Saturday, December 24, 2022

BloodNet: It's Christmas Time in the City

I'm off the "naughty" list.
BloodNet is a harbinger for a type of game that is going to become increasingly common in the 1990s. It's so plot-heavy that it's tough to write about. I can't imagine that any previous title has featured as much dialogue. (If any game came close, it was the same team's Challenge of the Five Realms.) There's no way to summarize it without losing a lot of the details. 
Summarizing it is particularly difficult for me now, because I'm writing over two weeks after playing the part of the game that this review covers. I got busy with end-of-semester stuff and wasn't able to stick to my usual schedule, which put me behind The Adventure Gamer's coverage. For all these reasons, forgive me if I elide a bit as I try to piece together what happened.
When I wrote last time, Ransom Stark had just completed a burglary at TransTech headquarters and made off with a bunch of stuff from different floors that other people wanted. The party's inventory was bursting with that stuff, plus various weapons and armor. Here we come to my first problem with the game: figuring out the best weapons. I've mostly been trying to equip people with weapons that match their highest skills, but I don't know if that's the right approach. If a character has a firearms skill of 75 and a "high-tech" skill of 64, I'm not sure that means that a 9mm pistol does more damage than a laser rifle. Normally, you'd check this sort of thing by comparing combat damage, but this is complicated in BloodNet since a) combat is so rare, and b) weapon damage is affected by type of opponent and armor. More on that in a bit.
I thought being a dragon would be cool, but I just look like Figment.
I had saved the game in Deirdre Tackett's old lab, so before doing anything else, I jacked into cyberspace. I knew I was going to have to give up my new Dragon Soul Box eventually, and I wanted to experience it.
The Black Aggots gang had given me the WELL code ANTIBODY, asking me to find a drug database there. Otherwise, they would have to take Van Helsing's contract to kill me in exchange for the same. I went to that address, but I could only find yet another piece of C. Flyer's mind, not any database. Granted, the latticework is so visually complicated that I could have missed it, but I clicked around almost everywhere.
It doesn't help that random shapes are constantly floating around.
I then tried to go to TTHEAT, TransTech's security hub, whose address I'd received from the Doom Pilots. I immediately got a warning about "incompatible hardware" and got booted out. Finally, I met another avatar named Dreg, an old friend of Stark's, who gave me a program for crashing cyborgs. I found yet another C. Flyer piece in there somewhere, too. I spent a while wandering from screen to screen looking for the Lost Kids and the Incubus program they're protecting, but I had no luck. I probably need another WELL code for that.
Why would you design your security interface to look like that?
With my sack overflowing with toys, I set about the city distributing them, to varying degrees of success:
  • Central Park: I had intended to give the fiber-optic cable to the "mayor" of shanty town, Kimba West, but he was completely gone. The second screen had been taken over by vampires, who attacked when I approached. Vampires are unkillable with normal weapons, so I had to reload.
  • Electric Anarchy: Phracktle K. Oss congratulated me for assassinating TransTech's security director. He gave me $10,000 and the TTHEAT password I already had.
It was an assassination, but it was a "nice, clean" one.
  • Also Electric Anarchy: Auntie Matter took the one of several TransTech security badges and gave me a Wrath Ray. 
It's becoming clear that there are multiple ways to accomplish the same things in BloodNet. There are several quest items that you can either find or buy. Several quests give you the same information. There are also items like the Wrath Ray that you can either find, buy, or assemble from parts. This is all a good thing.
  • Also Electric Anarchy: Phree Thaught took the Dragon Soul box in exchange for a canister of sleeping gas. Oddly, even after giving it to her, I still had the soul box in my decking unit, so I guess I didn't have to give it up after all.
There was a kid named Chuck hanging around with Electric Anarchy. I don't remember talking to him before. He asked for the list of Tackett's associates that I had looted from the security director, then introduced himself as one of Tackett's Lost Kids--the only one who didn't enter cyberspace permanently to guard Incubus. After Chuck programmed the WELL, Deirdre gave him an implant that made him forget its access code. He doesn't know how to retrieve that information, but he thinks that something is important about the large pendant that Deirdre was wearing the last time he saw her: "Deirdre never wore stuff like that." He joined the party. He has very poor combat skills but extremely high cyberskills. He also has 85 "Innocence," an attribute I can't imagine the use of.
Only in a fictional world would you find a correlation between heavy Internet presence and "innocence."
I couldn't equip Auntie Matter's Wrath Ray, so I took it to the Cybersurgery Group to see if Dr. Austin could implant it. He could. It goes on the head and somehow channels anger into a laser. I gave it to Stark.
It probably looks stupid, like an ioun stone.
  • Doom Pilots: Sis Konfigg took the Level 4 Security Cloak she wanted and gave me the access code to the Bank of New York: NYVAULT. 
  • St. Patrick's Cathedral: Mother Mary had asked me to meet her there ages ago. She was there with a Brother Complicitus, who explained that TransTech was trying to have them evicted from the last Catholic church in New York. TransTech had somehow acquired the deed. The threatening letters come from a William Dougan, assistant to Walter McCalaster. I picked up some crosses and holy water before heading out. I gave the cross to the high-faith Chuck.
I continue to be impressed with the game's novel approach to graphical perspective and style. Note that the "camera" in this scene seems to be pointing down from the middle of a chandelier.
At this point, I was just trying to complete my tour of the city's locations. The next location south was the Plaza Hotel and its Hellfire Club, to which I had received a pass in the last session. The Hellfire Club was confusing--multiple rooms with multiple NPCs. They seemed to be a mix of people cosplaying vampires and actual vampires. There were rumors of creepy practices in the back rooms.
A reporter named Eleanor Salem threatened to "out" me as a vampire unless I brought her a vial of blood from the back rooms. A vampirophile named Renfield (a Dracula reference) wanted to join the party, but I was full. An enemy of Van Helsing's named George Yatchisin gave me a TransTech security badge (too little, too late). In one back room, I found the aforementioned Walter McCalaster hanging around with what seemed to be some prostitutes. He just told me to leave when I talked to him.
An all-purpose dialogue option for Stark.
In another back room, there was some love triangle going on that seemed to be riffing on Gilda (1946). The woman in question was named Larisa, and she was slowly going mad. Her older husband, Braque Picaro, insisted on pumping both of them full of drugs to enhance their intimate experiences, while her younger lover, Griff Spater, insisted on using high-tech toys. Both blamed the other for Larisa's growing disaffection and insanity and wanted me to do something to "cure" her of the other's influences. I frankly didn't take good notes here and I hope it's just a silly side-quest.
That's going to come in handy.
Finally, I reached the "inner sanctum" of the Hellfire Club, where actual vampires mixed with people who thought they were just pretending to be vampires. Both types of people drank freely from the vials of animal blood scattered everywhere. I picked a few up and found that they reliably removed Stark's bloodlust without the need for an actual victim.
Right. "Just like a real vampire."
A vampire named Linda Blaue, who had converted to vampirism for her vampire lover, Gi Sang, offered me half an amulet that, coupled with the other half, could somehow lead to a reversal of vampirism. She said the other half was in the possession of someone named Wyche Gibbon. But Gi Sang, standing next to her, laughed at the idea that the amulet would work
One of the real vampires was Bertrand Foucault, the founder of the Hellfire Club. He said he had lived in Manhattan since 1801. "Not since the autumn of 1836 has anyone suspected that a vampire stalks Manhattan's streets," he said, so he's a bit annoyed that Van Helsing has created a bunch of new vampires, alerting everyone to their presence. "In a city of twenty million, he has actually created a vampire plague. His lack of restraint endangers all our kind." Rather than help me destroy Van Helsing, he said he wants a new machine created by TransTech that synthesizes human blood cells, allowing vampires to feed without killing. Whoever owns it could hide until things blow over. He said if I would get it for him, he'd share it with me, "and together we can wait out the storm."
Stark is as tactful as always.
I already had the device from my last visit to TransTech, so I gave it to him. Instead of upholding his end of the bargain, he immediately attacked. As he was a vampire, I was unable to damage him with any of my weapons, and he slowly destroyed my entire party. I had to reload.
Until I somehow get the soul blades from the Red Crosse Knights, the only weapons I have to fight vampires are a few stakes. There's something going on in combat that I don't understand. There's an option to "Choose Weapon" so that, theoretically, you can change weapons in the middle of combat, but the option never shows all of the weapons that I have. It does not show stakes when I have firearms equipped, and it doesn't even show all firearms. The only way I've been able to match the right weapon to the right foe is to reload after a failed combat and then equip myself with the right weapons before trying again. I don't know whether this is a bug in the game or whether I'm missing some interface element. One consequence of this is that I have no idea how I'm supposed to use grenades, as they are also not listed in the "Choose Weapon" dialogue.
Five of us take on the ancient vampire. I'm not sure what the difference is between "body" and "torso."
With stakes equipped, I was able to kill Foucault and then convince his contracted doctor, Gawesque, to inject me with the cells. My notes are confusing here, but I think I'm going to have to return to Gawesque every time I want a new injection, but as long as I can get back to the Hellfire Club periodically, I won't need to feed on any more humans. Plus, I have all those blood vials. I can't remember if I mentioned this before, but above a certain bloodlust percentage, the game continuously shrieks at you when you engage the icon menu. It will be nice not to have to live with that any more.
It would have been nice if these results were in a list rather than a paragraph.
All told, there were more NPCs and more text to read in the Hellfire Club alone than in most entire games. I probably only mentioned a third of the NPCs in this coverage. So it was a bit of a relief when I was back on the road again. I moved south to Bellevue Hospital and groaned to find another dozen or so NPCs in two rooms. According to a nurse, Karl Gavin, most of them had fried themselves in cyberspace. "We pump 'em full of muscle atrophy preventatives and give 'em therapy. What's the point? All the king's men aren't gonna be able to put these unlucky fools' minds back together again."
Another artful shot.
One of the unlucky fools was Charley Flyer, pieces of whose mind I'd been finding all over cyberspace. His wife Ellen sat by his side. I wasn't able to figure out how to do anything with them during this visit, but I'm not sure I have all the pieces. One of the chambers allowed party members to rest and heal--all except Stark, who apparently needs "a coffin lined with soil from his homeland." I picked up some medical devices and moved on.
I think the hospital room had more stuff to pick up than any room in the game so far.
Having now explored every location that the game has offered so far, I returned to TransTech to see if I could find William Dougan, who's been threatening St. Patrick's with his letters. Sure enough, there was a new option for his office in the elevator. (You'd think they would have locked down security after my previous two visits.) Dougan protested that he was just acting on behalf of McCalastar, who Dougan didn't like. "If McCalaster were out of the picture and I was in, I could help you." He suggested that I find a way to show McCalastar the True Meaning of Christmas and soften his heart.
You can almost hear Bing Crosby saying these lines.
Wait . . . sorry, I confused this with one of the movies Irene is watching in the background. What Dougan actually suggested was that I find incriminating evidence of McCalastar's "tawdry affairs," which Dougan could subsequently deliver to his wife, a TransTech executive, who would then likely remove McCalastar from his position.
I'm a little stuck at this point. My open quest items are:
  • Try to find this Wyche Gibbon, get his half of the amulet, and see if there is any cure to vampirism found in the pieces. I'm not sure if this amulet is related to Deidre's pendant that Chuck wants me to find. If not:
  • Find Deirdre's pendant and see if it helps restore Chuck's memory as to where the Lost Kids are.
  • Find a way to restore the pieces of his mind to Charley Flyer.
  • Figure out how to get into the TTHEAT TransTech security hub.
  • Steal the Multichannel Transmitted from the Icon Robbers for the head of the Kafka Conspiracy. I think that to do this, I need to use Phree Thought's SomnaVapor, but I tried it at some point, and the game said that I would need to protect myself from the gas before it would work.
I thought vampires didn't breathe.
  • Access the Bank of New York (NYVAULT), although I don't know why.
  • Figure out a way to turn McCalaster's presence in the Hellfire Club brothel to "evidence" that I can give Dougan, thus saving St. Patrick's, thus getting Mother Mary's help dealing with the vampires in Central Park, which I'm not even sure is important anymore.
  • Find the rest of the cyborg parts needed to download Elvis.
  • I still never found the "cage key" necessary to free Banks Verbatim from TransTech's custody.
  • Find that drug database for the Black Aggots. I'm out of leads on that since it wasn't in the given WELL.
  • Find some way to get soul blades from the Red Crosse Knights. I think the problem was that too many of them still recognized me as a vampire despite the face paint. Maybe I have to cure my vampirism first. Or maybe I just have to kill them?
I have no particular leads on any of these things, so I'm just going to have to revisit past locations and see if there's anything new.
This is not the sort of game for which you want to take a three week break in the middle of playing. This is, rather, the sort of game that you want to play in long, closely grouped sessions. Well, nothing to do about the past. I'll see if I can regain some momentum this week and hopefully bring this to a close.
Time so far: 16 hours

Friday, December 23, 2022

No More Anonymous Comments

I'm putting together an entry on BloodNet as we speak. In the meantime, I am hardening my policy about anonymous comments. I will no longer be approving any of them. Those that get past moderation (because I don't moderate for entries less than 15 days old) are subject to immediate deletion.
If you're having problems with your Google login, I have found that adding and as exceptions to enhanced tracking protection works. That's in Firefox. I haven't had time to try all browsers. But I don't require you to use a Google account. You can do one of the following very easy things to avoid your comment being rejected:

1. Choose the "Name/URL" option and enter a chosen name, leaving the URL field blank.

2. Just type your chosen name in the comment itself. Yes, your name will still show up as "anonymous," but at least we'll be able to refer to you in replies.
Chose a unique name and do not pretend to be another commenter. Forgiveness for clear mistakes, of course.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

BRIEF: The Two Vikings (1989)

If it wasn't for the disk menu, we wouldn't know the name of the game.
The Two Vikings
Independently developed; published by CP Verlag in Magic Disk 64
Released 1989 for Commodore 64
Rejected for: No attributes or character development
In any kind of cluster analysis, you'd group sparkling cider with champagne and O'Doul's with beer. To anyone looking at the totality of variables, they'd be virtually indistinguishable. But an alcoholic knows that one difference makes all the difference. In the same way, games like The Two Vikings might look and taste like RPGs, but they lack that key ingredient that I'm looking for--that I'm addicted to. That I can't identify a different category for the Gamebase64 contributor to have used doesn't mean I have to accept it as an RPG.

The two characters set out.
Vikings is by all appearances an Ultima clone for two players. (The game acknowledges its roots by welcoming "you brave warriors, fighters and Ultima fanatics" in the instructions.) It's an iconographic tiled game with a land to explore and towns to enter. You can buy weapons and armor at shops. But the characters lack attributes (even names) and thus only improve through inventory.
The instructions on the magazine disk.
The two players, each with a different joystick in hand, start the game in a split screen. I think they're in different worlds. I was never able to get them to meet up, in any event. They each have 1,000 hit points and 500 food units. Their goal is to be the first to conquer their world's 12 cities. Each character starts next to a city and a ship. The game worlds have multiple continents, so you have to travel overland and overseas to find the cities.
As you travel, you encounter monsters that look like Ultima's warriors, rogues, mages, and orcs. Combat is a simple matter of pointing the joystick in their direction and mashing the "fire" button. (Everything in the game is controlled with joysticks.) When enemies die, they leave treasure chests that can be trapped but usually contain food.
Fighting a couple of enemies on an island (right).
Food is the key attribute of the game. It depletes at a rate of about 1 per second regardless of whether you're moving or standing still. It also serves as the game's currency; you exchange it for weapons, armor, and more health. The weapon and armor system is pretty silly. You have enough food at the beginning of the game to buy the best weapon (sword) and best armor (plate mail), so there's no reason not to just do that and then go outside and whack enemies to replenish the food.
When you enter a city you haven't conquered, it's titled "Foreign Town" at the top of the city map. (The outdoor graphics look like Ultima II, but the cities are pure Ultima.) The six guards immediately attack you. They're not very hard. Once you kill them, the city becomes "Own Town."
Ultima clones are always hard on guards.
I can't show you what happens when you conquer all of them because the game immediately ends when either player runs out of food. A single player can't reasonably play both characters, simultaneously keeping them from starving. 
I suppose this means I technically "won."
Two Vikings appeared in the March 1989 issue of Magic Disk 64. I'm not sure about the authors. The introduction is signed by Stefan Gnad and Oliver Menne, but I think they were the editors of the magazine, not necessarily the authors of the game. The "title" screen (it doesn't actually have the title) suggests the authors' initials were "G&P."
I do like the two-player aspect, and in a world with less to do, I could see convincing my sibling, friend, or spouse to join me for a round of The Two Vikings. It just doesn't give me the fix I really need.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Shadow of the Evil: Writing in the Walls

Thought this was a cool graphic of a plant monster.
Shadow of the Evil continues to be a modestly-fun, odd title. I mapped two more areas, both keeping to the same 25 x 18 size. As I explored, some game mechanics became clear that I didn't cover last time:
  • Sound effects are generally limited to walking steps and thuds and clinks in combat. There is an original music "score," but music only plays for a few seconds when you transition between areas. That's my kind of game music.
  • Weapons break after a few battles. You need backups. Fortunately, most enemies drop them.
My sword broke on his rock-hard abs.
  • Sometimes you don't find objects on the floor unless you hit "Search." I've been doing that in corners and dead ends, but I'm not going to do it in every square.
  • I suspect the purpose of the individual bags of 5 gold pieces is to bribe enemies to go away. I haven't had it work yet, though.
  • Successful use of the "Disguise" command lets you walk past enemies.
  • The English continues to be pretty horrid. I'm not pointing that out to be a snob, but because I'm worried that I'm going to encounter a puzzle where the confusing translation causes problems. See the "math problem" below, for instance.
The game's "statistics" screen. "Catched hurts" would be cute if it wasn't indicative of a more serious problem that may affect gameplay.
  • Enemies do respawn. I'm not sure if this is related to leaving a level and returning, or if they just do it over time naturally. 
  • While you can rest anywhere, there is a chance that a special "sleep ghost" will appear and attack you. Since you're usually at low health when you rest anyway, the demon is usually fatal. If you successfully hit him a few times, he'll say, "That's it! You awake!" and take off. What a dick.
"Your enemy could hit you!" is the game's way of saying that your enemy did, in fact, hit you.
  • I started the session with my inventory full and continued to have big inventory problems throughout the session. Keys are absolutely choking me--I found five or six more during this session, and I verified that even though some keys look the same, they aren't the same. You really do need all of them. I may have to identify a central hub to leave inventory items if I don't find a container that allows for more space.
The second area was accessible from the first via a teleportation pentagram. It turns out that these are two-way (or, at least, they have been so far). I arrived in what I mapped as the southwest corner of the new area. This area was odd for several reasons. First, there were no enemies. I explored the entire thing without fighting a single combat. Second, the authors seemed to adopt a "worm tunnel" approach rather than a "razor wall" approach for this one area. There were a lot of empty spaces in the middle and a large inaccessible area in what I mapped as the northwest.
There were only a few things to find in the area. Treasure squares contained a healing potion (each one good for 3 uses) and another bag with 5 coins. A second pentagram led to a new area, but the destination square had a locked door that none of my keys would open. There was this message on the wall: "Four dozen plus one n' first hundred and twenty and two, halve, and take one away, double, n' leave fifty-nine." This seems to be a math puzzle, but the odd English makes the answer a bit unclear. 4961 is the best I can guess right now. Either way, I haven't found any places in which a number is needed.
This looks like it goes some place important.
A short hallway ended in an encounter with an "ugly mass" in a passageway. "It seems very long," the game offered, "so you may need some help from your bag to get through." Nothing in my current bag helped, and I can't quite tell from the image what is even being depicted. The lighter doesn't work to make the area any lighter, and a rope that I found in another area wasn't the solution.
I'm not sure what I've met here, but no option works.
With no other ways forward, I had to retreat back to the initial area and try the gateway. This led to another "razor wall" area with enemies. In addition to the monstrous guards and one-eyed cat things I faced in the first area, this third area offered giant rats, giant snakes, and fanged humanoids with scimitars. These latter enemies were particularly hard, and I died at their blades twice. I had to rest after every successful encounter.
The second area I explored during this session, third total.
Interesting encounters in this area included:
  • Treasures: a second bag (couldn't use it), another bag of coins, two jars of water (provide minor healing), two healing potions, a diamond, the aforementioned rope, boots, a knife, and a shield.
  • A room with a giant plant. It wasn't hard to kill, and it didn't leave any special treasures.
  • The first puzzle. Searching a wall with a decorative shield, I was told there was a switch above me. This was the first time the game used the "look up" feature to show me something on the ceiling. To hit the switch, I needed to first equip the stick found in my first session. It opened a wall behind me.
Before he remembers his stick, my character repeatedly jumps for the switch on the ceiling.
  • This message on a wall at the end of a spiral: "If the night's dark open down nearly dead who brave, use your hand before that dawn, strike towards the grave." I guess I admire that they made it rhyme in translation, but I otherwise have no idea what it means.
  • This even more mysterious message: "Loves you / Pictures come from all / The walls / Make your choice and / Throw sku'!"
Anyone want to speculate what "throw sku'" means?
There were four new exits from this area: two pentagrams and two gateways. I tried one of the pentagrams and found myself in a three-square hallway with no treasures and no exits. I tested the walls, and damned if one of them wasn't a secret door. It was my first confirmation that the game has secret doors that you can find by walking into. The level turned out to be full of them. Before I explored it, I went back to the previous areas and made sure I hit every wall, but I only found one other illusory wall in doing so. It led to a couple of potions.
As an aside, let me say that while I have never been diagnosed with any OCD tendencies, I would be physically incapable of designing a razor-wall dungeon that had a dozen random squares of "dead space" scattered haphazardly throughout. I could see using dead space to depict pillars or in a symmetrical way to achieve a desired dungeon layout, but these maps just irritate me.
They were so committed to the odd placement of the definite article that they wrote it in stone.
Once I had tested the previously explored areas, I returned to the new one. It was weird. I initially mapped it as a new area, but when I was finished, it fit perfectly in the "unused" part of the second area, so I figured it must go there. Aside from one jug of water, there was nothing to find for most of the dungeon. There was a single door guarded by an armored mace-wielding guy. But when I killed him and entered the door, I just found a two-square dead-end room with nothing in it. His mace didn't even have a good attack value. The only reason to map this area seemed to be to note that the walls spell out "SOTE."
The only enemy on an entire level.
I returned to the third area and chose one of the gateways, not noticing until I was on the other side that it was one-way. I'm having a tough time in this area. There's something weird going on with rotating walls in one part of the level. I haven't figured out how to map it or even exactly how to predict it. Worse, I keep encountering these horned, bare-chested enemies that I can't kill. 
I probably need to explore the other areas and come back to this one. The problem is that there are not many ways to get stronger. There seems to be no leveling in the game, and in this entire session, I only got one equipment upgrade--a small shield for a larger, stronger shield. I keep collecting clues without associated puzzles, keys without doors, and finding entire areas with no apparent purpose. I wonder if I'm not missing some vital gameplay element, but I've tried all the options and don't know what it would be. 
Swapping my old shield for a new one. Look how many keys I have!
I am enjoying the graphics, and I'm never completely unsatisfied when I'm making maps on graph paper.
Time so far: 7 hours

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Game 477: Monsters and Magic (1988)

After writing this game, the author went on to designate congressional districts in North Carolina.
Monsters and Magic
United States
Independently developed; published by T&D Software
Released 1988 for TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started: 30 November 2022
Date Ended: 30 November 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5)
Final Rating: 7
Ranking at Time of Posting: 8/483 (2%)
Sometimes I imagine I'm trapped in a blank room with absolutely nothing to do except for a computer and a single game. Would I be grateful to have that game? In the case of something like an Ultima or Might and Magic title, the answer is not only "yes," but, you know, I actively fantasize about it. Nothing to do, no responsibilities, just a blank room, a comfortable chair, and NetHack. Sign me up. Delve lower on my list and something like Curse of Vengeance or Tygus Horx might not hold up very well against the many other things that are also within my reach in the modern adult world, but I'd still prefer them to an empty room. If they were the only games on my hypothetical computer, I'd still be grateful to have something to do. Almost anything is better than nothing.
Thus, it's a rare game that offers such an unpleasant experience that you'd literally prefer doing nothing to playing it. Monsters and Magic is alas such a game. If I were trapped in a room and it were the only game on my computer, I'd probably pass time testing the taste of the paint on different sections of the wall, or maybe taking apart the computer. When I used to get bored before smartphones, I'd sometimes pick a random large number and try to figure out if it was prime. A few hours of that beats Monsters and Magic.
My army is doing well here. It won't last.
The game was written by Mike Snyder, whose website is currently the only source for the game (thanks to Busca for pointing me in the right direction). It's great for Snyder to offer his games for free, and I'm sure he's a great guy, but his page lists over 50 games for the Color Computers 2 and 3 written between 1988 and 1990. I don't care how prolific you are, you can't write 50 playable games in 3 years. You can't even write 15 playable games in 3 years. There are probably a couple of truly excellent games on his list--ones that his players still remember with fondness and he still remembers with pride--but by the laws of physics alone, the rest have to be unplayable headaches. Monsters and Magic is one of the latter.
Snyder's own site calls it a "unique graphic RPG." It is the only one of his games so designated, and the use of "RPG" is wrong by most definitions. It is, instead, one of those "campaign"-style games that I struggled to label when writing about Fortress of the Witch King (1983). The ur example is Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979); the sub-genre includes Sword of Zedek (1981) and Braminar (1987). What these games have in common is that there's no primary character. You control an army of men that roams across the landscape, with events alternately serving to sap or strengthen your forces. Games of this sub-genre sometimes stray into RPG territory if they allow for experience and development on the part of the "general" or if you regard the army's statistics and equipment as the same as a single character's. In any event, and whatever its primary source, Monsters doesn't make even those nods to RPG status. Its mechanics have been stripped so bare that there's almost nothing interesting for the player to do.
Who is even saying this?
With no character creation, the game starts in the upper-right corner of a world map depicting a collection of countries, I guess. A river cuts the map into two pieces towards the western side. It annoys me how the river was clearly drawn after the outlining of the kingdoms. so that the borders continue on the other sides of the river. From this, we're left to conclude that either the countries extend their borders across the river despite the lack of bridges--and despite the fact that major rivers usually serve as borders--or that the countries on both sides of the river just happened to draw their borders in such a way that they would meet if the river weren't there. I don't know why this part bothers me so much, but it does.
The player starts with an army of 100 men. The character has a health score of 50, a sword power of 1, and no gold. These are the game's only variables. The player's stated goal is to destroy the five "outlaw armies" that plague the kingdom.
A handful of visitable locations are marked on the map in white squares. All but one of them are towns, and all the towns are exactly the same. The one exception is a "dungeon" in the upper-right corner. Because the game gives so little else to report on, I'll tell you that the names of the towns are Sparon, Erumis, Triolar, Arrolio, Haversham, Flaavar, and Vriiar.
The town menu in every town.
There are a lot of problems with the game, including the absolutely bare-bones variables and mechanics, but the most important is that nothing ever good happens to this army. Usually in a "campaign" game like this, the army has a variety of encounters as it crosses the landscape. There's an earthquake, and some men die. They meet some friendly centaurs, and a new unit joins the army. A particularly good hunt boosts morale by 2 points. A rainstorm destroys half of the food stores. And so on. In Monsters everything that happens is bad. Troops die in storms and mutinies. "Land pirates" sometimes attack and kill soldiers and steal gold. Sickness saps your hit points. My (least) favorite is when individual soldiers just "quit." The game makes you acknowledge each of these events by hitting the ENTER key. When I'm trying to cross a world with an army of 3,000, I don't need to stop and acknowledge individual soldiers quitting.
"Bandits," maybe? "Raiders"? "Guerillas"? "Marauders"?
The second major problem is that the only way to replenish hit points and soldiers is to purchase them in towns. It costs 10 gold pieces per soldier and 20 gold pieces per hit point. The only other way to "develop" is to pay a magician 5,000 gold to increase the "plus" on your weapon. These are only "problems" because of the third issue. There are only three ways to make money: fight in the arena (every town has one), explore the dungeon, or gamble. The arena pays around 100 gold for a successful victory, but a loss ends the game. Exploring the dungeon (more below) is completely random and might give you 100 gold pieces per 5 minutes of exploration if you're lucky. To be viable, an army needs to have around 300-500 members and the character needs a health score of at least 250, both of which could deplete to 0 from about 10 minutes of exploration. Do the math. To get even a modestly viable army, you need around 8,000 gold pieces, which in turn would require 80 successful arena combats or 7 hours in a dungeon.
Monster battles in arenas and dungeons.
That leaves gambling. It's a simple die game in which winning doubles your money and there's no maximum bet. Thankfully, it works. In fact, the odds are so favorable that you can make tens of thousands of gold pieces in mere minutes. I often won 5 or more times in a row and never lost twice in a row.
It helps that I "didn't win or lose" even when I clearly lost.
The game would be awfully easy--just gamble until you have a million gold pieces and buy more health and soldiers than you'd ever need--but it has one final middle finger to offer. If you get an army of more than a couple thousand men, they start to die en masse from "disagreements among your troops." If you amass more than 10,000 gold, "a strong magical wind carries half of it away to some far, unreachable place." And if you have so much health . . . well, here, the author didn't try to come up with even a ridiculous explanation. Just that "you have so much health that it actually causes damages to you."
Even "you have so much health, your own troops throw stones at your head out of sheer spite" would have been better.
So "gameplay" is basically several hours of marching across the landscape, acknowledging one awful thing after another happening to your party, then retreating to a nearby town to gamble and replenish everything--but not too much.
Why are you marching across the landscape in the first place? You have to find the five "outlaw armies." But they're not marked, so you have to explore every square until you stumble into them. There are about 6,000 squares on the map, and it takes about a second (era-accurate speed) to move between them, not counting the messages you have to acknowledge occasionally in between. God knows why, but rather than BRIEF the game and get it off my list, I actually played it to the end, stepping on every square, albeit at "Warp" mode in the emulator. In the event that for some insane reason you want to do this for yourself, here's a shortcut:
  • Army #1 is in the top row near the northeast corner.
  • Army #2 is near the river in the southwest corner
  • Army #3 is in the top row just west of the river
  • Army #4 is in a line south of Flaavar on the west side of the map
  • Army #5 is in the second row from the top in the northwest corner
Only one of the five armies is on the east side of the river, which takes up the majority of the map. That means all that space is essentially for nothing. I can't begin to tell you how boring it is to just walk across the map in rows, having to run to a town for replenishment every few minutes.
The armies range from a few hundred members (#1) to several thousand (#5). To defeat the last one, you have to load up your own army with about 5,000 troops and then hope you don't lose too many on the way to the battle. The battles against other armies take a long time as you watch messages scroll by indicating how many soldiers were killed round after round, but there's no real tension to them. The player has no options, and the relative size of the army is the overwhelming variable in victory.
Even in "Warp" mode, this takes a while.
To get to the west side of the map, the player has to build a bridge across the river. This is accomplished by entering a forest in the southeast part of the map and cutting down some trees. The problem with this is that you have to hit the SPACE bar in the right part of the map to make this happen. The SPACE bar is otherwise only used to enter cities and the dungeon, both of which are clearly marked on the map. The player wouldn't know to just randomly hit it in a blank part of the map. The only reason I found it was sheer luck.
If you have wood, the bridge appears as soon as you touch the water.
If you touch the far western border of the map, the game crashes.
There's no final victory message after you defeat the final army. I searched the program code to verify this. Weirdly, you can encounter the fifth army an endless number of times (after defeating it originally) in the northwest corner of the map. However, after its first defeat, the army has no soldiers, so your victory is automatic. 
Having destroyed five or more "outlaw armies" is the only way to prove that I've "won."
Let me talk more about the dungeon. Allowing for dungeon exploration in a game like this isn't unique--Clardy's Odyssey did it--but it is unusual. It could have been an interesting part of the game. Unfortunately, it's completely random. When you enter, you're told how many tunnels are available to you (a random number). You're supposed to choose one by typing in the number, but the meaninglessness of this action is reflected in the fact that you can type any number no matter how many tunnels there are supposed to be, and you still get a valid result. You're taken to another random room description with a random number of exit tunnels. Some of the rooms have pools, also activated by typing a number, which produce a random result like increased or decreased health. Sometimes creatures join your army. You sometimes randomly encounter a monster (e.g., troll, gargoyle, evil gnome), against which combat is as bereft of tactics and tension as the army battles. (The game already has almost no magic; aside from these creatures, it wouldn't have any monsters, either.) The key variables are your health and weapon power. You might get a small number of gold pieces from the battle. Since gambling is the only plausible long-term approach, the dungeon is ultimately meaningless, particularly since it's located in the upper-right corner, and you can't really linger in that area.
Wasting time in a dungeon.
Monsters and Magic could have been saved with a little more thought and balance. Eliminating gambling would have been the start. Force the player to make money through combat and dungeon exploration, and increase those rewards. Add a few more variables to combat, and allow some positive things to happen during exploration. It still wouldn't be a great game, it might at least become better than nothing. My scale doesn't actually go into the negatives, but anything less than 10 is pretty painful, and Monsters gets a 7. It manages to survive on a series of 1s that by tradition I give to having anything in some of the categories.
Mike Snyder was clearly capable of better games, and this, admittedly, was one of his early ones. He seems to have been reasonably talented at interactive fiction, for instance. He created an interesting-looking text adventure/Breakout hybrid called Spore in 1991. In the 1990s, he established Prowler Productions and produced, among other things, Lunatix: The Insanity Circle, a text adventure with graphics set in an insane asylum. But in his Color Computer days, he seemed more interested in quantity than quality. Part of that may have been the demands of his publisher, Michigan-based T&D Subscription Software. T&D was owned by a man named Tom Dykema and seems to have stood for "Tom and Dykema."
I announced in a recent comment that I was having trouble with motivation lately, and it might be natural to suggest that, given such, I drop or at least BRIEF some of these recent additions to game databases, often questionable in their use of the RPG label. Some commenters have suggested taking a break. What's important to understand is that playing something like Monsters and Magic is, counterintuitively, such a "break." It may be a bad game, but it's an easy blog article. It requires no effort to emulate, no translations, no interpretation of another country's conventions. The time it takes to play may be unpleasant, but it's over soon, and there's no dreading what comes tomorrow. Thus, I think I'll save most of my 1980s backlog for times like this, when I don't want to play something complex that requires me to repeatedly ask help from my readers.
Will at the Adventurer's Guild is sick, and I don't want to get too far ahead of him with BloodNet, so it might be a while for the next entry. I'm still having issues with Die Odyssee and may not be able to muster another entry on it. I will be continuing with SOTE, but alternating with more quick games like this. When I'm ready to commit to an "upcoming" list again, I'll probably just put it back the way it was rather than draw new games.