Tuesday, January 18, 2022

WarWizard: Still Priming the Pump

 
You have to watch for those little "chest" icons as you walk, or else you miss treasure chests.

     
In Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King offers some advice about reading:
     
A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give . . . eventually.
     
This part is often quoted. What is usually left out of these quotes is the sentence that precedes it. It's the advice King's character gives to a young boy who worries that the book won't start giving: "Then don't finish it."
   
Games are the same way. I tend to mentally divide them into two groups: those I have to force myself to play and those I have to force myself to stop playing when it's time to go to bed. What I tend to forget is that almost all games start in the first category. The beginnings of games are always rough for me, the only exceptions being the rare occasions when I've loved a developer's previous games and its new one seems to use the same conventions. Most of the time, I dread the first few hours, but usually after that, the pump is primed the water starts flowing, and I get into that dopamine groove that we all crave. 
        
"At Calorman's, the friendships last long as the mountains stand."
    
WarWizard is, alas, one of those games that has me flailing the handle of the pump long after those initial hours. Every session is a chore. I simply cannot figure out a path through the game that makes any kind of sense. This is a danger with open-world games, but usually there's some kind of hint about where to go first, or some "introductory area" that gets the player used to the game's conventions. Here, I thought it would be the quest given by the duke in the closest city to the beginning, but if the area he sends you to is the easiest, I don't want to know what the hardest looks like.
   
The most frustrating part of WarWizard is the slow rate of progression. In most RPGs, even if you spend a lot of time bumbling about (the original Might and Magic comes to mind), at least you're amassing gold, equipment, and experience. This game's approach severely mutes that sense of progress. It doesn't have traditional levels, and the number of combats you need to fight to gain your next level of proficiency with a weapon is nuts. (I believe I needed 750 experience points to reach proficiency Level 1 with a sword, and every hit gives you like 3.) Things might start to improve once I can cast spells, but I've only just now gotten enough gold that I can afford a single scroll. It doesn't help that you can't keep selling looted items to shops, which would otherwise be a reliable way of making money, because their display cases fill up after three or four sales, and then they won't accept any more items. The result of this lack of development is that it's rare that I can fight two battles in a row without having to visit a temple to heal in between, and it's hard to see that situation changing soon.
   
I did finish outlining the continent and its road network, which is something like 100 x 140, although for all I know the seas extend farther in one or more directions, perhaps even wrapping around. There are islands with cities that I can't reach, so I assume some kind of boat transportation is later possible.
        
Where I stand with the game world. The game starts int he northeast. The dungeon I spent most of this session trying to explore is in the middle of the red area in the north-center.
             
Both the indoor and outdoor maps have two types of enemies and NPCs. The first type is fixed, and you can see their icons as you approach. The second type are random; they have no icon, but when you step into their square, an image pops up in the lower-right of the game screen, next to the compass. If you step off the square without engaging them, you've lost them. If you turn random encounters off, the only way you ever fight random enemies is if you pause long enough in movement to watch for them to pop up, then hit the "Combat" button. The notification doesn't distinguish between enemies and NPCs, so I suppose it's best to try to talk first.
    
Anyway, the outer world has two places in which enemy icons appear in the environment. One is in the northeast. There are about seven of them blocking some kind of castle. They look like giants and demons, so I assume this is where the endgame is going to take place. The second place is a single serpentine enemy guarding a bridge in the northwest. Until I can get past him, I suppose it's not impossible that the world extends a lot farther in that direction, but given the shape of everything else, it seems unlikely.
      
A bunch of fixed monsters guard a castle. I assume this is the endgame.
    
At this point, my map is complete enough that I don't feel the need to do any more mapping. I'll fill in some of the other bits when I get to a point that I need to explore for more cities or dungeons, but otherwise I got what I needed: a basic shape of the world, its road network, and its major cities.
    
The main quest isn't that hard in concept: you have to find nine artifacts to defeat whatever evil has taken root in Aladain (the location of the monster-guarded castle discussed above). Most of them are going to be found in one of the land's dungeons, and a hint to those locations is going to be given to the player by the different kingdoms' leaders. The duke closest to the beginning, Bendor, sends you to "the swamps to the south east," although I'm pretty sure he means southwest, as there are no swamps to the southeast. In the swamps to the southwest, there is a dungeon called the Caves of Anbari, which transitions at some point to the Caves of Kolin. The Caves of Kolin exit to an outdoor area that I'm pretty sure is within a mountain range whose outside edges I mapped. There's a third dungeon accessible from here called the Lair of the Ogre King.
        
An ogre blocks a tunnel in the Caves of Kolin.
    
My attempts to explore all three of these areas have been sporadic. The caves are full of fixed parties of lizardmen, ghouls, and ogres. While the composition of these parties is immutable, the quantity seems to be based on a random number between 1 and 8. My party can reliably defeat one ogre, three lizardmen, and or four ghouls. If I walk into one of the fixed enemies and get more than that, I almost certainly die and have to reload. On the reload, I may or may not get luckier. Even when I'm "lucky," my party is usually so wounded after the combat that I have to retreat for healing. You can see why progress has been slow. Fortunately, fixed enemies that you kill don't respawn, so I am making at least some progress.
        
The party got lucky here, with just one enemy.
    
I decided to try adding some spellcasters to the party, but that didn't really help. The spells that arcane spellcasters get in the early levels don't offer much assistance. In Levels 1-2, the sorcerer gets "Tongues" (translates languages) and "Protection 1" (works only on the spellcaster) and the magician gets "Bring Food 1" and "Poison." None of them are game-changers in combat. I can't even figure out how to use "Poison." When I cast it in combat, the game pops up with an error message that I don't understand. The spell isn't even mentioned in the manual.
       
I don't know what this is asking.
      
The combat system sounds good on paper, but small interface issues make it somewhat annoying in practice. For instance, making each body part have its own hit points isn't a bad idea, but it only really makes sense if each body part also has a different number of hit points and a different chance of hitting. Whether to go for the head, torso, or arms ought to be a tactical decision: Do I go for the critical hit that has a low chance of hitting (head), the easy hit that only leaves the enemy slightly disabled (limbs), or the center-of-mass hit which will almost surely connect but not do as much critical damage (torso)? Instead, there's essentially no reason not to go for the default (torso) since it has the same number of hit points and same chance of hitting as the head.
   
But even if you're going to use the default, the game still requires you to select the enemy and hit "target." The latter can be done from the keyboard but the former must be done with the mouse, unless you want to use "Next" and "Last" to cycle through enemies, which never goes in a sensible order. So if you've been moving your character with the numberpad or arrows (right hand), you have to take your hand off the keys and move it to the mouse to do targeting. The game could have made the entire thing much easier by allowing you to move into enemies and thus automatically execute the default attack, which is what you're going to do 90% of the time anyway. 
   
The most annoying part of combat, though, is having to acknowledge enemy attacks. When enemies attack you, a message window pops up on the screen to tell you the results, and you have to click "Okay" or hit ENTER to get it to go away. For most enemies, this will happen two or three times in succession, and when facing a party of enemies, you have to do this repeatedly every round. 
       
Why couldn't this just appear in the message window?
        
Rewards have been so meager that I rejoice at every couple dozen gold pieces or stack of food. In addition to the loot they carry, enemies are often standing on treasure chests--you have to watch for that little icon in the lower-right corner--although a lot of these are mysteriously empty. These chests might show up in random terrain, too, so it makes sense to explore the dungeon slowly and try to hit every square.
     
I break into a chest and find it empty. Is it because i broke in?
      
Miscellaneous discoveries:
    
  • I appreciate that the game makes use of the keyboard, but the choice of keys is often annoying. Some screens have you leave them with ESC, some with (R)eturn, and some with (L)eave. The latter is particularly annoying because I usually have my right hand on the numberpad for movement. ESC could have easily served as the default key to back out of a screen.
  • In the Caves of Anbari, I met a warrior who said he was there searching for treasure. I abandoned a "woodsman" and got the warrior to join my party. Curiously, his icon remained behind in the caves, and I think I could have gotten three copies of this warrior if I'd tried.
  • There are several locked doors in the Caves of Kolin, and my success rate at picking locks is at 0%. Lockpicks come in various levels, and I guess I need a more advanced one. I haven't been able to bash down any doors, either, although I have been able to bash open chests. 
  • The lizardmen attack with +1 swords in combat but never seem to leave them behind when they die.
  • There is a dwarf in the Caves of Kolin and a halfling in the city of Caer Ereth that I can't talk with because I don't know their languages. I need to find a magic shop selling "Tongues" or enlist a magician with that spell.
      
If this dwarf is going to live in a human city, he should learn to speak human.
      
  • Food goes at a ridiculous rate. Every time I think I have plenty, it's only about 20 minutes before the game is warning me that I'm low. Every time I think I'm making progress financially, I have to waste it on food.
  • I ended my first session with a couple of cleric NPCs who joined me for free. I can't remember for the life of me where I got them. The only cleric I've found in this game wants 500 gold pieces to join my party.
  • An NPC in Middlegate tells me that "near Caer Ereth lies a hidden valley surrounded by impenetrable mountains." There's supposed to be a settlement in the valley. I can see the mountains that the NPC is talking about, but I don't know what mechanisms the game will later allow to cross them.
  • None of the NPCs in this game seem to have any names. You just see their class and race. If they join you, you get to name them.
        
A hint from an NPC. I know his race, class, and how much damage each of his body parts will take, but not his name.
       
In a recent comment, Rangerous raised the question of whether the game can even be won. He experienced an issue in which a wizard told him to take his key from a desk, but there was no key in the desk. I haven't found that encounter, but I faced a similar one in the city of Kaleth. There, a nomad told me that he knew who I was and that he would help me find a piece of armor. "Take the key from my chest and use it to see the Nomad Lords." I assume that he's talking about a locked door in the same city.
  
The nomad is standing in a room with two squares. Both have "chest" icons, indicating treasure in the room. But one of them is empty, and the other won't let me search it because you "cannot search inhabited rooms!" I guess that means that I have to kill him if I want the key. I don't know whether this is a game-breaker. It's possible that I can pick or bash the door to get to the Nomad Lords, and it's possible that I can find the piece of armor without their help.
          
Then how do I get the key he's offering?!
      
Rangerous attributed the problem to the versions of the game online having already been played, thus resulting in changes to the world state that would require a fresh copy to overwrite. I'm not sure whether that's the issue. I noticed that each saved game is actually a folder that has multiple files, with sub-folders for every place you've visited. (This is in contrast to a single saved game file containing all the character and world data within it.) This suggests that changes to the world state are saved with each saved game and not within the original files. But when it comes to programming, I don't know what I'm talking about, so take all that with a grain of salt. In any event, as nice as it would be to have an excuse to mark the game "NP" and move on, I'm not there yet.
    
In between forays into the Caves of Anbari and Kolin, I've been visiting the various cities in the world and taking notes on their services and NPCs. Most cities are pretty boring. They'll have some combination of services (weapons, armor, inn, pub, healer, potions, clothing, scrolls, lockpicks, stables) and maybe one or two NPCs. Capitals have a ruler hiding somewhere, though often behind a locked door. The NPCs give hints, but they don't seem as vital here as they do in the Ultima games. Maybe I'll change my mind as I meet more.
    
I'll keep pumping away, hoping that the game transitions into one that's tough to put down. I know I'll get some comments encouraging me to follow Stephen King's advice and quit if I don't like it, but this one is so poorly documented online that I feel it deserves some extra effort.
   
Time so far: 18 hours

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Game 444: Towers (1993)

 
Notice there is no subtitle in this version.
      
Towers
United States
JV Enterprises (developer); published as shareware
Released 1993 for Atari ST, 1994 for DOS, 1999 for Game Boy Color
Date Started: 12 January 2022
      
It might be derivative of other titles, but Towers offers the most interesting set of platforms that we've seen so far. It's not many games that went from the Atari ST to DOS, let alone from there to the Game Boy Color. The sequel gets even weirder: it was released the following year for the Atari Falcon (a high-end ST) and the under-served Atari Jaguar console. You don't often find a developer with that kind of programming flexibility.

The developers in this case are Jag Jaeger and Vince Valenti, two University of Nevada at Las Vegas students who teamed up in 1989 to form JV Enterprises, later JV Games. The company still has an active web site and released its most recent game in 2019 (a mobile word game called Friends & Secrets). Jaeger and Valenti are still running the company, although they've also worked other technology jobs over the years, presumably to pay the bills when game sales weren't enough. The company's early releases, like Towers were all shareware, or rather what they called "tryware": you got a full-featured version of the game, and if you liked it, you sent them $15 for the manual. I have written to the company asking about the manual but have received no reply as yet.
        
I don't know whether this image is from a film or whether some SCA members got together.
     
Fortunately, the backstory is told in title cards before the game begins. A company of warriors is sailing to the distant land of Diratose to join the fight against Sargon, "the man in black." A storm shipwrecks them on an island called Lamini, or the Land of Towers. The land is governed under a feudal system, with lords living in towers of varying heights according to their wealth. The shipwreck survivors are healed by the locals. To survive, they take jobs for the sheriff, who eventually tells them that Lord Baniff hasn't been heard from in weeks. Two of the companions set out on a mission to get an audience with Baniff and find out if he's all right. The entrance collapses shortly after they enter his tower. The Game Boy version of the game has a subtitle--Lord Baniff's Deceit--that serves as something of a spoiler. This subtitle does not appear in the Atari ST or DOS versions.
   
The player chooses from among four companions: Garand, Tasler, Merton, and Andros. Garand is described as a warrior, Merton a wizard, and Andros an acrobat. Tasler doesn't have a class in his description; he's just an able young man with "a strong will to live." I don't think the selection really matters anyway. Clicking the button next to their portraits rerolls the game's attributes--strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, hit points, and mana--and the rolls seem to be random (8 to 19 for the main attributes) regardless of the stated background. Once in the game, any character can use any weapons, armor, and magic.
        
The four playable characters.
      
As the game begins inside the wreckage of the entrance, the experienced player will immediately see its Ultima Underworld (1992) inspiration. The paper doll character looks nearly identical, it has the same sorts of inventory slots, and those slots are represented by circles rather than (for most games) squares. Health and mana are represented as containers of liquid, although here they look more like thermometer stems than potion containers. The game arguably improves upon the Underworld interface by shrinking its message window to make space for its spell syllables, so that the player doesn't have to leave the inventory view to cast spells. Even many of the item graphics are clearly based on Underworld. There are no "Talk," "Look," or "Use" options in Towers, alas, meaning probably no NPCs and no puzzles of any complexity.
 
Guess I can't go back that way.
 
The comparable interface from Ultima Underworld.
       
Combat is a bit different, as we'll discuss, but the biggest difference is in movement. It would have been impressive if two college kids had successfully replicated the continuous 3D perspective, and indeed they didn't (although they seem to have figured it out for Towers II a year later). The game uses tiled movement with four fixed views from each position. You cannot look up or down. You can interact with the world by clicking in the view window; this is how you pick up items and push buttons. For combat, though, you don't swipe with the mouse like in Underworld; you click a single "attack" button in the lower right. Doing so does produce an Underworld-like animation as your weapon thrusts outward. Overall, though, the movement and combat system (as well as the buttons and levers that you interact with) feel more like Dungeon Master (1987) than Underworld. The creators were clearly inspired by both games.
        
Facing a little goblin on the first level.
      
But they do have an unexpected treat in store for the 1992 player--one that I unfortunately cannot experience. You may recall that I said that two characters enter the tower. While the player controls only one character, two players can hook up by modem to tackle the dungeon together. Such a feature is rare even by 1993. I have no idea how it worked technically; I suspect I would need the manual to successfully replicate it, even if I figured out how to set up DOSBox with a modem.
   
Fortunately, unlike (say) Bloodwych, cooperative play doesn't seem to be terribly necessary. The early game, at least, is remarkably easy. For this session, I explored the first two levels, each 24 x 24, but using the "worm tunnel" approach, and with a lot of unused space. The button and lever puzzles have been simple, with buttons usually opening the nearest closed door. There were about half a dozen enemies per level, none of them terribly dangerous. Damage in this game is easily healed by resting. A hunger system discourages you from resting too often, but food has so far been plentiful (enough to feed two people!).
    
My map of Level 1. I'm bothered by the empty areas, but I've checked every wall for secret doors.
      
I've found equipment in little piles on the floor, usually with a blood smear or a pile of bones nearby to indicate that they came from previous adventurers. The character starts with absolutely nothing (odd given the backstory) but soon accumulates leather armor and boots, food, throwing items like rocks, a bag (which you can right-click on to get more inventory spaces), scrolls, potions, and simple weapons like clubs, daggers, light axes, and short swords. The message window gives you no feedback on how much damage your weapon is doing.
  
A pile of loot.
      
You also see no names for your foes. So far, I've faced three of them: little goblins in loincloths, something that looks like a "mud elemental," and skeletons. In combat, you click the narrow "attack" icon to thrust your weapon outward. Unlike Underworld, but like Dungeon Master, there's a cool-down period after each attack. You get a little puff of carnage when the enemy takes damage. Enemies run away when they get low on hit points, forcing you to chase them down.
    
Hitting a skeleton with an axe.
     
The magic system uses syllables like Underworld, but you don't have to find runes to go with them. Instead, you find scrolls which tell you how to string together the syllables to make spells. So far, I've found two: ME RA KI ("Magic Missile") and KELE KI ("Fear"). There are two slots for you to prepare spells, which you then cast by clicking on them. My spells fail about half the time I try them, and I'm not sure what governs this.
  
The character has a level, but in two dungeon levels, I didn't level-up once. I'm not sure if it happens automatically or if there's something that I need to do. There's no separate "experience" statistic, so I'm not sure if you get experience solely from defeating foes or from other actions, too, like casting non-combat spells or solving puzzles.
    
A "mud elemental" approaches. I have two "Magic Missiles" waiting to cast (the ME RA KIs in the lower-right).
   
On Level 1, I found a message scroll in one pile of gore. "I have been tricked!" it claimed. "Twas better to rot in prison then [sic] to die here." A scroll on the second floor offered: "Our master is as good with strategy as he is with sorcery."
        
Finding a message on the first level.
    
The first level ended in a door unlocked by a nearby keyhole. I had to find my way there by "solving" very easy button puzzles to open a series of doors along the way. One of them led to an area with the key. There were a few secret areas, found by simply walking into walls, but all of them just led to some extra treasure. Nothing essential was behind a secret door. This was true of Level 2 as well.
 
The second level has been more of the same, although with multiple keyed doors, each opening to a different key. I found the stairs to Level 3 before I'd opened all the doors. I think I've explored the level exhaustively, so I assume that I'll find my way to those areas via alternate stairways or pits from above.
      
Opening a locked door on Level 2.
       
That brings me to another aspect of the game. It follows the Dungeon Master tradition of giving some of the areas open ceilings that correspond to pits or trenches on the upper levels. There were some places on Level 2 where I could fall back down to Level 1, although none that led to new areas.
 
This "trench" on Level 2 . . .
. . . leads to this corridor on Level 1.
       
Unfortunately, this destroyed a theory I'd been developing. Near the stairway between Level 1 and Level 2 is a little placard that reads "E2-E4." There's a similar one on the next level that reads "E7-E5." I thought this meant I was skipping two levels on the first stairway, but that doesn't make sense with the pits, and it also doesn't make sense because the second placard should therefore start with "E4." Whatever is going on with the placards, it's clear that there are more ways than stairs to transition between levels, which might open up some of the "empty" areas that I mapped on the first two levels. Either that, or there are types of secret doors other than ones that you walk directly into.
  
I don't know what this means.
     
Other notes:
   
  • The game is almost all mouse-driven. The numberpad works for movement, but to attack, pick up items, activate buttons, and cast spells, you have to use the mouse. It is possible that there are keyboard shortcuts I haven't found, though. I haven't tried every key in every situation.
  • Items of armor go directly on the paper doll. Other items of inventory go in the various slots. One mystery is gauntlets. I've found two pairs--one regular, one Gauntlets of Strength--but I can't figure out how to use them. They don't go directly on the body. If I put them in the "weapon" slot, my fists do change appearance to be armored, so I suppose they simply might be alternate "weapons."
  • In addition to doors that you can open, there are occasional windows that let you see into adjacent rooms without giving you the ability to pass through.
     
I'm not sure either Dungeon Master or Ultima Underworld had these.
    
  • Most of the doors have buttons on both sides, even when you could never have gotten to one side without opening the other. I suppose this would help if you were fleeing enemies. 
  • The game freezes about once every 15 minutes. Regular saves are vital.
       
So far, Towers has been a perfectly pleasant game if not particularly challenging. It's a nice contrast to WarWizard, for which I can't seem to make any progress because I don't know what to do, and Angband, for which I can't seem to make any progress because the game is endless. It will be nice of Mr. J or Mr. V responds with the manual (and, of course, a few other insights), but so far I've been able to figure it out. 
    
Time so far: 3 hours
   

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Game 443: Moria (1986)

 
The title screen/main menu.
      
Moria
France
Independently developed and published (presumably) as freeware
Released 1986 for DOS
Date Started: 9 January 2022
Date Ended: 10 January 2022
Total Hours: 11 (about 8 characters)
Difficulty: Very Hard (5.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
   
This French roguelike is listed as Moria 2 on several sites, and that is its file name, at least in the version I found, but the title screen just calls it Moria. The "2" wouldn't really make sense, as it has nothing to do with the 1983 roguelike (which wasn't available on the microcomputer until 1988 anyway). Instead, it's an adaptation of Rogue--to the extent that it even has the same attributes and lists them at the bottom of the screen in the same order.
    
The programmer either wanted to do something different or didn't know how to program the rooms and corridors of the original, so Moria's dungeon levels are all tiny rooms and doorways. I feel like I've seen this style in some previous game, but I can't quite place it.
 

 
   
Beyond the nature of the map, these are the changes from Rogue:
    
  • Moria has no "search" command. There are no secret doors to find anyway. There are traps; you identify them automatically when you're one step away.
  • Moria has only 15 levels to Rogue's near-30. They're larger and packed with more monsters and treasures, though, so the game feels about the same size.
  • In line with the change in the name of the game, Tolkien monsters are introduced, including Uruk-hai, Nazgûl, Mewlips, and "whargs." The "floating eye" monster from Rogue is specifically re-cast as an Eye of Sauron. More on Tolkien influences below.
      
A balrog turns out to be Sauron.
       
  • Because of the additional monsters, some classic Rogue monsters don't appear, including the aquator, the medusa, the ice monster, the venus flytrap, and the rattlesnake. The game thus avoids some of the more annoying status effects from Rogue. There are still fairies who steal your items and thieves who steal your gold, replacing nymphs and leprechauns in the original.
  • The commands are generally translated; for instance, you a)bandonner un objet rather than d)rop it, and you b)oire une potion rather than q)uaff it. There are similar changes to the letters that represent monsters. This isn't universal, though, as (for instance) "T" is still used to throw an object, and the floating eye is still represented as an "E" rather than an "O." Although most of the text of the game is in French, when you first start a game, it inexplicably asks you in English to "Wait a little minute, while I dig the Moria."
  • The game offers some "graphics" instead of the all-ASCII approach taken by the original Rogue. The main character uses the same smiley face icon as the 1985 Epyx re-release of Rogue and the 1986 Rogue Clone. There are also characters for potions and armor, but everything else is a letter or keyboard symbol. 
  • You cannot move diagonally.
  • You can go up stairways to return to earlier levels, and the game does remember their layout and treasures.
  • Your position is randomized when you arrive on each level (going up or down), although the stairways remain in fixed locations.
  • In addition to hunger, the game has a "thirst" mechanic by which you must occasionally drink a potion whether you need it or not. There's a special "thirst-quenching" potion (désaltérante) added to the game to help in such situations, the only equipment addition that I saw.

The game begs me to drink.
      
  • Perhaps most important, the game has no "save" command. At least, it has none that I can find. None is listed among the list of commands, and I tried every key not listed with a specific command, with both SHIFT and CTRL, and found nothing that worked.
  • Changes to the endgame covered below.
       
Everything else is pretty much the same as Rogue, including the "character creation" process (just a name), the starting attributes (12 life, 16 strength), starting equipment (mace, mail, bow and arrows, food), and the different types of inventory items you can find. As usual, potions have colors randomized for each new game, wands have different materials, and scrolls have difference nonsense words. You can experiment with these items and hope you identify them or you can wait for Scrolls of Identification (although you have to test scrolls to find even them). When you die or win, your score is calculated based on your experience, the dungeon level you reached, and the gold you amassed.
 
"Character creation."

 
   
What I often forget about Rogue is that it's far harder than NetHack. It gives you fewer tactical and strategic avenues. The food system (and in this variant, the thirst system) makes it almost impossible to grind. Enemies rarely drop loot, so you're stuck with whatever seeded in the levels in the first place. A winning game depends enormously on the random numbers producing an ideal set of equipment.
    
Moria manages to make Rogue even harder in the endgame. Monsters that you never even want to try to take on in a melee fight start appearing around Level 8. They include dragons, Nazgûl, balrogs, and galgals. ( (A galgal is a type of Celtic burial mound. The term was used by Francis Ledoux in his 1973 French translation of The Lord of the Rings for "barrow"; "barrow wights" became êtres des galgals.) The nature of the corridors in this game makes it hard to get away from enemies, so you end up relying a lot on limited Scrolls of Teleportation, Wands of Slow Monster, Wands of Confusion, and Potions of Speed. Scrolls of Mapping are a god-send in trying to find the stairways down. (Stairways down look exactly like stairways up, which is another annoyance.)
    
A mid-game equipment list.
       
On Level 10, Sauron appears, disguised as a balrog until you get close to him. I suppose he technically might be defeatable with a really high weapon and armor enhancement, but I couldn't even come close. He almost always hits, and he can easily kill a high-level character in a couple of hits. He can also pass through walls. You want to spend as little time on the level as possible.
        
Sauron chases me. He's a smiley face just like me, but our colors are reversed.
   
On Level 15, you find the object of your quest: a Silmaril. Morgoth appears on this level and, much like Sauron, is either invincible or nigh-invincible. You just want to get out of his way.
      
I find this game's Amulet of Yendor.
    
Rogue is pretty easy once you get the Amulet of Yendor. You just make your way back to the surface by retracing your steps. The monsters keep their original level difficulties as you do, so once you clear the bottom levels, you're home free. Moria has a couple of screws to twist instead. First, once you pick up the Silmaril, your hit points stop automatically regenerating as you move. You can only heal by finding (rare) Potions of Healing. Second, digestion starts occurring a double-speed. Thirst may come on even faster than that. I died from thirst more than from enemies trying to get back to the surface. Finally, hard enemies continue to dog you all the way back to the top, long after you've left the levels on which they originally spawned.
   
Winning doesn't even get you the congratulatory message about the Fighter's Guild that you got in Rogue. Instead, you just get a message that says: "You have won. Bravo," along with the leaderboard.
      
You couldn't even spare an exclamation point?
      
This is one of those games where it's hard to imagine that anyone has ever won it legitimately. Even if you're extremely lucky with loot, there are just so many situations in which you find yourself in a dead-end with a dragon (or, even worse, Sauron or Morgoth) behind you and no more Scrolls of Teleportation. A winning character would have to get his weapon and armor up to around +7 and reach Level 15 with a few Potions of Healing, at least four Potions of Thirst-Quenching, and half a dozen Scrolls of Teleportation. (There's a Ring of Teleportation, too, but I couldn't get it to work.) You want to make sure you find all the "up" staircases on the way down so you're not looking for them while your health isn't regenerating. You'd also want to mark them by dropping some equipment next to them so that you don't fight your way through a horde of enemies only to find you've reached the "down" staircase. Caching unwanted potions near these stairways would be a good idea, because when you're dying of thirst, you'll be grateful for even that Potion of Hallucination.
           
Morgoth hits me as I try to flee him and find the up staircase, far to my northeast. (I've revealed half the level with a Scroll of Mapping.)
      
I didn't try hard to win legitimately, but Moria also makes it nearly impossible to win illegitimately. Most roguelikes allow you to save, but they enforce permadeath by deleting the saved game file when you reload it (or sometimes when you die). Moria enforces permadeath by not offering save feature in the first place. To conquer it, I downloaded a variant of DOSBox that allows for save states, but it was almost more trouble than it was worth. I found that the states would usually open reliably in the same DOSBox session that they were created, but they almost never worked (they would open, but no key commands would work) if DOSBox itself was closed and re-opened after creating them. I don't like the idea of save states with DOS games anyway, so I deleted the program after I finished the game.
   
It did get me through this one, but with so many reloads I don't even want to try to guess. I wasn't trying to impress anyone with this one; I was just trying to document the endgame. 
   
In a GIMLET, I give it:
   
  • 0 points for no game world.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. Creation is only a name, and development is just more max hit points.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. I'm so tired of Tolkien references. A few of the other foes have some interesting abilities.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There's no magic system, and combat comes down to a couple of options.
  • 4 points for equipment. The variety of usable items is always a strength in roguelikes.
   
A Potion of Strength always brightens the day!
     
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are functional enough for a roguelike. Sounds are just boops. The interface couldn't be easier to master, even with the commands in French.
        
The easy-to-master command list.
      
  • 3 points for gameplay. There's a certain replayability to any roguelike, and some level of difficulty is part of the fun. This one goes a bit too far and lasts a bit too long.
   
That's a final score of 17, which is 7 points lower than I gave Rogue. I'm rating them 12 years apart, but there are also balance issues with Moria that creep into enough categories that its overall score is hurt.

Moria is credited on the title screen to an "AJM." I have no idea who that is. If anyone knows please share. I can't even figure the nation of origin. "France" is a guess based on the language and what a couple of web sites say, but they're probably guessing, too. It could as easily be Québécois, Belgian, or Algerian.
   
I'm still playing Angband but making such slow progress it might be a while longer before I have an entry's worth of material. Moria might not be a great game, but it least it has a sense of decency when it comes to the length.

 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

WarWizard: Mapping from Above

 
      
My map of the game world so far.
         
The above is all I've accomplished in about eight more hours of WarWizard gameplay. I can't tell you how much I hate trying to map top-down games. There's no easy way to do it. I've tried the "stitch together screenshots" method, most notably with Shadow Keep (1991), but that takes forever, and if you're not pixel-perfect in matching overlapping or adjacent areas, you create errors that compound fast.
   
Of course, the same is true of the alternate method, which I'm using here: trying to replicate things tile by tile. I typically do it in rows. The WarWizard screen is 11 x 7 tiles with the character in the center. I start in a random part of the world and map all 77 tiles around me, then add one row or column at a time as I move. This method can result in essentially the same problem. When you finish your circumference of the world and the tiles don't match, finding and fixing the source of the problem is about four times as difficult as in a first-person game.
   
My map of 2088: The Cryllan Mission (1989). This one was more difficult because the world wraps.
       
Mapping is even harder in WarWizard than the typical tiled game because the graphics are advanced enough that the tiles are drawn not to look like tiles. There isn't a "water" tile and a "grass" tile the way there is in, say, early Ultima games. There are instead, for instance, "75% grass that blends into a 25% water" tiles, "mostly grass but with a hint of water in the southeast corner" tiles, and "half-grass, half-forest" tiles. I don't have the capability to figure out how to map those literally, so I have to pick the dominant feature, but that creates issues. For instance, the creators often use four "mostly desert but a hint of water in the corner" tiles stitched together in a cube to make it appear that there's a pond where the four corners come together. That pond functionally isn't "there"; it doesn't impede movement, as each for the four tiles is "really" a grass tile. Do I not map it all? If not, I lose an important navigational landmark. Do I make them all water? That makes the pond more like a lake, and suggests I can't step on those squares. Do I choose one of the four squares at random? That creates confusion that might screw up my map later.
        
This "pond" is actually four grass tiles with bits of water in the corners. It doesn't really "exist," as I can walk on all four tiles. Do I map it or not?
       
There are lots of other ways to make mistakes. I'm mapping new rows and columns when they show up on the edge of the screen, either (in this game) three or five tiles away. Sometimes I misjudge size and distance. You can see it in the map above on the eastern shore. I'm relatively sure that the coastline is supposed to be even all the way down, but something I did gave an extra column starting about 25% from the top. Probably there were a line of "half-water, half-land" squares that I interpreted as "water" at the top and "land" further down.
     
I probably would never have become a CRPG addict if I had to do this for every game. Fortunately, having to map a top-down game is a rare occurrence, as there are lots of ways that developers relieve you of the responsibility. These include:
   
  • Making a first-person game instead. First-person games tend to be easier to map because you're only mapping a couple of squares at a time. They tend to occur in areas of fixed size (e.g., the Gold Box's 16 x 16), so it's hard to go too far astray. Most important, they tend to be smaller. For WarWizard, I've already mapped coordinates up to 126 x 83,  which by itself is over 10,000 squares, and I haven't even found the northern and western shores. Wizardry, in contrast is only 4,000 squares total.
  • Making the maps small and easily-navigable. Ultima is a good example of this. Although its game world is a relatively large 168 x 168, it is organized into small islands that are easy to explore. There aren't a lot of natural barriers to block you otherwise, so once you have a hovercar, you can explore the entire world in strips.
  • Providing a world map. Even a rough outline of a continent is generally enough to prevent me from having to make my own maps. Once I have a sense of size, shape, and relative distances, I can divide the map into smaller areas and identify an optimal exploration pattern for each, annotating towns, castles, and dungeons as I find them.
      
 
One of my early maps of Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991). It wasn't important that I map everything--just enough to identify key locations and help me figure out an exploration pattern for other areas.
     
  • Provide a mechanism for determining coordinates. Even if the game doesn't come with a world map, some method of identifying your coordinates in the game world is usually enough to keep me from having to make a comprehensive map. I might still throw together a basic map anyway to plot cities and dungeons and judge relative distances, but I usually don't feel like I have to map everything, particularly since you don't need an unbroken line of terrain from one point to another to ensure accuracy. Fate: Gates of Dawn (1990) is a good example. Although that was a first-person game, it had a world the size of a top-down game. I mapped more of it than was necessary, but I could have gotten by with just mapping key locations and a little of the terrain around them.
  • Have an in-game automap. This is the most obvious solution, of course, but it's rare for this era.
       
I don't know how many CRPGs I've encountered that have lacked all of these features, but it's probably fewer than 12. And because I find mapping top-down games so annoying, I'm usually willing to take a peek at someone else's map when I get lost. So if we're talking about games that lack all of these features and are so obscure that no one has posted a map online, we're down to the single digits. Unfortunately, WarWizard is one of them.
       
As you can see from the map I've already created, however, WarWizard''s world is anything but simple. The land is riven with mountain ranges and waterways that prevent easy point-to-point exploration. Mountains and forests block your view of what's beyond. Important cities and dungeons are found in the middle of dense swamps and forests at the ends of hidden mountain trails. Finally, the hunger and fatigue mechanics discourage you from getting lost and having to do much backtracking. This is the sort of game for which you do need an accurate map.
         
This is what happens when you put cartography above everything else.
       
Unfortunately, my focus on mapping destroyed the other progress I had made with the game. While mapping, I was only concerned about uncovering the next row of tiles, not keeping my party fed and healthy. They started to starve and eventually died. I simply shrugged, reloaded, and went in a different direction. But since the game saves periodically as you play, the periods I could explore after reloading got shorter and shorter, until at last my only saved game was a party literally steps away from death.
  
When I do start again, I will probably see if I can make something of the places I've already discovered rather than continue with the map. I'm pretty sure I've identified the only dungeon "southeast" of Caer Tiran, which should let me finish at least the first quest. 

Do any of you have solutions for mapping or navigating top-down games that I'm overlooking?

Time so far: 11 hours