 both cast "Fireball" at a group of kobolds and the first character's spell wipes them out, the third character's spell is wasted.
The second system is exemplified by SSI games such as Wizard's Crown and the Gold Box series. In those games, you have roughly the same types of actions as in the first system, but as each character's turn comes up, he performs his actions immediately. Later characters can then base their actions on what happened to earlier characters.
Perihelion is a strange hybrid between the two, in that movement executes immediately but attacks go into a kind of queue. At the beginning of the round, the character specifies what he's going to do--say, shoot his gun--and later in the round, the action executes and the character chooses a target. There's an action point system that I don't quite understand. It seems to apply to movement (i.e., characters with more action points can move farther) but not to attacks.
Targeting an enemy.
But the most confusing part of the game for the novice is the spell system. It shows some influence from Dungeon Master in that each spell is a combination of four runes. Each rune represents a concept like "confidence" "pain," "arrogance," "bravery," and "shame." It's a cute idea, but there's no real logic to the combinations. There are 36 runes, and together they can make 40 spells. The manual gives the names and recipes but not the effects. So, the spell "Aura Dispersion" uses anger, pain, and modesty and "Reality Shift" uses daze, anxiety, and arrogance, but the manual is mum about why you'd want to mix either.
In addition to the spell components, you also have to choose a method of dispersion. These include cone, sphere, ring, and tunnel. I guess I can picture what they do based on the names, but I'm going to need to experiment to be sure.
Preparing spells takes a while, at least until you get familiar with the placement of the runes and what the symbols mean. It would have been nice if they were listed in alphabetical order or something. You have to look at the spell list to see what "emotional components" go into the spell, then consult the rune list to see what runes represent the components, then find those runes on the spell creation grid. You can hover over the runes on the grid to see what they represent, but I'm not sure that's any faster.
Stringing together runes to make a spell.
Once you've created the spell, you can analyze it and see what it does. The analysis tells you what attribute governs its success, what type of resistance can be used against it, the range and area of effect, the "type of modification," and the "affected values." Spells basically work directly on characters' and enemies' attributes. "Acidic Fume" decreases dexterity and speed; "Liquid Light" increases strength and speed; "Rank Poison" decreases strength and vitality; "Metallic Layers" increases stamina. (This reminds me a bit of the system used in Knights of Legend.) I might be wrong, but I don't think there are any spells that, say, paralyze an enemy, or confuse him, or make him clumsy. Everything works directly on an attribute. To that extent, I suspect "Alpha Catharsis" and "Psion Antidote" will be important spells, as they're the only ones to increase vitality, this game's version of "hit points." On the other hand, maybe the trick is to focus on offensive spells and let the character with the medical kit take care of wounds.
Analysis of a spell.
The few spells I mixed helped me a little in the first combat, but what helped more was bringing all the characters into a small area at the top of the map where enemies could only approach one at a time. That allowed me to take out about a third of them one-by-one.
As my character moves to a safe corner, his speed goes up 10% just from walking.
While this was happening, I noticed a mechanic original to this game. My characters were leveling up in various skills in the middle of combat. Their increases were based on the actions I had given them. A character who had just moved might increase in speed, or one who had just fired a ranged attack might increase in perception.

Ultimately, the horrible pathfinding required me to slowly venture out of my safe area. The pathfinding seems very simple: the enemy will take a direct path to you. If he gets hung up on an obstacle on the way, there he remains. I never really analyzed the Gold Box's approach to pathfinding, but it employed a bit of randomness so that an enemy on the other side of the wall from you had a chance of darting left or right and then rounding the wall. In this game, the enemy on the other side of the wall will stay there forever. As commenters pointed out, an unscrupulous player could exploit this to have his character just run around and defend, increasing the associated attributes, essentially forever.
Enemies (left) line up below a wall. They can't see my characters (right) because of the post at the end of the wall.
After five or six deaths and reloads, I figured out how to deal with the remaining enemies. The diagram below shows the situation about halfway through the battle. Six enemies (red dots) are hung up below the wall to the southwest. As long as my characters (blue dots) stay where they are, the enemies will never move. But if my characters advance south through the gap until they're visible, all hell breaks loose.
Exploiting the game's rigid pathfinding to lure enemies into a kill zone.
To lure the enemies out of hiding, I send one character way over to the east, where he's still invisible to the enemies because of pillars at the end of their respective walls. Now if that eastern character moves just one square to the south, the enemies will perceive a path to him, but he's too far away for them to target him. So they'll break cover and rush towards him, exposing them to my characters to the north. Once one or two have broken cover, I can send the eastern character back up to the wall while the rest of the party deals with them. That's basically how I won the battle. 
The battle is over!
I was disappointed that the enemies didn't have any loot except for a single key. That key got me into the last remaining store in the city, where I used the netcode received from the baby (ASYLUM) to access the emperor's message. It read:
Hail, brothers! I'm Rex Helion, 34th emperor of Perihelion. I must apologize for the method you had to use to find me, but you can believe me it was necessary. Our best mediators have discovered a special way of using very complicated cause and effect relations to mislead the Unborn, because although it is getting more and more powerful, it is still half-blind in our world. We have not much time left, so now I share with you all the information I've got.
We were desperately searching for any similar situation in our history, and finally we found it in form of small, incomplete file-record in the central library of CloudWing. The record tells that more than thirty years ago a little sect has prevented the infiltration of a lesser entity into our dimension using a relic or device or something what they called . . . the Guardian. We have checked the complete list of sect-members: only one of them is still alive.
The name of that man is MIRACH, but we have quite limited information about his current whereabouts: he had appeared last time in the WatchTower colony, south of your present location. That man and his knowledge is possibly our very last hope. I'm afraid I won't be able to get in touch with you once again, it is already difficult to deal with the penetrating energy of the Unborn so download my special permission file: It will be my protective hand during your mission. And remember: you're the most powerful strike-force on the planet . . . if you fail, our world will be gone . . . forever.
Based on the first combat, I'm not sure the emperor wouldn't have been better off hiring six hoodlums and a few priests. It's also funny to briefly imagine that this game is a prequel to Ultima VII, and that the Guardian is going to save Perihelion but somehow become corrupted in the process, or merge with the Unborn, or whatever.
We download our new "imperial permission."
There wasn't anything else to do in MidLight, so after we rested a couple of times to restore lost attributes, we returned to the outdoor map. Instead of going directly to WatchTower, I detoured off the route to a cave to the west. The game indicated that it was SoulTomb Mines, but it wouldn't let me in "without a compelling reason." I got the same type of message when I tried to approach a stronghold to the northeast. It seems that despite the open-world feeling of the outdoor map, the game has a particular path in mind for you.
I thus went where the game clearly wanted me to go:
WatchTower-colony . . . the mysterious origin of the postnuclear civilization, the legendary inventor of the most powerful new technologies, the most independent city-state in the Empire, protected by the most brilliantly trained military force in the Allied Zones. It is an ancient monument, an entire world of seventeen underground levels built in the heart of the desert by rough stone and raw iron: it is a precisely organized and perfectly controlled society of more than eleven thousand citizens . . . and you came here to find one of them.
I guess we start at the top and work our way down.
You know--eleven thousand doesn't sound all that daunting to me. I've lived in towns that size where everybody knew everybody. That the narrator thinks that's a large city shows how far this civilization has fallen.
Man, I hope the "17 levels" isn't meant literally, though. That's going to take a long time. The first level, looking a lot like a standard RPG dungeon, started out in a small "reception hall." A door on the opposite side was locked. A short corridor to the west led to a network terminal. A short corridor to the east led to a security guard. We explained our mission and he gave us a new netcode: TUNNEL. He didn't know Mirach.
Arriving in a new city.
At the network station, the TUNNEL network had five documents. As usual, two of them were secured and inaccessible, including a "" file that would have been useful. Among the other documents, a "damage report" outlined the deaths and damage suffered during a recent eruption of energy "in the middle of the Central Sectors." A document called "HoloGate" illustrated something about "placing the three reactor-details into the HoloGate service-chamber." Finally, a "security report" contained an "uncoded keyphrase for Security Zone-pass." It was written backwards but resolved as:
I spent forever trying to figure out how this was going to get me through the door. Ultimately, I realized this was a solution to the later puzzle, and the way into the complex in the first place was to upload my imperial permission to the network. (This is a good place to remind you that every action you take on the network costs credits, and "upload" is one of the most expensive actions.) This unlocked the door.
Even the game's documents are interesting to look at.
I started to explore the rest of the level, but I wasn't in a good place for mapping, so I decided to wrap up the entry a bit early and sink my teeth into the game more when I get back home next week. So far, I'm not in love with the mechanics of Perihelion. The time it takes to make spells puts me off from the whole system; I can't figure out aspects of the inventory system; the game wastes its dialogue system with too few keywords; and I'm beginning to wonder if the game has any economy at all, or if you just spend your starting credits on network access throughout the game. However, the atmosphere and visuals are worth playing for--perhaps not for the first time in CRPG history, but there can't be more than two or three previous games I would have said that about. 
Time so far: 11 hours, mostly in failed attempts to win the first combat.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Game 417: The Dark Kingdom (1980)

Why is my servant giving me orders?
The Dark Kingdom
United States
Computer Simulations Company (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for TRS-80
Date Started: 24 June 2021
Date Ended: 24 June 2021
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5)
Final Rating: 7
Ranking at Time of Posting: 6/428 (1%)
The Dark Kingdom opens with your "servant" (I guess you're already a knight) informing you about a "rich and evil empire to the east." You agree to go on an adventure in the land, starting with horse, sword, shield, and 3 days' supply of food and water. There is no character creation. Gameplay begins on the first of four maps, with your abilities--strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, life, and combat ability all at 100%. You learn that your goal is to "slay the evil ruler."
The game begins.
The four maps are dotted with temples, ponds, valleys, towns, farms, cities, houses, woods, deserts, ruins, and castles, with plenty of random encounters in between. Your goal is to first get famous enough that the evil warlord notices you and attacks you, second to purchase a magic sword capable of defeating the evil ruler.
Arriving at one of the generic locations.
All there is to do at most of the locations is search. When you do, there's a small chance of finding gold or silver. (I think 1 gold is worth 10 silver.) In towns, cities, and temples, you can barter for goods, including food, water, healing salves, "no-doz" pills, and information about the evil ruler. Bartering locations sell the required magic sword for 100 silver, or about twice what you start with.
Combat occurs randomly in between locations. The only enemies seem to be baby dragons, old dragons, angry dragons, flying creatures, and giants. Combat moves you to a separate screen where you can move around relative to your enemy, but there's really no point since all you can do is F)ight or R)etreat. If you want to fight, you belly up to the enemy and pound the "F" key, and the graphics do their best to show a sword extending from your little box of an icon to hit the enemy. If you defeat the enemy, you gain "fame" points relative to its difficulty. Retreating works 100% of the time.
In battle with a giant. I'm the lower square; he's the upper square; and the thing connecting us is my sword hitting him.
I rated the game "very easy," but it wasn't easy during my first try, mostly because searching at locations hardly ever produces anything. Half the time, your servant says, "Now is not the time for searching," and you can't do anything. The other half, he searches but reports finding nothing. So you have to scramble around from location to location just to find enough silver to replenish your daily use of food and water. But after a while doing this, I realized that you can search the same place multiple times, until you find something. If the servant says it's not time for searching, you can just leave and return. So you can just stand in the first location you visit, search over and over, and make enough money to buy the magic sword. After that, combats are a cinch, including the one with the warlord.
What happens most times when you search. But you can just do it again.
The hardest part of the game is the excruciatingly slow movement. I had to crank the emulator up to 500% to make it remotely tolerable. I went through a phase at the beginning where I thought the game wasn't responding to my commands, but I realized that you can't enter any commands in between locations; all you can do is move. If you want to eat, drink, sleep, or check your supplies, you have to do it at one of the fixed locations.
You have to eat, drink, and sleep once per day or you start to lose attributes. You don't see this loss, however, until the screen has some other reason to refresh. So you're wandering around with everything at 100%, but then you enter combat, and suddenly everything is at 50%. You thus have to pay attention to the passage of time.
I have no idea what's going on with the "kingdom map." The game's four screens are arranged in a square, which is easy enough to figure out by simply moving from one to the other. For 200 silver--the most expensive thing in the game--you can by an "official kingdom map" that shows you how the four area maps are arranged. I have no idea what value this is supposed to be, since you've probably figured this out well before you have enough silver to buy the map. Also, there's no particular reason to visit all four maps because all of the game's locations are generic and randomized.
This was so helpful.
One thing that could have been cool is the ability to pay 10 silver pieces for information about the evil warlord. However, there are only two items of information. The first is that he's a magic user and can only be killed with a magic weapon. This clues you to purchase the magic sword. The second is that he has a horde of demons at his disposal and sends them against enemies. I never encountered any demons, so that bit of intelligence was of dubious value.
Getting a tip on the dark lord.
By killing about 10 regular creatures, you can get your fame up to 200, at which point it becomes likely that the warlord will attack you as you wander around the screen. He attacks with 500% health, but you swat away about 25% with every swing of the magic sword, so it doesn't take long to kill him. You then get a winning message in which your servant hints at a new adventure.
I don't know what bothers me more: "congradulations" or the sudden switch to gargoyle-speak at the end of the screen.
  • 1 point for the game world. That's generous. If I did half points, I'd give it half.
  • 0 points for no character creation or development.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes.
  • 1 point for combat. There's no magic.
Battle with the warlord.
  • 0 points for equipment. One sword isn't enough.
  • 1 point for the economy, easily cheated, soon wrecked.
  • 2 points for a quest.
  • 0 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are too rough, the sound non-existent, and the keys too unresponsive.
  • 1 point for gameplay. At least it's fast.
That gives us 7 points. There's maybe the seed of a clever idea here. Moving around to different types of locations and finding different things isn't a bad game design--it's basically Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign or even Warlords. There just needs to be more interesting and varied stuff happening at these locations. A little more thought to inventory, combat, and encounters might have made this at least a playable game.
Computer Simulations Company was a Joliet, Illinois outfit that had a handful of war simulations and adventure games in 1980. One of them was Jedi Knight, an unlicensed, under-the-radar Star Wars-themed game that looks exactly like The Dark Kingdom except the locations are planets and the "evil warlord" is Darth Vader. Whoever entered that one into MobyGames tagged it as an adventure game rather than an RPG. I don't think either of them are really RPGs, lacking character development and inventory.
Gameplay in Jedi Knight.
Jedi Knight is credited to David Landry, so I suppose he probably wrote The Dark Kingdom, too. After writing these games, he formed Tactical Design Group with Chuck Kroegel, clearly improved his craft, and designed a slew of wargames for SSI, including Battle for Normandy (1982, probably based on his 1980 game, D-Day: The Invasion of France), Breakthrough in the Ardennes (1984), Battle of Antietam (1986), Battles of Napoleon (1988), Conflict: Middle East (1991), and Steel Panthers (1995). The only time he flirts with RPG territory again is with War of the Lance (1989), a strategy game in the D&D Dragonlance setting. Landry seems to have gone MIA after 1995; I wasn't able to come close to finding him. But this theme--"early quasi-RPG designer finds success later with strategy games"--is going to recur soon.

Edit from 16 December 2021: The credit to David Landry seems to be an error, and the real author of the games is Stan Schriefer, who like Computer Simulations Company is from Joliet, Illinois.


Thursday, June 24, 2021

Game 416: Perihelion

If "perihelion" is meant literally, things are about to get better for this planet.
Morbid Visions (developer); Psygnosis (publisher)
Released in 1993 for Amiga
Date Started: 20 June 2021
Perihelion certainly makes a good first impression. I haven't quite decided if it's a New Thing or the Same Thing with a New Skin, but either way, it starts strong. It's creepy, bizarre, and atmospheric, and it kicks off with one of the best cinematics we've seen in CRPG history so far.
The setting is, I guess, fantasy cyberpunk. That is, a cyberpunk aesthetic but in a fantasy world rather than the future of our world. The backstory is confusing as hell, but in a good way--one that begins with questions and blanks that you trust you'll fill in as the story goes along. (Think Might and Magic, but if the author took his own game seriously.) As best as I can tell, it takes place in a land called Perihelion, ruled by an emperor named Rex Helion the 27th. It is a post-apocalyptic empire on a sunburned world, ravaged by wars involving "Bionecrons" and genetically engineered creatures. "Gods" are visible pools of energy with mysterious goals.
Not only is the writing good, but the audio that accompanies it is absolutely bone-chilling.
As the game begins, an initiate at the Psyonic Training Institute has had a vision (the "prophecy" of the game's supposed subtitle) of a malevolent extra-planar being called the Unborn, "an intelligent manifestation of the Entropy," forcing its way into the world. A version of the prophecy is read in a chilling voice in the game's opening cinematic, which you must watch. The Psyonic Council informs Rex Helion, who takes it seriously enough to greenlight Project Awakening--the growth of six genetically engineered super-soldiers who can protect the world from external threats ("six souls to defy a god"). The opening cinematic seems to relay the perspective of an agent of Emperor Helion, some time later, after the demon's invasion has begun. Alien creatures are tearing their way in from another dimension, solar flares are scorching the world, and people are experiencing "horrible genetical distortions." The agent travels to the Sandstorm Citadel to complete the Awakening.
A "messenger's log" appears one line at a time over beautiful graphics.
The story thus segues to character creation. Other than humans, races are original to the game. Bionecrons are a god-created race that fuses humans with "organic metal," giving the metallic skin, rapid healing, and psychic powers. Cyberns are humans implanted with cybernetic technology. Symbions are half-human, half-Bionecron, with prophetic powers. Khymeras are genetically engineered human hybrids with insect, reptile, or feline stock, all with (supposedly) superior senses and reflexes. For Cyberns, Symbions, and Khymeras, you can specify the percentage of human vs. animal DNA.
Classes are partly limited by race, although as usual, humans can be anything. Available classes are knight, mercenary, assassin, mediator, psionic, and anchorite. I'm guessing that they basically correspond with paladin, fighter, thief, bard, mage, cleric of a typical fantasy game. 
The agent arrives at the Citadel.
That brings us to the first issue. The manual is awful. It walks you through the game's screens but tells you nothing about its classes and attributes, and it's very thin on races and alignments. Normally in such situations, I wouldn't eschew a little online help, but I couldn't find anything for this game (aside from a commenter's recent warning that I needed at least one knight, mercenary, or assassin, and one or more characters with strength, dexterity, and intelligence above 85).
You can re-roll the game's attributes as long as you want. There are six physical attributes and five mental attributes, all on a scale of 1 to 100, but affected by race. I spent a little time recording minimum and maximum roles for attributes for each race. (Class doesn't seem to matter.) When I recorded enough values, it seemed that the minimum value always ended on a 1 (e.g., 21, 31, 41) and the maximum value always ended on a 0 (e.g., 80, 90, 100), so I assumed that was always the case. The results are a little confusing, as Bionecrons (who are supposed to nave natural psionic abilities) are almost universally highest in physical attributes while humans are almost universally highest in mental ones. That makes the other races of questionable utility. However, it's a bit more complicated because you can adjust the percentages of the hybrid races, and I only recorded the values for a 50/50 mix. There are also secondary (derived) attributes like physical and ranged attack and defense, plus resistances like radiation, electricity, and mental influences. It was a lot to take in, and character creation took me hours.
My table of attribute minimums and maximums, and available classes by race.
In addition to race, class, and attributes, you choose alignment on a 9-point scale from "extremely positive" to "extremely negative." According to the manual, your alignment determines what god you worship, although sometimes you have to choose explicitly from names like "ChromePanther," "WhisperDance," "Neon," and "Toxic Waste." There are some alignment restrictions that make sense (e.g., assassins can only be "neutral" or below) and some that don't (e.g., anchorites can only be neutral and worship "Lavender"). You also choose character portraits from a limited selection based on race. Despite a lot of choices otherwise, you can't choose sex. All characters appear to be male.
Creating my human psionic.
I figured I'd try one of each class and almost one of each race for my first party and came up with this:
  • Castellar, a Bionecron knight, extremely positive worshipper of ChromePanther
  • Jokerman, a Cybern mercenary (60% cybernetic), moderately positive worshipper of no one
  • Constantine, a Symbion assassin (65% Bionecronomic), moderately negative worshipper of no one
  • Skeena, a reptile Khymera mediator (65% human), obviously positive worshipper of Morphium
  • Aldhabi, a human psionic, extremely negative worshipper of no one
  • Yu Mincho, a feline Khymera anchorite (50%), neutral worshipper of Lavender
Gameplay commences so fast after character creation that I missed some of the message, but it went something like this:
After leaving the citadel, the party sets forth across the map. The wind brings noises of alarm signals and explosions from the distance. You suddenly realize that the Citadel is dying in the ruthless grip of that mysterious, dissolving power which is now obviously sensing you and will spare no effort to pursue you, until the end. But presently, you're alone with a SandGlider unit in the middle of the desert, totally puzzled and not knowing where to turn. Maybe the only useable information you have is that last file entry on your NetStation.
The overworld map is presented in an oblique view. Movement across it is odd. You can't just go in any direction. Instead, you move in fixed distance intervals across fixed paths. Starting at the Citadel, for instance, hitting "west" moves me along a western track immediately to the city of MidLight. From MidLight, hitting "west" moves you northwest towards a forest; hitting "north" moves you northeast towards a lake. The point is you're moving between fixed waystations rather than free roaming. As you reach each location, you can hit the question mark icon to learn its name, the arrow to approach it, and the third icon to cancel your approach. There's not much else to do on the screen. The spinning globe doesn't seem to be interactive. 
You can only move across the map from one fixed waystation to another. I've annotated them with white dots. If you reach the edge of the map, it scrolls to a new screen.
I moved the party to the city of MidLight and got another long message as I approached:
After a short but tiring climb in the rust-colored sand, you finally reach the top of a small dune. As you let your eyes adjust to the eerie sunlight, a majestic sight appears in front of you and immediately takes your breath away: You are facing the ancient city of MidLight, a memento of the vanished past in this decaying, damned present. In a strange mood, you decide to advance towards the once-so-powerful metropolis, which is nowadays only a haunted shade of itself. The pollution, the crime, and the Bionecron Wars have taken their toll.
I don't care for the game's way of delivering messages with scrolling text across the bottom of the screen. It makes it difficult to read and even more difficult to capture. Sometimes I don't even notice it's happening until halfway through the message.
Approaching MidLight.
Transitioning to an area changes the interface. You have six options in a panel in the lower left, including psi-powers (spells), inventory, combat, NetStation, and navigation. The default screen is the same as the character creation screen; I guess you can create and replace party members from anywhere. The controls in the inventory section are a little wonky, and I'm going to have to refer to the manual again before I talk about it. Everyone came with some default stuff, so that's good enough for now.
The character in the inventory portrait really hams it up.
The oddest and most original contribution to this game is the NetStation, where you can type a variety of commands, including TALK to communicate with NPCs, ANALYZE to get statistics on whatever inventory item is in the "up in the air" slot, READ messages and files, and even LOGIN to networks and UPLOAD and DOWNLOAD things. Each command other than HELP has a cost associated with it, which discourages experimentation. A little disk drive icon with blinking lights runs in the bottom left corner as you enter commands.
Getting help on NetStation commands.
The characters start with a message on their personal NetStations called "farewell." It's from the agent of Emperor Helion's who woke them up, I guess:
This is the last message I can transmit to you. Remember, you're the only men who cannot be harmed by the Unborn directly, but it surely will try to find the way to eliminate you. Now you must go to MidLight. An encrypted NetCode to the Emperor is waiting for you there. You must discover it at any cost. Be quick, forget your doubts and gather all the information you can about that NetCode. My fate calls me now. Signed, Commander Ptahh, Sandstorm Citadel.
I'm cleaning up the English in transcribing these messages. The text is full of spelling mistakes, punctuation mistakes, and odd syntax and word choices. I assume they’re unintentional, but I have to say that they enhance the weird atmosphere of the game.

Moving through the city is done in first-person view, with hauntingly desolate graphics. Usually, turning to the side shows you a fence or wall, but occasionally you find a door. After a bit of exploration, I found an empty store in which the word "NETWORK" flashed a few times, indicating I could log in from my personal NetStation to whatever this world's version of the Internet is. (I'm basically burglarizing houses for Wi-Fi.) To log in, you have to enter a "NetCode," which I'm guessing is like a server address or something. I still needed to find the one that the message told me about, but the manual had given me a hint to another: "Norman Bates was one."
Moving along the city streets. The text provides a succinct description of the cyberpunk genre.
Sure enough, I entered PSYCHO and found myself on a network with four files: council.results, priority reports, report1, and report2. The first two wouldn't let me read them, saying only "unauthorized user." "report1" was from a Dr. Inuhealn, and it talked about a "MindCryption" that he had performed on a young patient at the order of the government. He noted that it could be decoded with "that unique necklace of imperial confidants." I assume "of" means "worn by" in this context. "report2" is from a Dr. Shamar, and it confirms some of the information in the backstory: the world is seeing a huge increase in mental disorders and DNA corruptions. I logged out, having spent 590 of my original 5,000 credits.
As we left the NetStation, the owner of the building appeared. We got another long, scrolling message indicating that we recognized from his lifeless stare that he was a veteran of the Bionecron Wars (we still don't know what this was). He had a tattoo indicating that he'd gone through a "mental modification process" that sounds like it might be the "MindCryption" of report1.
I switched back to the NetStation and tried TALK. I found his statement contradictory at first:
You're absolutely not willing to talk to anyone . . . but you'll help.
Despite running a "shop," he didn't seem to sell anything. I'm not sure if this game offers traditional buying and selling as such. The manual doesn't mention it. Characters have "credits," but that might just be for network stuff.

At the end of another street, we met a homeless woman with her baby, but she wouldn't have anything to do with us. I don't know if it matters which character is active during these conversations. There's no "charisma" statistic or anything like that that suggests it would have anything to do with success in NPC interactions. The woman said, "By Lavender's name, I ask you to leave me alone," so I had my Lavender worshipper try to talk, but it didn't work.
This is a really depressing setting.
The city ended up being a small 18 x 18 with worm tunnels. I got a lot of atmospheric messages as the party moved around ("the howl of a lonely dog echoes through the walls around you"; "you see military units marching through evacuated quarters"). On the east side of town, a series of messages seemed to be building to something: "From nearby streets, you can hear the shouts of a considerable crowd," and then, "You see a gathering group of some strange, suspicious-looking people." But I couldn't seem to do anything in this area, and the corridor ended in a "door with a sophisticated security system." 
My map of the city.
You've seen the effective visuals so far. I should also mention the incredibly atmospheric music, which straddles the line between "music" and "background sound effects." It's sparse, weird, and effective, but also a bit too brief and repetitive. For instance, the exploration theme in citadel is only six measures, five notes, and about 18 seconds long. But it has some whirring and hooting mixed in that give it a creepy vibe. I'd still probably turn it off if I could, but the game doesn't give that option. The other sound effects are sparse but generally well-done, with beeps and buzzes as you access various buttons and a constant mechanical hum in the background.
I took one last scan through the documentation before I left the city and realized I'd missed another dialogue option: ASK. This allows you to enter keywords. I still couldn't get anything out of the mother with the baby. The Bionecron was gone from the first shop I explored, but I found an old Cybern in the second shop. In response to NETCODE, he didn't know the code for the imperial network, but he gave me two others: INDIGO and GLOBAL. INDIGO turned out to be the Institute of Sciences; GLOBAL was just "Global NetStation." Between them:

  • A "genetic report" from a Professor Dyorall marvels at the Unborn's ability to mess with the DNA of intelligent life forms.
  • Magister Gemma from the Mediator Council reports that it's been harder to establish contact with the gods, especially the "low-reactivity" ones like Morphium or the Toxic Waste. 
  • Adeptus Praesepe of the Psionic Institute reports that they've had to cancel training because the amount of mental energy needed to perform common spells is killing the recruits.
  • A "citymap" uploaded by Prince Alphard, Regent of MidLight, confirmed my map of the city.
I don't know why it's stretched so much north and south. The city is a square.
  • Prince Alphard issued an EMERGENCY STATE alert for MidLight, imposing martial law.
  • Lieutenant Zhook reports two storm-trooper units were destroyed 70 miles out of MidLight.
As before, there were several files I couldn't read because I was an "unauthorized user." But looking over my notes and inventory, I realized that we're all "imperial confidants" who are wearing the necklace described in the report. I spent ages lurking around that first shop trying to get the Bionecron to reappear, but I had no luck. I don't know what triggers their appearance or disappearance.
While I couldn't find the shopkeeper to use the necklace, it did oddly work on the baby. Apparently, someone had implanted some information in his brain. When I used the necklace, the game said that the baby looked at us and communicated ASYLUM, then fell asleep. I assume this is the name of the imperial network. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to log on to it, because both shops (the only places with Wi-Fi) were "brutally looted and closed" after this encounter. I decided to try one more time at the locked shop, and this time something happened as I approached.
I stumbled into a street riot led by followers of an extremely negative god. I tried to talk to them, but they insisted on fighting. Battle commenced.
One of my characters takes aim at a marauder.
I hadn't really known what to expect from combat, since the manual doesn't have any screen shots. I had frankly expected something derived from the Interplay line, as the exploration in the game had reminded me of The Bard's Tale or Antares. Instead, I found my characters on a top-down tactical map. Combat is turn-based, with characters choosing ranged or melee attacks or defenses, spells, and other actions. I haven't even begun to look at spells yet.
Even the "full party death" screen is pretty cool.
There were about 10 marauders with guns and 3 priests with spells, and they just massacred us. I think I only killed two of them. So we'll close it here and pick it up next time with a more thorough analysis of combat and magic. It's a weird, fun, eerie game so far, and for the first time in a long time, I feel quite out of my element. If anyone reading has experience with the game, I'm happy to take tips or comments on anything I've already messed up.
Subtitle or section title?
A quick note on the title: Most sites call the game Perihelion: The Prophecy. The subtitle does not appear on the box or manual. The closest is a tagline on the box that asks, "Will the prophecy be fulfilled?" I think the idea that The Prophecy is the subtitle comes from a screen that appears after the title screen. It does indeed say "The Prophecy." However, I interpret it as the title of the cinematic that follows, not as the subtitle for the title on the previous screen, if that makes sense.
Time so far: 5 hours