Monday, February 28, 2022

BRIEF: Bob's Dragon Hunt (1992), AntKill (1992), and Crystal Deception (1992)

Bob's Dragon Hunt
Crystal Deception 
United States
Neurosport (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS as shareware
The "Bob" in Bob's Dragon Hunt is Robert Kemp, co-owner of Neurosport, which he founded with Faron Wickey in 1990. The developers produced several games:

  • Majik (1991)
  • Antkill (1992)
  • Bob's Dragon Hunt (1992)
  • Crystal Deception (1992)
  • Spacekill I: Defender (1992)
  • Spacekill II (1992 or 1993)
There are several problems playing the company's games today. First, they used a shareware model for dissemination, and all but demo copies of the titles seem to have been lost. The second is that even some of the full games, while completely playable, are meant as "teasers" for longer cousins. Bob's Dragon Hunt and AntKill are meant more to showcase the technology used for Crystal Deception than to constitute full RPG experiences themselves; the same is true of Spacekill I and Spacekill II (neither of which are RPGs). Third, the technology doesn't hold up well 30 years later via an emulator. Kemp mentioned in correspondence to me that they implemented timers using CPU cycles, so calibrating the games in DOSBox is something of an effort.
Starting out in Bob's Dragon Hunt.
To illustrate these issues, we turn to Bob's Dragon Hunt, the first of three "games" to feature Neurosport's "VirtualDungeon" technology. Their game manuals suggest that they intended "VirtualDungeon" to be the master title for the series (e.g., VirtualDungeon I: Bob's Dragon Hunt; VirtualDungeon II: Antkill), but none of the title screens reflect that.
I have no idea what's happening when you first launch the game. It mimics the sound of a telephone ringing, and then a digitized voice says: "Hello? Wow! You got it! Goodbye!" just before a bloopish version of John Philip Sousa's The Liberty Bell March plays on a loop. (In an e-mail, Kemp says they threw in the sound "on a lark" because they liked the freeware program that generated it.)
The pre-title screens cover the backstory: You are Bob, a young lad in the town of Wontbe in the kingdom of Neverwas. Every year, dragons fly down from the mountains in the spring and slaughter the town's livestock, an event the simple townsfolk are helpless to prevent. But one day, Bob discovers a magic ring that turns him into a different sort of hero every time he slips it on. He formulates a plan to invade the dragons' caves and kill them so that his town will grow prosperous.
Part of the backstory.
There is no character creation. The game jokingly offers you the ability to specify a name, but then insists that you are "Bob" no matter what name you choose. ("After all, it's Bob's Dragon Hunt, not Leroy's," Kemp joked in an e-mail exchange.) You are then thrust into the dungeon "in the body" of a character whose class and level are chosen at random from roughly Levels 18-24 and classes of knight, ranger, fighter, druid, assassin, monk, and thief. Your pack is stuffed full of items, and in fact the game has no problem starting you so overloaded that you can't move and trying to execute any command simply informs you that you have "collapsed under the load." You have to waste time, while getting attacked by dragons, equipping and dropping items.
The commands and inventory items show, as with the previous Majik, a heavy roguelike influence. The long list of key commands uses both upper- and lower-case variants of the same letter (e.g., d)rop and D)isarm trap) and includes such roguelike derivatives as q)uaff and z)ap a wand. Any item can have seemingly any condition attached, so you might start the game with a Potion of Cure Blindness, a Mushroom of Invisibility, a Earring of Resist Lightning, a Silver Executioner's Sword of Tunnelling, and a Shield of Bashing. Items can be blessed or cursed.
Some of the many randomized starting items.
The interface showcases the company's unique graphical approach in which walls, floors, and monsters' body parts are depicted using filled polygons. While I grant that it's an original approach, I'm not sure that in practice the graphics are notably better than the wireframes we already had in games like Wizardry and Might and Magic. There are some odd consequences to the effect, such as all the walls appearing to be octagonal pillars. It works well for the dragons' wings.
Multicolored polygons create decent wings but weird walls.
The rest of the interface, including movement, is occasionally incomprehensible. You get a hit point and mana meter, which I guess are easy enough, but I have no idea what the two radars beneath the bars are attempting to show. The left one just rattles around constantly. The right one almost seems to be telling you what direction you're facing, but it moves unpredictably. For instance, it's pointing north as I face a particular wall. I turn right and it points east. So far so good. Then I turn left, facing the original wall, and the pointer turns to point south. The automap at the bottom of the panel is a tiny mess.
"Cold breath" depicted with a variety of polygons.
The arrow keys and numberpad take a long time to get used to, partly because there are eight facing directions (that is, each "turn" turns you only 45 degrees). The numberpad keys move you without changing the direction you're facing. Only the + and - keys actually turn you right and left. It's an absurd system for a first-person game. I think I speak for 99% of players when I say that in a first-person view, I want the right arrow to turn me right, not move me east.
A high position on the leaderboard seems to be the only point of the game.
Combat comes along in a cacophony of screeches, static, and flashing colors. A jagged line of polygons meant to represent a dragon's breath hits you--green for poison, white for ice, and so on. You get points for every enemy you kill. When death comes, and it will come swiftly, your final score is tallied on a leaderboard, which is a little pointless since all the characters are "Bob."
Although the enemies' attacks are animated, the game still maintains the turn-based nature of its roguelike sources. You have time to plan and think. The respawn rate is a bit high though.
Fighting a curiously-angry townsperson standing in a pool of water.
Enemies are mostly draconic: dragons, dragon lizards, dragon bats (plus separate dracobats), dragon snakes. There are more pedestrian foes, too, like druids, townsmen, and anacondas. These enemies have a wide variety of special attacks and defenses, some at least partly randomized. The thought and programming that went into these special attacks and defenses is admirable, but Hunt doesn't showcase it very well by dumping you into a single level in which any enemy can appear right away, rather than letting you build your knowledge base slowly from level one (which, admittedly, is what Crystal Deception is for). Some players might compliment the freshness of this approach, but I found it too much at once.
I did my best to last as long as I could on each randomly-generated level. The best I got in a few hours of playing was 1,218 points (which included leveling up a few times). I found trees, bushes, and water squares in some of the levels but never any stairs up or down. I'm not sure if they exist.
The title screen for VirtualDungeon II: AntKill.
AntKill reskins Bob's Dragon Hunt with colors that suggest a desert setting. Most of the monsters become varieties of ants. The player has no defined class, starting level is around 10, and starting equipment is both reduced and nonmagical.
A more limited selection of starting equipment in AntKill.
AntKill begins on an outdoor map swarming with so many ants that, just to move, you have to jack the emulator to speeds that era players could only dream of. You can descend into the ant hill via a network of tunnels, with enemies getting harder as you go down. I didn't find any equipment in my travels except for food. As with Hunt, death puts you on a leaderboard with your score. In this game, however, you can specify a unique name for each character. AntKill also allows saving and reloading, which Hunt does not.
Fighting a swarm of ants in the outdoor area.
I can't claim that either game isn't an RPG. They both feature experience and leveling (which grants more maximum hit points and mana) and both have RPG-style combat and inventories. Hunt's is particularly extensive. I don't know for sure if either game has a winning condition. Online, there's some talk about a three-headed hydra in Hunt and an ant queen in AntKill, but I don't know if killing either ends the game. Overall, though, comments from Bob Kemp have made it clear that both titles (plus an unreleased VirtualDungeon III: Night on Bald Mountain) were intended as teasers for the real game, which no longer seems to exist: Crystal Deception. It was sold only by mail-order, and it was reportedly a full game, starting at Level 1.
The idea of fusing roguelike mechanics with a first-person interface is good on its surface, but this specific interface either hasn't aged well or was always chaotic and confusing. In some ways it's too bad that Hunt and AntKill aren't more playable, as the developers clearly spent a lot of time on the combat, spells, and inventory mechanics. Hunt has a whole mechanic for taming monsters that I was unable to figure out. What you really need is the opportunity to learn this engine slowly, from Level 1, acquiring each item one at a time--not suddenly thrown into a packed dungeon at Level 20 with two dozen items. If Deception ever turns up, I gather that's what it will offer.
Frequent CRPG Addict commenter Rowan Lipkovits forwarded me some correspondence that he had with Kemp in 2019, which led to some further correspondence between me and Kemp this week. I shared with him a draft of this entry, and he clarified some points but couldn't remember others. He bore my criticisms well, though reminded me several times that the company consisted of two guys feeling things out for the first time in an era in which there was limited technology and few established standards. Kemp remains proud of his innovations, some of which (as a non-programmer), I didn't fully understand. I'll offer this paragraph for the more tech-oriented among my readers:
The VirtualDungeon was a mini operating system that managed all the objects in the game. We were doing object oriented programming before it was invented. The monster/item behaviors were lists of functions in the data structure. The VirtDun code cycles through them all choosing behaviors/actions randomly (or by % in the structure) and calling those functions along with any data they need as specified in the data description. It also handled timer calls and dispatches. This allowed the spawner to create random monsters/items from data structures which also had included "must have" and "may have" flags. All the functions followed a required template which allowed all the "spells" to be portable and used by any method (zapping, invoking, on impact, etc.) on any item and mostly by any monster (e.g., the fireball spell was used by the red dragon as a breath attack). As a core, the Virtual Dungeon would be usable today as-is and I'm seriously hoping to find a copy and not having to rewrite it.
Both Kemp and Wickey had left more lucrative technology jobs to make an effort at running a game company, and they had the misfortune of trying to market a 3D engine in the same year that DOOM was released (Kemp notes ironically that id Software's headquarters was just a few miles away from Neurosport's). While Neurosport made money, it wasn't enough to compete with the offers the pair were getting in other industries. Both partners took other jobs, and Neurosport quietly dissolved. Wickey, a quadriplegic since a sledding accident at age 21, died in 2019 at age 63, a year after suffering a horrific assault from his mentally-ill roommate.
Kemp has plans to get back into game programming. He's currently exploring options using the Unity 3D system. If it results in a full game, perhaps I'll get to it in a few years. In the meantime, Kemp still hopes a CD with Crystal Deception will turn up. If anyone reading this has one, I'll be glad to pass along your contact info.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Phalsberg: Summary and Rating

ERE Informatique (developer and publisher)
Released 1986 for Commodore 64 and DOS
Date Started: 29 January 2022
Date Ended: 23 February 2022
Total Hours: 8 (abandoned)
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5) for combat; hard (4.0/5) in interface and figuring out what you're supposed to do. I suppose moderate (3/5) on average
Final Rating: 16
Ranking at Time of Posting: 93/460 (20%)
I played for another couple of hours, but I couldn't figure out anything new. There's a note that the sorceress Astrud wants herbs, and I thought if I gave her my magic balsam, she might give me the love potion that I need for the Amazons. While she happily took the balsam, she offered nothing in return.
I feel like I get what kind of game Phalsberg is trying to be. It wants to be an adventure game with an RPG interface. It wants you to follow clues from place to place and use the right item in the right way at the right location (or with the right NPC) to get the next item or clue. The RPG elements are mostly an afterthought, at least as far as I was able to get. Maybe later combats become challenging and character development becomes essential, but I doubt it. 
There's nothing necessarily wrong with that game style, but the problems here are twofold:
1. There is no indication whatsoever what you're supposed to do in any of the locations. Good adventure games offer descriptions that call attention to puzzles and interactable items.
2. The interface is a crime against humanity, requiring you to select among verbs and nouns with nothing more than a joystick.  
The result of searching for something.
I stripped the text out of the program file looking for clues and surprisingly didn't find many. The game is so sparse with information, and so much of it plucked from data lists, that it's impossible to find any help. Imagine, for instance, that an Infocom text adventure went something like this:
You move east into the cavern. In the tight chamber, a hungry-looking goblin has erected a small structure of bone and fur near a miserable little puddle. He looks at you weakly but defiantly.
There is a goblin here.


The hungry goblin gratefully takes the fish from your outstretched hands and devours it. In gratitude, he rummages through his meager belongings and emerges triumphantly with a dagger, which he places on a rock and gestures for you to take it.

There is a goblin here.
There is a dagger here.

If you were stuck in such  game, you could study the text for the key phrase ("the hungry goblin gratefully takes the fish") and figure out what to do. But in an identical scenario, Phalsberg's narrative would be:
You are in a [disk drive runs for 30 seconds] cave.
You notice a [disk drive runs for 30 seconds] goblin.
[Disk drive runs for two minutes.]
You notice a [disk drive runs for 30 seconds] dagger.
In other words, the cause and effect don't have any flavor text around them to help you figure out the right move. I couldn't even find any end game text; if it's possible to win, it must be depicted solely by graphics.
The manual suggests numerous ambitions well beyond the game's capabilities to deliver. There are numerous RPG-like tables depicting things like penalties suffered in various types of terrain, weapon bonuses, and languages and the minimum intelligence required to learn them, none of which play any significant role in the game because combat comes down to hitting KILL once or twice and moving on.
I don't understand. Why would someone this cool be involved in video games?
As Abacos pointed out, the French manual ends with a glowing biography of designer Michel Valentin, depicting him as a polymath who turned to video games after a successful career as an actor, comedian, painter, stage designer, director, and producer. ("Endowed with a fantastic imagination and a genius for production, Michel Valentin has touched upon all the arts before turning to video games.") You'd think with such a résumé, he'd be easy to find online, but good luck. The bio credits him with the earlier Série Noire, an odd multiplayer detective game in which players are asked "Who do you want to kill?," "Who do you want to rob?," and "Who do you want to kiss?" during character creation.
Author Michel Valentin's earlier video game effort.
I have no idea what to give Phalsberg on the GIMLET. My best guess is 17. It gets 2s and 1s in everything, in particular not doing the RPG elements very well. And if I ever again face a game in which I have to select among several dozen abbreviated keywords with a joystick, I'm just going to refuse to play it, no matter what my rules say.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

WarWizard: Thalassophobia

The only new areas I was able to map thanks to the boat.
I can't say I was looking forward to a lot with WarWizard, but one of the things I was definitely looking forward to was buying a ship in Tal Keliok (a city on the inland sea) and finishing my map of the game world. I was particularly interested in seeing how far north the map extends, and whether the two northern kingdoms are as big as the four southern ones. I was also keen to find out how much ocean space there is, whether the game world wraps, and if there are any interesting islands.
Acquiring this ship was not as exciting as I'd hoped.
Alas, my hopes were dashed. It turns out that the 4,000-gold piece ship has only one purpose: to get you to the hidden city of Akath. With the ship, you can sail downriver into the middle of a mountain range inaccessible to foot traffic. At the end of the river is a whirlpool that takes you to a small river network in the south. Here, a second whirlpool transports you to the inner part of a different mountain range, where you find the lost city.
Emerging from a whirlpool in a hidden valley.
The southern river network does dump out at the ocean, but you can't even sail a single square into the sea before the game announces that your crew refuses to sail any further.
Any farther.
I thought I could sail east from Tel Keliok and reach the northeast corner of the map that way, but alas you can't cross the point of the broken bridge north of Caer Tiran. It's not so broken that a ship fits through it, apparently. 
Next time you break a bridge, do a more thorough job.
Meanwhile, the entrance to the city of Akath is blocked by a party of eight "black guards." I found them impossible. The problem wasn't that they did a lot of damage to me, but rather that their armor class is so high that I hardly ever hit them. They also avoided most spells. So I couldn't even explore the city after discovering it.
Thus, the only way to explore the northern kingdoms seems to be to cross the bridge in Kraenn, and this bridge is guarded by a party of eight trolls that tear my party apart. Both the black guards and trolls have me depressed. Character development is so slow and incremental in this game that it's hard to see how I'll ever defeat them. In a normal RPG, I'd think, "I'll just level up a few times and then come back," but you can't rely on that plan when the game doesn't have any levels.
This party of trolls blocks further exploration to the north.
Short of finding better equipment, the best mechanism I have for character development is buying attribute-boosting potions. The problem is that I've been loathe to waste them on anyone but my main character, the WarWizard. I'm still not sure whether the other party members are essential and permanent or optional and temporary. Until I know for sure, I'm not spending 3,000 gold on a limited supply of potions to raise someone else's strength by one point.
Discouraged at my plans for the open seas, I returned to my more methodical exploration of the kingdoms. In previous explorations, I had covered Cara, Zebesk, and Terwan. Now I focused on Essea, which has two cities on the west coast (Mithere and Berry Glen), two cities on the inland sea (Silvermist and Tal Keliok) and a "dungeon" in the middle of the forest called Wineke.
Emerging from a secret door to find a hidden NPC.
In Mithere, my lockpicks got me inside the city walls. A secret door led to a hidden jester NPC who said: "There is a jester like myself who lives in the village of Berry Glen to the north. He claims to know how to reach the elven kingdom! I cannot tell you how to find him, but I will say that he loves trees." Elsewhere, the town had a clothing shop, inn, tavern, potion seller, and spell shop. A secret door behind the spell shop led to another NPC who told me about the jester. I bought "Increase Wisdom" at the potion-seller.
Mithere had a royal palace even though I think Tal Keliok is the capital. An unnamed lord and lady met me in the throne room. The man told me that the King of Essea is going mad; his wife elaborated that the king only trusts his closest advisors and his blackguards roam the streets killing people.
The Mithere jail had some interesting characters. An imprisoned warrior made me bribe him for 0 gold pieces to tell me about the NPC who told me about the jester. Outside the prison, I found another NPC who told me that his brother, locked up in prison, had some interesting intelligence. In short, there was an entire thread of NPCs and hints that I essentially discovered backwards.
And I demand no information!
The rest of the prison had dangerous creatures like trolls, mages, and dark elves, and I dutifully cleared each chamber. As I did so, it occurred to me how horrible my actions were from a role-playing perspective. This city clearly has some kind of functioning criminal justice system that puts various evil-doers in prison, and I just barge in and execute them. I think even the Punisher leaves people alone if they're already incarcerated, right?
I had to reload a couple of times with one of the dark elf parties, and in doing so I confirmed something I'd long suspected. Some games generate a list of random numbers to call upon as necessary. Other games roll random numbers in the moment that they're needed. This is one of those games that pre-generates a list. More important, that list seems to be virtually unshakable. For instance, on one occasion, I wandered into a dark elf's cell and combat began. I "lost initiative," so the dark elves went first. One of them immediately cast "Column of Fire" at my party. Ginger suffered 3 damage to the neck, my warrior suffered 18 damage to the left hand, and my cleric suffered 22 damage to the waist, killing her. I figured that was no way to start a battle, so I fled the scene and reloaded. This time, I dithered around town a bit before entering the cell. But when the battle began, the same things happened for exactly the same damage. Moreover, the same exact things happened a third time when I quit to the main menu and then reloaded. Only by fully quitting out of the game to the DOS prompt and re-starting it did I force the game to generate a new set of numbers. I think most games that use a pre-generated set at least re-generate it when you reload from within the game. Otherwise, what's the point of reloading?
In Berry Glen, I learn a bit more about this supposed elven kingdom. A stack of halfling guards each has some intelligence to offer. One says that he once chased some bandits into the woods east of Berry Glen, but elves snatched the bandits before the guards could catch them. Another says that the dark elves have a kingdom of their own to the east, but no one has ever seen it. Other NPCs offer simple warnings to steer clear of the eastern forest. The jester referenced in Mithere, hidden in a grove of trees, gave me explicit directions to the King of the Elves: go east until I hit a "woodland path," then follow it north. I'd already mapped this all out. The path ends at a "dungeon" in Kraenn called Elewin. A final NPC told me that the Halfling King on the west coast of Kraenn could probably help me, but that access has been cut off since the Evil One took over. This bit refers to the troll bridge that I haven't been able to cross.
I crossed over to the east coast of Essea, on the inland sea, and visited Silvermist. There, I heard more talk of the King of Essea having gone mad and locking up innocent people. One NPC gave me a key to the prison in Tel Keliok.
That left Tel Keliok itself, which I'd only explored long enough to buy the ship. For a relatively big city, it didn't have much to offer until I approached the royal palace and found it guarded by three parties of black guards. I had the same problem with them that I had with the black guards in Akath: all my attacks seem to miss them. Again, it's hard to know exactly how to improve my characters to overcome this. Spells can't be the answer, since you only get five at a time.
The king and queen in their throne room, the entrances surrounded by black guards.
I found a back way into the throne room through secret doors (for which I had the key from Silvermist). The king didn't seem insane. He told me that he used to have the WarWizard's cloak, but black guards stole it and took it away on a ship that sailed south into a whirlpool; hence, it must be in Akath. The queen said that the black guards have made them prisoners in their own castle, and that to seek knowledge of Gildain, I should see the duke at Calorman's Keep. Then I wasted a lot of time clearing out the town's jail only to find an NPC who told me about the secret door into the palace.
With all the cities in Essea explored, I headed for the one "dungeon," a castle called Wineke. It's actually a forest maze that I've explored before. It leads to an island with a well, where I can't figure out anything to do. Another path leads to a building guarded by dark elves. No matter how I try to approach combat, the dark elves just pathologically target my cleric until she's dead. It doesn't matter how far away from battle I move her nor how many of my party members are adjacent to them; the elves just ignore everyone else and fill my cleric full of holes. Again, I don't know how to character-develop my way past the problem. The only way I could make any progress was to encounter scum so that I kept reloading until I got a "party" of only one elf. I could kill him before he killed my cleric.
Wineke is full of parties of dark elves.
At some point in the dungeon, I just ran out of steam with the entire game. It's clear that to progress, I'm going to have to grind for hours to raise just a few statistics and give myself a dubious advantage. There's no evidence that anyone has ever won WarWizard, and it's relatively clear why. It takes way too long, offers too little reward in terms of character development, and has a lackluster plot. I'm going to let it cool for a few days and then probably wrap up with a final entry. Man, this winter is going to slaughter me in the statistics.
Time so far: 41 hours

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Phalsberg: Sans Indice

Visiting the city of Cham Nahm.
Until I get out of this rut, we're just going to have to have short entries. It'll be like the early days of this blog, when I'd write 250 words and say, "Hell, yeah! Post it!" 
Commenters came through with the manual for Phalsberg. It cleared up some of the game's mechanics. Without it, I would have been perpetually confused as to some of the commands. Now I know that THRO(w) doesn't throw an item as a missile but instead throws it away. CLIM(b) is used to mount a horse, not scale a tree. ATTA(ch) is specifically for attaching your horse's reins to a fixed object so it won't escape. PICK applies not to locks but to fruits and vegetables. MATE(realize) means "resurrect." Still, a lot of commands are left unexplained, and I still don't know what the difference is between EXAM(ine) and SEAR(ch), nor whether the latter is to search a place or to search for a specific item.
The small game world.
I spent some time mapping the game world. It's only 52 x 36. It wraps. There are two continents. I'll need a boat to get from one to the other, but the exploration window is so large that I can map most of the second continent from what I can see from the first.
The starting continent has eight locations. I explored them all. I'll relate what I experienced there below, but let me handle NPC hints as a group. This is what I've discovered from repeatedly asking questions of NPCs. This is an annoying process because you have to repeatedly go into the QUES(tion) menu and half the time the NPC says something like, "I don't feel like telling you," forcing you to go back and choose it again until you get a hint or a hard "I don't know." The process is also annoying because you can't scroll up on the question list. If you accidentally miss the question you wanted to ask, you have to cancel out of the menu and hit QUES again. 
With who again?
As we go through these, keep in mind that my stated goal is to find the crown, scarab, and scepter, and then to find King Philoxal. But the question list lets you ask about other things before you've even heard about them. There are 25 questions, but I'll condense things by organizing them by topic:
  • Scepter. The great sorceress Roxane might be able to help me. The Amazons will guide me thanks to the Love Potions of Astrud.
  • Crown. At the heart of the Tarantic Ocean, I will find a reply to my question. Someone named Metrax apparently has it. Metrax is a mercenary working for Blackstar; he shares his plunders with the needy. To find the crown, I will need the Sword of Airain. I don't know if this is the same as the Bronze Sword, but if it is, an old magician possesses it.
  • Scarab. It is located in the Forbidden Cities. The sorceress Roxane might be able to help me.
  • Philoxal. He is reportedly "unfindable."
  • Key. In the Daccic desert, perhaps in possession of the Amazons. That must be on the second continent. I can see desert patches from the first. 
A clue in an endless selection of questions.
  • Map. In the sanctuary of Cham Nahm. With it, I will go in search of the Lens of the Astrolabe.
  • Lens. It is in the Forest of Sylvius.
  • Forbidden Cities. The crystal will give me admission to the Forbidden Cities, but no one yet knows how to make the crystal. 
  • Amyrthe. I still don't know who or what he or she is, but I should find him or her by going to the Sanctuary of Tallin with a cross.
  • Blackstar. He is reportedly "unfindable."
Now, onto the locations. Not all of them are marked. I don't know that I found all of them on the first continent, but I found all that were in obvious places, like the ends of roads that otherwise led nowhere.

  • The Clairvoyant Commune. Nothing special here. One of the clairvoyants answered some of the questions.
  • Cemetery of Url. I couldn't get anything to happen at all.
  • Castle of Blackstar: Nothing but enemies.
  • Magician Karob: When I asked about the crown, he drew the letters METRAX on the ground and gave me a bronze sword. (I didn't TAKE it at first and later had to return for it.) I also found a magic balsam here, whatever that does. The manual alerted me that the way to spend accumulated experience is to LEAR(n) in front of magicians. When I did that, he took my 82 experience and gave me 41 more dexterity, 41 more intelligence, and 41 more charisma.
My new attributes.
  • Abyss of Plaxel: Seems to be a deep cave, but I couldn't find anything there.
  • Cham Nahm. A city or town with several locations to enter. The hint said that I'd find the map in the sanctuary, so I went there and searched and examined every object there but I couldn't find a damned thing.
  • Forest of Sylvius: I couldn't find the lens despite it supposedly being here.
  • Phalsberg. The town had a temple, grocery, house, sanctuary, and tavern. The temple had an altar with a key, a chest, and a gold pentagram on it. A cleric stood guard. If I tried to take the key, a stone rolled and crushed me. The house belongs to the magician Astrud. I couldn't get her to say anything about love potions, nor did she offer one for sale. There was a revitalization potion sitting in her house, and I took it.
I wonder if Astrud is tall, and tan, and young, and lovely.
As I moved from place to place, I was attacked by a variety of creatures like goblins, vampires, guards, and tigers. I dodged most of their attacks and killed them in one blow. Combat is thus far a superfluous part of the game. Moving also depletes energy, but I rested occasionally to restore it. You can also restore it by eating and drinking, which also restores strength. Resting restores more energy but less strength.
Attacked by something.
I discovered that while I can never find a way to loot a slain enemy's purse, I can STEA(l) it before I kill him.
As I was preparing to wrap this up as a short entry, I found that disembarking from one continent to the other is simply a matter of moving to the coast and waiting for the message that you see a boat, then choosing EMBA(rk). I met hydras and mermaids on the waves.
"Rocked by the Blue Waves of the Sea" would be a good song title.
I sailed to the second continent and started going through its locations:
  • Cabin of Pescaris: The fisherman was there, but he had nothing to offer.
  • Cave of the Mercenaries: A corpse was on the ground surrounded by pieces of gold. When I tried to take the gold, I found they were poisoned. An inscription on the wall was in Kalvorian: "To the poorest of the Kalvorians you will always give." I thought this might be Metrax, but all the searching and examining in the world got me nothing.
  • Cabin of the Fisher Shimann. Ditto Pescaris.
  • Manor of Philoxal. It was abandoned. I found nothing.
The view of Philoxal's cabin.
  • Sorcerer Ephidas: He had no new answers to my questions, but I exchanged some more experience.
  • Village of Bringstown. Had a cemetery, armorer, house, and tavern. The armorer sold a food ration, rope, gun, and dagger. I bought all of them. The house belonged to the sorceress Roxane. But she had nothing new to say. When I asked about the scarab, she said, "I can inform you," but then told me nothing. I tried giving her gold, but to no avail.
She was supposed to help me, but she put on the red light.
  • House of the Farmer Foutral. Found nothing.
  • Town of Tallin. The town had a cemetery, armorer, hotel, and house. The armorer sold a bow, gun, laser, and dagger. I bought the bow and laser. (There's no way to equip a specific weapon, so I assume that all I buy are adding to my effectiveness somehow.) The house was called "Hermine," and when I entered, a message said, "The power of Hermine will be of a big help to you." Despite this promise, the clairvoyant inside the house was no help.
  • Cave of the Hanging Wolf. As far as I can tell, there was nothing there.
My inventory at the end of this session.
The desert in the center of the continent was labeled "Daccic Desert," but I couldn't find any Amazons or anything that would indicate a key. There were new enemies on the continent, including snakes, tarantulas, and skeletons, none any harder than the easy enemies on the first continent.
Thus, I'm stuck. There's either a mechanic that I'm not seeing or the solutions to these puzzles are buried somewhere in the labyrinth of menu options. Either way, I'll give it a couple more hours and move on if I find nothing.
Times so far: 6 hours


Thursday, February 17, 2022

Angband: Setback

I try to clear out giant fleas before they take over the level.
Angband's primary strength, at least for the first major section, is a constant feedback loop of character development and inventory improvement. You're almost always on the cusp of a new level or being able to afford or identify a new item. It's fun for a while, then gets extraordinarily repetitive, and then comes back around and is fun for a while again. I say that still having only experienced 17 of the game's 100 levels. For all I know, there's a second-level pattern to the experience that I've yet to discover.
I don't know why any developer would make a game, let alone a permadeath game, this long. Moria was already insane at 50 levels (and it must be remembered, Moria's and Angband's levels are at least four times as large as Rogue's and NetHack's), and the author of Moria was a confessed sadist who deliberately "patched" the game every time someone won. What then to make of Cutler and Astrand? We often hear tales of bright university students who flunked out because they couldn't stop playing video games, but this is perhaps the first game I've encountered that would have absolutely demanded it. Without full-time attention, I suspect you couldn't win it in four years.
My Angband efforts have hit several snags since I last blogged about it in December, the first being that I accidentally overwrote the file in which I was keeping notes on my experiences. (I know--backups, versioning, cloud, blah blah blah.) The others are more substantive: I suffered my first character death, and then a second character death wiped away several hours of valuable progress.
My current, or at least recent, equipment loadout.
Since I began playing, I made a habit of backing up the save file every time I went back to town. I didn't have to use it until last week, when I was on Level 13 and I encountered "Golfimbul, the Hill Orc Chief." He pounded the hell out of my hit points. My general strategy had been to cast "Portal" to get away from enemies when they knocked my hit points too low, so I did that here, but it only took me about three spaces away from him. He closed the distance and finished me off with one blow. I should have tried it sooner, and I should have had a "Phase Door" backup scroll. 
I reloaded and dealt with him, earning myself a "Law Dragon Scale Mail" when he died.
On Level 17, I encountered a patch of "icky blue things." These bastards are capable of inflicting poison, confusion, and blindness, and they multiply like hell. You can just stay ahead of their reproduction if you're not blind and confused. It took me hours to clear them, and during the process, I went from character Level 17 to Level 22. 
It was important for me not to leave the level because I'd gotten a "good feeling" when I arrived, and I wanted to find the artifact. This was my undoing. Late in the level, I encountered "Boldor, King of the Yeeks" and some minion of his, the type of which I lost with my lost notes. Together, they killed me, and I lost all the levels and progress I'd made since Level 14.
Boldor was my doom.
I had a lot of other stuff to say in that lost notepad, but now I can only think of a few things based on my screenshots and current status:
  • I'm not sure what happened, but I lost a lot of maximum mana. My mana maxed at around 18 when I was back on Level 13, but nowadays it's maxing at 8. This means that I don't have enough to cast even one of the new spells I'm learning. I don't know how that happened; I didn't suffer any attribute drains.
  • At some point, I found a Longsword of Slay Evil, with which I replaced my primary weapon. Despite its name, I don't notice that it's killing monsters faster than my old magical longsword.
  • In an ironic echo of WarWizard, I sometimes can't sell items because the shopkeeper "has not the room in [his] store to keep it."
Then expand.
  • Other named enemies have included Nar, the Dwarf; Wormtongue, Agent of Saruman; and Orfax, son of Boldor. Orfax was pretty annoying. The game had him dance around me, urinate on my leg, moon me, and do all other sorts of ridiculous nonsense.
I return the gesture to this entire game.
And that short entry is my report from 10 more hours with this unending slog of a roguelike. Maybe I'll have another update in March.
Time so far: 20 hours

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Game 446: Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (1987)

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
Konami Industry Co. (developer and publisher)
Released 1987 for NES in Japan; English release in U.S. in 1988
Date Started: 5 February 2022
Date Ended: 6 February 2022
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 221/460 (48%)
I have long been vaguely aware of the Castlevania franchise, but this is my first exposure to it. My understanding is that it features a family of vampire hunters with the last name Belmont who have taken it upon themselves to kill Dracula every time he resurrects himself. That usually means exploring his castle and dealing with his various minions. The first game in the series debuted in 1986 and fielded about a dozen sequels for different platforms through 1999, all of them featuring side-scrolling action and platform gameplay. A 1999 reboot for the Nintendo 64 (Castlevania) introduced a rotating three-dimensional "behind" view (before I get to the first RPG with that view, I'll have a better name for it), and since then, the series has featured games using both types of interfaces.
Most databases agree that Castlevania II introduced enough role-playing elements to be called an RPG. MobyGames also puts that designation on Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (2003, Game Boy Advance), Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (2005, Nintendo DS), Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (2005, PlayStation 2 and Xbox), Castlevania: Order of Shadows (2007, Windows Mobile), Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (2008, Nintendo DS), and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (2010, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360). Two others are tagged with "RPG elements": Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997, PlayStation) and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001, Game Boy Advance). Having watched video of almost all of these, I'd have to say that the RPG elements seem extraordinarily light. The ones that are tagged as "RPGs" or "RPG elements" are far more like the ones not so tagged than they are like conventional RPGs. The driving game mechanic is rapid-fire action and jumping, the sort of thing I suck at.
The kind of problem I have with these games.
Nonetheless, I thought I'd check this one out because there aren't many side-scrolling RPGs or RPGs with platform elements. I played both Sorcerian (1987) and Zeliard (1987) what seems like a lifetime ago, didn't hate either, but didn't finish them largely because of the platforming bits. I have an odd reaction to side-scrolling games. On the one hand, there's something about the aesthetic that I enjoy, the unexpected implausibility of making a two-dimensional world on a vertical plane rather than a horizontal one. RPGs rarely have any sense of vertical space, even into the modern day. I also enjoy the graphical cleverness by which the designers depict people, objects, and events in such a perspective. On the other hand, the perspective makes the most sense for action gameplay, including jumping. I can't think of a side-scrolling turn-based game, nor can I even imagine what that would look like. I'm sure my readers will tell me they exist, but they must be rare.
Experience, levels, and an economy of "hearts" is this game's claim to RPG status.
(Let me pause here for a rant about how much I hate game titles that offer no easy shorthand. Castlevania sounds like I'm talking about the first one. Quest is too generic, and I obviously can't call it Simon's. Am I supposed to just refer to it as II?)
The manual provides a brief backstory: you play Simon Belmont, a "gothic warrior respected by kings," who defeated Count Dracula in the first Castlevania. But in his victory, Simon apparently acquired the vampire's curse. He is plagued by nightmares, and instead of healing, the wounds he received from Dracula are growing worse. A beautiful maiden appears in a vision to tell him that his only hope is to find the "five body parts" of Dracula and burn them in his castle. So it's kind of a self-serving quest.
A little in-game backstory.
You start with a leather whip, 50 hearts (the game's currency), and three lives in personal injury lawyer's dream. To get through the tiered town, like most places in the game, you have to jump over gaps between platforms. Water instantly kills you. I lost a couple of early-game characters just figuring out the jumping system's tolerance for error.
The starting town, Jova, is one of five in the world. Each town has NPCs wandering outside, plus doors leading into "shops" that sell exactly one item each. Most towns have a temple, which are the only places in the game that you can restore lost health. There are otherwise no healing potions or spells, although health also restores on the rare occasions that you level up.
I'm surprised Nintendo allowed the religious iconography.
You can carry a maximum of 256 hearts at once, and I generally found that the best strategy upon arriving in a new town, if I couldn't already afford everything it sold, was to just grind until I could. It doesn't take long.
I'm not sure what garlic ever did for me, but I bought some.
NPCs supposedly give you hints as to how to complete the game, but most of them are either nonsense or outright lies. You have to talk to all of them because even the outdoor ones occasionally sell something you need. The game has a day/night cycle and keeps track of the passage of days. At night, enemies get twice as hard (i.e., they require twice the number of attacks to kill) but drop more hearts. Indoor locations in town are closed during the night and the NPCs on the streets are replaced with zombies. Curiously, no time passes when you're inside one of the game's mansions. 
If this is true, I never found any clues. Dracula doesn't really have a "riddle" anyway.
Combat is a mostly-simple affair of facing an enemy and hitting the "B" button to attack. You can jump just before you to do so to make a high attack or squat to make a low one. It's one of the quirks in the series that the Belmont men favor whips. The leather whip gets upgraded to a thorn whip, then a chain whip, and then a morningstar, all sold in towns, each about twice as powerful as the one before. Late in the game, you can find an NPC who adds a flame ability to the morning star and makes it even more deadly. Enemies mostly keep up with the increased damage done by the whips, and for almost the entire game, you face enemies who die in one or two hits.
An NPC upgrades my morningstar.
At first, I thought the purpose of the whip was to allow the player to attack at a distance while avoiding the lunacy presented in most side-scrolling action games in which a single weapon somehow becomes an inexhaustible missile reservoir. But this game has that, too. You find secondary weapons like daggers and holy water vials that work like missiles that never run out, although some of them consume your hearts. Daggers attack in a straight line from the character, but holy water potions and some others attack in an arc so you can hit enemies on lower platforms.
I jumped to throw that dagger at this skeleton.
The RPG elements in Castlevania II are mostly illusory, it turns out. Yes, you have experience and levels, but in way that satisfies the letter of "character development" without satisfying the spirit. I'm pretty sure that gaining levels only increases your maximum health. Specifically, you get two health bars per level from a starting point of 12 bars. That's barely noticeable. And even that development is somewhat illusory. In a real RPG, health is a resource to be managed. You have to sacrifice some of it to win battles and level up. In action games like this one, success depends on hardly ever losing any health. If you do, you've screwed something up. Those bars have to last you from the last temple through several hostile wilderness maps, through at least one castle map, and back through a couple more hostile wilderness maps on the way back to town. As such, whether you have 12 or 16 bars really doesn't make that much of a difference.
Skeletons come at me while spiders shoot webs. Moments like this are rare, however.
(I often get so hung up on the issue of character development that I forget I have two other criteria in my definition of an RPG. If I'm right that leveling doesn't make you any stronger, then this game fails the third one and thus needn't have been played. That didn't occur to me until I was almost finished.)
Thus, despite the halfhearted inclusion of some RPG elements, the game plays somewhat indistinguishably from its predecessor. As neither an action game nor a platformer is it particularly hard. Enemies always appear in fixed locations and do exactly the same things. Only a couple of them have ranged attacks. The platform puzzles are so simple that they're barely "puzzles." Only in a few places do the platforms move. 
Even when the individual enemies and platform puzzles are easy, a platformer can be hard if you're fat-fingered like me. All it takes is one ill-timed jump in every dozen, and you lose a life. Lose three lives and the game is over. But in Castlevania II, all you have to do is hit "continue" to keep playing from your death position. The only consequences are that you lose your accumulated hearts and however many experience points you've earned since your last level. Both are relatively easy to replenish with a little grinding. You stop gaining experience from enemies once you've outclassed them anyway, so I found that my best strategy was, upon reaching each new town, to note whether the enemies in adjacent screens were giving me experience or not. If so, I grinded until they stopped. I only made 4 levels in the entire game, and I'm not sure that any of them were really necessary.
This was the hardest part of the game for me to pass. I couldn't time my jumps right to avoid bonking my head on the ceiling while going for the next platform.
The game is divided into screens and areas. Each area scrolls for about three or four screens horizontally and up to two or three screens vertically before making a hard transition to a new area. There are a little over 40 areas in the game. Apparently, the English version of the game didn't have a map, but the Japanese version did, so I allowed myself to use it. It wasn't a lot of help, particularly since it suggests a two-dimensional surface whereas the reality of the game is one-dimensional "on the ground." Nonetheless, it helped keep me a little oriented. I printed it and made annotations on it and found myself wondering why I don't do that more often for computer RPGs. Much of the world is theoretically "open" as you begin the game, but the value of that is dubious when there is such an obvious order imposed by enemy difficulty and plot. The ultimate goal is to explore five mansions, recover Dracula's rib, eye, ring, heart, and nail, and toss those items into a pyre in Dracula's castle. A few of the mansions can't be explored until you find certain items, and there are parts of the game where you need to have a particular item to progress.
There are a couple of things that make the game difficult, if not particularly challenging. The first is a number of places in which the way forward requires you to find illusory passages (they look like stone walls or floors, but you can pass right through them) or smash blocks of stone. There's no way to identify these locations, and they don't even occur in obvious places such as the ends of otherwise-empty corridors. Thus, to find all of the objects and clues in the game, not to mention some plot-critical items and NPCs, you have to essentially test every block. These blocks can only be smashed by weapons that fire in an arc, including holy water, Dracula's nail, and something called a "sacred flame" that I never found. 
Here, it's obvious those blocks need to be smashed if I'm going to have any hope of jumping to the next platform.

But how would you know this room had a destructible floor unless you tried every floor?
The second problem is that a couple of places require you to solve a puzzle when it's not clear that there is a puzzle. For instance, there's one screen in which you find yourself up against a body of water with no platforms. To progress, you have to cause the water to "drain" by equipping a blue crystal and squatting for a few seconds. If this is clued in the game, it's clued vaguely. There's another place where a ferryman takes you across a lake, but you really need him to take you to a different location. To get him to do that, you have to have Dracula's heart equipped when you talk to him; I don't believe this is clued anywhere. In a third place, you have to equip a red crystal and squat in front of a cliff.
Kneeling here summons a whirlwind to carry me away.
It would be cool if the game had let the NPCs clue you as to these puzzles, as well as to the locations of secret areas, but the lines you get from NPCs are either misleading or useless. For instance, an NPC in Aldra tells you, "Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole." I guess "Deborah Cliff" is not a person but the cliff I referred to in the paragraph above, but I don't see how kneeling next to it with a crystal has anything to do with hitting it with your head. Another woman in Aldra says, "I'll see you at midnight on the river bank," but she's never at any riverbank at midnight. I guess poor translations from Japanese are responsible for some of these useless clues; numerous reviews of the game note them.
I don't see why Deborah Cliff deserves such cruelty.
For a modern player with access to walkthroughs, these frustrations are easily overcome, but I can only imagine the frustration I would have felt as a child. I do like my games to last longer than 8 hours, but only because they have content, not because I have to methodically toss a vial of holy water at every brick. Maybe some players liked it, though. I have vague memories of Super Mario Brothers and how most fans played its screens hundreds of times, discovering every single block that could be smashed, every hidden passage, every secret object. Kids have that kind of time.
At the doorway to a mansion. You have to find five of them.
The mansions are disappointingly easy. (Online, they all have names. In game, I never saw any names.) Each one requires you to explore only a small area with only a few puzzles. In each one, you have to find an NPC selling an oak stake, then find a crystal ball, then use the stake on the crystal ball to smash it and get Dracula's body part. Only two of the mansions have bosses, and of the two bosses, only one is required and the other is moronically easy to beat. It really says something when someone like me, who sucks at action games, is disappointed by the bosses. 
Approaching the crystal ball in one of the mansions.
The first boss is "Death," who swirls around what I guess is Braham Mansion. I encountered him so late in the game that I had already concluded there were no bosses. He throws scythes at you. I didn't know he was optional when I encountered him, so I just dodged the scythes, waited for him to float towards the ground, and whipped him to death. He left a gold dagger which is a decent throwing weapon but consumes your accumulated hearts with each toss.
It feels like "Death" should outrank Dracula, but I guess not.
The second boss is a giant floating head found in Laruba Mansion, which was the second-to-last one I explored but I guess the last one listed in most walkthroughs. It occasionally explodes into missile weapons, but they're easy to avoid if you stand out of the way. The rest of the time, it moves in predictable circles, allowing you to kill it by jumping and throwing a dagger. It leaves a cross behind, which is necessary to enter the titular Castlevania.
The unexciting combat with the floating head boss.
Once you have the five body parts, you journey to Castlevania, which I was surprised to discover is both quite small and doesn't have a single enemy except for Dracula, who like the flying mask is almost insultingly easy. Once you enter his room, the game takes over and shows you tossing each of the five body parts into some kind of receptacle. It erupts into flames, and Dracula appears. He flies around the room, sometimes makes copies of himself, and tosses whirling knives at you. But I just stood in place and whipped away and killed him without even losing half of my health--and I was two levels below the game's maximum.
The endgame text shows Dracula's grave and gives you a message letter-by-letter:
The battle has consummated. Now peace and serenity have been restored to Transylvania and the people are free of Dracula's curse forever. And you, Simon Belmont, will always be remembered for your bravery and courage.
What I now know is the "bad" ending.
After I won and was researching the game online, I was surprised to find that this is the "bad" ending. There are actually three potential endings that depend on how long you take to complete the game. I paid no heed to that. I went off and made dinner at one point while the game transitioned relentlessly between day and night in my absence. But the odd thing is that the "medium" and "good" endings don't necessarily sound any better. In fact the medium ending is notably worse:
Although the confrontation between Simon and Dracula has concluded, Simon couldn't survive his fatal wounds. Transylvania's only hope is a young man who will triumph over evil and rid the city of Dracula's deadly curse.
Not only is Simon dead in this version and not "remembered for his bravery and courage," but he apparently didn't actually win the game. I can't imagine this text wasn't intended for the "bad" ending, particularly since the "medium" ending seems to depict Simon kneeling at Dracula's grave whereas the "bad" one shows the grave by itself. Anyway, the "good" ending reads:
The encounter with Dracula is terminated. Simon Belmont has put an end to the eternal darkness in Transylvania. His blood and sweat have penetrated the earth and will induce magic and happiness for those who walk on the land.
While this text is arguably better, it also depicts Dracula's hand thrusting from the ground at the end, which neither of the others do.
The screen is shaking at this point, so the still image is blurry.
While the ordinal nature of the text may be questionable, the graphical quality of the ending scene does follow a clear order from worst to best. The "bad" ending is in black and white, and without Simon. The "medium" one shows a colorful daytime scene, and the "good" one shows a nice evening red sky plus treats the player to a bonus scene teasing the sequel.
The normal colors of the "medium" ending.

The somewhat haunting colors of the "good" ending.
I won in about seven hours using walkthroughs to get me past a few difficult parts. I missed some items, including a useful weapon called a "sacred flame." There are a couple of places in the game where you can buy laurels, which temporarily render you invincible and are necessary to cross long stretches of deadly swamp. You can only hold four of them at a time, and I guess there's an NPC who gives you a bag that allows you to double that, but I didn't find him. I missed a few cluebooks hidden in walls, none of which would have helped me that much, and I ended the game two levels below the maximum. Overall, aside from having to get help from walkthroughs when the puzzles were too obscure, I didn't find anything to be terribly upset about. The game lasted a defensible number of hours, had some good visuals, and was easy to master in terms of controls. Like most console games of the era, the music is repetitive, relentless, and impossible to turn off independently of the sound, so I can't say anything about the sound effects.
I gave it a 25 on the GIMLET. It does best (4s) in "gameplay" (short, not too hard) and "graphics, sound, and interface," worst (1) in character development, and 2s and 3s in everything else. One thing I'll say about console games of the period is that they knew how to make the best use of their gamepads. I'll always prefer a keyboard to a gamepad, but so many RPG programmers of the 1980s and 1990s had no idea how to effectively use the keyboard, or worse, ignored the keyboard and required a joystick or mouse. (As much as I prefer a keyboard to a gamepad, I prefer a gamepad to a joystick or mouse-only interface.) There is thus something refreshing about playing a game like Castlevania II and knowing that you're not going to have any insanity like WarWizard's hidden inventory windows, Towers's mouse-only combat, or Phalsberg's use of a joystick to move among 45 keywords.
Of Castlevania II, Wikipedia says:
Gameplay of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest departs from the standard platforming genre of the first Castlevania for a game inspired by The Maze of Galious. It features nonlinear gameplay and role-playing elements such as a world map which the player is free to explore and revisit.
To me, this paragraph is written by someone who fundamentally doesn't understand RPGs. I don't think any serious RPG player would play Castlevania II and think that it's an "open-world" game or that it's "role-playing elements" represent a significant departure from its predecessor. I've watched videos of both the original Castlevania and The Maze of Galious, and to me the sequel seems almost identical to the first (but for the dubious inclusion of "experience") and almost nothing like the latter, which has much more complex enemy and platform movements and much more abstract environments, not to mention a classical Goofy Cartoonish Little Man (GCLM), which the Castlevania series mercifully avoids. I don't think if I were a fan of the series, I would lament or even notice the loss of II's so-called "RPG elements" in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.
For those readers wondering why I played it at all, it was a product of my occasional (roughly every five entries) tendency to randomize my list of abandoned and rejected games and give a try to whatever comes up. In this case, it was a bit irresponsible given how many balls I have in the air already. I have to finish the seemingly endless Angband, which is now actively boring me, finish the seemingly impenetrable Phalsberg, finish the long WarWizard (which seems to be getting better), and wrap up my ongoing replay of Pool of Radiance, which for some reason I've lost interest in. Also, this week brought me nearly simultaneous messages from LanHawk, who figured out a way past the copy protection obstacle in Towers, and the co-creator of Towers, who sent me the game manual. And all of this while I'm still completely reeling from the start of this semester and getting over my bout with COVID. This is all to say that I apologize if things are a bit rough for a few more weeks.