Friday, September 3, 2021

Game 432: The Lords of Midnight (1984)

The Lords of Midnight
United Kingdom
Independently developed; published by Beyond Software, Amsoft, and Mindscape
Released 1984 for Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum; 1985 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 17 August 2021
Date Ended: 29 August 2021
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Easy (2/5) to literally win; hard (4/5) to win the hard way
Final Rating: 26
Ranking at Time of Posting: 226/444 (51%) 
We often hear about how memory and media limitations put hard lids on what developers were able to accomplish in the early era of microcomputers. In some interview, an RPG author will say that they wanted to offer more sound effects, or better visuals, or an extra dungeon level, but they couldn't because of some hard cap. Usually, the things they say they would have liked to add are not things I feel are obviously missing from the game. The graphics and sound may be a little primitive, but that's normal for the era. An eleventh level would have been cool, but ten levels was fine.
The Lords of Midnight is one of the only games I've played where you can almost see the program rattling the bars of its 48K prison. There are moments when the screens seem to be pleading with you: "Look, if I had another 16K to work with, or a proper disk drive, it's obvious what I'd do here. But I can't." I'm well aware that I may be projecting. It's possible that author Mike Singleton accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish, and fans are perfectly happy with the result. I played the game admiring it for what it did but also wishing for more.
Lords is hard to classify. It doesn't have the character development (or even character attributes), inventory, or combat of an RPG. There are strategy game-like qualities, but I've never played a strategy game with so few variables and no in-game campaign map. There are those who will default to "adventure game," but I'm sensitive to adventure gamers' arguments that the genre isn't just some default category to be used when nothing else fits. Lords doesn't really have puzzles--inventory or otherwise--that I think adventure gamers would require. Yet it feels vaguely like all of these things. Singleton tries to solve the genre issue by proposing a new term: "epic game." I don't know if that works for me, but I agree that it perhaps needs its own sub-genre, much as I recently argued in relation to Fortress of the Witch King.
Morkin alas gets no experience for slaying those ice trolls.
The game starts with strong production values, including a 16-page novella that sets up the plot and main cast of characters. The game world is actually called Midnight, meaning that the title is disappointingly literal rather than metaphorical. If I read things correctly, Midnight is a world whose solar year is so long that seasons last for eons. "Summer" is a distant, millennium-old memory. (Specifically, summer was "ten thousand moons ago," which would be 767 Earth years, but of course we don't know for sure what the moon cycle is on this world.) As the last summer waned and famine started to spread across the land, a lord named Ushgarak united the lands under the efficiency of his rule. Unfortunately, he ruled only for a short amount of time before his advisor, Gryfallon the Stargazer, killed him and took the crown. Gryfallon soon adopted a new name: Doomdark, the Witchking. Doomdark has ruled the northern half of the land since then. The southern kingdoms who oppose him (or remain neutral) are known as the Free.
The Witchking's power is based on cold, which means that he'll be most powerful at the coming solstice. During this period, he intends to make one of his periodic wars on the Free, but this time there's every chance he'll be successful.
The game begins as Luxor, warlord of the Free, has been summoned to the Tower of the Moon for a council of the Wise. Accompanying him is his squire, Morkin, a foundling who Luxor has raised since childhood, and Corleth the Fey. When they arrive at the tower, they find that there is no "council" except for one of the Wise, Rorthron, who is determined to take action while the rest of his colleagues cower. There are all kinds of revelations at Rothron's little council. Luxor is revealed to be the last heir to the House of the Moon and is given the Moon Ring, which will allow him to command and compel enemies from afar. Morkin is revealed to be Luxor's actual son, the product of a fling with a fey woman, and thus the prophesied half-blood hero who can shrug off Doomdark's fear-based magic.
Luxor begins the game at the Tower of the Moon, looking southeast.
The Tolkien analogs are obvious, but the story is still well-told, and it sets up the main quest well. Rorthron outlines two ways that Doomdark may be defeated: Morkin can sneak into Doomdark's lands, find the Ice Crown in the Temple of Doom, and destroy it; or Luxor can lead the other lords of Midnight to a more conventional victory by having his armies conquer Doomdark's citadel at Ushgarak. The power of the Moon Ring is a plot device that explains how one person (i.e., the player) is able to coordinate the actions of armies scattered across the world and presumably have no instant communication with each other.
The game's manual, as well as every site dedicated to the game, repeats the fact that it can be played "three ways": as an adventure game from Morkin's perspective, as a strategy game from Luxor's perspective, or both at the same time. But the game doesn't make you choose explicitly. "Playing as an adventure game with Morkin" just means ignoring the other heroes. "Playing as a strategy game with Luxor" just means ignoring Morkin or treating him like any other hero. "Both" means sending Morkin after the Ice Crown while Luxor raises armies, and you win by whichever succeeds first. No matter what you choose, you only lose definitively if Morkin dies and either Luxor dies or Doomdark conquers the southernmost citadel, Xajorkith.
Recruiting new heroes and soldiers is vital to winning the game.
During gameplay, the idea is that your heroes move during the day and Doomdark's move at night. The heroes move independently and have their own timers, so you can reach "night" with one of them but switch to another and still find it early morning. Each one can cover around 4-7 squares per day depending on terrain and whether they move laterally or diagonally. The game comes with a crude world map, but you never see top-down map in the game. Instead, every square is experienced like an RPG in 3D view.
Midnight is completely surrounded by an impenetrable frozen waste. The explorable part is 61 squares north-south and 64 east-west, for a total of 3,904 (technically a few less because the wastes sometimes "bump out" into the map, but you get the idea). The squares have forests, lakes, mountains, plains, cities, citadels, caves, and ruins, and in these area a variety of encounters, enemies, and items are found.
About as much of the game world as I mapped.
The game's gimmick is that when you stand in a square, you can look in any one of eight directions, and what you see is the terrain and encounters in the next square and a few squares beyond. Singleton called this graphical perspective "landscaping." I guess maybe it's the earliest we see it. Games were showing distant objects in 3D view going back to the PLATO games, but those were mostly wireframe, and I gather it's harder with full graphics like mountains and castles. Singleton and his publisher were very proud of these views, and the manual suggests you could have fun just wandering around looking at things. The system is impressive for the time and especially the platform, but obviously it wasn't destined to age well, and hanging your hat on some graphical innovation is never a good idea in the long run.
While they seem menacing, those monsters are actually in the next square, so I can avoid them. I won't meet them unless I move forward once. If i move forward twice, I'll reach the Cavern of Shadows.
When you arrive in a square, your options are just to 1) look at your own stats; 2) change facing direction; 3) move forward; or 4) bring up a contextual menu. The contextual menu includes "seek" (search); this is usually the only option, and in the average square it produces nothing. If there are monsters in the square, "fight" will appear on the contextual menu. If there are other unaligned heroes or soldiers (usually found only in keeps or citadels), you can "recruit." If the square is a cave, ruin, lith (stone), or other special location, there's a chance that you'll find a special object like the swords Dragonslayer or Wolfslayer, the Cup of Dreams (which restores movement points), and the Shadows of Death, which sap all your health. Lakes often contain "Waters of Life," which fully heal you. Towns will also heal you by providing shelter. Towers often contain Wises who provide hints as to the locations of other heroes or objects. Wilderness squares can contain horses, which speed up the journey if you don't already have them.
Farflame finds the worst thing possible.
Luxor gets an important hint.

Mounted, Morkin will be able to move faster.
In these squares, we see what I suggested in the opening paragraphs: interesting material blocked by somewhat frustrating limitations. Consider, for instance, that many of the squares can have random creatures like dragons, ice trolls, wolves, and "skulkrin," this game's version of orcs or goblins. You can fight those creatures, but there's essentially no point in doing so. (It's also somewhat frustrating to do so, since the game tells you only if you won or died, offering no feedback as to how close the battle was or exactly what variables helped you win. When Morkin, supposedly the weakest of the heroes, slays two dragons, it's as unexpected as when Luxor and a company of 265 warriors somehow fall to a few wolves.) There would be a point if you got experience, or items, or treasure, and it's hard to believe that wasn't the original intention. But since they give you nothing, and since you can see them from a square away and thus avoid them, they don't add much to the game.
I feel similarly about the limited "inventory" you can acquire--basically just swords that automatically defeat wolves and dragons. How about expanding this just a little bit? There are so many ruins across the landscape; why fill so many of them with identical copies of the swords (which replace each other as you find them)? Why not magical suits of armor or artifacts that boost the power of your armies? Anything to make it a bit more like an RPG.
Lord Brith finds one of two magic swords in the game.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the game to me has to do with character "attributes." There seem to be two basic ones: the character's fatigue level (which also serves as a health meter) and his courage or strength. The former is represented on a scale that starts with "utterly invigorated" and ends at "utterly tired." The second begins at "utterly bold" and ends at "utterly terrified." The courage level seems to be partly an intrinsic variable but partly affected by the presence of Doomdark and his "Ice Fear" ability. I'm not entirely sure. There are a lot of things the manual leaves unanswered. If some characters are otherwise stronger than others, or better leaders, or harder to damage, the specific attributes are left hidden by the game.
What Lords does preserve from most RPGs is the joy of discovery. To win the game, you have to map a good portion of those 3,904 squares and annotate what you find there. I initially thought the game would randomize object and ally placement for each new game, but this doesn't seem to be the case. Thus, as you map things, your power grows. You learn where to find key allies and key resources, like Cups of Dreams.
I won the game the way I suspect everyone first does: the adventure/Morkin way. Over several games, I mapped a few areas and routes, including most of the borders. It became obvious early that to get Morkin to the Tower of Doom, I'd have to loop him above it and come in from the north, since Doomdark's armies patrol heavily in the south. Going up the west side seemed shorter and safer than cutting across and going up the east. Along the way--basically due north of the Tower of Moon--I met a key ally: the dragon Farflame, who lurks in a ruin in Coroth. Farflame, it turns out, is one of four ways to destroy the Ice Crown. The other three (hinted by NPCs in towers) are to drop it in Lake Mirrow, which I never found; give it to Logrim, who I never found; or give it to the creature Fawkrin (a reformed skulkrin--basically Gollum). The strategy I used was to collect Farflame, continue north long enough to recruit the Lord of Lorothil, send Lorothil to distract Doomdark's armies, and hook Farflame and Morkin up around the Mountains of Ugrak to come in at the tower from the north. Morkin leaves Farflame one square behind while he heads to the tower and grabs the crown; then he returns to Farflame's square and ends the turn, which allows Farflame to destroy it.
Finding the Ice Crown is a bit anti-climactic. You just have to reach the tower and search.

The "winning screen."
In contrast, I didn't even come close with the armies. Every time I met one of Doomdark's forces in combat, he had an overwhelmingly larger force than I did. I suspect the best strategy is to send one "recruiter" through the keeps as fast as possible, then send each hero and army to a central location so that multiple forces at once can engage Doomdark's allies. Or maybe it's to spend a lot longer recruiting soldiers. (Any keep or citadel can have a hero, and all keeps have soldiers.) From what I've read, players debate to this day the optimal path to victory on the "strategy" side of the game.
I'm probably going to want to go around.
It's particularly difficult to track where everyone is, since you don't get a campaign map. This is doubtless a limitation rather than a feature, but I admit it creates an interesting challenge. I made my map as a grid in Excel like I usually do, but I used text boxes hovering over the cells to annotate where my heroes were at any given time. To win the game strategically, you probably want to do the same for enemies, also perhaps annotating what keeps you and Doomdark control. Otherwise, it's all too easy to step out of the forest and find a phalanx of horse soldiers waiting for you. 
Annotating the squares I've explored, and which ones contain my heroes.
Other notes:
  • After all your heroes exhaust their movement for the day, you hit "U" to finish your turn, at which point Doomdark goes. I found it awfully easy to accidentally hit "U" when I meant another key.
  • After night passes, the game asks whether you want dawn to break so you can take your turn. Why in the world would you ever say no?
Has anyone ever answered "no" to this question? Why?
  • You don't actually see battles being fought. You end your turn committing yourself to battle and you start the next turn with the results, which might be a victory, a defeat but the hero is still alive, a defeat with the death of the hero, or the battle is still going on. Just like individual combat with monsters, it's often not clear what factors led to a victory or defeat.
A report of a battle in progress.
  • Dead heroes don't get removed from the ultimately long list of heroes, so you either have to remember they're dead or skip them manually each turn.
My list of heroes seems solid.

But Corleth is already dead.
I can't see prioritizing this game over more advanced strategy games of the 1990s, like Warlords, but I do see why ZX Spectrum owners of the 1980s remember it fondly. More important, I see its influence on other games. There's no way the creators of Warlords didn't play it. Some of the faction and place names are the same as in Lords or the sequel. The Kingdom of Krell (1987) would adopt the same use of perspective. More directly, Singleton would apply his strategy game experience in War on Middle Earth (1988). There's a history to that game that hasn't been written, but what I guess is that development started with Singleton in the U.K., and somehow Robert Clardy and Synergistic Software found out about it, and bought the rights to make it for more advanced computers in the U.S. Clardy's version offers a lot of features that Singleton's doesn't, but Singleton's work still would appear to be the genesis of Synergistic's "World Builder" engine.
Accounts of Lords' development all say that Singleton (already in his mid-30s at the time) wrote it himself in about three months. He presented the completed result to Beyond for publication. He had a similarly quick turnaround time for Doomdark's Revenge, published the same year, which amps up the complexity and uses a bigger map. A third promised title, The Eye of the Moon, was never completed, but a different sequel--titled simply Lords of Midnight--was published for the PC in 1995. Windows remakes of the original and Doomdark's Revenge were published by GOG in 2013. 
The game title was a lot cooler before I found out how literal it was.
The original game manuals enticed players to compete in an unusual contest. The game allows players to print each screen with the COPY key. The contest encouraged players to use this feature to assemble a record of a winning game, then send their reams of paper to the publisher. The publisher, in turn, would then hire a fantasy novelist to complete the novella started by Singleton, using the first winning player's screenshots. The winner was promised co-author credit and a share of the royalties. Singleton himself related the rest in a 2004 RetroGamer interview: "The first person to complete the game had actually sent in his roll of thermal paper within about two weeks of the game hitting the shelves, which amazed us all . . . but in the end, no willing publisher was found . . . I know Beyond gave him some sort of other prize but I really can't remember what that was." I find that account a bit unsatisfying. Was self-publishing really such a daunting experience at the time? Ultimately, an "official novel" did come out in 2018, written by English author Drew Wagar, though not based on the original winner's documentation.
I'm not sure my coverage has added anything to our collective understanding of this well-covered title (Jimmy Maher's 2014 article is particularly good), but I agree that it is a game that anyone writing about this genre should experience, even if it technically doesn't meet my criteria. I may check out the sequel later this year if time allows.


  1. "Was self-publishing really such a daunting experience at the time?"

    Yes, it probably was.

    Before the proliferation of e-books and print-on-demand services, self-publishing a book meant accepting pretty much the entire commercial risk, in a field where you almost certainly lacked commercial experience.

    1. Yeah pre-print on demand services and online distribution, self-publishing in any larger quantities meant:

      - printing a decently sized first edition of the book; the per unit cost in classical printing is lower when you produce a lot of copies so you wanna print enough to make it worth it, and of course you want to sell X amount of copies to make the whole endeavor worth it in the first place; you bear the cost of printing that first edition up front
      - you need to store the books somewhere, and unless you really have enough space for a couple thousand books in your home, that means renting warehouse space
      - now you need to sell those books, but Amazon doesn't exist yet so you have to convince retailers to stock your book; physical display space is limited and generally, retailers prefer to display books from established publishers and authors

      All in all, self-publishing at a scale past small zines wasn't really viable in the pre-Amazon days.

    2. I recall ordering Don Lancaster's "Hardware Hacker," which were compiled reprints produced as "Book-on-Demand self-published using the Apple IIe computer and the LaserWriter NTX," but a cursory search seems to yield an earliest edition of 1988. He was quite ingenious, using a hand-sander as the core engine for his paper jogger (for even edges), and hot-glue and clamps for the bindings.

  2. Mike Singleton made a career out of creating strategy/adventure/sim hybrids that had epic concept and scale, impressive graphics engines, and disappointingly shallow gameplay. He made like a dozen of those, all with the same strengths and flaws.

    1. I can't help but love The Ring Cycle due to my love for Wagner's music, despite the game being a total mess.

    2. Even if I don't always care for the finished product, I've always respected Singleton for that. Midwinter's only real strength was the skiing. It was just too early for the kind of combat he wanted to make, and it was far too easy to win the game if you knew what you were doing. Its sequel was better in that regard, but combat was too chaotic, you basically stole a vehicle, and then fired homing rockets until you needed other vehicle. But actually accomplishing your objectives was a test of patience.
      Its a shame no one ever expanded on his concepts. I would even take an open-world skiing game...

    3. @MorpheusKitami
      Modern open-world FPSs are an expansion of the ideas from Midwinter 1-2, more or less. Far Cry 3-5 and both Xenus games, for example. Only they are more RPG-like and less strategy-like.

    4. Eh, fair enough. I guess the combat part has been accomplished by some shooters, but Far Cry isn't really like Midwinter, at least 3/4. There's not really any vehicle combat in those, and obviously the enemy is static in those games. Open-world combat with the freedom to take any sort of military vehicle hasn't really been done too many times to my knowledge.

    5. @MorpheusKitami
      Well, there is no perfect example, unfortunately. Operation Flashpoint and ARMA: Armed Assault have vehicles and tactical elements. But they are mission-based, so open-world element is limited to the mission area.

    6. Whoa this was the guy that did Midwinter? I still have fond memories of that, my teenage mind being blown apart by the possibilities. It was the first game (after Elite) that really showed what games could do if you stopped limiting them to current conventions. The also great Hunter was standing in Midwinter's footsteps, and every open-world game since owes it a debt of gratitude.

      Sadly it has slipped through the cracks in history and I often feel I thought it up in a fever dream. Glad to be reminded of it.

    7. @Vladimir V Y, the "Old Man" scenario added to ARMA 3 last year is actually a completely open-world scenario with some mild RPG elements. There's an economy, a main story, side quests, and the ability to recruit and upgrade allies. Requires the Apex DLC to play, but well worth it if you enjoy ARMA to begin with.

  3. AlphabeticalAnonymousSeptember 3, 2021 at 5:51 PM

    What a curious find! I wonder whether "Lord Brith" and "The Lord of Shimeril" owe their names to a certain king of Britannia and a certain ancient gem of Middle-Earth.

    Happy Labor Day holiday to all the U.S. readers...

  4. I call these "adventure games but with mechanics".

    1. Are there other examples of this kind of games?

    2. Dune is the first one that comes to mind, but many of the space exploration games variants of Starflight or Star Control 2 apply (Captain Blood, Project Nomad, Millennia Altered Destinies...) Thinking about it, ERE informatique who would be later Cryo have a good bunch of these.

  5. "The game world is actually called Midnight, meaning that the title is disappointingly literal rather than metaphorical."

    Not as bad as "Night City" named after the founder, Richard Night...

  6. I always liked the concept of recruiting a dragon.

    Winning the strategy game is done by getting allies as quickly as possible, taking the troops to Xajorkith, having an epic fight there, and then just rolling north with all your guys. Ushgarak has fallen, victory to the free!

    1. There is an alternative method. Getting allies, but gathering them in a secluded location far from Xajorkith, leaving the city to the enemy. As long as Luxor and Morkin are alive, you won't loose. And then you can storm Ushgarak, ignoring the enemy armies near the Xajorkith.

    2. Huh, never thought of that. Kinda clever really.

  7. "One of the more puzzling aspects of the game to me has to do with character "attributes." There seem to be two basic ones: the character's fatigue level (which also serves as a health meter) and his courage or strength. The former is represented on a scale that starts with "utterly invigorated" and ends at "utterly tired." The second begins at "utterly bold" and ends at "utterly terrified." The courage level seems to be partly an intrinsic variable but partly affected by the presence of Doomdark and his "Ice Fear" ability. I'm not entirely sure. There are a lot of things the manual leaves unanswered. If some characters are otherwise stronger than others, or better leaders, or harder to damage, the specific attributes are left hidden by the game."

    In my experience the courage of a Lord is somewhat more important than the fatigue level. The best (as in boldest) army commanders are Luxor and Lord Blood, while Brith is probably the most cowardly one. So you want Blood on the front commanding armies, while you use Brith to ferry troops to Blood.
    Doomdark will send several regiments after Luxor, so it may be a good idea to have him move about and recruit other lords.

    There are several strategies you can use.
    My favourite on is to hold the line on the south side of the Mountains of Ithril and the southern keeps of Blood. Even more aggressive is to hold the Keep of Blood itself.
    Or you can play a very defensive game and gather your troops in Xajorkith. I did that once and IIRC I gathered that Doomdark had about 50K soldiers in all.

    The AI of the game is very crude, but in practice it works very well, so the war doesn't feel too "loose" but has an actual front and a line you can defend.

    This was one of the first computer games I played and had a tremendous impact on me.
    It's too bad no perfect remake has ever been made. Either they lack a proper auti-map, or are too buggy. Even the official remake on GOG has messed up battle calculations.

    I lived the idea of Landscaping, but sadly only two other non-Singleton games that I know of used the idea: Runestone and Sorderon's Shadow.

    1. Legions of Ashworld has also appeared recently:

    2. Well, 3D made landscaping more-or-less obsolete before too long. Landscaping is similar to the techniques used in Dungeon Master etc., though in that genre the style retains a few afficionados.

  8. As a kid I used to play this with my brother and father. We'd roughly split the recruitable characters in three and each act as a general for three separate commands. We used to discuss strategy ideas and argue over minute details. This made the game much deeper than it actually is, but I suspect I would have been happy with just exploring the map.

    Lake Mirrow is shown on the map on the back of the box, it's a bit south from Lothorhil. Lorgrim the Wise can be found from the northwest corner of the map inside an extension the frozen wastes.

    Here are the back of the box map from the original release, and a detailed square map from the sort of defunct

    Military victory is relatively easy to achieve, due to the lack of a proper AI. Doomdark's forces generally tend south mostly by flooding through the Gap of Valethor into the Plains of Blood but end up splitting a lot. Thus simply focusing your own forces is will likely lead to victory, as the AI will attack even when massively outnumbered.

    We tried to achieve a perfect victory: Recruit all the characters, defeat Doomdark militarily "honestly" by marching north through the Gap of Valethor, get the crown and destroy it. Achieving this took a while and is an incredibly fond memory for me. It does require some luck to reach the most vulnerable lords before Doomdark's forces. But having Luxor and Rothron focus on recruiting and having Luxor speed east for the barbarian (Karg? Utarg?) and then sending some fast characters to north to recruit the lords there was effective.

    1. Very cool. Thanks for sharing your recollections.

  9. why on earth would a novel based on this weird old game be published in 2018?

    1. There was a flurry of new ports of the game in 2012-2013, including the GOG release for Windows and mobile versions. The novelization effort came out of that renewed interest.

    2. This "weird old game" is quite well-known to British/European gamers who grew up in the 80s.

    3. One of our ex-right wing MPs (Louise Mensch) is absolutely obsessed over this game - so it’s got speak in certain sectors and is remembered. Even if it is an absolute pastiche of Lord of the Rings

    4. Sorry phone typing. I mean it’s got lasting appeal in certain sections of British society. By that I mean people who grew up with the spectrum and has some nostalgic twinges

    5. Funnily enough I read her article about Mike Singleton ( when he died.

      When chet posted this article , I was trying to remember the name of the person who wrote the article!

      Thanks for the assist, Deano!

    6. Deano, I didn't know about Mensch's interest in the game. It's always a bit weird to see politicians with geeky interests. I know of another former Tory MP who is a big fan of AD&D.

    7. I am going to blame the console/Japan/usa centric written history of videogames for the consideration of this as a "weird game", not the important staple it was and is.

  10. One of my favourite games ever, believe it or not, and one which I played a lot back in the day. :) I didn't expect you to play it, though, since it's not an RPG. I'd call it "adventure/strategy" myself.

    A few added notes:

    - cs the manual mentions, the Ice Crown is sentient, and can focus the Ice Fear in order to protect itself. While it's not being threatened, it's mostly spread out (I assume mainly where Doomdark's armies are), but if someone is getting closer to it, it focuses the fear on that someone, making it "mild" on the rest of the map. Morkin is immune to the Ice Fear, but the Crown doesn't realize it, so basically the entire war can start to go better for the Free just because Morkin is getting closer to his objective.

    - conversely, Morkin can have an easier path at the Ice Crown if the Free's armies put up a decent fight, even when they can't ultimately win, because Doomdark and most of his armies will be distracted. The Lord of the Rings parallels are obvious here.

    - if Luxor dies, you lose control of all your heroes except for Morkin. If he can get to Luxor's "corpse", he can pick up the Moon Ring and regain control of all previously-recruited lords, but the manual warns you that his stealth mission is then next to impossible, as Doomdark always knows where the Moon Ring is (because it opposes the Ice Fear locally).

  11. Digital antiquarian have a great article about this game

  12. The game appears very impressive if you realise that the huge world had to fit within the ~38 kilobytes of free ZX Spectrum RAM.

    1. A 64x64 map would use up 4k memory if you used a byte per tile. Sounds manageable. I'm sure this game used all the memory it could get, and optimized as much as possible (compression, not wasting bits, ...) - but in 1984 I think most games had to do this.

    2. Yeah, it's crazy how efficient you can get, if you're willing to go that extra step. I think the terrain type, monster data and treasure data are all contained in that single byte.

      All the text is also compressed, if I remember right.

  13. I did not know that Midwinter was designed by Singleton as well. I like the atmosphere he creates in most of his games. Gameplay might not be epic, but the whole experience was. At least back then. I have not replayed any of those since.

  14. I always tried to get into Lords of Midnight and later into Starlord, a strategy/simulation hybrid by Singleton, but these games never really worked for me.

    1. Starlord! Oh man, I remember that, though I've never even played it. I've read the review of it many times and I'm always awed by the sheer scope of the game. A thousand planets to conquer and rule AND you also get to personally fly around in your starfighter in 3D and shoot down your enemies? Madness.

      From what I remember, the reviewer didn't think the game was any good, but even attempting to create such a beast takes balls, so massive respect to mr Singleton for that!

  15. I feel kind of silly getting back into Might and Magic I at the age of 54, a game that I played in 1988 when I was 20 on my C64.

    I am curious as to your age. to make me feel like I am not the only silly old RPG gamer out there.

    1. You're definitely not alone (and not too far ahead of Chet).

      I'm planning on being a 90 year-old gamer and I hope you are too!

    2. I played M&M I last year at 59, so no, you're definitely not alone!

    3. Thank you for the replies guys, I feel better now about my love for these old games from my youth.

      I too use Excel to make lists of weapons and spells and such So the CRPG addict (Chet I guess) and I have a lot in common. Other than reading countless walls texts and seemingly endless dialogs, I get a bit impatient with that at times to be honest

    4. Excel is the RPG player’s best friend!

    5. Besides Excel I do a lot of generic map making aids and other helpers for RPGs you can find here:

      The large mapping page (11x17) I used for Fate: Gates of Dawn because of the hugeness of the wilderness, towns and dungeons but can be used for any game that requires massive mapping to be done.

    6. I'm uncomfortably close to 50 myself. I think maybe you HAVE to be old to play Might and Magic. I don't think kids would have the patience for it.

      Your aids are really cute. I don't mean that in a condescending way. I would print and use them if I did things by hand. Maybe I will next time, just to impart that old-school feel.

    7. I can attest that as a 29 year old trying to play Might and Magic for the first time, it is definitely a task that would have not been possible even 10 years ago for myself. Nevermind the fact that even now my enjoyment with it so far would be greatly hindered without the automapper that I use, also listing spell numbers and enemy HP for each encounter.

      One day I do hope to get Excell or some graph paper going and complete at least one crpg the "real" way.

    8. So do you have 2 windows open when you do your mapping?

      I have mapped by hand since Might and Magic 1. It was the third RPG I played on my C64 that got me hooked. It goes:

      1) Ultima 3 - never finished it. I was at the end but something about that sea serpent blocking me if I remember correctly.

      2) Wasteland - surely need the clue book on this one, the only reason I finished it.

      3) Might and Magic 1 - time to break out the graph paper. never finished this one either. Hopefully about to change this time.

      This was all in fall of 1988 and right before I bought an Amiga to play Dungeon Master. Yeah, I know we have heard this story before.

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    11. Checking in as a (former) kid who had the patience for *Might and Magic* - my mother and I played it together when I was about 7 years old, with me helping keep the maps organized, and I'd also level up her characters sometimes when she was doing other things.

      It was my first RPG, as a matter of fact (I'm 38 now).

    12. I didn't have the patience for manual mapping as a kid and I don't have it as an adult either. It's even got worse - my free time comes in chunks of a couple of hours these days, so I'm really not keen spending it on chores like these. I don't use walkthroughs but for games that don't have automaps (or have bad automaps like MM3-5), I do have to resort to online maps.

    13. @bobrpggamer

      "So do you have 2 windows open when you do your mapping?"

      Not sure if this was directed at me, but the program I use('Where are we?' if anyone reading this is interested) has multiple windows. One contains the map and another contains a party status screen. So running M&M in a window in the top left of the monitor I three different windows going at a time. It works out great in that the graphical fidelity of such old games don't require a full screen image to get the full picture.

    14. I always like to have Fullscreen when possible, to enhance immersion. I know the Mac has a lot of RPGs that will show up in multiple windows, but I remember these games as Fullscreen back when I was not using emulators for them so it’s just better that I do the mapping and info in the game by hand. Its not necessarily just to remain a purist or old school or whatever you want to call it, its just to only see the game and not part of my desktop, although with M&M I am using an emulator that has black bars to the bottom and sides, but it still feels like I am completely into the game and not other windows apps this way. I even scribe Automap’s (with crappy Automap’s in the older games) down on paper to rely on later. The first game I played with nothing but automapping was Stonekeep, because the automapping was so good I never got lost and it had annotations as well.

      But to each their own I suppose.

      I am not used to posting on bogs so my posts are showing up oddly, I meant this for the CRPG Addict who must have excel loaded in a window with the game in the windows as well.

    15. Anyone thinking of playing Realms of Arkania, Blade of Destiny or Realms of Arkania StarTrail, I have some excel spreadsheets for character stats that may be of use. These games have way more stats than any other game of its era and it could be easier to add points to stats at level up with these helpers.

      I have sheets for magic users and another for non magic users, plus attack and parry stats as well as one for character stats.

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  17. R.I.P Sir Clive Sinclair.
    Father of the Speccy.

    1. He also pioneered the Electric Car and Portable TV (but was WAYYYY ahead of the technology).

  18. Sorry to point it out, but I think you forgot to do the GIMLET rating for this one.

    1. I didn’t forget to do it; I just didn’t write about it. I knew this game had a lot of fans, and I didn’t feel like dealing with the drama of some of the lower scores. It turned out that the century didn’t get nearly as much traffic as I assumed it would, so that precaution was probably for nothing.

    2. “This entry,” not “the century.”

  19. > There's no way the creators of Warlords didn't play it.

    You don't say. Look to the right:

  20. The ZX Spectrum / Timex game of yore.

    I was introduced to the series with the second entry, Doomdark's Revenge. In the sequel the enemy armies were made up of individual lords, same as yours. You could attempt to flip them to your side when they were alone (and enemy could do that to your lords too iirc).

    So for me and my siblings it was definitely a strategy game, something like Empire, but in first-person-perspective. And fantasy. We missed out on the adventure victory condition, and when once we found it by sheer luck and the game congratulated the victory, we were not that impressed.

  21. My first strategy game. I spent years playing it in the 80s and 90s. Yes, many ways to win it.
    The Ice Crown route is easy and boring. My favorites are:
    1. Defend Xajorkith. Gather a lot of lords and their armies to defend the capitol (without Luxor around, as he is always followed by 10000 Doom riders). After the enemy armies are defeated, easy since they come one at a time, roll out North and capture Ushgarak. At the same time, the lords that cannot reach in time Xajorkith, rally on Ithrorn and those on Morkin side at Gloom.
    2. Allow Xajorkith to fall and rally troops at Ithrorn and Gloom. This is a classic, you allow enemy armies to take the capitol without any opposition and you go through the backdoor at Ushgarak. Easier said than done, because slipping some lords and their armies intact is a bit harder to do. You will likely have to fight a large battle to defend Ithrorn before moving out to Ushgarak.
    3. Defend Keep of Thimrath. This one is a bit trickier, as on one side it allows Xajorkith to fall but to a smaller army, however it allows far less casualties than the siege of the capitol might entice, as you basically take out one of the arms of Doomdark's offensive, the infantry. After Thimrath battle is over (long time, as infantry moves slowly) you can move back and liberate Xajorkith. As before Ithrorn adn Gloom are secondary rally points.
    4. The most difficult and exciting path of all. Lords fight for their own teritory. Basically means fighting small battles to make Doomdark armies pay a huge price. As an example, one of the first lords to be recruited is Blood. As soon as Blood picks the soldiers from his keeps, he goes on to fight Doomdark, not large armies, but smaller one at a time. When he is exhausted, he retreats to Shimeril and combines forces with him to fight some, from there they move to Mitharg or Brith. And so on. It is a very difficult strategy to carry out and leads to possible deaths among lords, but the retreat to Xajorkith is more fun.

  22. You seem terribly disappointed that the name of the world is Midnight, and that the title of the game is therefore literal...I think that this may just be you :-)

  23. I am reading this entry to prepare a bit for the game (I never played LoM, and it is one of the upcoming game that will be particularly long to go through), and I realized something about what is a CRPG. You state that your current definition is :

    - The game must feature character development.
    - Combat success must be based in part on intrinsic attributes
    - The player must have a flexible inventory of equipment [...]

    Recently, on the football manager game, you stated that exploration was "kind of expected" from a RPG. Well, checking this game, I realize that "exploration" is actually an integral part of the definition of CRPG - I am not sure I can think of a RPG without exploration (even if "CYOA" kind of exploration). A CRPG without exploration is a management game or a strategy game. Of course, there are a lot of strategy games with exploration, but I am not sure you would consider a RPG a game where you just find a string of battles and then distribute rewards in XP and weapons between the survivors (case in points : Galactic Gladiators vs Galactic Adventures). On the other hand, I can think about a lot of RPG without either equipment or character development (starting with say Ultima I, which only has HP).

    I think adding "exploration" clarifies a lot what is a RPG and what is not. SoccerStar => Absolutely not. Nobunaga's Ambition will never be a RPG, even if you could give Nobunaga a Fan of +5 Charisma. On the other hand, ask Nobunaga to explore a new continent with otherwise exactly the same ruleset, and you have a RPG.

    It also explains why people ask you to play games like Star Control II - now it has 3 out of 4 "RPG elements", instead of 2 out of 3. Similarly : Lords of Midnight (no stat development but exploration & equipment) or games you did not cover like, in no specific order :
    - Zone (1988, character development, no equipment, exploration)
    -"The Wreck of the BSV Pandora" (1982, no char. development, equipment, exploration)
    - "The Vaults of Zurich (1982, no char. development, equipment, exploration)

    Anyway, just random thoughts. On another topic, since there is no more "upcoming list", please don't do Warlords II right now, I have something like 4 articles on early Keating / SSG upcoming until EoY :).


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