Friday, March 11, 2022

Game 449: Middle Kingdom (1984)

Lots of mysteries on this title screen. See below.
     
Middle Kingdom
Brazil
Jay-Soft, Ltd. (developer?), Computerware (publisher)
Released 1984 for TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started: 5 March 2022
Date Ended: 5 March 2022
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Very Easy (1.0/5) at medium difficulty level
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
    
Jesus please-us, at this rate I'm going to be able to write my reviews in a tweet. I've been letting random rolls guide me this week, but I may need to take charge before I die of anemia.
   
Middle Kingdom might be the first game that I've won before taking a screenshot of any of the action in the game. The first shot I took was the winning screen. It took me less than 10 minutes. I was able to win twice in about half an hour. 
       
The brief character creation process.
     
The game's graphics suggests some inspiration from one of the Daniel Lawrence "DND" line, perhaps Telengard, but it plays far more simply than even that. You start off specifying a difficulty level from 1-3, a name, and a profession (magician, warrior, or merchant). I'm not sure that the starting profession affects anything more than starting equipment. Then you're thrust into a small dungeon on a quest to retrieve 3 magical rings and return them to the starting point so you can be crowned king of your land.
     
Starting out. To win, I have to return here with three magic rings.
     
The dungeon configuration, monster allocation, and item distribution are randomized for each new game, but the dungeon consists of no more than a couple dozen rooms. You could find all three rings within the first few rooms, as I did the first time, and win before you wonder where the $27.95 you spent for the disk went.
   
Controls couldn't be simpler. You move around the dungeon with the arrows. Under the map, you see the entirety of your inventory, which includes weapons (e.g., axe, sword, trident, bow) or spells ("Fireball," "Lightning Bolt," "Petrify"). All you have to do is hit the number corresponding to the item you want to use in combat, and it will automatically activate the next time you meet an enemy. You change items during combat if one seems ineffective. There are no other commands.
    
Fighting a troll with my sword. I also have a dagger, "Lightning Bolt" spell, and "Fireball" spell. One of the magic rings waits beyond the obstacle in the room (which I could never do anything with).
   
Enemies are the usual D&D-derived monsters, like ogres, trolls, lizardmen, zombies, and dwarves. You trade blows automatically and gain experience if you win. You also gain points to your "score." I don't know what either does for you. Treasures are also of dubious value since there's nothing to spend them on and the game doesn't keep track of a scoreboard.
   
That's really all there is to report about the game. There's something vaguely cute about it, and with more tactics it would be a passable way to spend a couple of hours. It's hard to regard it as an RPG without knowing more about what "experience" does. I give it a 10 on the GIMLET with 0s for the game world, character development, NPCs, and economy and some 1s and 2s elsewhere.
     
My first act as ruler will be to give my kingdom an actual name.
      
As with Monsters & Magic, we have something of an international mystery here. The game is credited on various web sites to a developer called "Jay-Soft, Ltd.," and indeed that designation appears on the title screen of some of those sites. I can't find any reference to the company that is not also a reference to Middle Kingdom. The mystery is that we don't use "Ltd." in the United States, and yet the game was published by California-based Computerware. It gets even weirder, though. On the version I was able to find (as well as the one on MobyGames), instead of Jay-Soft, the title screen has a copyright to a personal author, Carlos Simoes. Under it, it says "TEL. 241-2614 SP." There aren't enough numbers there for it to be a telephone number in any country I know (and this was almost 40 years ago), and I'm not sure what "SP" would be. The only possible reference I could find to a Carlos Simoes came from a TRS-80 message board based in Brazil. [Update: based on comments, I'm satisfied that the developer was in Brazil and have changed the country of origin accordingly.] Solve that while I try to find a more interesting game for the weekend.
    

38 comments:

  1. If the author was Brazilian, there's a good chance that the 241-2614 is just his telephone number. That was the usual format in Brazil in the 1980s. For example, you can see this if you look in the ads near the end of this Sao Paulo newspaper from Jan 1, 1983:

    https://acervo.folha.com.br/leitor.do?numero=8273&anchor=4299038&origem=busca&originURL=&pd=652c2dffaaf57f3a4dd3b68bc72ab2c9

    The SP might just mean it's a Sao Paulo number.

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    1. I'm Brazilian, and I can say that your assumptions are all correct.

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    2. Furthermore, "Ltd." or "Ltda" is a common legal designation in Brazil for commercial companies.

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    3. I opened the link to check for phone numbers, but the real learning there was that Blade Runner was apparently called "Caçador de Androides" in Brazil.

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    4. We also learn that Blade Runner was considered the second worst film showing that week in São Paulo theaters (the Bolsa de Cinema box in the lower left of the second page).

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    5. Retrocomputing + Brazil? *raises hand*

      The CoCo was somewhat popular here in the 80s, together with the MSX. We had the so-called market reserve, blocking foreign companies from entering the (computer) market, so we depended on the national ones specially for hardware. "Prológica" was extremely successfull on producing and selling the TRS80 machines here (just google 'CP400' and/or 'CP500'). This market reserve applied to sofware as well, so piracy was pretty much not an option but a necessity.

      And no doubt Carlos Simoes was an actual CoCo user, check his comment here (book title speaks for itself):

      https://www.retrocomputaria.com.br/2014/03/06/coco-the-colorful-history-of-tandys-underdog-computer-a-resenha/

      In 2014 he posts: "Great. I miss the days of my dear CoCo"

      It is not impossible at all that the game was written by himself and the publisher/developer were made up in a different version to pass the game as an actual 'northern hemisphere' piece of software, or even 'just because'. Back then most information we had came from magazines and it was not uncommon to see ads for homemade games with some sort of completely unverifiable "success in Europe!!!" claim. The Ltd. thing just makes this more likely, heh.

      (The OPPOSITE seems highly unlikely due to the lack of any information regarding dev/publisher)

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    6. Well, thanks everyone. The phone number tripped me up because Brazilian exchanges use four digits, but I guess that wasn't the case in the 1980s. I'm satisfied this is from Brazil and have marked it as such. Now the question becomes how a Brazilian developer got in touch with a publisher in Tucson, Arizona.

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    7. Sorry--confusing my publishers. Computerware was in Enciniatas. Prickly Pear was in Tucson. Question still stands.

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    8. No, no, we're clearly going down the wrong track! We should almost certainly be looking for someone named Jason or Jacob Soft, probably in the UK...

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    9. Maybe somebody less-than-legitimately found this RPG from Brazil on some BBS and (with or without their knowledge) sold this game through Computerware as their own "Jay-Soft" creation without the original creator's knowledge or involvement, banking on the fact that Brazil was too far away for any litigation of consequence to happen? I mean, shady practices like that happened a lot during the microcomputer era.

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    10. I mean in this case it would've been easy to do so, with the entire game coded in Basic and this very easily edited to fit one's one purposes - or title screen credentials.

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    11. I bet you are right El depertando! That happened a good bit in the early 80s. I remember the old 7 digit numbers in the US fondly... was a pain to suddenly have to use the area code for everything. But necessary.

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    12. There is one (that I could find) screenshot of the JaySoft/ComputerWare intro screen here: http://www.lcurtisboyle.com/nitros9/middlekingdom.html

      And ComputerWare was an actual publisher, with several ads on printed magazines. Check these two:

      https://imgur.com/Is7UB0Y (poor scan but good enough)
      https://imgur.com/a/K2JGT1x (check the attractive authorship box bottom left)

      So we have pretty much three scenarios:

      .Carlos himself wrote the game and got in contact with ComputerWare for publishing;

      . Carlos got the game from ComputerWare somehow and replaced it with his own info, possibly for no reason other than 'tagging' it; that was not uncommon at all here in the mid 80s, specific reasons in my previous post; adding his own phone number, however, would be quite unusual;

      . as El Despertando wrote, someone else got his game and sent it to ComputerWare through that authorship program on the image I linked above; seems perfectly possible.

      Nevertheless, the file that is available all over is likely the very same game, and in the commercial version author was simply replaced with (likely made up) softhouse + actual publisher data on title screen.

      Btw, the DnD-like setting, including monsters and stats, is somewhat unlikely for a game created here in that period. Actual DnD material - printed books/guides/campaigns - was not something you would come across easily, albeit possible to obtain.

      Really hard to reach any conclusion, but back in 1984 I find it quite unlikely that ComputerWare would actually close a deal with a non-company/single person outside US. Taxes + forms for transfering payments alone would already give them hell.

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    13. "Carlos got the game from ComputerWare somehow and replaced it with his own info, possibly for no reason other than 'tagging' it; that was not uncommon at all here in the mid 80s." That's a possibility I hadn't thought of. Weird that it would turn out to be one of the only surviving versions, though.

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  2. I understand this is a TRS-80 game, but the screenshots have a distinct Classic Game Boy vibe.

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    1. The text is very sharp and readable; the original would have been extremely fuzzy on a colour TV.

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    2. I also thought it was GameBoy at first glance. I was getting Sword of Kadash vibes as well seeing the dungeon rooms.

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  3. Wow -- two Coco games in a row! Chet is making a very deep dive into the library of obscure titles.

    Was it necessary to increase the speed in whatever emulator you used? In my experience, drawing complex, high-resolution graphics was a painfully slow process.

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    1. The Color Computer has given me a lot of trouble with emulation. I burned through two or three emulators before settling on xroar, which I originally got as a Dragon 32/64 emulator. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to offer the ability to increase the speed except going directly to "warp" mode, which of course over-reads inputs and makes you miss key scenes if you're not careful with it.

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  4. Betcha could use some more of that Pool of Radiance replay after these, huh? Nudge, nudge...

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    1. I've kind of lost steam with that side-project, but I suppose I should wrap it up eventually. I think part of the problem is that Sorcerer's Island is next, and I hate that part of the game.

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    2. After the Phalsberg frustration, the WarWizard slog and a couple short, but apparently rather unfulfilling outings like this one, I also think you've earned yourself something nice. And tactical Goldbox combats plus the remaining POR story (plus comparing it to the module) sound just like they could be it. Even if coupled with some more annoying features like those in the pyramid.

      Also, one of the great things about POR (especially for its time) is you do not have to do everything in fixed order. I'll ROT13 the rest for those that don't know it yet and still might wish to play it:

      Juvyr vg'f gehr gung vg urycf gb qb gur Yvmneq pnfgyr bayl nsgre gur clenzvq, jul abg qb gur Abznq pnzc svefg gb trg onpx vagb vg (qba'g erpnyy gur clenzvq univat na vzcnpg gurer) naq qvq lbh nyernql ivfvg gur Fvyire Qentba?

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    3. PS: And see Sasha again! Shouldn't that by itself not be tempting enough?

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    4. Interestingly, I found Sorcerer's Island very easy _because_ Ruins of Adventure told me how to handle the teleporters.

      Keep Search on at all times in the pyramid. When you're told you see rocks scattered about the smooth flagstones, if it's the very first teleporter, just walk into it. For each subsequent teleporter, throw one rock and then step into it. This will lead you directly to Yarash.

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  5. Regarding the potential drawbacks of letting random rolls guide you as to what game to play next: I'm not sure about your current modus operandi now that the "upcoming" list is gone. But to give you a somewhat higher chance for variety in style and content (if not necessarily also always quality), maybe alternate between different "ages" when playing games that are not next in your current chronological order? E.g. pre 1985, 1986-1989 and 1990ff. (or any other subdivision you feel makes sense taking into account the number of games in your "bag" from each of them).

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  6. At least the UI sounds easy to use. Lots of better games fail at that.

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  7. How about Betrayal at Krondor next? You deserve playing something good for a change.

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    1. That's what I would suggest as well. IMO next milestone RPG.

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    2. Alternatively, what about Ambermoon, another 1993 game? Haven't played it myself yet, but read and heard good things about it.

      Or for a different experience, get Uncharted Waters from your 1990 "bag"? Sounds a bit like Pirates with which you had a lot of fun. Plus its sequel New Horizons is also on the master game list for the current year.

      And of course there's also FRUA in 1993 if you have the Goldbox craving, but don't (yet) want to do the Sorcerer's Isle / pyramid in POR / the module.

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    3. PS: The "Gold" version of Pirates! is also from 1993. Back then you had said: "Although I probably tested the patience of CRPG purists with these postings, I added Pirates! Gold and the 2004 re-release to my list, maybe just for one posting, to see what's changed. I look absurdly forward to finding out".

      Don't see them there (anymore), probably since they don't qualify as CRPGs and the list has become so much longer over time - quite understandable, though it also might provide a welcome respite and diversion.

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    4. Dark Sun was only three 1993 games ago, and there are still ~50 games to play for that year. Got to space the well-known, enjoyable games out a bit more if you don't want all the unknown games towards the end.

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    5. Agreed on either Ambermoon or Betrayal at Krondor. 1993 so far has only provided one addition to the must-play list. I think the Addict needs a couple of good games in a row. 1993 is a lot. Maybe treat yourself with some top 1993 games first and then alternate between the "bad" 1993 games and the first 1994 games?
      1993 also has the classic "Syndicate" on the list, not really an RPG, but a real-time version of X-COM, basically. Maybe try that for a change?

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    6. I appreciate the suggestions, but I'm not going to get into hand-choosing upcoming games. That will lead to all kinds of problems. All the ones listed here will come up eventually.

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    7. the SNES port of New Horizons is kind of my last great unexpected love from the SNES era. Something genuinely different from most JRPGs but still hitting a lot of the elements that I like about them.

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  8. Barely seems worth the bother of reviewing. We need another site to do these.

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    1. As a game, it doesn’t offer much, but the fact that it lead to a discussion of 1980s Brazilian computing made it worthwhile imo.

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    2. But the entire purpose of this site is to play through every RPG ever, isn't it? It's not a "best of" review site, but a comprehensive look at the genre within its historical context.

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  9. well, the locals must badly want a king, so they made it an easy challenge

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