Monday, August 29, 2022

Game 467: Dungeons and Dragons (1980)

There is no title screen. You have to type YES on this screen, not just "Y."
Dungeons and Dragons
United States
Aurora Software Associates (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Ohio Scientific Computers
Titled The Wizard's City in 1981 catalogs but not in-game 
Date Started: 18 August 2022
Date Ended: 18 August 2022
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5) to stay alive, but there's no goal
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Dungeons and Dragons is a rare game for a rare platform, uncovered only because my colleague, El Explorador de RPG, has been going through old catalogs. (I owe my ability to play this game to his instructions and the work of a dedicated Ohio Scientific Instruments fan named Mark, who has preserved software and documentation for the platform.) It isn't much of a game, but anything from the RPG dark ages (1975-1981) is worthy of at least some attention. Its limited content won't occupy us for long.
I have chosen the title Dungeons because it seems to be the original, marketed as such by Aurora Software in 1980 and early 1981 catalogs and magazines. At some point in 1981, Aurora changed its address from Springville, Utah to Cleveland, Ohio, and changed the name of this game in catalogs to The Wizard's City. There was no change in the actual game file, which displays no title screen. The only version of the game I was able to find was on a disk crammed with other Aurora Software titles. Dungeons is listed in the disk's menu as DUNOSI (the "OSI" part standing for Ohio Scientific Instruments), although I can't say for sure that this was the original file name as opposed to what was chosen by whoever prepared the compilation disk. Dunosi also means "dunes" in Italian, but I doubt that's what they were going for. [Ed., as el Explorador points out himself in the comments, I missed an even earlier ad in which the game was called Dungeons and Dragons. That means they re-named it twice. Title changed accordingly!]
An early-1981 ad selling the game as Dungeons.
The game is mostly text with some limited graphics. You begin by rolling a character, whose attributes are strength, intelligence, dexterity, and constitution, rolled at random on a scale of 1 to 18. You choose your profession from fighter, dwarf, halfling, elf, and magic-user classes, with attributes modified in expected ways (e.g., fighters get more strength, elves more intelligence). Your hit points are calculated based partly on your constitution, but see below. Your starting gold depends on how good or bad your attributes are; lower attributes mean more gold.
Character creation.
The game then starts in a city represented by a row of buildings. Am I right that these are just characters in a symbol typeset? I'm sure I've seen those little "house" characters before somewhere. Anyway, the only thing you can do in the city is to rest safely and purchase "more armor." You probably don't have enough gold to buy any armor when you first start the game, but you later get it by killing monsters. Every time you buy a piece of armor, it increases your armor class by 1. I amused myself thinking of an armorer welding a new plate to some unwieldy patchwork every time the adventurer stops by with a few hundred gold pieces.
This city clearly has Texas-style zoning regulations.
The number keys from 1 to 5 control all actions in the game. To get out of the city, you either hit "1" to move down to the dungeon or "2" or "3" to move (respectively) west or east into the forest. Once in either location, "2" and "3" move you west and east along either the forest or the dungeon corridor. The game tells you how far you've moved from your origin point. If you want to go back to town from the forest, you just have to go as many moves in the opposite direction as you did when you left. To return from the dungeon, you have to return to a central passage the same way, then hit "4". Once you're in the dungeon passage, hitting "1" moves you to the next lowest level. No matter where you are, "5" rests, but it only heals you if you're in town. 
The only action occurs when you meet an enemy in the dungeon or the forest. The game shows you his name, hit points, number of attacks, armor class, dexterity, and strength. Enemies have better statistics the lower you go and the farther you travel. By name, they include bandits, zombies, giant toads, trolls, werewolves, large spiders, and "wrights," which I guess is maybe a combination of a wraith and a wight.
A fight with a berserker in the dungeon.
In combat, you have three "options": flee, attack, and cast a spell. Flee hardly ever works, and the other two aren't really "options" except for the elf, since mages can only cast spells and everyone else can only attack. I don't know how the elf decides what to do. Spells don't deplete a mana pool or spell slots or anything, and you can't specify anything about the spell you cast. Combat is thus mostly random. If you win, you get experience and gold. Once you have enough experience, you can rest in town to increase your level and maximum hit points. 
It's pretty hard to survive to Level 2. If you roll less than 8 hit points, you might as well not even bother. Even with high attributes, three bad combat rounds in which you miss and the enemy hits are enough to kill most starting characters. You often get multiple enemies in a row, preventing you from reaching the passage to return to the surface. Occasionally, trap doors dump you down a dungeon level, or from the forest to the dungeon.
A fight with a snake in the forest.
I'm not even sure the attributes work the way they're supposed to. I started to get suspicious of some of my results--characters with 18 strength missing four attacks in a row and so forth--that I started collecting data. I rolled character after character, making each one a fighter, and immediately going to the forest east of the city once the game started. I repeatedly waited for enemies, fought each round, and returned to the city to heal if I lost even one hit point. If I had enough money, I bought armor, then returned to the forest. Some weird statistics emerged:

  • It took me 17 characters before I survived to Level 2.
  • The correlation between constitution and hit points was a strong 0.75, but there were some major outliers.
  • A couple of sets of stats showed up more than once in only 17 rolls. Trials #1, #4, and #11 produced the same numbers, as did #12 and #17.
  • My most successful characters had some of the lowest strength scores.
Tracking character statistics and success. "Combats" is how many combats he survived.
As the 17th character increased in levels, it became clear that monsters were increasing in difficulty with him. You can't just stay near the town and farm easy experience points. I suspect what's happening is that the game takes into consideration some totality of your attributes and level in setting enemy difficulty, so that it really doesn't matter whether you're weak or strong, as you're always pitted against a comparable enemy. Perhaps someone with more programming acumen can hypothesize what is happening with those "random" numbers or determine through code inspection how enemy difficulty is determined.
My most successful character.
I was going to do the same for spellcasters, who seem to have a slightly easier time, but I got a bit bored. There really isn't much to the game, and there's no winning condition. The best you can do is keep trying to level up and record your highest scores on a notepad or something. There's no way to save the game except to manually record your statistics, then say "No" when the game asks if you want to roll a new character. At that point, you can enter whatever statistics you want.
As far as I can tell, this is the only RPG for the short-lived (1977-1981) Ohio Scientific Instruments platform, and the only RPG from Aurora Software Associates, which also sold disk utilities and business software. Their games catalog includes a lot of OSI adaptations of common mainframe games of the era, including Trek, an adaptation of the grid-based Star Trek, and an adaptation of (Colossal Cave) Adventure. Since they clearly had access to these mainframes, I'm inclined to think that Dungeons was inspired by one of Daniel Lawrence's Dungeons and Dragons versions (see this entry for a full history), although Dungeons is stripped of so many features that it's barely recognizable. Alas, the author of Dungeons seems to have been lost to history.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Dungeon Master II: Outdoor Neophytes IV

Cletus has come a long way in a short time.
I had left my first entry just after discovering the shops outside the "Hall" of Champions. I figured out how they worked, but I didn't really sell or buy anything. I just noted their locations and what types of things they traded. In clockwise order, the armor shop was followed by a clothing store, a tavern, and a weapons shop.
A fountain outside yielded coins but didn't let me drink from it. I was annoyed, but then a couple steps away from that, in the tavern, was a wall fountain that offered free water. The tavern also had a little niche in which I found a key. This fit into an obelisk and opened a door to the east of the shops--the only way out of this area.

It was in the next area that things broke down a bit. I encountered more blobs, plus those giant worms that reliably produced meat in Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back. Around the same time, I remembered that in the Dungeon Master series, a full magic bar is simply wasted character development potential. Since I had enemies to practice on, and party members who needed healing, I decided to start experimenting with spells. I hadn't found any spell scrolls yet, but I knew that I could determine some combinations by just playing with the runes. Also, some of the potions I'd found gave clues as to the necessary runes.
Giant worms and their food form a never-ending cycle of character development and restoration.
Skullkeep's spell system (like its predecessors') works by stringing together up to four runes, one each from a set of six. The first set of runes represents the power of the spell, and I think that any of them can be used with any other valid combination. The second set represents the governing element--earth, water, wind, fire, dark, or light. The third set is the "form" of the spell, which is a little hard to interpret, and the fourth is the "alignment," here a mix of moral alignments and character classes (fighter, wizard, ninja, priest, good, evil).
The manual gives all the runes names (recall the FUL YA forge in Chaos Strikes Back, which meant "fire earth"), but you never see them in the game, only the spells' glyphs. Further, when you're casting a spell, a little icon appears above the spell's glyph to remind you of the rune's associated property. Because of this, I took notes based on what the pictures depicted rather than the runes' formal names.
The dimensions of spellcasting.
Since the first set of runes just controls the power of the spell, you don't really have to think about those. That leaves 6 + (6 x 6) + (6 x 6 x 6) = 258 potential combinations of the others. I don't know how many valid ones there are, but I verified that each of the runes in the "elemental" set by itself (i.e., with nothing else but a power rune) casts a valid spell except for ZO, the rune for darkness or negative material. The others are:
  • Earth (YA): Makes a stamina potion.
  • Water (VI): Makes a healing potion.
  • Wind (OH): I don't know. It casts something, though.
  • Fire (FUL):Casts a light spell.
  • Light (DES): Shoots some kind of missile.

I'm frankly surprised the last two aren't reversed. You'd think light would cast light and anything invoking a missile would use fire. In any event, while I was experimenting, I remembered that in the previous Dungeon Master games, there was a fireball spell that I used a lot because it just required you to click the rune directly underneath FUL, which is IR and has something to do with flying. I tried it here and it worked fine. It feels like cheating a bit to use it already, but the manual does encourage experimentation, and I imagine I would have gotten here by logic. I don't know if all the spells in this game are exactly the same as in the first one; if so, that would give a player with a lot of Dungeon Master memory a significant early-game advantage. Since that one fireball spell was the only one I really remembered, I'm starting from scratch.
Preparing to cast a "Light" spell. It gets rainy and dark a lot in this game.
The one-rune spells gave me what I needed for now--light, healing, and most importantly, the ability to improve both priest and wizard levels. Anything that makes a potion requires an empty potion flask--I had to drink one of my existing healing potions--and helps to increase priest ability. All other spells increase wizard ability.
In my first entry, I had said that I had intended to make each character a specialist, but I remembered a couple of things after that. First, leveling not only improves your abilities in those classes, but it also improves your related attributes. Second, I really enjoy the process of identifying who has the lowest values in what classes and working to improve them. Thus, instead of keeping the characters as specialists, I swapped their positions and equipment liberally throughout this session to help them level up in their worst skills. 
Leveling progress so far.
After I'd practiced for a while on blobs and worms, I continued to follow the map in a clockwise direction. I found a ladder down, some dead bats (why?), and some mana flowers growing on bushes. There was an area full of monsters that looked like a combination of a triceratops and a bull, but they didn't seem interested in us. In fact, so far all of the monsters in the game have been curiously resistant to committing themselves in combat. The blobs and worms didn't so much attack us as take a swipe at us when they happened to wander into an adjacent square. The bullceratopses weren't hostile at all, so we left them alone. There was some evidence that an unfortunate hunter had been killed hunting them; his bow, arrows, and quiver were scattered across the area. I like it when items are found organically like this.
This looks like something you don't mess with lightly.
The next area was full of whirling tornadoes that occasionally tossed rocks at us, blasting us for significant damage. I'm not sure if these were in a previous Dungeon Master game or if I'm remembering the equally-annoying tornadoes from Might and Magic VI. I don't know whether the tornadoes here are enemies or natural phenomena. If they're enemies, they must require special weapons to defeat, as they didn't seem to respond to any of my attacks or my fireballs.
None of my swings would connect with this foe.
Dodging them, I mapped their small area. A group of megaliths framed an interior zone with some kind of stone altar or dais in the center. On it were another magic map--a different color, but it seems to do the same thing--a lightning key, a "clan key piece," and a bag with a FUL bomb in it. I grabbed the stuff and fled the area.
Or maybe a capped well?
Continuing to map, I found two more down ladders, the obelisk and nearby door that require the lightning key, and the entrance to what must be Skullkeep itself. The entry hall has evenly-spaced pillars and lit braziers. It ends at a locked door. A nearby note reads, "To open the castle door, you must get a key piece from each of the four clans of Skullkeep." I already had one, though I didn't exactly get it from a "clan."
The door to Skullkeep.
I backed out of Skullkeep. There's a door back in the blob/worm area with no button and no nearby obelisk with a keyhole. There is an obelisk nearby with a couple of symbols on it--a crescent moon and something I can't quite identify. I'm not sure what it's trying to tell me.
The symbol on the left looks like two tentacles coming up from a hemispherical stone with a picture of an eagle on it.
I went north and opened the lightning area. Some more giant worms appeared, and then this little guy that looks like a dwarf. Like all other creatures, he seemed to have no interest in attacking me unless I was literally standing in his way, but then I noticed my weapons were missing, and I realized he was stealing them from my hands.
Lesson learned: Don't try to confront thieves head-on.
You'd think that such a thief would at least have the decency to die easily, but no. He hit hard and took a lot of damage himself. It took me over half an hour of chasing him around, plus a couple of reloads, to finally kill him--good thing I'd been leveling those ninja skills--and when he died, he didn't even drop the stuff he had stolen. While I was picking up the couple of coins he had dropped, another one came along, and then a third when he died. I couldn't keep anything in my characters' hands. 
This being my fifth or sixth enemy, I guess it's safe to say that the AI I'm experiencing is the norm, not a fluke. By not having enemies pathologically attack the party, the developers made the old "combat waltz" impossible. When you step back and turn, the enemy might wander into the adjacent square, but he equally might move into the diagonal square, or walk away entirely. The only way to get enemies to stand still and fight is to chase them into corners, but that's a bad idea for other reasons, such as low health values for early-level party members. The result is that Skullkeep really puts the "action" in "action RPG." You're either dodging a (temporarily) aggressive enemy or chasing after a (temporarily) fleeing enemy, but you're never standing still.
Flowers and mushrooms grow throughout this area.
I wouldn't mind so much if I could get used to the interface. The game does a couple of things that are internally consistent but nonetheless keep tripping me up. First, the movement panel buttons are mapped to the 4, 5, 6 and 1, 2, 3 rows on the numberpad; the top row does nothing. Second, the game has the strafe buttons below the turn buttons. Both choices work against muscle memory developed from dozens of other RPGs. I also have trouble remembering that I want to click on the character's hand to attack, not right-click. 

I also have trouble using the mouse and keyboard effectively, as my right hand wants to control movement but can't if it needs to be free for the mouse.
I think all these things were probably true in Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back, and I must have eventually gotten used to them, but at least for this session combats were slow-going and involved lots of bashing into bushes and trees (which causes damage), getting lost, and occasionally reloading. Eventually, I discovered that the thieves were taking my things to a particular square and recovered them from there, only to lose a couple of them again when another one of the little bastards spawned. There were even more of them running around the starting area when I returned there. I'll have to just dodge them, I guess.
The thief's stash.
My party members started to suffer from hunger and thirst, even with all the worm rounds we'd been ingesting, so I made my way back to the stores. I drank my fill at the tavern, bought some loaves of bread, and rested for a while. I was a little worried that I'd be spending all my extra money on food, but it turned out that the tavern keeper was willing to trade the mushrooms and blossoms we'd picked up for food, and I think I saw those respawn in at least one place.
The tavern keeper buys a wild-growing mushroom.
I also sold some excess daggers to the weapon shop and bought a sword. I kind of like the little animation where the shopkeeper spins the table to give you your item and your change, which you have to pick up, coin by coin. By the end of the game, I might be sick of it, but I think it gives some weight to the economy that doesn't exist in a lot of other games, where gold is an abstract thing, and buying and selling are instantaneous.
Back in the world, I still have a lot to explore. I've mapped three ladders down. There's an archway that goes to an area with some wolves, and a door with a moon symbol next to its keyhole. I need to finish mapping the area where I encountered the thieves. There's the door with no obvious means of opening it, and finally, there's Skullkeep itself, for which everything else seems to be a prologue.

Time so far: 5 hours

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Game 466: Escape (1988)

A new game begins in an empty room. It will not be empty for long.
United States
Independently developed; published as shareware
Released 1988 for Atari ST
Date Started: 17 August 2022
Date Ended: 19 August 2022
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Very Hard (5.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
We were just talking about whether The Return of Werdna qualified as the most difficult RPG ever made. Well, here's my new choice for that superlative: Escape. I would love to meet someone who could possibly get anywhere with it. Seriously, all of you, go and download it right now. The instructions are right there on that page. It works okay in Steem, better in Hatari. Try to last five minutes with it, and if you succeed, return here and tell me about yourself in the comments. I think about my own feeble attempts to learn the piano, and then I watch someone play Rachmaninoff's sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, and I can accept that humanity has such wondrous diversity that such a gulf in talents is possible. But I cannot accept that humanity is so diverse that some people out there could possibly succeed at, let alone enjoy, Escape. I need evidence.
Escape is an easy game to explain. I think its root inspiration is John Palevich's Dandy (1983), but the author introduces enough roguelike elements that I think it could be called a "roguelite." I only hesitate to use that term because roguelites are usually easier than Rogue, which Escape definitely isn't. You're an unnamed hero who starts in a room in a large one-floor dungeon. Your goal is--you probably saw this coming--to escape. To do this, you must battle through monsters and use various helpful items that you find along the way. Between you and the exit are 20 numbered doors unlocked by numbered keys.
A few minutes into it. Enemies are tigers and cubes. I think the black holes with eyes are just there to confuse you. I can see some gold, some Band-aids, a bomb, and a missile scroll. I'm carrying another missile scroll and potions of strength and speed and a scroll of protection.
What I can't convey from that description is the utter chaos inherent in gameplay. Everything occurs in real-time, not based on turns. There are traps everywhere that weaken, paralyze, sleep, slow, poison, curse, and confuse you, plus bombs that damage you. Enemies spawn constantly. Movement is with a joystick, but to pick up and use items, you have to use the number and function keys. I've never understood the purpose of a joystick if you have to sit at the keyboard at the same time.
Most importantly, the game is fast. I ultimately turned it down to 50%, the slowest that the emulator would accommodate, and it was still far too fast. It's not so bad when you're in corridors, but when you hit a large open room, and you're trying to avoid enemies, avoid traps, and pick up useful items . . . well, it's a lot like hitting all the notes right in a Rachmaninoff composition, particularly since when there are a lot of enemies on the screen--which is always--the game doesn't always register your movement inputs.
Later. It  would be nice to get into that room with the Band-Aids.
Inventory keys are particularly hard. You have eight inventory slots. When you step over an item and you want to pick it up, you type the number corresponding with the slot. If you want to drop an item, you hit the number again. When you want to use the item, you hit the function key corresponding with that slot. If that sounds easy, all I can say is try it. I was constantly hitting the wrong key and dropping an item in an existing slot instead of picking up a new item, or dropping an item when I wanted to use it, or using an item when I wanted to drop it. Eventually, I got to the point where I gave up trying to keep any kind of inventory, and I just kept two fingers of my left hand on 1 and F1, using any item that I picked up immediately. This isn't a bad strategy because there are a ton of items and you almost always need them.
Useful items include healing items (Band-Aids, potions of healing, and healing kits), Potions of Strength, Potions of Speed, Scrolls of Protection, Scrolls of Dispel (negative effects), scrolls that freeze all enemies for a few seconds (priceless), and scrolls that kill all nearby enemies (almost equally priceless, though they're quickly replaced). You also get one weapon slot, one armor slot, and one wearable slot, with consequent effects on your strength, weapon strength, and armor strength. There are missile weapons, but I found them impossible to use effectively. 
You get this screen a lot.
The monsters you fight are unnamed. You start with cats and weird cubes with faces and progress through things that look like blobs, aliens, dragons, giant spiders, and plenty more. The most diabolical are mimics that look like healing kits. Whoever came up with that deserves to be hit over the head with some kind of award. Monsters spawn everywhere and swarm you from all sides. The important thing is that you try to be the aggressor. Once they get adjacent to you, they start sapping your hit points, but if you're moving in their direction, you can kill them before they can wound you. Again, this is somewhat easy in a corridor but very hard in a room where you're simultaneously trying to avoid traps and bombs, and monsters are coming from every direction.
Kills add to your maximum hit points. You begin the game with only a single hit point, and surviving these opening stages is a damned nightmare. Mid-game, when you have a few hundred hit points, it feels like things are improving, but then you hit a period in which almost every section of the game is a huge room where you have to thread your way extremely carefully through fields of bombs while enemies are pounding at you and you just want to curl up into a ball and cry.   
This screen shows spider webs (which do nothing), money, A Scroll of Missiles, a scroll whose name and purpose I never learned, three pentagrams (do nothing), three bombs, two curse traps (envelopes), a slow trap, a paralysis trap ("stop"), a teleportation arrow, and 20 foes.
The worst part is that the game not only enforces permadeath, you can't even save it for later play. If you're going to win (legitimately), you have to do it all in a single session. Again, I can't believe this was ever achieved. I could barely do it with 50% speed and hundreds of reloads using save states. 
The only thing you have that really helps you is that action pauses when you hit the SPACE bar. At first, I just used this to go to the bathroom and take screenshots. By the end of the game, I was using it to turn Escape into almost a turn-based game, pausing essentially after every move to re-study the board and plan the next move. Maybe this is how it was meant to be played, but trust me, it still doesn't make it easy.
There are only a couple of navigation puzzles in the dungeon. The most important is that you need to find a series of 20 keys to open a bunch of locked doors. The doors and keys are clearly labeled with numbers, but it's easy to miss keys because you need to keep your attention on your immediate surroundings (again, frequent pausing helps). I had a few times where I had missed a key and had to do a lot of backtracking, which sucks because enemies keep respawning but you've already used all the items in those areas.
Second, there are occasional teleportation arrows that always send you four squares in their indicated direction, often through walls (so you can't return). For all of that, I didn't get lost as much as you might expect given the size of the dungeon (my best guess is that it's around 130 x 130). It winds and twists throughout it's space, but it's relatively linear.
There are arrows that shoot from the walls at regular intervals, but they're not much of a problem until the final area. Gold on the ground simply adds to your score.
There are two things about the game that I don't understand:
  • There are a lot of symbols on the floor that look bad but don't seem to do anything. They include these black maws, spider webs, pentagrams, and diamond symbols. My best guess is that they're just there to confuse things visually--to make it even harder to pick out enemies, items, and movement paths.
  • When I start the game in Steem, it resizes the window so that it's 2.5 times as wide as it is tall. The graphics look "correct" at this ratio. Was the Atari ST really capable of supporting such a resolution?
You're getting towards the endgame when you start finding keys in the late teens. There's one section of the game in which you have to traverse a room three tiles high that extends across the entire bottom of the dungeon. Threading through this area and staying alive was nearly impossible for me even abusing emulation speed and save states. And you have to go through it three times--from east to west to get a key, from west back to east to use the key on a door, behind which you find another key, and then back west again to use the second key. 
This room went about 110 squares east to west, and each row was full of treasures, traps, and foes.
But this area is nothing compared to the endgame room, which opens to key #20. It's 8 x 10 and full of the toughest monsters in the game--monsters who easily sap 100 hit points per attack. (One of the toughest monsters is represented by the word "Eric," the author's name.)  If you don't have a couple of "Freeze" scrolls and ideally a couple of "Kill" scrolls when you get to this area, there's absolutely no way you would make it.
A square marked "EXIT" is in the middle of the room, but most of the time, it's hidden by a monster. With a single "Freeze" spell, I had to take a save state and explore the room in columns, reloading when I died, until I finally found the one that had the exit. Your reward is a bland message that fails to recognize that it's basically impossible to have ever gotten it. The screen doesn't even recognize your score, making all the gold collection a particular waste of time.
The final room. I can't even tell which one is my character.
At 50% speed and using dozens of save states, it took me five hours to win the game. A GIMLET for the game is a waste of time; it's as far from what I'm looking for in a CRPG as a game possibly can be. Even if you enjoy . . . what? Action roguelikes? . . . I can't imagine you'd enjoy the exhausting pace and punishing difficulty that this game offers. I'll enter an 8 in the spreadsheet, representing a few 1s and 2s for having combat and equipment and a quest, but 0s for NPCs, game world, economy, and gameplay.
Escape was written by an Eric B. Lindros. It would be delightful to think that this is the former NHL player, who has that middle initial and would have been 15 in 1988. But the hockey star grew up in Canada, and this Eric Lindros was in Carpinteria, California, and I think would have been about 26 when he wrote the game. He asked $5 for the game, or $10 if you wanted the source code. He offered a $50 reward for the best suggestion for Escape II.  I can't find any evidence that Escape II was ever produced, but then again, Escape is only attested on a couple of sites.
The winning screen.
Lindros also has a game called MegaMaze from the same year. I took a look at it, and it seems like a prototype of Escape, a lot closer to Dandy (which also inspired Gauntlet). It has fewer monsters, no traps, no strength, weapon, or armor statistics, and items (of which there are fewer) are consumed immediately instead of requiring you to pick up and then use them. There are some of the same enemy icons, but far fewer of them, and they respawn much more slowly. MegaMaze oddly gets a lot more search hits and database entries than Escape.
Truth be told, I could have rejected this one--should have rejected it--since the only form of character development is extra health. The "strength" score changes only based on inventory. It's occasionally good to reaffirm the fundamental difference between RPGs and "Gauntlesque" games, but in the future, when it comes to this sub-genre, I'm always going to be looking for (drum roll) an escape.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Game 465: Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep (1993)

I think if they tried, they could have fit a few more typefaces onto this screen.
Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep
United States
FTL Games (developer); Interplay Entertainment (publisher)
Released 1993 for PC-98; 1994 for FM Towns and SEGA CD; 1995 for Amiga, DOS, and Macintosh
Date Started: 15 August 2022 
It's hard to count the number of Dungeon Master-inspired games that I've played since the 1987 original almost 12 years ago: the Eye of the Beholder series, the Abandoned Places series, Black Crypt, Knightmare, Captive, Arcan, Towers . . . there must be three or four more. We even saw a top-down adaptation with DarkSpyre. Few of them have rivaled the perfect blend of real-time combat, focused character development, and mechanical puzzle solving as the original. There have been clones that dealt with what I thought were weaknesses of the original--no economy, impenetrable equipment data, poor story--but not without sacrificing something from their progenitor. By 1993, fans must have been rabid for a sequel.
Unfortunately, unless they were Japanese, they had to wait another couple of years. For some reason, FTL, a San Diego-based studio, decided to develop the sequel for the PC-98 first. (And for some reason, the Japanese version lacked the words "The Legend of" in the subtitle. I'll try to sort these questions for the final entry.) The result is that the 1995 DOS port I'm playing feels almost premature. It has noticeably better graphics and sound than the 1993 games I've been playing. Still, many of the game's elements seem already dated for 1993 and particularly so for 1995. I doubt the two-year delay did FTL any favors when it came to U.S. reviews.
By the power of Skullkeep!
The backstory for Skullkeep has nothing to do with the original Dungeon Master. I'm not even sure they're set in the same world, which here is called Zalk. Skullkeep is a long-abandoned fortress on a remote island, rumored to hold the remains of some kind of machine called the Zo Link. A young warrior named Torham Zed has been sent to the island by his uncle, Mylius, who serves on some kind of governing body called the World Council. Torham discovers that evil is stirring in Skullkeep. Weird, evil little orbs keep teleporting into the world "from the Void" and then flying directly into the castle.
Torham meets an old woman who initially mistakes him for Mylius. Just before one of the orbs kills her, she talks about someone trying to "cross the Void" and enter the world, and she begs Torham to put the machine back together, use it to somehow cross the Void himself, and "attack him there before he attacks us here!" Torham's problem is that Skullkeep is sealed with a lock that requires four keys, and no one knows where the keys are.
As far as I can tell, nothing has changed when it comes to Dungeon Master's character classes and methods of character development. Every character is some mix of fighter, ninja, wizard, and priest, with their strengths indicated by ordinal levels in each of those classes. The first four levels are, in order, neophyte, novice, apprentice, and journeyman. As with the original, you don't create characters but choose them. Torham himself is a non-negotiable member of the party. He is a fighter first (apprentice), priest and wizard second (novice), and a ninja last (neophyte). He begins with a dagger, leather armor (jerkin, pants, and boots), a canteen, three gold coins, a silver coin, and a gem.
Gameplay opens with Torham in what the manual calls the "Hall of Champions," but which just looks like a bunch of caves. There, Torham can walk up to a variety of what looks like cryo-stasis machines and view the inventories and statistics of the occupants. (This sequel, in both the backstory and in-game graphics, seems to suggest a greater fusion of fantasy and science-fiction than its predecessor; there were times during the opening hour that it reminded me of Perihelion.) There are 15 potential champions to choose from, each with different stats (strength, dexterity, wisdom, vitality, anti-magic, and anti-fire, plus maximum health, stamina, and mana), levels, and inventories.
I'm not looking at that face for dozens of hours.
The champions don't have explicit races. Most of them are human, but Het Farvil has weird hair that suggests some plant DNA. Equus, despite his equine name, looks like a bull, albeit with horns pointed in the wrong direction. Bane Blade Cleaver is some kind of goblin. I have no idea what Cletus is--a monster with facial horns and a third eye or gem in the middle of his head. Anders Light Wielder has pointy ears.
I went with Cletus (primarily a fighter), Seri Flamehair (primarily a priest), and Saros Shadow Follower (primarily a wizard). You can rename all the heroes, including Torham, once they're in the party, although I didn't. There's an empty chamber, presumably for Torham himself, although this conflicts a bit with the backstory.
Seri Flamehair has a couple of good statistics.
The interface is mostly unchanged from the first game, with just a bit more style and ornamentation to some of the buttons. Unfortunately, this extends to the use of the keyboard, which again offers nothing except movement and the use of number keys to see character portraits. The only major change is the fusing of the attack, formation, and spellcasting elements into a single complex panel. Apparently influenced by Eye of the Beholder, the panel now depicts hands when the character is unarmed and the regular weapon icon when armed. You can dual-wield, which I don't think was possible in the original. More on magic and combat later.
The inventory screen is entirely unchanged. Almost immediately, I get annoyed by the inventory system all over again. Saros has a "Cloak of Night." What does that mean? Cletus has an "Illumulet." Does that provide light? Nothing seems to change if I take it off. Then again, I remind myself, I probably would have had the same objections to Eye of the Beholder except that I'm more familiar, from other games, with what standard  D&D magical items do. 
One minor change is that a sound option has been added to the inventory screen, with the ability to adjust the volume of sound effects and music independently. This is one element that makes the game feel more like it exists in its port year of 1995. By 1993, not only do few games offer the ability to mute music without muting sound, hardly any game has volume settings for either. Being able to lower the music volume without muting it means I'm less likely to turn it off completely. In the caves, the music was unobjectionable anyway--more atmospheric than melodic (again, I can't help but compare it to Perihelion, although I realize there's little chance of any direct influence). This changed on the next level, with a highly repetitive and annoying (to me) melody, and the music went off. I'll periodically give it a try in later areas.
I had a lot of paragraphs with no images in between, so here's a shot of a window where you can click on the curtains to open and close them.
As I move around, I notice an unwelcome interface element. Perhaps in a nod to the growing influence of continuous-movement games, Skullkeep introduces a half-step when you move forward. You don't have to hit the forward key twice or anything; the game just automatically moves you half a square, then half a square again. I find it as awkward as the transitions used in Lands of Lore, but at least there you could turn it off. The stuttering is not there if you strafe. I find myself wondering if this is going to affect the famous combat waltz.
The Cave of Champions is a small 5 x 8, so I don't bother to map it. I had an entire paragraph here where I noted that the lack of an automap, while not particularly bothersome to me, was unusual for 1993 and particularly for 1995. Then I discovered the game does have a map of your surroundings, in the form of a "magic map" that you find on the next level. I do enjoy mapping, but I've also just come off a few long games that required it extensively (not to mention the aborted Tygus Horx), so I might see how far I can get without mapping, at least for the introductory areas.
A ladder leads up from the cave to a stonework room with a couple of exit doors. Here, not only are the game's improved graphics on display, but also some interesting new interface elements come to light. It looks like you can click on a lot more things in the environment (alas, not with any Lands of Lore or Beholder-style commentary from your party members), and some items you can even move. For instance, this room has a table blocking access to a painting. If I click on the table, I can pull it, push it, or move it left or right to get access to the painting.
Moving a table around the room. Because I can.
The table has a canteen (technically, a bota) and a gold coin. A lot of my characters started with gold, silver, and brass coins, and the manual has already alerted me that Skullkeep will have shops and an economy. Behind the painting, I find the magic map (which looks presciently like an iPad), a sack full of food, and a money box where we can put all of our coins and gems without having to take up individual inventory space. Brilliant. 
I mean, the game could have just had a "gold" statistic like any other game, but this works fine, too.
The room also has a chest with a couple of potions, plus a "solid key" that I barely see against the grey stones. Containers are a bit weird. It appears you have to put them in your hands and then open them from the combat panel rather than the inventory screen, although you can drag things to and from them from the inventory screen. It's not necessarily a problem, but there are a lot of ways in which Skullkeep reverses the conventions of similar titles, and in the opening hours, I constantly find myself clicking on the wrong things, or right-clicking when I should be left-clicking and vice versa.
The adjacent room to the east has a window with curtains that you can click to open and close. This has no functionality, but I still find it delightful. There's an altar in the room with a scroll on it. It takes me a while to read the scroll because I'm used to the Beholder way of putting it in a hand and clicking on it. Instead, what I want to do is drag it to a character's "eye" icon and hold down the mouse button. Anyway, it says: "Renew the life of a fallen champion." This is clearly our resurrection altar.
The key opens a northern door, which takes us to a short hallway that ends in an arch leading to the outdoors. Here, we find our first enemy--some kind of blob with two glowing eyes, blocking the path. As usual, it annoys me that in this series, you can't tell what anything's name is. 
My first foe. He's facing to his right here, so we only see one eye.
Combat works by left-clicking each character's weapon (or bare hand) in the combat panel, at which point you get a small menu of options specific to the weapon. For instance, with a dagger, you can slash, stab, or throw. A club lets you bash or throw. Bare hand options are punch and kick. Only the characters in the front row can attack enemies in front of you by default. When you click on a weapon, you also get a little panel that lets you change the orientation of the character, allowing them to attack to the side or rear, I guess if you were flanked or surrounded by enemies. In Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back, I found that I could use this effectively by orienting the two rear characters to the rear, then spinning the party around and having them attack while the front characters cooled down. Unfortunately, that's not possible here, since the moment you move or turn, all characters snap back to a forward orientation. I don't know why the developers introduced that; maybe they thought what I was doing was an exploit. The only way the rear characters will get combat experience is if I change party positioning, which to be fair isn't that hard. 
Some of the outdoor graphics.
There are more blobs as I move forward, but I find they're as likely to move away as they are to fight me. The outdoor area is initially just like an indoor dungeon, but with bushes instead of wall textures, but it soon gives way to a large, open area. There's a thunderstorm going, with associated graphics and sound. Soon, I'm mapping again, though I promise myself that I don't need to annotate every treasure this time, just major locations, stairs, and puzzles. I force myself to adopt the leftmost wall pattern that I talked about in Eye of the Beholder III although it still feels so much more natural to go right.
There are a lot of rocks and branches on the ground, and even a scythe and a staff. I soon find myself in an area with some kind of mosaic on the ground and a sign with an image of a sword on the other side. I note a similar sign in the square ahead of me and realize it is marking the entrance to a shop. The first one I encounter is an armor shop, complete with a guard standing in an alcove as I enter.
Am I meant to interpret this as some kind of technology, or just an interface abstraction?
I have to read the manual to understand how buying and selling works. There's a display on the wall that scrolls through what the shop has to offer, along with the buying and selling prices for those items. To buy something you scroll to the item you want, then side-step to a table to the right, where a shopkeeper presents the item on his side of the table. You then load up your side of the table with coins or items of value that he might want. Once equity has been reached, he spins the table and you take your item.
I'd rip this guy off, but he shrewdly blocked the way with a table.
If you want to sell something you step to the left table, but I can't get it to work, not even with armor. I put stuff there but nothing happens. Supposedly, putting your money box on the table also gets the shopkeeper to convert your lower-value coins to higher-value ones, but nothing happens for me. While I'm trying to figure it out, instead of putting my money box on the table, I accidentally send it sailing across the table to bonk him in the head, something the manual specifically warns against. He turns around and walks away as his guard shows up to kill the entire party in about three seconds. Thus do I get my first glimpse of the "full party death" screen, which is just an uninspiring "THE END."
Don't mess with loss-prevention officers.
I think I'll wrap up for now and figure it out next time. Classes are about to resume, and if I increase my playing-to-blogging ratio, I can get more material out of less game time and thus reduce the chances I have to take a break from the blog.
They didn't work very hard on this screen.
In writing this entry, I had to look over many of my old Dungeon Master entries, and I can't tell you how embarrassed I am, twelve years later, at my coverage of that game. I clearly had no sense of its place in history and no appreciation for how it differed from other RPGs. In nearly every entry, I mention the possibility that I'll quit the game at any moment, clearly without realizing how horribly it would have hurt my credibility if I had done so. I don't really like the idea of replaying games I've already completed (I seem to have abandoned my Pool of Radiance series), but I probably need to revisit that one and give it proper coverage.
Time so far: 1 hour