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: 8
Ranking at Time of Posting: 10/483 (2%)
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.


  1. The game is real-time - the game is fast - the game doesn't always register your movement inputs.
    Recipe for catastrophe.

  2. The winning suggestion for Escape II: "Do not make Escape II".

  3. Recently when you were playing EoB3, I reread your coverage of its predecessors, and I noticed in the EoB2 "won" post that you were planning to play Escape four and a half years ago, but couldn't find a copy at the time. If you had, I wonder whether or not you would have bothered to finish it back then.

    1. Ah, I remember playing this game a few years ago, that must have been the reason. I didn't make it very far.

  4. The 3 colour modes on the ST were 320x200 (16 color), 640x200 (4 color) and 640x400 (monochrome, required a specific monochrome-only monitor); most games used the first, but it sounds (and looks) like this used the second?

    1. The 4 colour mode would be stretched to fill the same space as the 16 colour mode: the pixels were noticeably-slim rectangles at that resolution.

  5. Anyone have real hardware to try this on? I'm curious if the speed still makes the game untenable. Moreover the function keys were big and chunky on the Atari ST, while on our computers today they seem to be vestigial.

    1. I do have an Atari STfm but unfortunately I'm moving house, so all my stuff is in boxes and I can't check it out. Might try in October sometime...

    2. I also have an old Atari ST, but I think I have no TV anymore to plug it in...

  6. If Escape II does not exist yet, does that mean we can still win those 50 dollars for the suggestion?

    1. What even would the concept of an Escape II be? Do you exit the Escape dungeon, only to find out that it's a dungeon within a dungeon? Escape²?

    2. You Escape only to find that the world outside is much worse, so you need to Escape back in.

    3. Inscape? Escapeception? Esception?

    4. The next would obviously be Frontiers. Then the series could take a sort of pulp s-f turn with Raised on Radio.

  7. This game appears to have a fixed map; I believe part of the definition of roguelike and roguelite is that most of the map is procedurally generated, so different each time you play.

  8. Data point of one, but you have not convinced me to spend the rest of the afternoon practicing this instead of the end of the Schumann C major fantasy 2nd movement (which I was planning to do to begin with). A very good read, though, as usual!

  9. I wanted to find out if the non-responsive keyboard was an issue with emulator settings or something, but I have no prior experience with the ST, and can't get either emulator to run a cartridge.

  10. Was this the first game with a straight 5.0 on the difficulty rating?

    1. It's the third. I gave a 5.0 to Moria and Knightmare.

  11. The game over message makes me wonder...maybe the actual game is not that hard, but to enable it you have to enter a code or get a a file executable from the creator? A very early form of DRM, so to speak.

    I do not know if it is even possible to ever find out. Not that you would want to.

    1. No, that's a standard shareware message, as in "if you like this game, send me money".

    2. Most likely yes, you are right, but the way it was phrased kinda assumed you hadn't paid for the software. That said, it is vague enough to leave it to the user to decide if it was applicable or not.

    3. It would not be completely unheard of. I believe that early emulated versions of the game Earthbound were able to detect that they were pirated/emulated and they threw far more enemies at the party than in the real game.

    4. Well, this is from pre-internet times. It was not that strange that a complete game was distributed freely and money was paid on a voluntary basis. I suppose the logistics of distributing a demo and then sending the complete game to the buyers was too much for the average kitchen table coder. So only the full game was released, on good faith. Thus even if you paid for the game you still would see the same message.
      I know Llamasoft (Jeff Minter) distributed games this way, and made some money of it.

    5. Yep. Moraff's World (also covered on this blog) is another RPG that was distributed as shareware. Considering Moraff made several sequels or spin-offs, he was probably successful at monetizing.

      Since both MW and Escape are from 1988, I'm not sure which was first, or if there are earlier shareware RPGs.

  12. Does this mean
    5.0 = Very difficult and unfair puzzle, impossible to win except by cheating?
    4.0 = Very difficult but fair puzzles, can be won legitimately with enough effort?

    1. I think it has more to do with the feel of challenge... it's more about the feel of gameplay, combat and puzzles and not a strikt scale. Most of the time the specifics that makes the game higher on the scale is then explained in the text about the game.

    2. I think the first anonymous got it just about right.

      3.0 = You may feel some frustration occasionally and have to reload now and then, but you don't often think to yourself that the game is "hard."

      2.0 = The game is notably easy to the point that you start to feel annoyed with the lack of challenge.

      1.0 = Laughably easy, a baby's game.

    3. AlphabeticalAnonymousAugust 25, 2022 at 12:18 PM

      > a baby's game

      That opens a whole new question: what is the appropriate age for a child's first CRPG? And what are the ideal first titles?

      The question isn't merely academic, since I have a 1.5-yr-old at home...

    4. As far as I'm concerned, if you can play Dungeons & Dragons, you can play a CRPG.

    5. "what is the appropriate age for a child's first CRPG? And what are the ideal first titles?"

      For reference, I believe I've played Diablo when I was 7 or 8 years old (around 2005/6), perhaps a little before that. Only played "Pen & Paper" RPG around 14.

  13. "Whoever came up with that deserves to be hit over the head with some kind of award."
    Probably Eric B. Lindros. If you're Mr. Lindros and you're reading this, I'd advise you to watch out for a mimic disguised as a five-dollar bill if you find yourself opening an envelope from Chester Bolingbroke.

  14. I still remember well Mission: Mainframe where I beat the "impossible" challenge. I'll give this one a try (my reflexes aren't *that* bad and I used to have some speedrun records in games like DOOM) but the description does make it sound like the design just is broken.


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