Saturday, October 29, 2022

Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep: Summary and Rating

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
Date Ended: 21 October 2022
Total Hours: 37
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 44
Ranking at Time of Posting: 429/483 (89%)
A worthy sequel to Dungeon Master, Skullkeep offers a similar experience (first-person tiled movement, action-oriented combat, lots of puzzles) but with a few additional CRPG trappings. Weak storytelling, constant respawning, and poor pacing and balance hurt the title, but excellent character development, a variety of combat tactics, and superior enemy AI save it. In a sea of clones, there is only one Master.
As examples of their particular sub-genre, it doesn't get much better than Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back. They both have that "tight" quality that I discussed in relation to Quest for Glory and for which I still need a better term. They don't do everything a "full" RPG does, but what they do, they do to near perfection. They're challenging but fair, meticulously laid out, with room to breathe but with no fat. If I had been rating Dungeon Master clones, I would have given them a near-perfect score. But I was rating RPGs in general, and I deduced points for elements they lacked.
In some ways, Skullkeep feels like someone read my comments and took them to heart. They threw in an economy and town, offered some explicit weapon statistics, made the world a little more open, improved enemy AI, and made the puzzles more diegetic--that is, integrated with the theme and reality of the game world rather than purely abstract. The result is a game that loses some of the "tightness" of its predecessors but shows that FTL can offer a Dungeon Master experience using more conventional RPG trappings. If I was writing in 1993, I would say that this bodes well for the series, and I'd be looking forward to the sequel..
As I discussed last time, I spent some more time on the final battle. I thought I could defeat Dragoth by standing across the void from him and summoning one attack minion after another, but I guess the game is programmed so that the more minions you summon, the more Dragoth summons. I saw some people online recommending minions as a strategy, but mine seem to get killed almost immediately, leaving half a dozen of Dragoth's minions to hassle the party.
Taking on Dragoth one more time.
I was able to defeat him with hit-and-run tactics. My concerns about Dragoth healing during my absences were apparently unfounded. I spent some time fighting him with weapons and spells until my characters had only about half-health, then throwing myself off the platform to the surface, healing, and teleporting back into the tower. It took about half a dozen rounds of this before Dragoth started hustling back to his own realm for healing, at which point I unloaded on him with the Numenstaff.

I have a lot more to say about the game, but most of it falls comfortably within the categories of the GIMLET, so I suppose I'll just launch into it:
1. Game World.  I've never felt that the series was strong with its stories, and I don't think it improved much here. FTL loves to tell elaborate framing stories that are well-written but needlessly complicated and often kind of silly. The story here, at least until the ending cinematics, is perhaps a bit more sensible than the stories of its predecessors, but not by much.
A key problem is FTL's almost pathological aversion to including any reference to the story, or any sort of world-building, in the actual game. It's as if they subscribed to some ideology that in-game text is bad. Where its contemporaries and competitors, including Lands of Lore and the Eye of the Beholder series, filled their games with textual cut scenes, NPCs with dialogue, books, and scrolls, FTL seems to want you to get all your information about the game world from what you can hear and see in the environment. For instance, the hint book calls the various outdoor areas the "Sun Clan Area" and the "Moon Clan Village." I guess you're supposed to intuit those names from the symbols on the obelisks. There will come a time in which graphics and sound are advanced enough to support such an approach, but we aren't there in 1993. I want to know the names of enemies I'm facing, and the villages I'm visiting, and why this world has such a weird combination of technology and fantasy.
This is 25% of all the text in the game.
The final cinematic came out of nowhere and could have been replaced with almost anything else. (I'm always amused by games that add a "twist" to a story they never competently told in the first place.) To the extent that Lord Chaos was ever interesting, it was in the context of an event that split the original Gray Lord into two extremes. The revelation that Order was just as reprehensible as Chaos--that any pure extreme was inherently bad--should have been the end of the concept. If they weren't going to stop there, I would have liked to see Chaos's reappearance in Chaos Strikes Back balanced by Order's reappearance in the sequel. Continuing to use Chaos as a villain retcons the first game's resolution, both narratively and thematically. Score: 3.
2. Character Creation and Development. I liked the character development system here about as much as the original. I'm not sure I favor a use-based system over more standard experience-and-leveling, but we see so many examples of the latter that the former is at least refreshing if not universally better. I like the option to have characters either generalize or specialize (I did the former but wish I'd done the latter). Leveling happens neither too often nor too rarely, and it's always satisfying when it does. Magic leveling is particularly gratifying; you go from one spell wiping out your entire mana bar to, by the end of the game, struggling to deplete it as fast as it refreshes.
I'm not a huge fan of the convention established by the series where you choose your characters rather than create them. I also think the choice is somewhat arbitrary, since whatever strengths and weaknesses the various characters exhibit are quickly smoothed out by leveling. There really isn't any replayability in character selection unless you just want to look at different portraits. Score: 5.
I never got sick of this.
3. NPC Interaction. Unfortunately, there isn't really anyone in this game that I would call an "NPC." The shopkeepers don't really count. They don't have personalities of their own; they're just visual instruments of the bartering system. Score: 0.
4. Encounters and Foes. We start to get into the game's real strengths with this category. As longtime readers know, I've started using it to include the quality of puzzles, but even if I didn't, Skullkeep would deserve a few points for its enemies. Some of them are recognizable from other games (skeletons, wolves), but most are original creations, and even the derivative ones have original AI. The varying ways that monsters behave make up one of the best parts of Skullkeep. Some keep their distance; some rush you. Some snatch items out of your hands. They grab items from floors and alcoves and put them to use. Some can be blocked and cornered; some fly right past you. Many of them flee when their hit points get too low. Some have spells. Some are actively hostile; some only attack if you get near them. None of them move in predictable patterns. They use the same movement tricks that the party does to get an advantage, including actively dodging to avoid missiles and spells. (I particularly can't get over how the trees advance when the party's back is turned.) They push buttons, activate switches, set off traps, and in places try to undo the party's progress. There aren't many 2020s games in which these things are all true.
These guys live to stoke the furnace and only attack when you interfere with their job.
Respawning is perhaps a bit too rapid, particularly towards the end of the game with the minions. Fortunately, the respawning doesn't really pose a huge threat. You ignore and run past many enemies. Their presence also facilitates as much grinding as you want. But I do like to occasionally "clear" an area, and that's not really possible in Skullkeep.
I can imagine that some players prefer the puzzles of the original two games. I admit there's something attractive about a puzzle system that only has six or eight core mechanics but with lots of potential creative combinations. But I rather preferred Skullkeep's puzzles, for which there was less repetition, better integration with the environment, and more options for potential solutions. I was recently playing Far Cry 5, which has a few dozen puzzles in which you have to find ways to open the vaults of Montana "preppers." Most of them involve some kind of visual interpretation of the environment--for instance, tracing electrical wires from their destination to their source so you can turn on a breaker. I love that we live in an era in which graphics are detailed enough to allow such interpretation without any abstraction. Skullkeep strikes me as the beginning of this era. You can trace conduit along the walls to find switches and places where fuses and gears are needed, for instance, and the Zo Link mechanism has visible tendrils running throughout the castle to all its component parts.
I suppose my only complaint is that the puzzles were a bit too easy. I had to ask for help several times with Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back, but in Skullkeep the only real difficulty I faced was in the final battle, not in any of the puzzles. Score: 8.
The enemy catches us in a spike trap.
5. Magic and Combat. There remain many things to like about combat, particularly the sheer number of options that you have. Games in which combat is integrated with exploration almost always afford more tactics than those with separate "combat" screens. Between melee combat, offensive spells, buffing spells, missile weapons, throwing items, magic items, leading enemies into traps, summoning minions to fight for you, hit and run tactics, and other uses of the environment, Skullkeep supports just about any playing style. I'm not particularly good at action-oriented combat, particularly with the mouse as the primary controller, but I still recognize the game's strengths.
Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of the spell system. First, I don't like the use of abstract runes. They just don't work with my brain. I've played over 100 hours of Dungeon Master games, and I probably couldn't draw more than two or three of the runes from memory, and I wouldn't be able to tell you their names. I was constantly having to look up the sequences even for spells that I cast frequently. Second, trying to cast spells in the midst of combat is just too hard. If some of you don't think so, more power to you, but I don't excel at keeping one eye on the screen and one hand on the keyboard to dodge enemy attacks while putting the other eye on the spell panel and the other hand on the mouse and trying to hit the right rune combination.
While I ultimately figured out what most spells did, I didn't love the experience, and I'd rather have had explicit names. I didn't realize until after I'd won the game that there's a "Light" spell that's better than just plain FUL. The "Push" and "Pull" spells remained a mystery the entire game because I never tested them while facing something that could be pushed or pulled. I supposed this is my fault, but I didn't have a strong handle on the different minion types. I didn't use minions as much as I could have because their utility seemed extremely variable. I now know that this is because one of the minion types doesn't even attack; he just carries objects. That's kind of a cool option, and I suspect that 80% of players never learn about it unless they read the hint book.
Nonetheless, I give the game credit for the sheer number of options, and this still ends as a strong category. Score: 6.
6. Equipment. Another strong category--there are lots of wearable and usable things--including craftable things--and it's a bit easier to tell their relative strength and utility than in the previous games. As we get deeper into the 1990s, I'm going to levy more criticism at games that always put the same items in the same locations, reducing replayability and any sense of surprise, but in this regard, Skullkeep wasn't doing anything that most other games weren't doing. Score: 6.
An attack damage evaluation meter tells me that this is the most powerful weapon in the game.
7. Economy. Well, the Dungeon Master series finally has one, and I love that the developers put their own spin on it with the various pieces of currency stored in a money box, handed to you individually by shopkeepers over a table. To my surprise, I never got sick of the mechanic. Hand-placing coins and gems into that box was surprisingly rewarding--much more interesting than the generic "gold" statistic that we find in most games. 
The economy is a bit overly generous, but not outrageously so. I would have had to scrimp and loot to afford the "Voraxes," the best weapons in the game, for instance (until a commenter pointed them out, I didn't even really notice them). The economy isn't particularly necessary to the game, but it offers some additional options. A cautious player could grind in the early areas and then purchase some of the best equipment, for instance. The tavern means that you don't have to hunt thorn demons and digger worms every time you get hungry. Some players will see it as an unnecessary appendix to the Dungeon Master experience, but I thought it supplemented the game nicely. Score: 4.
I never got sick of the bartering process.
8. Quests. Alas, we're back to a weaker category here. There's a main quest with some optional areas, but no real "side quests." There are choices involved in solving some puzzles, but no choices in the overall direction of the plot. There are no role-playing options, and you don't even get a (bad) alternate ending as you do in the original. Score: 3.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. There was a lot I liked in this category and a little I didn't like. Graphics and sound both benefit from the fact that this is technically a 1995 game, and you get nice effects like the constant thunderstorms outdoors, the vibration of the Zo Link generator, and the cackling of electrical fields. The monster portraits are a bit less absurd and cartoonish than some of the game's contemporaries. Perhaps most important, the ability to interact with and move so many items in the environment makes the game so much more interesting than its contemporaries that feature nothing but textures.
There are more ambient sounds than the typical RPG, and I like that you can hear enemies in the distance and identify them by their unique sounds. I don't like that so many of their unique sounds are so aggravating, particularly the mechanical clanking of the minions.
The interface requires far too much mouse work for my tastes, and I continue to demand more keyboard redundancy. My complaint about the spell system could have been handled by allowing, for instance, the "C" key to activate the casting panel and then the number keys from 1-6 to select the chosen rune. A fireball at full strength would be C-6-4-4-ENTER. Of course, keys for attacking is something that Dungeon Master's competitors had been offering for years now.
I didn't find the magic maps very useful. They show too small an area and no consistent orientation. I liked that at least one (the one that summons minions) could be used for puzzle-solving, but I found the rest mostly useless. Seeing the positions of enemies in a four-square radius doesn't really help that much, since you can just look around the area yourself. I held on to about half a dozen magic maps for most of the game when I could have spared myself the inventory space and just sold them. Score: 5, and before you flood the comments, recognize that I'm rating three things in this category, not just graphics and sound. Games that scored higher do so because they have good interfaces as well as graphics and sound.
This, on the other hand, is an interface element that every game should have.
10. Gameplay. There's some early-game nonlinearity that I enjoy, and I think the overall length and level of difficulty are just about right, although there are some balance issues. As commenters have noted, the pre-Skullkeep portion of the game, which is open and sprawling and almost completely devoid of puzzles, clashes with the five linear, densely-packed Skullkeep levels. There were times that things were a bit too easy. I'm not sure we needed so many portals back to town, for instance, and food and water was never much of a challenge. I'm still not happy with the sudden spike in difficulty during the last battle. Finally, I don't really see the game as "replayable" except in a mild sense of trying different character builds. Score: 4.
That gives us a final score of 44. It surprises me that it's lower than the 47 I gave Dungeon Master. As I said in the opening, I recall Dungeon Master as arguably a better game but not necessarily a better CRPG. I rather thought that the concessions Skullkeep made in service of the broader RPG genre would propel it to a higher total. But I played Dungeon Master during my flawed first year of blogging, and I see category scores that I couldn't justify today. I suspect if I rated it again, it would fall to more like a 41, which still doesn't make the sequel a lot better but does recognize its innovations.
The advertisement emphasizes "creatures and characters that actually think for themselves and react to your actions." This element deserved more recognition in reviews.
Then again, maybe I'm forgetting aspects of the original that justified the higher rating. Contemporary reviews definitely did not agree with my suggestion that the sequel makes for a better CRPG. Owing to the delayed western release, Computer Gaming World didn't get to it until October 1995. For the first time I recall since I started reading her reviews, Scorpia couldn't finish the game. It was the last battle that held her up:
You're on a small patch of clouds, trying to avoid shots from both the minions (coming from all directions) and the big D, doing fancy footwork to keep from stepping over the side and falling back to earth. There is no place to hide, nothing to duck behind, because it's all open . . . . [W]henever it seemed the party might be getting somewhere, those attack minions popped up and ruined everything.
This was one of many things that led her to characterize Skullkeep as a "dreary experience" that disappointed her more than even Ultima VIII: Pagan. Most of her other complaints echo mine--abstruse spellcasting system, overly-rapid respawns, no NPCs, annoying minions. She has nothing to say about the enemy AI, economy, or other improvements since the original game: "Very little has changed for the better," she says," and there is much that is worse." One of those things for some players, though apparently not for Scorpia, was that the game had some problems with SoundBlaster cards. I had to laugh at her report that a patch was available "on many online sites, including the Internet." (Yes, I know that "online" meant a lot more than the Internet in 1995; it still sounds funny.)
For the first time--again, we're jumping a couple years ahead on this one--I get to quote a GameSpot review. The site gave Skullkeep a mere 50/100: "The computer gamer will easily be able to find better-looking, faster-playing, more immersive fantasy games out there, without the epic yawn-factor found here." Ouch. Another choice quote comes from the U.K.'s PC Format (December 1995; 60/100): "Are you really willing to fork out over forty quid for a game which could just as easily have been written seven years ago?" The German PC Joker (August 1995; 67/100) called it a "museum piece." Generally, continental magazines found more to like than English ones, but almost all of them use terms like "nostalgic" and "old-school." Apparently, a lot is going to happen in the world of CRPGs over the next couple of years if Skullkeep was outdated by 1995. I look forward to it.
I went looking for a hint guide and was surprised to find three of them. Interplay published an official one, with the subtitle Unlocking the Secrets of Skullkeep, in 1995. But before the DOS version of the game was even released, an outfit called Sandwich Islands Publishing (SIP) released an "official" strategy guide. I guess "official" doesn't have any legal meaning, because it also appears on Prima's guide from 1995. The SIP guide includes an interview with FTL's Wayne Holder, who says that the team considered an Underworld-style free-movement engine for Skullkeep, but they ultimately thought it would ruin the types of puzzles that Dungeon Master fans would be looking for. I agree with his reasoning, but he certainly didn't "read the room" with some of his comments: "A lot of the free-movement games are tedious to play because you spend so much time bouncing off the walls. Personally, it gets very tiring." As if to mock Holder's own comments, the guide accompanies them with a screenshot from the far-more-successful DOOM
If Holder really found free movement "not that hard to do," FTL should have done it first and made a fortune.
The interview contains no information about why FTL prioritized Japanese releases for Skullkeep, but clearly there was something lucrative about the Japanese market, as one of FTL's last acts before it folded in 1996 (Skullkeep's sales were miserable) was to license the name and interface to Tokyo-based Victor Interactive Software. The result, Dungeon Master Nexus (1998), is the last game in the Dungeon Master series, released only in Japan, and only for the SEGA Saturn. Reviews of the SEGA CD version of Skullkeep noted that the interface doesn't work well with the SEGA controller; I'm not sure if or how they overcame that for Nexus.
Holder and original Dungeon Master designer Doug Bell wrote a book on Java programming for games in 1998, but otherwise they have mostly slipped below the radar. Holder seems to have worked on a large variety of independent technology products since then, and Bell has held positions at a variety of information technology companies. He returned to gaming in 2010 with a position at Riot Games, then designed the micro-transaction platform for Trion Worlds' MMO Defiance (2013). His LinkedIn profile shows him most recently working for a workplace automation software provider called ServiceNow.

The manual for the game is needlessly cute when it comes to the roles the various programmers played. I would love to know who gets the credit for the excellent enemy AI. It may be "monster trainer" Bill Kelly, but if so, his talent was largely wasted. After Skullkeep, he worked on only one other game, a bicycle messenger simulator called Courier Crisis (1997). He passed away last year, just shy of his 50th birthday.
It's too bad that FTL had to go out with a whimper, under the perception that Dungeon Master was its crowning achievement, Chaos Strikes Back somewhat lesser, and Skullkeep even lesser still. All three games have their charms, and while I might have also rated them in that order, I don't think any of them are clearly better or worse than the others. Holder may have been a bit tone-deaf regarding the future of free-movement engines, but that doesn't mean that tiled gameplay is inevitably "retro"; it's just one way of doing things. It grinds my gears to see so many mid-1990s reviewers dismissing technology that produced fantastic gaming experiences just because something newer and shinier came along. I'm grateful that thanks to such "old-school" titles as Legend of Grimrock (2012), Might and Magic X (2013), and Aeon of Sands: The Trail (2019), I'll always have a reason to stock some graph paper.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

BRIEF: SoccerStar (1989)

Most databases put a space in the game name, but I default to the title screen.
United Kingdom
Cult Games (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 23 October 2022
Rejected for: No "characters," so no character development
SoccerStar is a sports simulation/strategy game, a lot like a single-player fantasy sports league. It's one of almost two dozen football-related games commissioned by Hertfordshire-based Cult Games between 1986 and 1991. The title is a bit of a misnomer. You don't play a soccer star, but rather a manager of soccer stars. A victory for the player isn't scoring a goal; it's making a favorable trade for a decent midfielder.
Listen to Chet using the sports terms! I'm well known among my friends for having little interest in organized sports. There are a couple of exceptions. It's hard not to have at least a vague interest in the Olympics, for instance. Between about 2007 and 2013, I did a lot of work in Trinidad, and if you're going to be taken seriously in Trinidad, you have to at least pretend to enjoy cricket. That pretense turned into a somewhat-honest interest, and I still check in now and again to see how the Red Team is doing. I like some of the statistics involved in sports; I thought Moneyball was a great book and decent movie. Beyond that . . . I admire athleticism, and am happy to occasionally watch sports highlights, but it seems to me that you spend most games just waiting, for hours, for something to happen, and then half the time you miss it when it does. I'm not interested in the personalities and rivalries and debates, and I've never understood why I should root for my local team when most of the players come from somewhere else. 
So the good news is that in the process of playing SoccerStar, I learned a lot about soccer. I spent more time on Wikipedia than I did in the emulator. Going into the game, I was aware of course that what Americans call "soccer" everyone else calls "football" (which raises the question of why a game made by a U.K. developer uses the former term), but I wasn't aware that the English invented the word "soccer" from the soc in "association football" (as distinguished from rugby football). I learned a little bit about the various divisions in the English football league system, although apparently they all changed in 1992, and this game is using terminology from several years prior. I learned that teams are "promoted" or "relegated" (demoted) through the divisions based on performance, and I learned that the four major categories of players are goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, and attackers. I essentially quadrupled my knowledge of soccer in the last two days.
Setting up the game.
In the setup screen, you can give yourself a name (the default is "Bobby Robson," a real player and manager who at the time was England's national coach), a league name (the default is "Barclays"), and the name of the cup you're vying for (the default is "F.A. Cup"). You then choose from among seven Division 4 teams to join as the manager. The defaults are York City, Cardiff City, Rochdale, Crew Alex (short for "Alexandra"), Scarboro, Carlisle, Aldershot, and "Wolves." These were all legitimate Fourth Division teams when the game was being programmed; some have since been dissolved. My research showed me that "Wolves" is short for Wolverhampton Wanderers, which since the publication of SoccerStar has worked its way up to the Premier League (the highest level), so I figured I'd join a team on the rise.
Choosing which team to manage.
As the game begins, you have £45,400 on hand and a roster of 8 players. You need at least 11 to field a full team (another thing I learned!); your overall roster can have up to 15. You can take a bank loan of £250,000, but for a usurious rate of 24%. Fortunately, you can get some players as "free transfers." Their attributes are lower than players you pay for. The players' default names are drawn from real-life players, both contemporary and past, though you can rename them.
Each player has attributes for skill, fitness, and stamina. I wasn't able to find a manual for the game, so I wasn't sure exactly what the attributes do. "Skill" seems to be fixed; it never goes up or down. The cost associated with buying and selling players seems to be based mostly on skill--roughly £40,000 per point. Stamina and fitness fluctuate from game to game and can be trained in between matches.
In between matches.
Once you have your roster, you begin the season. You indicate which players are going to be fielded in each game. You see your total scores for each position. You can pay £8,000 for training, which has a reasonable chance of increasing some players' scores. You can also pay £100 for a "spy," who will tell you the sum of the scores for each of your opponent's positions. The idea is to assemble a collection of players whose combined scores (skill + fitness + stamina) exceed the opponent's for each position or, if that's not possible, for strategic positions. For instance, if the opponent has an "defense" value that's so high you can't hope to beat it, you might want to essentially give up on attacking and put everything into defense yourself. A draw is better than a loss.
My squad. Note the "defense," "midfield" and "attack" subtotals at the bottom.
When everything is ready, you start a match. Unfortunately, you don't actually get to play during the matches (or, if you do, I couldn't figure out how). The only choice you can make is to hit the "S" key to sub one designated player for another, but I'm not even sure when or why you would want to do that. You otherwise just watch as the 90 minutes (something else I learned!) roll by. The ball bounces back and forth between the two goals, propelled and resisted by random rolls against the two teams' respective scores for the positions. When the ball reaches one of the goals--which, as in actual soccer, it almost never does--the screen switches to one showing generic players on a field and one of them kicks the ball towards the goal. At that point, I guess the goalkeeper's skill alone determines whether the ball goes in or not. It usually doesn't.
You spend about 90 seconds watching this ball quiver back and forth.
The result of each game influences a "morale" percentage that must have some multiplier effect against the statistics. You make a certain amount of money for each match depending on the outcome and the number of fans who attended; teams performing better get greater attendance. In between games, you can adjust the roster (in particular if a player becomes injured), spend a decent chunk of cash on training, hire a spy for the next game, or pay a certain amount of money to rent a player from another team.  
Don't make the mistake of thinking you actually "play" on this screen. It's just a cut scene.
Tie games are common; wins are usually 1-0 or maybe 2-0. You play a dozen games and then get a final score for the overall competition. I think draws count as 1 and wins count as 2. For some reason, the game sometimes accepted a draw and sometimes forced me to "replay" the team until one of us definitively won. I assume there's a real-life rule behind this, but I couldn't figure out the pattern.
After several tries, I manage to eke out a win in Division 4.
It's an interesting numbers game, but I can't figure out the trick to it. After several tries, I managed to win the Division 4 championship and get promoted to Division 3, but once there, I was against teams with scores outrageously higher than my own. I tried using all the tricks the game offers to no avail. Training only adds a few points to your roster, and you can't afford to do it all that frequently. A £250,000 loan doesn't go very far--it buys maybe two decent players--and you end up spending each game's profit on the interest. The best I can figure is that you don't really want to advance quickly. You want to stay in your division for several cups, letting the money and training build, and move forward only when you can demolish the other side, not just eke out a win. Is there a real-life analog to this strategy?
I figure you have to win Division 1 to truly "win."
We've already had several debates as to whether a game without any combat could be considered an RPG. Those that say yes suggest that if an RPG's definition centers on character development, there's no reason that such character development couldn't take place in contexts other than martial ones. Even in RPGs with combat, they point out, character development is often directed into non-combat skills such as lockpicking, smithing, haggling, and charisma. In tabletop role-playing (less so in most CRPGs), non-combat skills are a valid alternative to combat, and improvements in attributes can help with scenarios like forcing open a door or dodging a trap.
It's a persuasive argument, and I think it works particularly well for sports games. Sports are contests, much like combat, in which the attributes and skills of the participants play a vital role. Someone wins and someone loses. Rewards go to the winners. Sports like fencing and boxing are essentially indistinguishable from combat, and even in games that feature combat, there are often sporting events that draw from the same skill set. Even in the early era, we saw CRPGs with horse races, dart- and dagger-throwing, balance beams, skeet shooting, arena battles, and other "sporting" events, all drawing from the same attributes as the battles.
So I'm open to accepting non-combat games, even sports games, as RPGs. But no, SoccerStar still isn't one. Come on. First of all, my definitions don't just require development; they require character development. A "character" has to be more than a name on a spreadsheet. You have to be able to play the character. He or she should be an individual with characteristics and goals, and if he or she doesn't have a personality in-game, the player should at least be able to project one. 
There are subtler issues, too. Nothing like "exploration" is technically part of my definition, but I think it's somewhat understood. And yes, we've had plenty of RPGs that have lacked a main quest, a story, a fantastical setting, a personal mission for the character, and personal inventories. None of those are inherent in my definition of an RPG individually, and yet there is an extent to which I don't think a game can be an RPG if it lacks all of them.
Thus, I think the first sports/RPG hybrid is further down the line. But I'm not sorry that I learned that Emirates Airlines sponsors the F.A. Cup or that it's the oldest national football competition in the world. Two weeks from now, I'll be rooting for the Wolves.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Power Stones of Ard: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The Power Stones of Ard: The Quest for the Spirit Stone
United States
Three C's Projects (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for Tandy Color Computer 3
Date Started: 23 August 2022
Date Ended: 22 October 2022
Total Hours: 25
Difficulty: Hard-Very Hard (4.5/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting: 226/483 (47%)
Wow, did Ard put me through the ringer. It's been a long time since I had the experience of repeatedly saying "#@%* this" and giving up on a game "for the last time" only to wake up at 02:00 with a voice in the back of my head saying "what if you tried this?"
I ended up admiring the game somewhat. Some of the things that originally struck me as unfair turned out to be fairer (if still not exactly "fair") after considering all the clues. For instance, you heard last time that the player is expected to intuit that he needs to SCREW a peg, SEAL a hole, and SPIN a silver coin. During this session, I found a room with musical notes on the wall. I knew immediately that the puzzle was going to involve the lyre, but what verb? PLAY? PICK, PLUCK, or PLUNK? No, the player has to figure out that the right verb is STRUM. How many times do you imagine that you've said STRUM in your life?
But just as I was planning to eviscerate the game for requiring such a leap of logic, I noticed a pattern: all of the special commands begin with an "S." SCREW PEG, SEAL HOLE, SLICE APPLE, STACK BOXES, STRAIGHTEN PICTURE, and so forth. This realization clicked with a clue that, "Specials need an S," although at the time I thought it was simply saying that you have to hit "S" to input the special command in the first place. But that's a basic instruction, right there in the manual; clearly, a "hint" must be saying something else. Now, if I knew that I was looking for an "S" verb in all those situations, would I have figured out SCREW, STRAIGHTEN, and STRUM? I don't know. But it's less impossible than I originally made it sound.
I never figured out what this encounter was about.
Some of the other things I complained about last time turned out to have solutions, too. You cannot, after all, get into a "walking dead" situation because of a lack of flint or a lockpick. Those items show up in their original locations after they disappear from your inventory. They just take some time. As for the room on Level 2 that you can only pass through once, it turns out that the arm bands you loot from the Tor Beast will teleport you (albeit in unpredictable ways) if you invoke them with the EARTH trigger. You can use them to get past that door. 
Lest you now think the game is too easy, let me relate something that I didn't discover until towards the end of my final session. Because I had been saving with save states, I didn't realize that the game enforces permadeath. The only way you can mitigate it is to purchase a Soul Crystal from the temple, which will automatically resurrect you, but you lose all your accumulated equipment. You might as well just start over.
I did start over after my last session, creating a new character called "Chet" and prioritizing strength, as I was always getting over-encumbered with my previous character. I carefully mapped everything and took detailed notes, almost as if I were making a walkthrough, as I was sure I would get stuck somewhere and would have to leave it for a later player to finish. That turned out not to be the case, but it almost was.

The Spirit Stone is at the bottom of a five-level dungeon with about 250 total rooms and about 100 unique rooms (there are a lot of generic corridors and/or rooms with nothing in them). The layout is complex and difficult to map because the levels are interconnected and, unlike Dungeon Master II, they don't preserve fidelity of distance between departure on one level and arrival on another. Level 2, for instance, is made up of four major sections, all interconnected with Level 3, and it took me a while to figure out how they fit.
Level 2 alone had about 75 rooms.
The steps and puzzles absolutely necessary to reach the endgame are:
  • Solve the hermit's riddle and get the apple from the apple tree.
  • At the Thieves' Guild, get the Green Potion as related last time.
  • On Level 1, open a coffin and kill a vampire lord, taking from his corpse the Crystal Key. He didn't show up the first few times I passed through the level, so his appearance is either tied to an inventory item or a character level.
  • On Level 2, figure out the SEVER HEAD and SEAL HOLE puzzles related last time.
  • On Level 2, kill the Tor Beast and get his Arm Band, as related last time. Solve the box puzzle, find the Silver Coin, use it to escape the skeleton room. Find a lyre in a secret room.
  • On Level 3, STRUM the lyre in a music room to open a door to Level 4.
  • On Level 4, find a room with a gold star on the floor. The hermit gave a riddle comparing an apple core to a star, and a gypsy riddle said, "A star, revealed a star, reveals a star." In this room, SLICE APPLE to make a Star Sword magically appear.
If it accomplished nothing else, Ard is probably the only game where you obtain the ultimate weapon by slicing an apple.
  • Elsewhere on Level 4, find a room with red and black panels. There are messages in other rooms that encourage you to press red three times and not to press black at all. Pressing red three times opens a secret door forward.
  • On Level 5, find a Silver Sword at the bottom of a pit and use it to kill a werewolf. Also find a Bone Ring, which protects you from dragon breath. In an old bedroom, take the hint that a picture is tilted and STRAIGHTEN PICTURE, which opens another secret door. Use the Arm Bands to cross an area of black smoke that dumps you into a pit if you enter.
  • Kill a dragon.
  • GO to the dragon's secret chamber. Use the Crystal Key on a Crystal Chest and find the Spirit Stone within.
  • Make your way back to the main entrance to town and then leave.
The rest of the large levels are mostly about providing hints for how to accomplish the list above. There is a subset of puzzles that are optional, good primarily for improving inventory or giving the player a chance to fully restore a character without having to return to town. For instance, the "alter" I had discovered for my last entry turned out to be one of the latter. Hold a gem in hand and SACRIFICE it at the altar, and attributes are fully restored. There are Blue Scrolls and Blue Potions to find that do the same. A Red Book found in town fully restores you if you read it while sitting (another "S" command) in a red chair in a red room. Two fountains grant you healing potions if you fill your flask at them; a third has a water elemental attack you every time you enter.
A perfect place to relax and read a book.
The weakest part of the game is the RPG side. You can attain at least 11 levels, but each level just brings new types of enemies that hit harder and take longer to kill. I avoided leveling up past Level 5 as I explored the dungeon, as higher levels attracted demons and giants and other creatures capable of killing you after a few unlucky rolls. Inventory improvements are the only way to get an edge against enemies, and as you explore the dungeon, you find items like a Breastplate, Bracers, Boots, Chain Mail, and various rings. (Every piece of armor you find improves your rating automatically. Nonsensically, the Small Shield and Large Shield both "stack" to have a combined effect.) There are also five "artifact" items, each with a different "trigger word" (all clued by wall messages). An Amulet automatically destroys demons with the DESTRUCT keyword; the Star Sword becomes more powerful with the STARLIGHT keyword; a Gold Ring automatically restores strength (keeping you from having to sleep in dangerous places) if you say REPOSE; and there's a magic wand that shoots fireballs in response to BRIMSTONE.
This message has all the "triggers" in one sentence.
Spells, on the other hand, are mostly useless since their reagents are only good for one use before they disappear. "Lighting Bolt" and "Fireball" are both for emergency use only, since you have to make your way back to town and replace the Silver Wire and Fire Ruby that they require (respectively) after each casting. I never found the Snail Shell required for "Hold." "Healing" only restores about 10 hit points for the Holy Water it requires. I never noticed "Augment" doing anything at all. "Detect" finds secret doors--helpful, but unnecessary since you can just bump into the walls. "Knock" and "Light" are the only ones for which the reagents are good for multiple castings. There are about half a dozen locked doors and dark rooms between the dungeon's entrance and the Spirit Stone, and if you're lucky, one lockpick and one piece of flint will get you there. Otherwise, you have to "Teleport" back to town, get another, and try again.
There are an awful lot of puzzles that I didn't solve, and I don't know what they would have led to. On my "mysteries" list are:
  • That jet of toxic gas that I described last time. The text in the game files suggests you're supposed to fill a flask of it, but nothing I did worked. Similarly, I never used the SQUEEZE FLASK command that you find in the files.
  • There's a message suggesting that you need to say MAGIC in a particular room to get teleported to another one. I think I said it in every unique room, but I got nowhere.
  • I solved most of the puzzle messages (including an interleave, an acrostic, and a cryptogram), but this one had me stumped: AU,CDE@TN? (UUU)N4(LEV84)FU(ON)T(RMB&). The best I can figure is that it's some form of pre-Internet "leet" speak. The latter part seems to be saying something like, "If you own the Arm Band."
  • Level 4 has a statue of a toad with emerald eyes. If you STRIKE EYES, a toad demon appears and must be defeated, but upon his defeat, nothing happens. Maybe that's all that the idol is good for, but it feels like there's more to be done here.
Nothing toad me what to do here.
  • Level 4 also has a room with a pit and a skeleton chained to the wall on the other side. You can J)ump across the pit if you're strong enough, but once you do, there seems to be no way to interact with the skeleton or otherwise do anything.
  • Also on Level 4: a silver globe suspended in the air with a keyhole where Baron's Keep should be. I'm sure it opens to the Silver Key, an object that the files suggest is in the game, but I never found it.
  • Items that exist but I never found: Snail Shell, Silver Key, Glowing Orb.
  • I never found any use for the feather.
  • I never found out what "each race has a special" meant.
Inspecting the text in the game flies only gets you so far because the game doesn't really acknowledge most of what you do. Except in a few places, you don't get messages like, "Your Crystal Key opens the chest" or "Your strike reverberates against the idol's eyes." Instead, you do something and the resulting item just appears, or the resulting door just opens. Thus, an inspection can tell you what commands and objects exist, but not always how they interact with each other or where to use them.
At the game's conclusion, you enter a large room with a dragon. The Bone Ring protects against its fire breath. The Star Sword is the only weapon that will damage it. It's still a nearly impossible fight, as the dragon gets five physical attacks per round. I had no chance against him at Level 5, so I had to return to the surface and pay for advancement before I had any chance. Even at Level 10, I could last three rounds against him at best. I tried a lot of strategies, including drinking the Red Potion in the first round (which doubles your attacks in subsequent rounds) and wasting a round to invoke the Star Sword's enhancement, thus doing extra damage in subsequent rounds. I still died about seven times--keeping in mind that these would have required a restart of the game if I had been playing "honestly." Finally, the dice went my way and I killed him.
My attempt to defeat the dragon at Level 5 didn't go well.
Beyond the dragon is a room with a crystal chest, which opens with the Crystal Key. Inside is the Spirit Stone. You have no idea how happy I was when I finally had it in hand. I gleefully went to put the Blink Dust in hand and "Teleport" back to town . . . only to discover that on this one trip out of all my trips to the dungeon, I had forgotten to re-purchase Blink Dust first. I had to walk back out, a process made a little easier by the fact that the Spirit Stone adds 5 to your armor rating.
Samuel L. Jackson would be proud of my response to that last message.
Back in the village, I just had to go north from the main gates to get the winning screen above. It's been years since I felt so relieved to win a game. Winning Ard legitimately would be a hell of an achievement.
Let's do a quick GIMLET:
  • 3 points for the game world. The backstory is derivative but reasonably well-told, and the character's purpose is clear.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Creation has a few options, but you really need strength and dexterity to have a shot. "Development" mostly just gets you more hit points and harder enemies.
  • 2 points for NPCs. There are a few of them, but the game doesn't make very extensive use of its keyword-based dialogue. There are maybe half a dozen valid words and responses.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. I give all of that to the puzzles, some of which are enemy-based. Ard makes the most of its 26 commands, and while some of the special commands were a bit arcane, none of the solutions are patently absurd.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The combat system is underdeveloped, relying far too much on luck. Magic is mostly for navigation, although I like the reagent and "trigger word" system.
Better prepared at Level 9, I finally defeat the dragon.
  • 3 points for equipment. There are weapons and armor items to find. All armor items are illogically additive, and the game is a bit obtuse as to the damage caused by weapons. A wide variety of healing items keeps things a little interesting.
  • 2 points for the economy. Money is a bit too easy to obtain, and by mid-game, you're ignoring most gold.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side quests or roleplaying options. The ability to walk away by leaving the main gates at any time isn't quite worth a third point.
  • 2 points for graphic, sound, and inputs. While I enjoy the 26-letter keyboard interface, the game damaged it a bit by making you type out too many full words too often (e.g., every time you change the item in hand, you have to type the entire name) and by making BACKSPACE delete everything you've typed instead of just the last letter. Graphics are minimal and sound is nonexistent.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's a bit too linear, too hard, and too long for its limited content.
That gives us a final score of 25, which falls comfortably below my "recommended" threshold, and yet there's an extent to which I recommend it anyway. While it doesn't measure up perfectly to my ideal CRPG, it succeeds well in its own unique niche. I never heard from author Bill Cleveland, but I suspect it satisfied his intentions. It's also worth remembering that the various Color Computer models were under-served when it came to RPGs, so owners would want a game that was long and challenging. Ard was only one of two that I've identified for 1987; the other is the similarly-long Gates of Delirium. Ard is also a highly original game; unlike most of its Color Computer contemporaries, including Delirium, its interface takes no obvious inspiration from a previous title.
Ard had a 1990 sequel called The Power Stones of Ard II: The Five Towers of Trafa-Zar. It sends the hero in search of the Mind Stone. Screenshots show a similar interface but with more color and with additions such as a character portrait, monster portraits, and a compass. The navigation window shows a 3D view rather than a static "overhead" view. As far as I can tell, these are the only games that Bill Cleveland or the Three C's Project produced.
Struggling through some of these titles can be a lonely, frustrating experience, so again I want to thank LanHawk for helping me through this one. And on that topic--and on the topic of adventure-RPG hybrids in general--there's going to be some more CRPG Addict/Adventurer's Guild synergy coming up in November, as both I and Will Moczarski will be playing BloodNet starting the first week of November. Stick around!

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Dungeon Master II: Won!

The endgame cinematic reveals the real villain, and it doesn't make much sense.
I was pretty close to the endgame when I wrote last time. There were only two more levels, and one of them (the roof of Skullkeep) was completely open and flat. The other wasn't even a complete level, although like the others it was packed with puzzles.
The fun started shortly after I arrived from Level 3 and found a locked door with a keyhole. There was a water source in the area and a pentagram back to town. The first "puzzle" involved a corridor of five squares with electrical pylons on both walls. Blasts of electricity arced across the corridor in a cyclical pattern, with a brief pause between blasts. It took a couple of reloads to get the timing right, but with the "Speed" spell active, I was able to just fly through. A switch on the other side turned them off.
Can't I just hack through that conduit?
The room on the other side had an alcove with a couple of keys. I picked them up and found myself sucked into some kind of magnet in the square just before the alcove. Nothing I did would release the party from the squares. I tried several spells, dropping everything, and a few items. The only thing that worked was to throw one of the keys back into the alcove.
Some experimentation revealed that the onyx key was the one I needed for the locked door. The other was a skull key. At first, I thought I could just open the door with the onyx key and then take it back and swap it for the skull key. Unfortunately, removing the onyx key from the lock just caused the door to close. I forgot about the skull key for a while and just explored the area beyond the door. I soon found a ladder that, when lowered by a lever, took me back to the third floor. With this new way of accessing the interior of Level 4, I no longer needed to keep the onyx key door open, so I returned and traded it for the skull key. 
Trapped in some kind of gravity well.
The center room on Level 4 is an open 7 x 7 area. In the center is some kind of enormous, pointed stone set on a kind of receptacle with electronic indicators on it. A path of square tile (the rest of the room is more rough-hewn) leads south to the corridor, at the end of which is some kind of gate.
There are four switches in the room. The first is in an alcove at the north end. It causes a lightning bolt to shoot from a box with a couple of electrical coils on the north wall. The bolt goes directly to the stone and shoots down the walkway to the gate, but by itself it apparently isn't enough.

Two other switches are on the southeast and southwest walls, right next to two fireball launchers. When activated, they launch fireballs that shoot completely past the stone on the right and left sides. I figured I'd have to find some way to angle them into the stone. I started hunting around and, sure enough, there were a couple of reflectors behind a locked door to the west.
The final level and the setup of the final room.
To open the door, I had to use the skull key in a keyhole. This activated a teleporter that took me into the small room with the two reflectors, a brazier, and a table. The problem was, there wasn't room for anything else. I couldn't even leave the square I landed in, let alone make my way to the other side of the locked door. Among all the items in the room, I knew the table was the only destructible one, but it was at an angle from the party, so I couldn't hit it. Then it occurred to me that's exactly what reflectors are for. By shooting arrows or spells into the reflector in front of me, I could angle them to hit the table and eventually destroy it. This gave me enough room to get to the door and open it, and then to push the reflectors out of the room and into the stone room, angling them so they would reflect the fireballs into the stone.
Moving a reflector into place as another goddamned minion appears.
Once I got them all set up, I pulled the switches. The two fireball launchers worked fine, but suddenly the electrical current was no longer running. I figured it must have something to do with the generator, so I returned to the generator room on Level 1, and sure enough, it had stopped running. Down in the basement, I found that some enemy minions had arrived and driven away the cyclops-golems, who were no longer feeding the furnace. I killed the minions and the golems got back to work.
I had to kill about 50 minions while exploring Level 4. They essentially never stopped coming. As I covered last time, I found them horribly annoying, although I have to admire how the game has them work against you by undoing the puzzles you've already solved. I'm not sure that's a "first"--I'd have to look through my list and think about it--but it's certainly rare. Back on the unfortunate side, the minions were the only enemies on this level, and unless I'm already misremembering, they were also the only enemies on Level 3.
Anyway, back in the portal chamber, I got both the lightning and fire hitting the stone, then went into the corridor to the south and threw the switch. A wormhole appeared in the middle of the gate, showing me a black void on the other side with a blue pathway.
Gates to another world!
I didn't go in right away. I had a hunch the endgame would be on the other side, and yet I'd found another ladder up. I figured I'd check the next level before proceeding further. The ladder went to the roof of the keep, which was swarming with those horned slug archers that I'd faced on Level 2. Each one had a quiver full of slayer arrows and began pelting the party immediately.
In the center of the roof was some kind of electrical contraption. It had a lightning rod on top and four coils in the corners. I couldn't find any way at all to interact with it. I don't know what it does. I get the impression that the electricity on the level below is powered by the generator. If the lightning rod is meant to be a fourth power source, the stone doesn't need it.
One big waste of time.
I spent some time clearing the slugs, having to resort to a bit of ladder-scumming, but I eventually got bored and decided to try the final area. Before I did, I refreshed my memory of the game's backstory, as I had lost track of what I was doing a long time ago. The stone, the energies that power it, and the generator that produces those energies must be what the backstory calls the "ZO Link." Some evil entity is trying to cross "the void" to our world. The old woman had told Torham to turn on the ZO Link and use it to enter the void and "attack him there before he attacks us here!" The framing story doesn't mention who "he" is, but elsewhere the manual gives the name of your foe as Dragoth.
As I entered the void, I found only more minions at first, but then, across an expanse of nothing, I saw a large character who looked credibly like a "Dragoth." He started hurling missiles at the party, so I tried to find a way over to him. The void area has a number of platforms connected by pathways that appear and disappear. I had to time crossing the pathways to reach Dragoth's platform. I fell a few times, and even more during the battle with Dragoth, and falling seemed to take the party to a random location back in Zalk. Sometimes I landed in Skullkeep; sometimes I landed in the graveyard or some part of the wilderness. I mostly reloaded these times rather than make my way all the way back to the top of the keep.
Dragoth across the void.
I eventually made it to Dragoth's platform. The original Dungeon Master served up a difficult, chaotic final combat, and this game certainly lives up to that precedent. Dragoth blasts the party with devastating magic attacks, including "Poison Field," which screws up the battlefield. He has a spell that shoves the party a square backwards and I think he can also perform a separate physical shove if he gets adjacent to the party. I had a hard enough time not walking off the platform--god, I grew to hate the screaming sound effect when the party falls--let alone avoiding his shoves. He is excellent at dodging spells, and when he doesn't dodge them, he often casts the "Reflective Mist" spell and sends it hurling back at the party. He continuously summons minions to annoy and distract the party and whittle down their hit points. Finally, if he gets too low on hit points, he goes through the portal to his homeworld to chug some potions (I didn't know what he was doing at the time, but a spoiler site told me about this later).
Dragoth, about to shove us off the platform.
I tried several strategies, including various offensive and protective spells. I tried summoning my own minions, but he killed them almost immediately. I tried dodging around him and using physical attacks, but even when I avoided his attacks, I got walloped mercilessly by his minions, and before long, he would manage to push me off the platform. I'd tried casting my own "Reflection Mist," but Dragoth just shoved me out of it. Everything happens so fast that there's very little time to line up spells, let alone enter your inventory and drink healing potions and such. Maybe some players can navigate this battle effectively, but it destroyed any illusions I had about having achieved any proficiency with dodging and attacking.
The infuriating thing is that the game gives you no clues as to how many hit points an enemy has and how much damage you've already done. In my multiple attempts to destroy Dragoth, I didn't know if I'd come close, or if I wasn't doing any damage at all. Even worse, I wasn't sure he was beatable. I thought for a while that maybe there was something I hadn't done that makes him vulnerable. Maybe I needed to follow him into his homeworld (you can't get through the door), or do something with the lightning rod on top of Skullkeep (spoiler sites, consulted after I won, confirmed it does nothing). Until he died, I didn't know any of this. I wasn't even 100% sure I was fighting Dragoth. For all I knew, it was just some intermediary minion, and I'd need to kill him, go through his portal, and scale another 10-level tower.
A portal to another world. Alas, it will not let me through.
I considered various tactics and strategies:
  • Spend more time with the game's various weapons and make sure I have the most damaging ones.
  • Spend more time with spells. Perhaps there's a particular spell that devastates Dragoth or protects from his attacks (an "Anti-Push" spell?) that I don't know because I still don't know what half the spells do.
  • Attack him for as long as I can, then run away and heal before trying again. Maybe he doesn't heal while the party does--although I think most enemies do.
  • Go back to the surface with my fat purse and load up on usable magic items (incidentally, the two magic boxes, which I saved, don't seem to freeze time in the void).
  • Grind some more levels.
  • Stand near the safety of the entrance portal and just fire spells across the gap at him. This would give me more opportunity to line up spells and duck through the portal to heal, but he's so good at avoiding spells that I think it would take forever. 
The problem with all of these is that they involved dealing with dozens more minions, and I was just sick to death of them. 
Trying to stop the minions by blocking a portal with a reflector. They just moved it aside.
So I'm afraid I won in a kind of cheating way. I know this will upset and disgust many of you; you're just going to have to learn to accept it for any game whose success relies on quick hand-eye coordination. I wouldn't resort to this in a turn-based game. But there are times I just don't have the dexterity to win an action-oriented battle like this. Maybe if everything was controlled by the keyboard.
In my winning battle, I used various protective and buffing spells, some poison attacks, and a lot of fireballs. I fought him for about 30 seconds, then stopped to save if my actions had been mostly successful. Another 30 seconds, then save again. If I fell off the platform or took too much damage or wasted too many spell points casting spells that didn't work, I reloaded. Even doing this, I couldn't defeat him without losing Seri and Cletus and nearly losing Saros. I had Cletus and Saros attack with melee weapons in the front while Torham and Seri used "Fireball" spells from the back, although eventually I had to stop because towards the end of the battle, he started reflecting almost all of them.
Near the endgame, Dragoth returns from his realm.
I frankly don't know what ultimately killed him. I was about to reload when from several squares away, he started shouting "No! No!" and then the endgame sequence took over. I think maybe he wandered into one of his own poison fields or walked in front of one of his own minion's spells.
The endgame offered a cute animated video. Dragoth gets teleported to a cave somewhere, likely in his own world. He materializes and kneels before a robed man sitting in a large chair between two braziers. "Dragoth!" the mysterious figure says. "What news do you bring?"
"Theron's champions are more powerful than I expected, Lord Chaos," Dragoth rasps.
Dragoth explains himself to Lord Chaos.
"Failure," Lord Chaos responds.
"You know my price for failure," Chaos says as he reaches into a bowl, pulls out a slimy worm creature, and pops it in his mouth. As Dragoth protests, Chaos surrounds him with magical energies and turns him into a slithering reptile, the same kind that I fought several times in the game. I see from spoiler sites that it's called a "tiger worm." It runs circles around the floor.
The fate of Dragoth.
Chaos continues: "So, Theron, we are enemies again. How long will your champions survive this time?" Roll credits.
This denouement is clearly meant to tie the sequel to the original game, but I don't really understand how. Why did Dragoth refer to us as "Theron's champions," and why does Chaos address his last comment to Theron? Theron doesn't appear anywhere in the backstory or in the game itself, nor is there any NPC who could plausibly be Theron in disguise. And why is Chaos even still around? The whole point of the first Dungeon Master is that both pure Order and pure Chaos were evil, and to complete the quest, Theron's champions had to fuse the two halves back into the Grey Lord again. 
Well, surely the answers will come in Dungeon Master III. In the meantime, share your strategies for winning the final battle, and I'll try to conquer Dragoth more legitimately for the "Summary and Rating."
Final time: 37 hours