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: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 213/444 (48%)
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.


  1. This reminds me of 'Indy's Desktop Adventures', which emulated the Windows game aesthetics and could be beaten in half an hour. A coffee break game, as you said.

    1. LucasArts also made Star Wars: Yoda Stories, a game identical to Desktop Adventures, save for different setting.

    2. Right, they were perfect little time-killers, but you've seen all the content after roughly three playthroughs.

  2. 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.

    Seriously? Monty Python was *huge* back then. It was a whole nerd culture thing, back before there was something properly named nerd culture. If you got the joke, that meant you were part of the ingroup. And as people who were constantly cast out of whatever groups existed, being part of an ingroup was a very big deal indeed. Humans with no ingroups will kill themselves to escape the pain. Even receiving a small taste - an in-joke in a Windows game, available only to people in the know - was good for a grin, something to take the pain out of a miserable existence which was sure to resume once the game was over.

    Sure, 25 years later it's a hackneyed cliche, but it sure wasn't back then.

    1. Aside from the Monty Python reference, I'd say that "holy hand grenade" is an inherently funny phrase because of the oxymoron.

      Tvtropes predictably has a page on it,

    2. I was just going to leave it at "it was funny because I was around 12."

    3. AlphabeticalAnonymousOctober 13, 2021 at 11:28 AM

      I've sometimes wonder whether our host has a particular animus against "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" because of his long-standing fondness for all things truly Arthurian? If an organization made such a travesty of something I held so dear, I wonder whether I might find their efforts more than distasteful. On the other hand, maybe it's just not his kind of humor.

    4. Yeah, there's something of that. It's annoying when you're an Arthurian expert and the only things that anyone knows about Arthur are a) Monty Python, and b) Disney's The Sword in the Stone. However, I would have found "holy hand grenade" to be far too obvious and broad to be actually funny, even as an oxymoron, regardless of the source material. I mean, it may have been worth a titter when the film was new, but the idea that 18 years later, someone is still going, "HA HA HA. HOLY HAND GRENADE!!!! I MUST PUT THAT IN MY GAME!" strikes me as a little sad.

    5. Harland, as usual, your take on the whole thing has a kernel of truth but ultimately expands into near self-parody.

    6. I suppose that, above all, it's a pretext for putting in an overpowered item and/or one with a blast radius. Rather than invent something new, grab something that'll get a chuckle out of certain geeks (and a groan out of others).

      I prefer Life of Brian, myself -- and was surprised at how seldom I laughed last time I saw Holy Grail. At least Fawlty Towers is still as funny as ever.

    7. I don't think people find the phrase or the existence of a holy hand grenade funny. What they find funny is the scene in the movie, where the more or less trivial act of tossing a hand grenade is turned into a religious ceremony. The item is just a reference to the scene, not a joke in itself.

      While I could generally do without Holy Grail references, I found it quite funny in Worms, where you get a "Halleluja" followed by a big explosion.

      But I prefer Life of Brian, too.

    8. For me, it has always been 'And now for something completely different' (1971), but that's because their specific brand of comedy lends itself better to short sketches than feature films.

      And I certainly agree that it's appalling if something which I hold dear and take serious gets parodied in any manner.

    9. The hand grenade is a parody of the dumb little ball that Jesus and the Queen hold in paintings. Back then a lot of children would have had a more religious upbringing and recognized it from church as a religious icon. So the gag is 'what if you pulled the pin on that thing and it actually exploded?' which is at least worthy of a chuckle. And, as Buck said, the entire scene is dragged out into absurdity by a parody of a liturgical service. It's not even the funniest scene in the movie, but this was early days.

      I think in this particular case, the creator just wanted an arcade-style 'smart bomb' item and just fluffed it into an easy reference to fit the theming. In general the HHG (and killer rabbit) are just easy references to slip in for a cheap laugh. Oh look, one of the enemies in our game is a bunny, get it? Like in the movie! Har har. It's zero-effort comedy.

    10. I kinda agree with the anonymous person — at least in the UK it has the additional dimension that the orb symbol is seen a lot in pictures of monarchs, representing the dominion of Christianity across the globe. So it’s a parody of that. But also yeah, it’s prime geek culture, and a lot of geeky games back in the day did a lot of references to these kind of things. Proto-family guy in a way.

    11. At the time Monty Python was huge among people and it always annoy me when people think they are among a "chosen few" getting an in-joke or reference when everyone and their grandparents would "get it". It's like people thinking they are nerds for watching Star wars or a never example Rick & Morty.

    12. The Holy Hand Grenade itself is just a gag. The reading from the Book of Armaments and Arthur miscounting before throwing it are the actual jokes of the scene. The real YMMV of the scene is whether or not you're amused by sendups of smells-and-bells priestcraft. The Pythons certainly were.

    13. "It's annoying when you're an Arthurian expert and the only things that anyone knows about Arthur are a) Monty Python, and b) Disney's The Sword in the Stone."

      And c) Saber from Fate series. =)

    14. The thing about Monty Python references is that they pretty much inherently miss the point.

      In a trait they share with the far funnier Mel Brooks, just about every scene is made up of layered gags that build on one another and usually are done with noticeable levels of understanding and respect for the material they are lampooning. Pulling one element from a layered setup like that is like trying to use a bit of rice to represent a sushi roll, or echo an entire lasagna with a single noodle.

    15. I'm with Buck. I'm not a big Monty Python guy so I first encountered the HHG in Worms and it's alright by me!

    16. I don't really get the whole Monty Python reference as an in-group signifier thing. Holy Grail (and Python in general) was always pretty well known and popular in my experience. Plenty of people who wouldn't care at all about RPGs would get the reference.

    17. I agree with everyone in this thread.

      BTW, I think the term is globus crucinger.

  3. Definitely "Castle of the Winds" vibes with the UX design.

    1. On the subject of Castle of the Winds, I believe that game was written by someone working at Microsoft during the development of Windows 2, so it's not the first CRPG to require Windows 3... but it probably is the first to require Windows 2. :)

  4. While the game is nothing memorable, I am always happy to see more Canadian content!

    1. I would love more poutine in my RPGs

    2. Canada has a law mandating Canadian content. There's plenty of it out there.

    3. I was speaking specifically in the context of this Blog. There have only been a small handful of Canadian games featured so far.

    4. The upcoming Dungeon of Ymir turns out to be Canadian, too. I just assumed it was from the UK because it was written for the ZX81.

      Harland, it's obvious he was talking about the blog. Please stop deliberately looking for things to argue about. It makes people not want to comment.

  5. If all of the screens are standard Windows forms, wouldn't the keyboard shortcuts be Alt + underlined letter? (That doesn't help for the directions though.) I wouldn't put much faith in Tabbing between fields as they were probably placed in a random order, but that should (eventually) work too?

    1. Only if the forms are set up correctly. Microsoft themselves were extremely diligent in doing that, but third-party app developers not necessarily so.

      (e.g. if some fields are in a "container" then tabbing only works between them and not to anything else)

    2. Yeah, ALT does work for the buttons. I don't know why I didn't think of that. I guess I've met so many applications where it didn't work that I've become use to ignore those little underlines.

  6. I remember playing this as part of a shareware compilation. I found it to be the perfect length for the amount of content and complexity.

    You make a very interesting point suggesting that it belongs with the likes of Solitaire and Minesweeper. Now that you've made the comparison it seems obvious to me.

  7. I wonder why not more CRPGs use a Windows-interface. Although the look reduces immersion, to me it also feels tidied up and using the Windows interfaces feels weirdly satisfying.

    I also remember that a PC-game magazine I once bought, included a CD with some small games, one of which was a business simulation game running completely in an Excel-sheet. Makes me wonder if there are any Excel-RPGs out there...

    1. I think there are some complex Excel games. Not sure if there's any RPGs, but it's possible.


      Excel RPG :O

    3. Excel-lent ;-) Thanks for the link!

    4. I once saw a website discussing a game (perhaps an adventure game rather than a CRPG) that was being implemented in MS Access, but seemingly the project was never finished/released. It never would have occured to me to develop a game in Excel.

    5. A few Japanese RPG used Windows-interface. One of them was even fan-translated to English and may appear on this blog.

  8. Why did so many early Mac and Windows games use this sort of beveled "window interface"?

    1. It was just the style of Windows. I'd like to say that it looked incredibly futuristic and cool at the time, but I remember thinking even in 1994 that it looked like a toy, and I couldn't understand why anyone would prefer it to the clean simplicity of DOS commands.

  9. Well its been a while since I last posted (Sept 2020 I think), but Quenzar's Caverns was one of my favorites growing up. Some notes:

    1. Advanced difficulty increases trap damage, how long poison lasts, and probability of successfully bribing someone. Otherwise it doesn't do much.

    2. I got the game to run on Win98. Not sure why you had to emulate 3.1. Then again, I had an old cd rom with it on it, so that might contribute to that.

    3. Intelligence determined whether or not you identify a potion or scroll when you use it. Sometimes with int below 10, you'd fail to do so. But the moment you get the Lens of Identify, that makes int pointless.

    4. The thing I hated about the Quenzar fight is that there is no pause before entering his inner sanctum. So if the guardian hurt you bad, Quenzar sometimes one-shot finished you off. And as it takes a round to consume an item, you generally don't want to try to heal during the quenzar fight if you have the dragon sword.

    5. Do you know if there is a registered version of the game in existence? I had read that the shareware was the only one available even to people who sent the money to peter lok.

    6. I will say that the Slithering Horror was often more dangerous than Quenzar, if you didn't have hand grenades. It couldn't be bribed, and even with the Dragon Sword, it could easily kill you if you rolled low damage on a hit or two.

    Anywho still waiting on the Dungeons of the Unforgiven playthrough. Cheers, and merry christmas if I don't post again for a while.


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