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
   

51 comments:

  1. Amazing how influential Dungeon Master turned out to be. Doom, after all, is "What if Dungeon Master but real time?". I knew Eye of the Beholder but I didn't know quite how many similar titles existed.

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  2. "What if Dungeon Master but real time?" is a very weird way to describe... well, anything, really, because Dungeon Master was already real-time.

    Movement was quantized, sure, but time flowed whether you took in-game actions or not, and different entities moved and attacked at (very!) different speeds.

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    1. oops, that should have been a reply to VB

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    2. I think he meant to say "smoothly flowing" instead of "one block of movement at a time".

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  3. Is this the first game we've seen to be heavily inspired by Ultima Underworld? Enough to be called Ultima Underworld-style? Surprisingly few of those around, considering the impact it had. Seems like more games in the action genre are inspired by it than the RPG genre.

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    1. Isn't Skyrim the highest-selling western RPG of all time? That's a pretty notable legacy for UU.

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    2. Because free movement and varied interactions were what set 'Ultima Underworld' apart, methinks the comparison isn't warranted.

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    3. Other than the interface and magic system, this is much closer to Dungeon Master than UU, so I wouldn't call it heavily inspired. Lightly, sure. But the DM influence is much greater.

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    4. Because of the lack of continuous movement, I wouldn't call it an Underworld clone, but yes, I think it's the first game I've played since Underworld that clearly has Underworld elements.

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    5. Ah, whoops, my mistake, because I was leaning towards clone. Serves me right for missing that part of the post. D:

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    6. So far I'm not seeing any *mechanical* influence of Ultima Underworld (considering that the syllable-based magic system is way older than UU). Clearly the interface is inspired by (or copy/pasted from) UU, but that's a more superficial inspiration.

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  4. I don’t know; it feels to me from the screen shots and the description of how it plays that the UI might have been more cribbed from Ultima VI (which UU based itself around). Mainly that if this was an Atari ST game first, that would have been the game the devs would be more likely to have played.

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  5. Those graphics... they strike an eerie balace between fugly and functional, it's kind of harrowing.

    Myself couldn't look at them for the duration of a playthrough.

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    Replies
    1. There is an epic fight there between the scale of greys, the greens and the oranges.

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  6. Should I be concerned that the 'goblin' in this game has brown skin and an afro?

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    1. The colours are probably because the game was developed on the Atari ST, which is limited to 16 colours (out of 512 possible colours on the St and STFM, or 4096 on the STE). That means designers have to make compromises ; the paperdoll looks a bit strange as well.

      Doesn't explain the afro, if course...

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    2. Afro? When I saw the image, I thought of black ram horns. Now, I see an Amelie-goblin ( https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0211915/mediaviewer/rm1617958656/ ).

      I am waiting for some ugly monster with combed blond hair :D

      Delete
  7. So if the interface is like Ultima Underworld except with 90-degree turns and fixed steps on a grid, doesn't that simply mean the interface is like Eye of the Beholder, or the Bard's Tale, or Wizardry? I mean, UU without continuous movement isn't really UU, now is it?

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    1. To your first question, I'd say 'no'. All these games share the same kind of perspective, but the UI of the Bard's Tale is very different from that of DM or EotB. This game's UI really does look a lot like Ultima Underworld's.

      Second question I agree, but that doesn't say anything about the UI. UU without continuous movement could have the same UI.

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    2. Christ, this entry really brought 'em out.

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  8. Does the character description state that the 4 companions are all morbidly obese? Because I think I could easily slip past those rocks at the entrance to leave the tower.

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    1. LOL. Games with physical obstacles that the character could obviously overcome annoy the heck out of me. I feel like this was particularly prevalent in early 3D games.

      I remember playing the first Tomb Raider with items locked behind iron gates where Lara Croft could easily just reach through the bars and retrieve them in real life.

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    2. At least the poor obstacles are better than the worst obstacle of all: the dreaded invisible wall at the edge of the map.

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  9. As a friend of mine pointed out when I complained about the font this game uses for story scenes, the back of the box for the Game Boy Color port of Towers, at least, reveals the mysterious letter at the front of "Diratose" to be an A, for "Airatose."

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    1. I had actually guessed "Viratose" the first time. The letter is undecipherable.

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    2. I thought it said "Qiratose"...

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  10. E2-e4 e7-e5 are obviously first moves of a chess game.

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    1. This could turn out to be a spoiler for a puzzle later in the game -- I'd suggest ROT13.

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    2. Well, I certainly wouldn't have caught that--I know nothing about chess notation--so I would have deciphered the ROT-13. Thanks, Robert.

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    3. Specifically, the game looks like this: https://lichess.org/editor/rnbqkbnr/ppp1pppp/8/3p4/3P4/8/PPP1PPPP/RNBQKBNR_w_KQkq_-_0_1

      If there are any more moves, you can enter them on the board and follow along.

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    4. You can use a chess openings database like this one. It shows common moves with win probabilities, together with the name of the opening you're playing.

      https://www.365chess.com/opening.php

      I doubt you'll need any of this for the puzzle, but it's interesting nonetheless...

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  11. 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."

    This sounds like [rot13]n ersrerapr gb purff abgngvba, fvapr gung frdhrapr bs zbirf vf bar bs gur zbfg pbzzba purff bcravatf. Vg zvtug unir n ornevat ba n yngre chmmyr gung vaibyirf purff vzntrel.[/rot13] Or it might not.

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  12. I really don't understand your categorization here. You seem to have seen the paper doll, and decided the game was like Ultima Underworld based solely on that input. You then keep justifying that categorization, while listing mechanic after mechanic after mechanic from Dungeon Master.

    At least from your description, Towers is nearly a direct clone of Dungeon Master, not merely 'inspired by'. Only the paper doll appears to be new in this lineage, cribbed from UU. Paper doll inventory was a fantastic idea, which is why so many modern games use it, but that alone is nowhere near enough to call it UU-like.

    Dungeon Master also worked with a syllable system for magic, but using symbols instead of text. It sounds like Towers' syllables might be more flexible, but I expect we won't find out until you've gotten much further in the game. The basic mechanic of building your own spells, however, sounds like it's straight from Dungeon Master, even if they've improved on it.

    A tiled game could never, ever be in the Ultima Underworld lineage. The whole point of that game was that you were in real 3D, interacting in real time with entities in that 3D space. It's the single defining characteristic of the title. An inventory doll alone doesn't even come close to putting it in that genre.

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    1. I don't understand your confusion. The game clearly WAS inspired partly by UU. Yes, it was also clearly inspired by DM. I mentioned both games repeatedly in the entry. Are you upset that I didn't mention DM first?

      I didn't say that it was an "Underworld clone," or that it replicated the gameplay, or that it is within Underworld's lineage. I didn't even "categorize" it as you say. I simply said that the interface is clearly inspired by Underworld, which it is. And if you think that the syllable system that this game offers is closer to DM than UU, you're being deliberately obtuse.

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    2. LOL, I'm with you Addict. Anyone who looks at those two screenshots and doesn't see a one-to-one comparison between this game and Ultima Underworld is mental.

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    3. I agree. He is delibaretely obtuse.

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    4. You make it sound like Chet ever said this was more like UU than anything else, when he repeatedly says in the entry it has UU UI and Dungeon Master gameplay. Unfortunately you seem to have taken a lot more time writing a counterpoint to a nonexistent view instead of actually reading the blog correctly.

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  13. I played this game a bit back in the 90s. I thought it was OK, but it also froze regularly on me, and on the real DOS that was a deal-breaker.

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  14. I have the Game Boy Color version! Plays fine, and of course no mouse. The manual is easy to find and does have some magic system info that I think would apply across systems.

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  15. I suspect I would need the manual to successfully replicate it, even if I figured out how to set up DOSBox with a modem.

    Mostly for the sake of my own morbid curiosity, TIL that DOSBox has modem emulation (and IPX emulation) baked in:

    www.dosbox.com/wiki/Connectivity#Modem_emulation

    (Not that I'm implying it would be easy to set up, but it is at least there.)

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    1. Yeah, I fiddled with it a bit. Unfortunately, when I hit "connection" on the main screen, nothing happens no matter what configuration I set up in DOSBox.

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  16. I wonder if the buttons on both sides of doors are to prevent players from locking their friend away in the co-op mode.

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    Replies
    1. That is almost certainly the explanation. I wasn't thinking with two players in mind. Well done.

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  17. Why do all the main menu options rhyme?

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  18. The image is from Evil Dead 2.

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  19. I suspect that the two player mode was intended to be played, not literally via modem, but using a null cable connecting the serial ports of the two computers, at least on the Atari ST version.

    It was a fairly common way of playing two player games across two computers at the time, particularly on the Amiga and Atari. Some games even allowed cross-platform play; I think the WWI dogfighting game Knights of the Sky allowed Atari and Amiga users to work out their rivalry via aerial combat.

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  20. Unexpected Game Boy Color ports were surprisingly common. You also had stuff like Heroes of Might and Magic and the first two GTA games ported to it. They weren't necessarily the greatest ports in the world, but they're definately not the sorts of games you'd expect to see on the GBC.

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    1. The GTA ones aren't ports iirc, but made from scratch.

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    2. It's still a port in my mind, even if there isn't actually any code shared

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  21. "I don't know whether this image is from a film or whether some SCA members got together."

    The image reminds me of the Excalibur movie from 1981.

    ReplyDelete

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