Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Game 437: Dungeon of Ymir (1986)

The information-packed title screen. Castlegar, Argenta, Invermere, and Silverking are all places in the author's home province.
Dungeon of Ymir
Silicon Mountain Computers (developer and publisher)
Released 1986 for ZX81
Date Started: 12 October 2021
Date Ended: 12 October 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)  
One of the parts of this job that I love best is starting up a new game and immediately finding clues about its influences. It's like being a detective. I remember firing up Nemesis (1981) for the CP/M a few years ago, seeing that one of the classes was "ur-vile," and ultimately determining that not only was the game adapted from the PLATO Oubliette, but also that the authors had attended the University of Illinois and thus had been exposed to PLATO games.
It was similar when I started Dungeon of Ymir and saw a note on the main screen that if monsters attack you, you can't escape (versus you attacking them). That tickled a memory that I followed to Sword of Fargoal (1982). It turns out that Ymir is an adaptation of Fargoal, something that no other site has put together. (Admittedly, not a lot of words have been written about Ymir.) All of its concepts, items, and spells are drawn from that game, although it has an original monster list. Since Ymir was written for a platform with less memory, it has to jettison a lot from Fargoal, in particular the wonderful sound effects that made the earlier game so enjoyable. It also has fewer levels, fewer monsters, fewer spells, and no time limit. Its dungeons are fixed rather than randomly-generated. It "makes up" for these deficiencies by increasing the difficulty to a near-insane level.
Navigating a Ymir level, full of monsters, stairs, a temple, and other resources.
We've had the discussion before about whether this level of adaptation should be considered "plagiarism" even if the author of the derivative game had to write the code from scratch. My position is that we can be impressed with the technical skill exhibited by a programmer in making such an adaptation (particularly, in this case, cramming so much content into limited memory) while still feeling that it was a bit disingenuous not to credit the authors of the original.
An analogous screen from Sword of Fargoal (1982).
If such credit appeared in the game's documentation, it's been lost to time. So has the backstory. But the mission and commands are helpfully encapsulated on the title screen. (Thanks to LanHawk, by the way, for helping me even get to the title screen; the game was very hard to emulate, and several versions I found online simply didn't work.) You have to explore a 9-level dungeon to find the Sword of Kaslo and return it to the surface. Various enemies bar your way and various assets help you along.
The ability to maneuver is vital to survival, which makes it all the more unforgivable that the movement is mapped to the number keys like this:
5         8

Fortunately, the EightyOne emulator let me re-map these to the arrows; otherwise, there's no way I would have been able to get through the game. It was tough even with the re-mapping.
The game updates you on your progress between levels.
Monsters are much tougher in Ymir than in Fargoal, and you thus expend your limited resources much more quickly. The title screen lists them in order of difficulty, most to least, but what it doesn't tell you is that each monster comes in two varieties, one easy, one about as hard as a comparable enemy three or four ranks higher. So while a "three-legged gremlin" is a beatable enemy for a Level 4 character, you need to be more like Level 7 to defeat a "terrible three-legged gremlin." A Level 5 character can probably kill a regular dire wolf with no help, but a "rabid dire wolf" is tough even at Level 8. "King" minotaurs are the toughest creatures, and even a Level 9 character (the highest level) can't kill them without magical help.
Meanwhile, monsters are seeded throughout the dungeon based on central tendency rather than absolute minimums or maximums. Most creatures on dungeon Level 5 will be in the "gremlin-dire wolf" range, but you'll still have a chance of some ghouls (on the low end) or minotaurs (on the high end) as well. Throughout the game, you're constantly going up and down the levels looking for enemies that you can actually beat. You don't earn enough experience on Level 1 of the dungeon to take on Level 2 enemies, so you might have to go down to Level 3 or 4, avoiding the hard enemies, looking for more ghouls. Finally, when you've gained enough experience from those, and from bringing gold pieces to temples, you might level up (which only happens between levels, unlike Fargoal), you can head back up to Level 1 and 2 and kill the bats and cockroaches.
In such a situation, your spells are crucial, and new players learn quickly not to blow them on easy enemies. "Shield" is the most valuable. It protects you for the duration of any single combat, which means that it can kill any enemy. Healing potions restore your hit points in chunks in the middle of combat; they're used automatically if you fall to 0. By prolonging combat for an extra couple of rounds, they might allow a character to take on an enemy that would normally be one or two ranks higher. "Rejuvenation" does essentially the same thing, but in smaller amounts each round rather than one big chunk at once. None of these items are common, I should note. You might only find one or two healing potions, "Shield" spell, or "Rejuvenation" spell every level.
Another random screen.
The other important element is ensuring that you make the attack. If you start an attack and see your hit points get dangerously low, you can retreat. If the enemy engages you by jumping into your square, however, you're stuck until the bitter end, unless you have a "Teleport" spell. "Drift" spells are the least helpful. They just let you go back up to a previous level via a hole in the ceiling instead of finding a stairway.
Hit points regenerate quickly between combats. What you cannot do here, but could in Fargoal, is slowly whittle down an enemy by attacking until you're almost out of hit points, then retreating, waiting for them to regenerate, and attacking again. In Ymir, breaking off combat seems to restore the enemy.
Other elements are drawn from Fargoal. Temples are safe places; enemies won't attack you there, and hit points regenerate fast. Temples convert gold to experience, and you can only carry 100 gold at a time unless you find a "magic sack." Enemies get faster and more plentiful as you go down, making it harder to avoid their attacks. Traps can teleport you, damage you, make you forget your current map, destroy your items, and dump you to lower levels. Levels are occluded until explored, unless you have a magic map of the level. ("Lamps" illuminate areas right around you.) But even if you do, it only works for one visit (unlike Fargoal). I took screen shots of each level to help me get through them without having to re-explore them every time I went back and forth.
I had a map to Level 8, so it was fully illuminated when I arrived.
Ymir's one original contribution is the existence of an "oracle," a mysterious figure who pops up randomly on each level, sometimes multiple times. Stepping on his square sometimes rewards you with an item or a (obvious) bit of advice. But about 25% of the time, the oracle says, "Insolence costs you experience!" and whacks away a chunk of your experience. Experience is so precious a resource--enemies either do not respawn or have extremely limited respawning--that you're tempted to reload when this happens. When the game was new, and reloading took so long, you'd probably avoid the oracle entirely, since the loss of experience wouldn't be worth it.
Speaking of reloading: I'm not sure how you're supposed to do it in-game. The only place the game overtly allows you to save is when you're setting up the dungeon in the first place, which obviously doesn't make any sense. The menu that allows you to save also has key re-mapping options, but the game crashed every time I tried to get them to work. In any event, I suspect you were supposed to be able to get back to this menu during gameplay, but I'll be damned if I can find any keyboard shortcut that does it. I thus saved and reloaded using save states. Owing to the difficulty of avoiding enemies on lower levels while still finding ones to fight to gain experience and levels, I must have reloaded around 100 times. I can't imagine doing that while waiting for a tape to save and reload.
I found the Sword of Kaslo on a level crawling with monsters. But note that some of them (the sad faces) are Level 1 ghouls.
There are some mysteries with the game. One has to do with respawning. Generally, cleared levels remained cleared, but every once in a while some new enemy would come along. I don't know what triggers that. This was particularly true once I'd found the Sword of Kaslo. At first, I thought that the game would make it extra difficult to bring it to the surface by repopulating the levels with hard monsters. This seemed to be happening when I reached Level 8, as there were far more enemies there than when I had left it on the way down. But other levels remained empty during my ascent.
Except for a lonely oracle, there were no creatures to challenge me back on Level 1.
The game occasionally yells, "Time Warp!" and prevents you from moving for a few rounds. I don't know what the purpose of that is supposed to be. At first, I thought it was to hold you in place so enemies could attack, but they don't seem to be able to hit you during those few second.
Please, let's not do that again.
I eventually found the Sword of Kaslo on Level 9 and managed to get it from stairway to stairway, back to Level 1. Exiting from Level 1 brought the victory screen below.
"Thou art a HEAD!" is how I originally read that.
I also made a bit of video, in which you can get a proper appreciation of how hard the game is:

Fargoal scored a 19 on the GIMLET, but it was buoyed by a framing story and some fun sound effects. Ymir does much worse:
  • 0 points for the game world. You're not even told why you're seeking the Sword of Kaslo.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There's no creation. Your only development is experience-based leveling, which raises maximum hit points.
  • 1 point for NPCs; I'll give that to the oracle.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. Foes are differentiated only by icon and how hard they can attack.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Making sure you initiate the attack counts as a "tactic," I guess, as does the ability to teleport away.
  • 1 point for equipment. You don't really have standard RPG equipment, just counters of spells.
  • 2 points for the economy; gold helps in leveling.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
The "final report" on my game.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. The game has no sound. The iconographic graphics are only okay. I found the interface unresponsive, and the default direction mapping is a recipe for disaster in a game that requires fast movement.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's a bit too hard and certainly not replayable. It makes up for the difficulty a bit by not lasting very long.
That's a final score of 13. Fargoal worked because of elements that simply didn't make the transition; Ymir feels a bit bloodless in comparison. The ZX81 was an under-served platform, however, so any RPG title was probably welcome.
I don't know. My philosophy is pretty twisted.
The game's author, Fred Nachbaur, wrote a number of other games for the ZX81, mostly of the arcade or board game variety. His ZX81 page is still up, although it hasn't been updated since 1999. He passed away of cancer in 2004 at the age of 53; he would have been 35 when he wrote Ymir. Tributes suggest he was a generous and talented programmer, musician, and electronics hobbyist. Silicon Mountain Computers was his own company, based in British Columbia. In addition to Ymir, he apparently sold a dungeon level editor for the game.

Although not credited on the main screen, there is some evidence that Gregory C. Harder also contributed to the title. He at least was Nachbaur's collaborator on a number of other projects. Harder later offered an Ymir II: The Deeper Dungeon (2017) for download on a Sinclair message board. I have not been able to get in touch with him.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Dark Sun: The Ungreat Escape

So much for secrecy.
I started the game anew, but with my existing characters. The discussion highlighted some potentially more powerful parties, but I thought I'd move ahead with the challenges of a less-than-perfect party. Besides, there was something I liked about the existing composition. 
The game started us in the arena again. The opening combat was with three sligs and a screamer beetle. I turned to the manual for more information about both. The "bestiary" in the manual is divided into two sections. The second one offers detailed information about monsters "appearing for the first time in an AD&D® computer fantasy role-playing game," suggesting that the ones in the first section have been described before. While this section does have common enemies like elementals, otyughs, and bulettes, I don't remember encountering rampagers, sligs, or slaads in previous games. Sligs are "distant cousins of goblins and hobgoblins," basically a low-level "monster" that has a purely physical attack with no status effects. Screamer beetles are in the "new" section. They're multi-colored giant beetles with deadly mandibles and a debilitating psi attack.
I can't remember whether the announcer is insulting us or the monsters.
I killed them all in a couple of rounds with melee attacks. This time, the citizens in the stands threw money into the arena that I could pick up. That didn't happen last time. This time, I yelled back at the announcer: "I'm a real warrior, and I'll prove it!" He sent two wild muls, two sligs, a daggoran, and a defiler after me. The game manual doesn't tell you what  "defiler" is, so I'm glad my commenters cleared that up last time: it's a mage who doesn't mind ruining the world by killing its life force for his own advantage. I wish the setting had gone all-in and called them "deniers."
Anyway, my commenters insist this battle is winnable, but the defiler opened with a cold-based mass-damage spell that knocked Featherweight and Yester out of action in the first round. The other two didn't last more than a round longer. The announcer taunted us as we died.
Restarting again, I kept my mouth shut, collected the money (5 ceramic coins), and went meekly back to the pens. Violencia, the first character, was automatically made leader of the party. You can switch with the 1-4 keys, which is nice. I kept her in the position because she has the highest charisma.
Kurzak, the leader of the guards, and Legcrusher, the half-giant monster-tamer, met us at the door. Kurzak described his job as "routine," claiming that it's a better gig than building the sorcerer-king's pyramid, even though "everything's been slowed down since his disappearance."
The arena complex. The slave pens are the section on the right side.
He led us to the pens, which comprise a rectangular ring of corridor. The gate to the pens is at the north end. Eighteen cells--eight inner, ten outer--branch off the ring. I started exploring counter-clockwise. Midway down the west corridor on the outer edge was a locked door which opened at our knock despite there being no one in it. As we entered, a breeze closed the door behind us. The state of the furnishings suggested that no one had occupied the cell for a long time, and the remains of the previous occupant were heaped on the ground in the corner. As we looked around, a zombie came walking through the wall separating the cell from a room (outside the slave pens) to the west. I didn't know zombies could do that.
Featherweight killed the zombie with her bow in the first round of combat, before he even reached us. After his death, we searched the wall and found a button, which opened the part of the wall he'd walked through. Violencia, who actually pressed the button, got 250 experience points. The hidden door led to two rooms, one with a sarcophagus, in which we found 50 coins and a gem worth 1,500. A chest in the south room had a suit of bone scale chest armor and 4 wooden arrows +3. I gave the former to Violencia, who started with no armor, and the latter to Featherweight, my ranger/thief. We had to remove the hinges to get back out into the corridor.
Just before the zombie phased through the wall.
The next cells had our first NPCs. Mirlon was a vain, narcissistic man. He said we'd need money to escape and talked of a valuable gem. He said that a slave named Seymon, currently chained up in the arena, had such a gem. "It's probably still on his body." We had the option to give him the gem I found in the secret area, but I held off for now. Something didn't seem trustworthy about him. 
Scar claimed that he runs the pens. He said he'd talk to us after a couple more visits to the arena. He had three henchmen who wouldn't say anything.
The only door on the south side of the rectangle was locked. Moving up the east side, we met Gilal, lying in the haystack in her cell. She was made a gladiator after she stole a loaf of bread to feed her starving family. Her neighbor, also starving, turned her in for the reward money. She was the only survivor of her first battle in the arena and hasn't had to fight a second one yet. She told me that enemies will escalate from sligs and screamer beetles to wild muls, renegade halflings, and mountain stalkers. In the middle of the conversation, she complained about a sharp pain in her head and wouldn't talk anymore.
Diagonally across from here, we overheard two men conspiring about something, one asking the other if he'd stashed "the stuff" in the haystack. One of the haystacks in the cell to the south of the men contained a club and 15 coins, but they were probably talking about the one in their room, as they threatened to kill me if I searched it. The leader of this group was named Merzol. We had some interesting dialogue options with him, including the aggressive "Listen, slaad-bait! I'm in charge" and a direct question about what they stashed in the haystack. I played it safer and asked about his escape plains. He agreed to let me join their escape if I returned after two more fights in the arena.
Interesting role-playing options here. I suspect the first two lead to combat, although I'm not sure "son of a beggar" is much of an insult in this setting.
The Trustee, a former gladiator now too old to fight, was wandering the hallways. The head guard let him stay on as a "helper" after he saved the man from an escaped stalker. He related that slaves sometimes escape but they have to flee the city into one of the free villages in the desert. Kurzak likes money, but it would probably take more than we could scrounge to make him betray his templar boss and let us go. He is mystified by Gilal's introversion. Between Scar and Merzol, he thinks Scar is a better fighter and more disciplined. Mirlon is not to be trusted. He finished the conversation by opening the southern door, which leads to the cook, Dinos (+200 experience for Sunstroke, who I had put in the lead in anticipation of the reward).
Dinos occupied rather luxurious quarters in the south. The moment I talked to him, he asked if we'd heard someone screaming. I said that Gilal was in severe pain, and he demanded to be led to her. We did as he asked and he healed her. (We could have done that, but the game won't let you cast "Cure Light Wounds" on anyone but other party members.) The party got 350 experience each, which put Featherweight to Level 3 as a thief. 
Just a shot of the character sheet.
The healed Gilal related that her head pain had been caused by a "memory block" installed by the templar after she escaped. She found a secret passage in the northernmost monster pen, leading to the sewer entrance. "It's a big hole in the northwest corner of the pens, to the west of the kitchen. You just have to push a button in the corner of the pen, and it will open." We'd just have to sneak past or overcome a guard there. Gilal had broken something to distract him. She was looking for a rumored village led by a man named Dominy, who has reportedly dug a well that has lasted for years, but she broke her leg before she got far, and the templars found her. There's a rumor that Tectuktitlay (the sorcerer-king) is gathering an army to wipe out the villages. Afraid if being executed if caught escaping again, she refused to come with me.
I suspect Gilal is setting up the main quest here.
We returned to finish our conversation with Dinos. He was the former head chef at the Red Plume Inn in Draj. (Any connection with the Red Plumes of the Forgotten Realms?) He was thrown in the slave pens when the high templar had an allergic reaction to his cooking, now forced to make meals for the man daily. To the east of his rooms was a water trough, where I was able to fill up a pot I'd found (+200 experience).
Having spoken to everyone I could find, I rested to restore the few hit points lost in the first battle. When we were done resting, Kurzak was hollering that it was our turn in the arena again.
This time, after entering the arena, instead of turning west to face the monsters, we ran east to explore a bit. We immediately found Seymon chained up, only he wasn't dead. He was alive and begging for water. We cut his bonds and gave him the pot of water (+750 experience). 
Approaching Seymon.
Before we could do anything else, the enemies reached us--two wild muls and two renegade halflings. Seymon joined us and nearly got killed by one of the muls, but we managed to defeat them in time. Sunstroke rose to cleric Level 3 from the experience. After combat, we took the 10 coins the crowd threw to us, but also thought to loot the bodies of our slain enemies for swords and armor. Seymon just kept telling us he'd "talk to us in a minute" and never gave us the information about the gem. We eventually had to leave the arena and return.
Overall, it appeared I had several options for escape:
  • Attack the guards after winning a fight in the arena but before being locked into the pens. That should give me the run of the arena area, which would allow me to find the secret door Gilal told us about. Or maybe just run away from Kurzak while he's leading us between the arena and pens.
  • Try to pick the lock to the door west of Dinos's room, again allowing access to the rest of the complex and the secret door.
  • Try to bribe Kurzak.
  • Give the gem to Mirlon and follow his plan.
  • Win two more arena fights and join Merzol's escape.
  • Win more arena fights and see what Scar has to offer.
I decided it couldn't hurt to fight one more arena combat and see what Scar and Merzol had to offer. We rested and demanded a new fight.
The announcer was more complimentary to us as we entered. Again, we turned east from the entrance and explored a bit before the creatures reached us. Seymon still had nothing to say, but a corpse near him had leather boots (given to Featherweight), and another in the southeast had a gythka (a polearm with a blade at each end). The enemies reached us before we could do anything else: four thri-kreen and a tohr-kreen, which the manual doesn't describe. Featherweight had the first successful use of a psi-attack, rendering the tohr-kreen unable to attack for a few rounds with "Ego Whip." We won, but we were pretty badly beat up.
The announcer pays us a compliment.
On the way out of the arena, we freed another fighter from bondage, but he died the moment he hit the ground. We found a club on another corpse.
Back in the slave pens, Merzol would talk to us, but it turned out he had no plan at all except maybe to ambush Kurzak when he opens the door. After that: "I don't know--we could just kill all the guards and take over!" Scar, meanwhile, still wouldn't talk with me.
I chanced another battle, and this one took me a few reloads. The enemy party consisted of three sligs and a mountain stalker. The sligs were trivial, but the stalker kept charging in and tearing someone apart. It gets four attacks per round, each of which can do up to 15 damage. I finally defeated them by casting "Bless" before the battle and using "Grease" to freeze him in place while I weakened him with arrows and spells. 
Specifying the radius for a "Grease" spell.
Back in the pens, Scar would finally speak to me. His plan was to arrange to fight each other in the arena, then join forces and fight our way out. He claimed to know how to open the west door. My role-playing tendencies nearly led me to simply escape on my own, likely via the door leading out of Dinos's quarters, but I wasn't 100% confident in combat yet, and I decided I'd feel better with allies. I ultimately decided to go with Scar.
The plan worked well at first. The next time we were summoned to the arena, we found ourselves facing Scar's party. Instead of fighting, both parties ran for the west door and escaped to the interior of the arena structure, but outside the slave pens. We fought a combat with a couple of guards on the other side of the door. Scar and his goons were a big help. We looted some obsidian longswords and bows off the corpses.
The gladiators break free!
Scar said we should go north and he would go south. I had Gilal's instructions for reaching the exit, but I figured I'd take my time. I was in "other game" mode, assuming that at worst, I'd find enemies in little pockets that I could clear one at a time.
Instead, every single guard in the entire complex converged on my location. Their pathfinding was unerring. I tried holing myself up in the corner of a remote room, where at least they couldn't snipe me from afar, but they just wouldn't stop coming. I saved in a bad place and don't even have the option to head directly for the exit now. I'll have to reload an earlier save from before the second arena battle.
The party cowers around a corner while waiting for enemies to enter the room. This strategy didn't work.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • Hitting ESC brings up the save/quit menu. The two buttons are right next to each other, and the "Quit" button doesn't ask for any confirmation. Fortunately, hitting the "S" key activates "Save." After one mis-click, I'm going to be sure never to use the mouse on that menu again.
  • The music, which I turned off, doesn't seem to be appropriate to the setting. Where the music for Perihelion was sparse, haunting, and appropriately apocalyptic, the title theme for Dark Sun features a driving 4/4 beat and a surprisingly upbeat melody. It feels like something that would accompany a montage of a character doing errands in Los Angeles. The slave pens theme is a bit moodier, and it has an interesting melody, rhythm, and (starting around the 1:15 mark) instrumentation, but it still doesn't feel to me like it has anything to do with the game world. The compositions are credited to Ralph Thomas, an alias for Ralph Cooksey-Talbott, whose first score was for Spelljammer the previous year. He spent the 1990s at SSI before starting his own software company and photography studio.
  • In a setting where water is supposed to be more valuable than gold, I was surprised that there's a huge water trough in Dinos's room that anyone can just walk up and use. Later, during our escape, I found a huge fountain of water. I'm beginning to think that water isn't as scarce as I was led to believe.
The party stops and stares in awe.
  • This is going to be my sticking point with the interface: it has keyboard backups for everything but switching the active icon. So instead of hitting "T" and then clicking on a character to talk, the process involves right-clicking several times and watching the icon carefully to make sure I don't miss the "talk" one. In combat, it's the same way. You can scroll through enemies with the (N)ext and (P)revious keys, but the only way to attack them (that I can find) is to click, and that involves first right-clicking to the appropriate attack option. Tell me if I'm missing something.
  • I also can't figure out the "quick combat" system, not that I'd use it with combats of this complexity. But I did want to see how it performed. The manual says you activate it in combat with the SPACE bar, but this doesn't do anything as far as I can tell.
I'm weighing several options. Now that I know how tough things are after the escape, I could go back to my original plan of starting over with a new party. In particular, I need to roll a half giant with better dexterity. His current dexterity of 14 seemed okay by past D&D standards, but he hardly ever hits, somewhat ruining the purpose of having a giant. My preserver/druid is also a bit useless once he runs out of spells, which happens quickly at Level 2.
Can I possible leave without exploring this room?
The second option is to fight more arena battles until each character gains at least one more level. My only trepidation there is that they were already becoming pretty hard.
The third option is to role play and make my escape without insisting on exploring the outer complex. That's tough to contemplate given how many rooms and likely treasures that there are, but part of me still likes the idea of a game that forces that kind of choice. Part of me also wonders whether the door to the next area is one-way or whether I'd be able to clear out the arena by "escaping," then making guerilla attacks back into the arena.
Time so far: 5 hours

Friday, October 15, 2021

Game 436: Rogue Clone (1986-1993)

I wonder if the Regents of the University of California are aware they have the copyright to this game.
Rogue Clone
United States
Independently developed and published
Released in 1986 for Unix; ported to DOS in 1988; updated repeatedly for DOS, Windows, Linux, Macintosh, and other platforms through the present day
Date Started: 11 October 2021
Date Ended: 12 October 2021
Total hours: 4
Difficulty: 4.5/5 (Hard-Very Hard)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

In a perfect illustration of "Exactly What It Says on the Tin," Rogue Clone is a clone of Rogue, to the extent that I couldn't tell much difference, although admittedly it's been 12 years since I played Rogue. You may recall that my desire to share my winning screen, after 80 hours and dozens of unsuccessful adventurers, prompted me to start this blog in the first place. 
If I have the history right, the reason that Rogue needed a "clone" was that its developers (primarily Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold), in ironic defiance of later "roguelike" mores, never released the game's source code, even after the 1985 commercialization (published by Epyx) flopped. Individuals who wanted to keep the game in the public domain (and who arguably didn't have any right to do so) were forced to recreate it. Most went their own way with the concept, as with Moria (1983) and Hack (1984), but some sought more direct replication.
A random shot from Level 21 of the game. I've used a Potion of Monster Finding to identify the locations of monsters and avoid them.
The so-called Rogue Clone series starts with a 1986 effort by Tim Stoehr to create an open-source replica of the original game on UNIX mainframes. I've been able to find very little information about Stoehr, but I gather he was 27 years old at the time and employed at the University of California at Berkeley, where Michael Toy's final pre-commercial version of Rogue resided. Most modern ports of Rogue derive from Stoehr's recreation. For some reason, some of them got their own names (e.g., TileRogue, MacRogue, LinuxRogue) while others became known as Rogue Clone, starting with a 1988 DOS port by Steve VanDevender, a student at the University of Oregon. I find the copyright to "the Regents of the University of California" amusing; I can only imagine that the theory is that since Toy developed the game on UC Berkeley time and resources, the university "owns" the game, and thus it was acceptable for Stoehr to clone it. I suspect Epyx wouldn't have felt the same way, had the commercial version been more successful.
The command list seems daunting, but I found it easy to memorize and master.
After I failed to get VanDevender's version working, I resorted to version IV of the DOS version, which was originally released in 1993. The documentation sometimes calls it Rogue Clone IV, sometimes DOSRogue, and sometimes just Rogue. Frankly, I'm not sure it should be listed as a separate game, and I toyed with rejecting it as just a port of a game I've already covered. But I found myself sucked into it, and I reasoned that if I didn't adhere to permadeath, it wouldn't take that long to cover.
I'll probably never win another roguelike again "honestly." The 250 hours it took me to ascend in Nethack is still too fresh in my mind. Rogue took me 90 hours back in 2009. So in approaching Rogue Clone, I decided to see how far I could get with five characters and then how many reloads it would take, saving at the beginning of each level, for the sixth character. 
As much as I'd like to adhere to the spirit of permadeath, I don't have 80 hours to spend on this game.
All the features of pre-Hack roguelikes are here. The adventurer is a fighter looking to qualify for the local adventurer's guild. They've sent him into the Dungeons of Doom to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. Along the way, he fights a variety of monsters with a variety of equipment, always with the threat of starvation pushing him downwards, always with the threat of permadeath hanging over his head. There are no character classes, no attributes beyond strength, no spellbooks, no "intrinsics" or eating enemy corpses to gain them, no complex interactions among items, no stores, no altars or blessings, no backtracking to earlier levels--those are all elements of Hack and Nethack.

Levels are randomly generated using limited graphics. This version uses the same limited graphics as Epyx's mid-1980s release for DOS, but it includes a few characters that wouldn't have been available in the original, including a smiley face for the character and double-piped walls. Potions, wands, and scrolls are randomly assigned colors and other appearance factors for each new game. Identifying these items is a key part of the game, as once you know that a "blue potion" is a Potion of Extra Healing, you know what all blue potions do. I typically just quaff potions and read scrolls as soon as I find them, at least on early levels, as there are never enough identify scrolls to go around.

Every character starts with 12 hit points, 16 strength, 1 unit of food, a +1 ring mail, a +1 mace, and a +1 short bow with 25 arrows. Enemies don't drop items; they're just randomly seeded across the dungeon level. There is no correlation between the difficulty (depth) of the level and the items that you find on it. An early magic weapon or Ring of Slow Digestion does wonders. Gold is only useful for increasing your final score. 
The fates of a few characters.
Character #1 died on Level 3. There was a large room full of treasures and monsters, and I defeated all the monsters, rising to Level 5. Afterwards, sorting through the treasure, I read an unknown scroll and it turned out to be a Scroll of Monster Summoning. It summoned a rattlesnake, which killed me in two hits. Perhaps my "always-read-scrolls" strategy is flawed, but it's the only way to find Scrolls of Identification.

Character #2 died two rooms into the game on Level 1 when he ran prematurely into one of those rooms that will come to be called "zoos" in Nethack. An ice monster froze him to death.
Chester begins a new game in a room with two bats and a snake.
Character #3 got another zoo on the first level, but he was alerted to it by a Potion of Monster Seeing in the first room. Even though I tried to stay back and shoot arrows into the room, the monsters swarmed me and I died.
Character #4 did pretty well, bolstered by several food rations found on Level 1. He made it to Dungeon Level 9 / Character Level 7, but on Level 5, he unwisely drank a Potion of Hallucination and thus couldn't differentiate monsters. It never wore off. I tried to fight with missile weapons and wands to keep on the safe side, but on Level 7, I encountered something in a corridor that killed me in three hits. The game said it was a centaur, but that was probably just a product of my hallucination.

Character #5: Another goddamned zoo, this time on Level 6. I tried to flee but was run down and killed. I think a rattlesnake struck the killing blow.
That brought me to Phase II, in which I allowed myself to save on each level and reload if I died. I managed to win with six reloads. The character got lucky with a Ring of Slow Digestion (and plentiful food anyway) early in the game, but I never found a very good weapon or suit of armor. I eventually ended up using three Scrolls of Enchant Weapon on the mace I started with just because I never found a decent replacement. I found the Amulet of Yendor on Level 26 at character Level 12, which is 4 levels less than when I originally won Rogue in 2009. I suppose I was being more cautious back then, adhering to permadeath rules.
You'd think joining the Fighter's Guild is something that would happen at the beginning of a career, not the culmination of it.
There are a handful of things that I think are different about the Clone versus the original, although the "original" went through several permutations. I'm most familiar with the 1985 Epyx release, which may have notable differences from the version at UC Berkeley that Stoehr consulted. In any event, this is what I wrote down:
  • Clone seems to feature a lot more snakes and rattlesnakes, both of which can weaken the character.
  • There are a lot more "zoos" in the Clone.
Stumbling into a "zoo" on Level 6. It looks like a horribly unfair one (a jabberwock, a troll, a medusa, and two dragons on Level 6?!), but I think this character is suffering from a Potion of Hallucination.
  • Hunger is perhaps slightly relaxed, or food more plentiful. None of my characters were ever in danger of starving, in sharp contrast to my experience with Rogue.
  • I don't remember Rings and Scrolls of Protect Armor in the original. They save you from traps and Aquators which damage armor.
  • There are no "dark" rooms in the Clone nor, therefore, means of light.
  • The corridors in Clone frequently form mazes on lower levels. I don't remember these in the original.
In NetHack, this type of corridor configuration would suggest that a xorn or a dwarf with a pickaxe had been through here.
  • I never found a Scroll of Mapping in the Clone.
  • "U" is for Ur-viles in the original, black unicorns in the Clone.
  • In the Clone, after you find the Amulet of Yendor and are ascending the levels, everything that looks like an item (e.g., potion, scroll) turns out to be a "Xeroc," this game's version of a mimic. I don't remember that in the original.
I created a video of key moments in the game, along with my narration, which really would have benefited from an antihistamine. 
I'm curious to see how this game GIMLETs compared to the original. It should be about equal, but it's been 12 years, and I applied the original rating retroactively (I created the GIMLET five months after I won Rogue).
  • 0 points for the game world. You're barely told anything about the world and why you're in the dungeon.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. "Creation" is only a name. For development, you have both traditional leveling and improvement of strength. Both do a good job making you feel more powerful as you advance.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. That all goes to "foes." The game's menagerie has a satisfying variety of special attacks that create different tactical situations. You want to shoot snakes from afar, take off your armor before fighting aquators, and avoid nymphs and dragons entirely.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. There's no magic in Rogue, but the complex inventory system helps create a number of options for combat. Permadeath gives a weight to combat that you don't find in other games, and a smart player knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
  • 5 points for equipment, easily the best part of the game. Not only is there a large variety of weapons, armor, rings, potions, and scrolls, they're completely randomized throughout the dungeon.
I consider my inventory options while in a room with a leprechaun.
  • 1 point for economy. Gold just adds to your score, though. You can't actually spend it.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics aren't advanced, but they do their job well. Until graphics get good enough to really "wow" me, I'd rather have unambiguous letters depicting my enemies than fuzzy icons. The control system is exactly what I want--each action mapped to a unique key. I hadn't played Rogue in years and yet I had no problem settling in immediately. There is no sound, alas, except a piercing error tone.
  • 5 points for gameplay. Though linear, both Rogue and its clone offer a solid challenge at a reasonable length of time and are eminently replayable. 
That adds up to a final score of 24, exactly where I rated Rogue in 2010. Wow. There are some individual differences, though. I apparently thought the bare-bones store was worth at least a point in Rogue, but not the economy. I rated character development lower but gave a surprising 5 points to "graphics, sound, and interface." Maybe the Epyx version had some sound? Anyway, it's nice to see the GIMLET hold up in consistency.
Once you've experienced late roguelikes, like NetHack, which add so much more fun and complexity, Rogue can feel hopelessly quaint. But there's something to be said for the shorter, simpler game. It has a directness and briskness that's hard to capture in a quantitative rating. As much as I don't really think Rogue Clone is a separate game, I'm glad for this excuse to dip back in to the game that started the blog.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Game 435: Quenzar's Caverns (1993)

Quenzar's Caverns
Pulse Ventures (developer); published as shareware
Released 1993 for Windows
Date Started: 10 October 2021
Date Ended: 10 October 2021
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
There's a class of short shareware titles that I call "afternoon RPGs." Quenzar's Caverns isn't even that. It's a "coffee break RPG." It took considerably less than an hour to win it. It takes longer to read the instructions than to play the game. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. In creating it, author Peter Lok seems to have been going for a new type of product: an RPG that would feel at home within the little "Games" folder of the new release of Windows. In both style and length, Quenzar nestles perfectly next to Minesweeper and Solitaire.
To play it, I had to emulate Windows 3, which itself took longer than the game, even though LanHawk had set me up with a basic configuration to play GayBlade. Depending on when they were released during the year, either GayBlade or Quenzar could be the first CRPG that requires Windows 3 to run. I hope it's Quenzar. As we'll see, it feels more like a Windows-specific game.
In a typical Quenzar screen, I'm in a room with a goblin chief and a table to search. I'm in Row 0, Column 5. There's 1 trap in the squares around me.
The game borrows elements from Minesweeper, which was included with Windows 3.1 the previous year.
The game takes inspiration from both the grid exploration system of The Wizard's Castle (1980), the mechanics of roguelikes, and a couple elements of the aforementioned Solitaire and Minesweeper. It takes place on a single "map" of 100 squares, each representing a room in a dungeon. Each room can have some combination of monster, treasure, and trap. One square has the stairway down to the sanctum of the evil wizard Quenzar, but entering requires a gold key from another square. Your mission is to build your resources, find the key, and defeat Quenzar.
At the beginning of the game, you specify a character name and only a few other options. You can choose between a "basic" and "advanced" difficulty levels, though I didn't notice much difference. You can also specify a number between 0 and 20,000, each representing a unique dungeon configuration, much like the later FreeCell (1995) did with the initial configuration of cards.
Setting up a new game.
Starting equipment varies on whether it's a basic or advanced game. Each character starts with one or two healing potions, a sword or short sword, a backup dagger, a small shield, and one or two--sigh--holy hand grenades. (To me, the mystery of why so many developers think it's clever to include the device is eclipsed only by the mystery of why anyone thought it was that funny in the first place.) Starting characters have maximum strength and dexterity set to 14 (basic) or 12 (advanced), and maximum intelligence set to 10. Strength serves as both an attribute, determining damage in combat, and a hit point reservoir. Dexterity determines whether you hit or get hit in combat; it is lowered with armor. I'm not sure intelligence does anything.
There's a surprising amount of content packed in the little rooms. Monsters include goblin guards and chiefs, blood wisps, giant snakes, trapper plants, and skeletal guards. You have several options in combat, including fleeing, attacking all-out, attacking defensively, tossing a hand grenade (which usually results in instant death), and talking to the enemy to attempt a bribe or intimidation. The game aggregates your armor class, weapon class, strength, and dexterity into a "PV" value that you can compare with the monster's to determine what strategy is best.
Negotiating with the goblin chief after I already exchanged some blows with him.
Rooms may also have a variety of searchable objects like desks, hidden doors, and pools of water. Each may yield one or more items, including weapons, armor, rings, potions, scrolls, and hand grenades. From roguelikes, the game takes the convention of assigning colors to potions and metal types to rings. You can either risk quaffing unknown potions or donning unknown rings, or you can wait for a Lens of Identify, after which all your stuff is automatically identified. There are other special magic items. A Compass of Guiding tells you where to find the gold key and the entrance to Quenzar's sanctum; a Helm of Reflection greatly increases your armor class; a Pack of Carrying increases your encumbrance from 15 items to 25; and an Amulet of Shielding protects against magic attacks. A Dragon Sword and Dragon Shield are the best weapon and shield in the game, and are of particular use against the one dragon.
A mid-game inventory and character sheet.
Rooms can have traps, which you have a small chance of detecting and disarming. The game helps you avoid them with an element drawn from Minesweeper: When you step in each room, a number tells you how many adjacent rooms contain traps, the same way that Minesweeper tells you how many adjacent squares have mines. (This is attributed in-universe to a magic tattoo the character has.) With careful analysis of these numbers, you can skirt the traps, although the game is easy enough that you could still win after blundering into almost every one. It is relatively generous with healing potions, for instance, and there's even a room where a "magically imprisoned healing spirit" will trade gold for hit points. The game is relatively stingy with gold to keep you from abusing this resource; combats deliver only 0-3 gold pieces (I suspect it's 1d4-1).
Encountering the helpful healing spirit.
There is, alas, no character development except by inventory. (You can find potions that increase maximum attributes, so I suppose that slightly qualifies.) The game was short enough that I didn't mind.
Once you have the Dragon Sword and Shield, gold key, the Amulet of Shielding, a couple of hand grenades, and maybe a healing potion or two, it's time to take on Quenzar. Quenzar's guardian is a dragon, which you can kill in regular combat or take out with a couple of hand grenades, as I did.
I reached the endgame with five grenades, so using two to kill the dragon was a no-brainer.
After the guardian, you face Quenzar himself. He's immune to hand grenades, so you just have to duel with your Dragon Sword and hope for the best. The Amulet of Shielding protects from his magical attacks (if you didn't waste it on a trap). I got lucky with a critical hit my first time. Killing Quenzar nets you a victory screen and a laughably high amount of gold.
I thought the goblet was on fire for a few seconds.
We've had short games before, but usually because of programming limitations or quirks that allowed for a quick finish. I think this is the first game I've seen deliberately designed as an "applet," offering an RPG-themed experience in a solitaire-like time frame. This creates a very lopsided GIMLET:
  • 1 point for a bare-bones game world.
  • 1 point for character creation and development; there are limited creation options and no development.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. I'm giving some credit here to the trap-sweeping mechanic.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. There's no magic, but there are several combat options.
Quenzar is magically protected against grenades.
  • 4 points for equipment, the primary means of character development.
  • 3 points for a useful economy, as you can bribe enemies and pay for healing.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
Finding the key to the sanctum.
  • 2 point for graphics, sound, and interface. The interface is arranged well, but there is no sound and the monster graphics are nothing special. I oddly didn't mind the lack of keyboard backups to the game's commands, probably because it was so swift and short.
The death graphic is perhaps the best one in the game.
  • 6 points for gameplay. I know that seems high, but it hits most of the marks here, including replayability, length appropriate for its content, and appropriate challenge level. I wouldn't call it "nonlinear."
That gives a final score of 25, but this is one of those cases where rating the game alongside Dark Sun and Quest for Glory IV doesn't make a lot of sense. It does its intended job well.
Pulse Ventures seems to have been a sole proprietorship of Calgary-based Peter Lok, who asked a modest US $6 for registering the game. I can't find any other specific titles that he released, but a bio on an author site says that he "created numerous shareware titles." He has since used Pulse Ventures as a self-publishing imprint for books like Tales from a Yellow Star (2012) and Neo Ace (2014). 
I love that one of the first Windows RPGs required none of the advancing technology of the era and yet still feels like a 1990s Windows game. Between this and Dark Sun, we really seem to be turning a corner.