Saturday, December 3, 2022

Game 477: Monsters and Magic (1988)

 
After writing this game, the author went on to designate congressional districts in North Carolina.
           
Monsters and Magic
United States
Independently developed; published by T&D Software
Released 1988 for TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started: 30 November 2022
Date Ended: 30 November 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Very Easy-Easy (1.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
     
Sometimes I imagine I'm trapped in a blank room with absolutely nothing to do except for a computer and a single game. Would I be grateful to have that game? In the case of something like an Ultima or Might and Magic title, the answer is not only "yes," but, you know, I actively fantasize about it. Nothing to do, no responsibilities, just a blank room, a comfortable chair, and NetHack. Sign me up. Delve lower on my list and something like Curse of Vengeance or Tygus Horx might not hold up very well against the many other things that are also within my reach in the modern adult world, but I'd still prefer them to an empty room. If they were the only games on my hypothetical computer, I'd still be grateful to have something to do. Almost anything is better than nothing.
     
Thus, it's a rare game that offers such an unpleasant experience that you'd literally prefer doing nothing to playing it. Monsters and Magic is alas such a game. If I were trapped in a room and it were the only game on my computer, I'd probably pass time testing the taste of the paint on different sections of the wall, or maybe taking apart the computer. When I used to get bored before smartphones, I'd sometimes pick a random large number and try to figure out if it was prime. A few hours of that beats Monsters and Magic.
       
My army is doing well here. It won't last.
             
The game was written by Mike Snyder, whose website is currently the only source for the game (thanks to Busca for pointing me in the right direction). It's great for Snyder to offer his games for free, and I'm sure he's a great guy, but his page lists over 50 games for the Color Computers 2 and 3 written between 1988 and 1990. I don't care how prolific you are, you can't write 50 playable games in 3 years. You can't even write 15 playable games in 3 years. There are probably a couple of truly excellent games on his list--ones that his players still remember with fondness and he still remembers with pride--but by the laws of physics alone, the rest have to be unplayable headaches. Monsters and Magic is one of the latter.
    
Snyder's own site calls it a "unique graphic RPG." It is the only one of his games so designated, and the use of "RPG" is wrong by most definitions. It is, instead, one of those "campaign"-style games that I struggled to label when writing about Fortress of the Witch King (1983). The ur example is Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979); the sub-genre includes Sword of Zedek (1981) and Braminar (1987). What these games have in common is that there's no primary character. You control an army of men that roams across the landscape, with events alternately serving to sap or strengthen your forces. Games of this sub-genre sometimes stray into RPG territory if they allow for experience and development on the part of the "general" or if you regard the army's statistics and equipment as the same as a single character's. In any event, and whatever its primary source, Monsters doesn't make even those nods to RPG status. Its mechanics have been stripped so bare that there's almost nothing interesting for the player to do.
     
Who is even saying this?
       
With no character creation, the game starts in the upper-right corner of a world map depicting a collection of countries, I guess. A river cuts the map into two pieces towards the western side. It annoys me how the river was clearly drawn after the outlining of the kingdoms. so that the borders continue on the other sides of the river. From this, we're left to conclude that either the countries extend their borders across the river despite the lack of bridges--and despite the fact that major rivers usually serve as borders--or that the countries on both sides of the river just happened to draw their borders in such a way that they would meet if the river weren't there. I don't know why this part bothers me so much, but it does.
    
The player starts with an army of 100 men. The character has a health score of 50, a sword power of 1, and no gold. These are the game's only variables. The player's stated goal is to destroy the five "outlaw armies" that plague the kingdom.
   
A handful of visitable locations are marked on the map in white squares. All but one of them are towns, and all the towns are exactly the same. The one exception is a "dungeon" in the upper-right corner. Because the game gives so little else to report on, I'll tell you that the names of the towns are Sparon, Erumis, Triolar, Arrolio, Haversham, Flaavar, and Vriiar.
        
The town menu in every town.
       
There are a lot of problems with the game, including the absolutely bare-bones variables and mechanics, but the most important is that nothing ever good happens to this army. Usually in a "campaign" game like this, the army has a variety of encounters as it crosses the landscape. There's an earthquake, and some men die. They meet some friendly centaurs, and a new unit joins the army. A particularly good hunt boosts morale by 2 points. A rainstorm destroys half of the food stores. And so on. In Monsters everything that happens is bad. Troops die in storms and mutinies. "Land pirates" sometimes attack and kill soldiers and steal gold. Sickness saps your hit points. My (least) favorite is when individual soldiers just "quit." The game makes you acknowledge each of these events by hitting the ENTER key. When I'm trying to cross a world with an army of 3,000, I don't need to stop and acknowledge individual soldiers quitting.
       
"Bandits," maybe? "Raiders"? "Guerillas"? "Marauders"?
     
The second major problem is that the only way to replenish hit points and soldiers is to purchase them in towns. It costs 10 gold pieces per soldier and 20 gold pieces per hit point. The only other way to "develop" is to pay a magician 5,000 gold to increase the "plus" on your weapon. These are only "problems" because of the third issue. There are only three ways to make money: fight in the arena (every town has one), explore the dungeon, or gamble. The arena pays around 100 gold for a successful victory, but a loss ends the game. Exploring the dungeon (more below) is completely random and might give you 100 gold pieces per 5 minutes of exploration if you're lucky. To be viable, an army needs to have around 300-500 members and the character needs a health score of at least 250, both of which could deplete to 0 from about 10 minutes of exploration. Do the math. To get even a modestly viable army, you need around 8,000 gold pieces, which in turn would require 80 successful arena combats or 7 hours in a dungeon.
         
Monster battles in arenas and dungeons.
       
That leaves gambling. It's a simple die game in which winning doubles your money and there's no maximum bet. Thankfully, it works. In fact, the odds are so favorable that you can make tens of thousands of gold pieces in mere minutes. I often won 5 or more times in a row and never lost twice in a row.
       
It helps that I "didn't win or lose" even when I clearly lost.
     
The game would be awfully easy--just gamble until you have a million gold pieces and buy more health and soldiers than you'd ever need--but it has one final middle finger to offer. If you get an army of more than a couple thousand men, they start to die en masse from "disagreements among your troops." If you amass more than 10,000 gold, "a strong magical wind carries half of it away to some far, unreachable place." And if you have so much health . . . well, here, the author didn't try to come up with even a ridiculous explanation. Just that "you have so much health that it actually causes damages to you."
        
Even "you have so much health, your own troops throw stones at your head out of sheer spite" would have been better.
      
So "gameplay" is basically several hours of marching across the landscape, acknowledging one awful thing after another happening to your party, then retreating to a nearby town to gamble and replenish everything--but not too much.
   
Why are you marching across the landscape in the first place? You have to find the five "outlaw armies." But they're not marked, so you have to explore every square until you stumble into them. There are about 6,000 squares on the map, and it takes about a second (era-accurate speed) to move between them, not counting the messages you have to acknowledge occasionally in between. God knows why, but rather than BRIEF the game and get it off my list, I actually played it to the end, stepping on every square, albeit at "Warp" mode in the emulator. In the event that for some insane reason you want to do this for yourself, here's a shortcut:
      
  • Army #1 is in the top row near the northeast corner.
  • Army #2 is near the river in the southwest corner
  • Army #3 is in the top row just west of the river
  • Army #4 is in a line south of Flaavar on the west side of the map
  • Army #5 is in the second row from the top in the northwest corner
     
Only one of the five armies is on the east side of the river, which takes up the majority of the map. That means all that space is essentially for nothing. I can't begin to tell you how boring it is to just walk across the map in rows, having to run to a town for replenishment every few minutes.
   
The armies range from a few hundred members (#1) to several thousand (#5). To defeat the last one, you have to load up your own army with about 5,000 troops and then hope you don't lose too many on the way to the battle. The battles against other armies take a long time as you watch messages scroll by indicating how many soldiers were killed round after round, but there's no real tension to them. The player has no options, and the relative size of the army is the overwhelming variable in victory.
          
Even in "Warp" mode, this takes a while.
       
To get to the west side of the map, the player has to build a bridge across the river. This is accomplished by entering a forest in the southeast part of the map and cutting down some trees. The problem with this is that you have to hit the SPACE bar in the right part of the map to make this happen. The SPACE bar is otherwise only used to enter cities and the dungeon, both of which are clearly marked on the map. The player wouldn't know to just randomly hit it in a blank part of the map. The only reason I found it was sheer luck.
          
If you have wood, the bridge appears as soon as you touch the water.
       
If you touch the far western border of the map, the game crashes.
        
There's no final victory message after you defeat the final army. I searched the program code to verify this. Weirdly, you can encounter the fifth army an endless number of times (after defeating it originally) in the northwest corner of the map. However, after its first defeat, the army has no soldiers, so your victory is automatic. 
       
Having destroyed five or more "outlaw armies" is the only way to prove that I've "won."
                   
Let me talk more about the dungeon. Allowing for dungeon exploration in a game like this isn't unique--Clardy's Odyssey did it--but it is unusual. It could have been an interesting part of the game. Unfortunately, it's completely random. When you enter, you're told how many tunnels are available to you (a random number). You're supposed to choose one by typing in the number, but the meaninglessness of this action is reflected in the fact that you can type any number no matter how many tunnels there are supposed to be, and you still get a valid result. You're taken to another random room description with a random number of exit tunnels. Some of the rooms have pools, also activated by typing a number, which produce a random result like increased or decreased health. Sometimes creatures join your army. You sometimes randomly encounter a monster (e.g., troll, gargoyle, evil gnome), against which combat is as bereft of tactics and tension as the army battles. (The game already has almost no magic; aside from these creatures, it wouldn't have any monsters, either.) The key variables are your health and weapon power. You might get a small number of gold pieces from the battle. Since gambling is the only plausible long-term approach, the dungeon is ultimately meaningless, particularly since it's located in the upper-right corner, and you can't really linger in that area.
      
Wasting time in a dungeon.
    
Monsters and Magic could have been saved with a little more thought and balance. Eliminating gambling would have been the start. Force the player to make money through combat and dungeon exploration, and increase those rewards. Add a few more variables to combat, and allow some positive things to happen during exploration. It still wouldn't be a great game, it might at least become better than nothing. My scale doesn't actually go into the negatives, but anything less than 10 is pretty painful, and Monsters gets a 7. It manages to survive on a series of 1s that by tradition I give to having anything in some of the categories.
      
Mike Snyder was clearly capable of better games, and this, admittedly, was one of his early ones. He seems to have been reasonably talented at interactive fiction, for instance. He created an interesting-looking text adventure/Breakout hybrid called Spore in 1991. In the 1990s, he established Prowler Productions and produced, among other things, Lunatix: The Insanity Circle, a text adventure with graphics set in an insane asylum. But in his Color Computer days, he seemed more interested in quantity than quality. Part of that may have been the demands of his publisher, Michigan-based T&D Subscription Software. T&D was owned by a man named Tom Dykema and seems to have stood for "Tom and Dykema."
    
I announced in a recent comment that I was having trouble with motivation lately, and it might be natural to suggest that, given such, I drop or at least BRIEF some of these recent additions to game databases, often questionable in their use of the RPG label. Some commenters have suggested taking a break. What's important to understand is that playing something like Monsters and Magic is, counterintuitively, such a "break." It may be a bad game, but it's an easy blog article. It requires no effort to emulate, no translations, no interpretation of another country's conventions. The time it takes to play may be unpleasant, but it's over soon, and there's no dreading what comes tomorrow. Thus, I think I'll save most of my 1980s backlog for times like this, when I don't want to play something complex that requires me to repeatedly ask help from my readers.
   
Will at the Adventurer's Guild is sick, and I don't want to get too far ahead of him with BloodNet, so it might be a while for the next entry. I'm still having issues with Die Odyssee and may not be able to muster another entry on it. I will be continuing with SOTE, but alternating with more quick games like this. When I'm ready to commit to an "upcoming" list again, I'll probably just put it back the way it was rather than draw new games.

42 comments:

  1. In the Wheel of Time books, one of the characters is a general and supernaturally lucky. He makes a lot of his money gambling, too.

    If this were published in 1993 I'd be suspicious. As it is, maybe Robert Jordan loved this game ;-)

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  2. Maybe, as often happens in the real world, the river changed course but people were to stubborn to change the borders ;)

    I feel bad for enjoying your misery, but I love reading your rants about bad games.

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  3. At first I was thinking, now I know why he is in a funk. (exposure to this game) Good to know that isn't the case and that these can sometimes deliver a form of salvation.

    I am not sure this can ever be topped: "you have so much health that it actually causes damages to you."

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    1. Maybe it could be understood in the way bodybuilders or extreme athletes can get heart problems. Still hilarious.

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    2. Health is a wheel. Get too healthy, and it comes all the way around again.

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    3. Or like how athletes are at particularly high risk for getting pulmonary embolisms from air travel! Apparently slow resting heart rate + high levels of coagulants in blood (caused by the demands of exercise) + altitude = clotting.

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    4. Maybe "health" is kinda like "blood" in this game? Since it's fantasy, right? And in the medieval times doctors used to cut people to let some blood out as a method of _healing_. Kinda like "I'll let 100 hp of your blood out so you can continue to live"!

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    5. After all, Ultima 4 portrayed blood donations that train Sacrifice as "sacrificing 100 hp" per donation.

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    6. So healing in this game is just pumping yourself full with litre after litre of blood, to the point where you're literally bursting with the stuff like an overfilled mosquito? Jesus, what a horrifying mental image. Thanks for that, Lorigulf.

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    7. The Leech hits you. You are healed for 12 HP!

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    8. In AD&D, visiting the Positive Energy Plane is supposed to heal you. And heal you to twice and then three times your maximum HP. And then you explode messily.

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    9. I'm reminded of how the Pkunk in Star Control 2 have a legend about the Ilwrath, where they used to be the most saintly and kind aliens in the universe, but then they got just a little bit more good and then rolled over to become the builders of vivisected corpse mountains we meet in the game.

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  4. After reading "help me destroy 5 groups of outlaw monsters" in the screenshot above, I was wondering if there are also law-abiding monsters in this game. But afterwards it seems to speak only of "outlaws" and "outlaw armies", so maybe the "monsters" is more of a figurative moniker. In which case the game's title indeed makes almost no sense.

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  5. That's one lightning bolt of a world map there.

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  6. Also, in concourse with some comments of the previous entry, you should do yourself a favour and try 'Betrayal at Krondor' next - it will restore your faith in the purpose of this blog like magic.

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    1. I'm reluctant to allow myself that kind of flexibility. If I start picking and choosing games, my loses a lot of its uniqueness.

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    2. In any case, you just managed to reach the goal of 120 entries for 2022.

      Having a full time job and having this kind of commitment for that many years is mind blowing.

      Congratulations!

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    3. Yeah, but if you burn out from the grind of random dreck, your blog would lose a lot of content.

      Maybe start picking and choosing when you're not feeling the desire. Something like after N games in a row of GIMLET 30- games, give the readers an option to suggest an RPG from the current year like Krondor for you to get back on track. It's not like you're jumping ahead to Baldur's Gate 2 or Witcher 3 or something.

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    4. @Chet: Yes, I remembered earlier discussions about this and your view on it when I made my suggestions. I understand why you don't want to choose the entire play order or even parts of it that way. The idea was just to pick one or two games now, to get you out of your funk.

      You've made single deliberate choices before, e.g. book-ending 1991 with EoB and EoB II, respectively, and starting 1992 with UU, without it ruining the uniqueness of your approach and blog (in my opinion at least). Saving your 1980s backlog for times when you do not want to play something complex also sounds like a good idea to keep the blog going in a way that it does not turn into a complete burden and awful slog for you. That's not the same as actively curating the entire list in advance. So I still think you could allow yourself that kind of liberty here and now as an exception to the rule, if it helps you stay motivated. But in the end it's your call and what you feel fine with.

      And I'll mirror what Vince said: congratulations already on your impressive output for 2022 in quantity and quality, same as the blog in general!

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    5. Short of directly picking specific games, it might be helpful to try to find or generate some data to enhance the way you group games beyond just current or clean-up. Well known vs. obscure, professional vs. indie vs. amateur. You could also group by sub-categories like roguelike, borderline adventure games, borderline strategy, action RPGs, foreign language games, games that require you to use a joystick, etc.

      Then you could randomly draw from these different buckets as needed to provide a better flow of games, and to prioritize what you care about the most, without specifically hand-picking anything.

      I get the reluctance to deprioritize or not play something, but due to opportunity cost you are really doing that no matter what. Your choice to play or pass on some game now probably determines if some future game is reached or unplayed. It makes sense to focus on getting good value out of whatever you are doing now, which means abandoning games like Angband once nothing new is being gotten out of it and deprioritizing certain types of RPGs so that they get still get some coverage but free up the blog's time to cover more and better value games.

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    6. "...my blog loses a lot of its uniqueness."

      Maybe some years ago that was the case, when you were 'that guy who's trying to play every RPG'. These days, your blog is primarily unique because it is you who is the blogger. You've nearly 500 games in your chronology - you have your stripes.

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    7. "Having a full time job and having this kind of commitment for that many years is mind blowing."

      It's really impressive. Not sure if this is counted correctly, but it seems there were about 120 articles, 36 games described at length and 12 games that got BRIEFs this year. And one thing that is unique is the exceptional thoroughness and fairness that all games, even the very minor ones, receive.

      Taking a holiday from the blog for a while might be a good refresh, just like taking a holiday from a job. Another possibility is to write about some other interesting and related media, such as a Matt Chat interview that contains new information about past games or development teams.

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    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    9. I agree with what the others said, particularly Tristan. Your blog isn't just unique because you play every CRPG in existence, it's unique because you've been reviewing RPG games for over 10 years and have gotten through 500 games and you have a thorough style in the games you play and particular voice.

      If you don't enjoy something, it's not worth doing. That said, I do understand the 'completionist' mindset. If despite not enjoying it it's what you want to do, it's your blog! Just don't feel you 'owe it to the readers' to suffer through dreck.

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    10. Small pushback on this:

      If you don't enjoy something, it's not worth doing.

      I'd say instead: if you don't get satisfaction from something, it's usually not worth doing (if it's optional; I'm not talking about doing your taxes or getting a colonoscopy here).

      But there are plenty of things I haven't especially enjoyed that I'm still glad I did -- including games that weren't really fun to play, but were satisfying to beat.

      In my experience, most people who climb the tallest mountains say that mountain climbing mostly stinks, but the achievement of reaching the summit is the addictive part. It's rewarding, satisfying, fulfilling because it was hard, exhausting, self-doubt-inducing.

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    11. I think this is pretty much just splitting hairs on the definition of enjoy, since I'd say satisfaction is an adequate standin for enjoyment. Or at least it's 'enjoyed having done it after the fact' which to me is much the same!

      But yeah, your sentiment is basically mine as well.

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    12. I don't mean to split hairs, but "enjoy" is one of those words that can be used broadly or narrowly.

      More than once my other half -- who is utterly wonderful and supportive, to be clear! -- has seen me swearing at a game and asked "Why are you playing this if you're not having fun?" For me, games aren't always about having fun in the usual sense -- sometimes they're about achievement, satisfaction, etc. Five minutes of a dopamine high after hours of frustration.

      So yeah, I guess I was pushing back against the idea that something has to be fun to be worth doing. But as you say, I think we're on the same page.

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  7. This looks almost like an attempt to replicate the Milton Bradley 'Dark Tower' board game on a computer, with enough difference to avoid copyright infringement. Even the map looks a little bit like the 'Dark Tower' board.

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  8. Mike Snyder did do some legit text adventures down the line -- I'd recommend Tales of the Traveling Swordsman (2006) in particular.

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  9. Chet, if we can still help you regarding your issues with "Die Odyssee" (and you want the help), let us know.

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    1. I still cannot figure out how to sleep and get rid of exhaustion. If you can scan the manual one more time and see if it says anything about that, it would help.

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  10. My vote on how to interpret the map is that a tectonic separation created a new river and no one wanted to reevaluate their land claims. Who knows? Maybe all the outlaw armies are in the west because they're proponents of the western countries eating up the eastern countries' land that wound up on the western side of the river and they refuse to accept the legal country lines.

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    Replies
    1. Now I have to wonder if it caused a reod. People of Sel, update your aons!

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  11. I love how the combined thought posters have had about the map in this game probably exceeds that of the author by far ; )

    The "too much health" message is unbelievable. It's one thing if - as happens sometimes - something like an overflow bug isn't spotted in a game. But it's another thing for a game designer to spot the bug / problem, and just go "ah, I'll leave it in and write a completely absurd message so people will think it's intended". That's pretty lazy!

    On the other hand, that's how he ended up writing so many games in so little time. I wonder if it was worth it financially?

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  12. I would argue that the health system is working as intended. It seems to be designed to prevent you being overpowered. It is just a tad more annoying than systems used in other games like level scaling or XP capping.

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  13. I am just happy to see the coverage of Coco games on this site. I agree that it is not particularly fun, but *I* would certainly have played it, given the very limited number of strategy and RPG games on the system. (Actually by 1988 I had a PC and the Coco was retired, but the point stands.)

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  14. There's no rule that says you have to play all the terrible CoCo RPGs I added to Mobygames. You've already played like the 5 that are even passable. You're lucky that I'm now adding VIC-20 games. Almost no RPGs there.

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    1. Indeed, my worst game so far is a Coco game (Battle of Gettysburgh). At least I could write something funny. It is hard to be funny when the game is good but dry.
      There is something special with the Coco, it is like the Linux of the era : its own magazines, developers, etc with very little port to the Coco or "out of the Coco".
      Any wargame added on the Vic-20 ?

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    2. There's no rule that says you have to play all the terrible CoCo RPGs I added to Mobygames.

      My understanding is that the Addict's own rule says that if a game satisfies his conditions for a CRPG, he has to play it for at least 6 hours, quality be damned. (Of course if it doesn't meet those conditions, then it's gone; even better if it gets nixed pre-emptively by helpful commenters before he has to waste a minute on it.)

      If quality (let alone the initial appearance of quality!) were the guiding principle on whether the Addict plays or covers a game, this blog would be a lot less interesting, at least to me.

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  15. I absolutely love that there's still people out there with old-fashioned personal webpages making their artifacts available for posterity. The quality of the man's titles is basically irrelevant, it's still astonishing to me that they're around four decades later so we can see a little capsule of a different time.

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  16. It's fortunate that you enjoy (in a way) writing these short takes on obscure games as I enjoy them quite a lot, often more than multi-part write-ups of some more well-known games.

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