Monday, June 17, 2024

Game 519: Dungeon of Doom (1980)

Dungeon of Doom
United States
Argon Games (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II
Date Started: 7 June 2024
Date Ended: 16 June 2024
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Completely user-definable, so I guess moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)   
Both El Explorador de RPG and I had this game as "missing" for a couple of years (he had found an ad for it but couldn't find the game) before it was rescued from oblivion by a commenter named John Brown, who found it in a "random local Apple II lot he purchased." He sent El Explorador images of the box and manual but not the game itself. However, Mr. Brown did ultimately provide a disk copy to YouTuber "DefaultGen" who subsequently made a video about it and uploaded it to the Internet Archive, which commenter Busca brought to my attention. It's a good video, at least as informative of anything you're going to read here.
The game was created by Stephen G. Walburn and Robert J. McCredie, two old-school wargamers who created several tactical board games, including Shoot-Out: Gunfights in the Spirit of the Old West (1980), Space Warrior (1980), and Husky: Invasion of Sicily (1981). They were also Dungeons & Dragons fans and were, like many such fans, interested in how to bring D&D gameplay to the microcomputer.
The game isn't just the first commercial party-based RPG; it allows up to 12 members!
Their answer, Dungeon of Doom, technically breaks our previous understanding of a couple of "firsts." It takes the spot previously held by Wizardry (1981) as the first traditional commercial RPG to feature multiple characters in a party. (I have to throw "traditional" in there because technically 1978's The Magic Tower is the first, but it's not really a normal RPG.) Perhaps more important, it robs Tunnels of Doom (1982) of the distinction of the first RPG with multi-character combat on a top-down tactical grid. This is not to say that any later authors were influenced by Dungeon of Doom (though it would be fun to think that Tunnels was, given the name), but as DefaultGen says in his video: "Any CRPG that came before Ultima and Wizardry set a blueprint to follow is by default an interesting game."
The game relies a lot on the honesty and external record-keeping of the player. As the game begins, you're invited to create a party of anywhere from 1 to 12 fighters, mages and clerics. That's a pretty broad range. Even crazier, you can create characters of any level, statistics, and gear (within certain maximums) that you want. The game uses D&D attributes: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma, all within the 3-18 range, including the percentile statistic for characters with 18 strength. Nothing stops you from creating a character with all 18s. If there's a character level limit, I never found it; it let me create a Level 9,999 character when I tried. You define your own hit points, but they're capped at 8 times your level for fighters, 6 times your level for clerics, and 4 times your level for mages--essentially the "hit dice" system from D&D.
Exploring a corridor.
You also specify your equipment during character creation. You can choose armor from leather, chain, and plate, and give it an enchantment of up to +5. You can choose to carry a shield, up to +5. You select two weapons from a short list (sword, two-handed sword, mace, dagger, bow, crossbow, sling), all of which can be enchanted up to +5.
In all of this flexibility, the game reminds me a bit of Dunjonquest (1979) which similarly allowed players to type in their own characters and expected them to keep track of them between sessions. I think clearly players were supposed to create basic characters and work them up, although a relatively powerful party of five characters (three fighters, a cleric, and a mage), all levels 5-9 with no piece of equipment less than +3, comes on the disk.
Available commands as you explore a corridor.
When you enter the game proper, you're thrust into a large, 6-level, 3D maze. The levels are all 40 x 40, using a "worm tunnel" configuration (i.e., walls have actual space). The corridors are in a fixed configuration, but the room locations are randomized. The entry is always in the southeast corner, and the exit is always in the northwest corner. I haven't compared the exact lines of code, but the graphics look exactly like Silas Warner's Escape! (1978) for the Apple II.
You navigate through the dungeon with the FBLR keys. (The game has a quirk by which you cannot just turn; you can only turn and step forward, which makes navigation a little awkward.) You occasionally find a door that you can E)nter, thus initiating battle with whatever denizens are in there. Random battles can occur in the hallways, too, but you never get any treasure from those, while you do get treasure from the "room" battles.
Deciding whether to enter a room to my left.
The battles are the heart of the game. They're all with exactly one monster type, drawn from the typical D&D list: gnolls, orcs, trolls, ochre jellies, dragons, and so forth. The manual boasts that there are 141 different types. You may face up to a couple of dozen enemies per battle, so you either want to bring a large party or a strong one.
As combat begins, enemies are scattered randomly across a very large battlefield (40 x 40 for rooms, 20 x 40 for corridors), which is also populated with as many "obstacles" as there are monsters. If you entered a room, the party members are clustered off-screen, below the southern doorway, and you have to enter the room one by one. It's sometimes tough to get out of each other's ways. If the battle is a random one in a corridor, the party starts scattered randomly.
Combat begins. The party is all off-screen, below the door. There are three enemies and three obstacles on the screen. If I try hard, I can tell which is which because the enemies are a bit darker.
The game cycles through the party members in order, first allowing them to move, with the number of movement points defined by dexterity and armor. During this round, you can also switch weapons or pass. After that, there's a combat round in which every character can fire a missile weapon, attack with a melee weapon (if in range), or cast a spell (if a spellcaster). Enemies go in turn after the characters. Despite the large variety of enemies, they never cast spells or hit you with special attacks or conditions. I don't think any of them even have missile weapons.
A couple of rounds later, I've established "ranks" to the left and right of the door. One of the enemies has reached my left rank; two more are approaching my right.
There are no individual spells in the game. In combat, spellcasters just cast a generic offensive spell. You specify the "force" level (limited by character level) from 1-5. Clerics can cast these offensive spells, too, but are better off saving their spell power for healing outside of combat.
Every round, there's a 10% chance you'll be offered an opportunity to withdraw, which if taken gives the enemies one free whack at the party members on their way out the door.
This combat system sounds good on paper--it's the ancestor of every tactical, grid-based combat system we've ever seen. In practice, a few things make it a bit excruciating. One of the elements is relatively unique to me as a colorblind player: the only way party members, obstacles, and enemies are distinguished using the low-resolution graphics is by color. I had trouble distinguishing enemies (which I believe are orange) from obstacles (yellow) and certain party members that had close colors.
Make what you can of this image. Looking at it now, I don't know where Erk is, nor the monster he hit.
Second, movement is with this key arrangement . . .
1 2 3
4    6
7 8 9
. . . which looks like it ought to be easy to master, but I had to have an image as a constant reference.
Third, the battlefield is just too big. It takes multiple rounds even to get close to monsters, especially if you're all coming through the south door. You might think that you could alleviate this problem by using missile weapons and spells exclusively, which gets us into the most serious problem: When you want to use a missile weapon, the game cycles through all of the enemies on the screen, telling you their numbers, so that you can specify which enemy number you want to shoot. There's no "random" or "closest" option. The cycle lingers on each enemy for about 1 second, so if you're fighting a party of 12 gnolls, you have to sit there for 12 seconds as the game shows you and numbers each one. If the next character wants to fire his missile weapon, you have to wait those 12 seconds again. 
The game cycles through the available targets.
Naturally, you can speed things up with an emulator, but even with CPU speed cranked, large battles can easily take 20-30 minutes.
The size of the battlefield also makes the "obstacle" system a bit irrelevant, since even with large enemy parties, there aren't enough obstacles to create walls, channels, or other configurations that might be exploited by either you or your foes.
If you manage to clear out the enemies, the party gets a number of experience points. If the enemies are in a room, you also get treasure, which can be represented as copper, silver, gold, gems, or jewels. The game breaks from D&D by making copper worth 1/100 of a gold piece (I believe it was 1/50 in OD&D and 1/200 in AD&D1). Gems are worth a fixed 233 gold pieces and jewels are worth a fixed 1,419 gold pieces.
You're also limited by how much you can carry.
There are 78 rooms per dungeon level, and the game keeps track of which ones you've cleared. When the party is spent, you can exit the dungeon by returning to the original staircase. At this point, you want to note your accumulated experience points and treasure. Because when you re-enter the dungeon, you'll be expected to make manual adjustments to your characters based on the experience and equipment tables offered in the game manual. Once you edit your characters, you can re-enter the dungeon.
You manually "buy" upgrades by subtracting their costs from your treasure pool.
While making your way through the hallways, you can check your progress with the M)ap command, which draws an automap column by column. When I set the emulator to "Use Authentic Machine Speed," the map took 92 seconds to draw. That must have been fun as an original player. I guess it stops you from abusing the map.
The map of the first level.
The game offers a couple other navigation tricks tied to a spellcaster's power. High enough casters can cast "Change Level" to move to a different level or "Teleportation" to move to a specific point on the same level. Lower levels theoretically mean harder monsters, although I didn't notice much of a correlation. The game also leaves a couple of troubleshooting codes for the player to use, and the manual explicitly tells you the password to use them. You can restock a level with CTRL-R, move to a new level (without spending spell points) with CTRL-N, and check your current coordinates with CTRL-P.
There's no plot to the game, no story, no winning condition. It's not a huge feat to make it to the final square (the doorway to the non-existent seventh level) when you can teleport yourself there. I suppose it would be a huge feat to clear all 468 rooms, but you'd have to be mental. 
As far as you can go.
Overall, Dungeon of Doom needed a little work to be truly enjoyable. But it did a couple of things for the first time and thus deserves to be remembered for those achievements alone.

I tried to track down the authors to no avail. Both had a number of board game credits in the early 1980s and then kind of disappeared. Argon Games seems to have existed for this one title. Oddly, what is still around is the Triangle Simulation Society, credited with play-testing. This North Carolina-based group is into board games and wargames, and it's easy to imagine that Walburn and McCredie were probably members.
The box art is credited to a Craig Lindholm.
El Explorador de RPG also released an entry on the game today, so make sure you check out his coverage for things I may have missed, or for a more analytical view overall.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Game 518: Die Quelle von Naroth (1993)

That's a pretty cool opening image.
Die Quelle von Naroth
"The Well of Naroth"
Independently developed and published
Released 1993 for Amiga
Date Started: 5 June 2024
Die Quelle von Naroth is a tidy independent game that evokes some of Pool of Radiance in its themes and basic mechanics. I always like solving local problems more than world-ending ones, and this game's main quest, although it may develop into something else, is both local and relatively original. It's set in a typical fantasy kingdom called Naroth, founded by orcs but now occupied by more civilized races. The town once had a booming economy thanks to its magical healing waters, but something has recently caused the well to run dry. The king has posted a reward for anyone who can determine the cause. Enter four young, eager adventurers.
Creating the party.
Character creation has you selecting four characters from six potential classes: fighter, knight, barbarian, sorcerer, priest, and monk. Your race and class choice, plus some randomness, determine values for strength, intelligence, constitution, skill, accuracy, damage, parrying ability, protection, hit points, and magic points. I create:

  • Chester, a human knight
  • Tharkk, a half-orc barbarian
  • Axon, an elf sorcerer
  • Ilende, a dwarf priest.

The game begins in the city of Dandall, and I was delighted to hear background noises! I have been eagerly anticipating the era when RPGs incorporate ambient sound. There isn't a lot here--just repeating loops of inaudible conversation, thunder, people talking, and horses whinnying--but it's 100% better than most games of the era. German developers in general were doing a better job with this than anyone else. I previously praised the ambient sound in The Legend of Faerghail (1990), the two Dungeons of Avalon games (1992), and Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991).
The opening moments. I may post a video later so you can hear the background noises.
Unfortunately, I soon discover a negative: the game uses mouse controls exclusively. You otherwise  navigate the world in a standard 3D tiled interface. The graphics are decent for an independent game.
The party starts with no items and 750 gold. The city is already mapped out in the game's automap. There are no encounters on the street. The city consists of 11 buildings with 14 doorways. The doors open up to reveal two armorers, two weaponsmiths, a bowyer, two taverns, a temple, two dungeons, a training hall, and NPCs named Aurelius and Thelax. After I scope the prices, I get the party outfitted with some basic weapons and armor: shortswords and leather armor for my lead fighters, a morningstar and shield for my priest, and a dagger for the sorcerer.
A few options available at the armorer.
There's also a door leaving the city, but "the city council has instructed that no one leave the city," so I guess that's for later.
Aurelius gives me what seems to be my first quest. He claims to be friends with Thelax, who also lives in town. He says that all his goods are in his house in the neighboring town, and he can't get into the place because two "thieving ogres" stole the key. He'll give us two valuable magic items if we retrieve it for him. We say sure.
Aurelius's narrative. It's a lot of text, but Google Translate's new (2023) image tool takes care of it in a few seconds.
Thelax is a wizard whose spellbook was recently stolen by his archrival, Maruschke, and taken to the catacombs beneath the city. He's willing to pay for its return.
The taverns are called The Orc and The Golden Lion, and in both of them we have the ability to feed keywords to the innkeeper for more conversation. From them, I get:
  • Aurelius may not be telling the truth about his missing key. The owner of the Golden Lion says that Aurelius had previously enlisted an elven warrior, who tried to run off with the treasure he found instead of giving it to Aurelius, and Aurelius had him killed. The owner of the Orc says she doesn't believe that story but agrees that Aurelius is looking for more than a key.
  • Benedictinus at the monastery is looking for someone to clean out the cellar. That has to be on a different map, as I didn't find any Benedictinus in the main city.
  • Thelax and Maruschke have an ongoing feud that goes back to a magic competition that Thelax won, perhaps by stealing some secrets from Maruschke. 
Asking about people in the tavern.
After I finish exploring the town, I head into a dungeon, choosing at random the one against the town's western wall. After a few steps, I face my first battle, with two orcs. I've been expecting a Dungeon Master-style combat system (although I realize belatedly there's no button on the interface to fight), so I'm surprised when the game takes me to a top-down interface.
My first battle.
The characters act in order and can move, attack, use an item or spell, or block. Being Level 1 characters, we miss most of our attacks. I exhaust my sorcerer's and priest's mana bars casting "Magic Missile" and "Healing," respectively, and the orcs manage to kill two of my characters before we kill them. It takes a couple of reloads to get a more favorable outcome. On their corpses, I find a note. It was written by someone who claims that he's being held in a dungeon beneath the city, guarded by two guards. He says he has important information for anyone who releases him.
The top-down, turn-based combat system.
I'm concerned because even in our "successful" battle, we got hurt, and I have very little magic left. Hit points and spell points do not regenerate on their own. There's a "camp" option, but every time I try to use it, whether in town or in the dungeon, the game says I can't find a good spot. 
The dungeon exploration interface.
I continue on, letting the automap do its work. It's a few minutes before my next battle with four spiders. It and a subsequent combat with four rats leaves me almost completely dead. I'm not finding any treasures to pay the temple to heal me, either.
I consult the manual, and it says you can't camp in cities, as vagrancy is outlawed, but you can camp in a dungeon if you can find a place with a wall on three sides. That actually makes sense. I find such a nook, and soon I'm back to full power.
The group successfully camps in a little nook.
I kill more rats. It looks like the game divides experience from combat based on the number of successful actions. 
After combat. Chester, as usual, was the MVP.
I soon wall off a square, so I start testing the surrounding walls for secret doors. This pays off. The square turns out to have a treasure chest with 200 gold pieces. Another one, right by the entrance, has 100. I'm feeling good about the future.
Why would anyone choose not to take the gold?
Then I encounter two trolls. My characters all die within two rounds. I'll have to try to work around them and save them for last.
The game tells you what weapons and armor your foes have, but unfortunately you can't loot them when they die.
Before wrapping up, I check out the second dungeon, which has a more polished look and symmetrical layout.
We activate a pressure plate in dungeon #2.
There are a couple of pressure plates that open hidden doors. Without even having to fight any battles, I encounter several treasure chests with gold, a long bow, a shield, and a morningstar. Some rats and kobolds give us a little trouble. Eventually, I realized I've amassed enough experience points to level up--only to discover that leveling up even one character will cost as much money as I have. Clearly, I need to find some more treasure.
The training hall.
I manage to finish this second, smaller dungeon. I kill a bunch of rats, kobolds, and spiders, find a few treasure chests, and find a key that unlocks a door on the small second level. Behind the door is a druid, who attacks us by himself. I guess it's Maruschke, because once he's dead, we find a spellbook on his body. We also find a yellowed piece of paper that no one can read.
Maruschke makes his last stand.
Returning the spellbook to Thelax gets us a longsword and 800 gold. I have enough at this point to level up my first three characters but not the fourth. Axon got "Magic Cloud" at Level 2, a single-target spell that does more damage than "Magic Missile."
This interface allows me to give Thelax his spellbook back.
We turned our attention to the larger dungeon, the improved party doing better with the parties of 2-10 rats, spiders, kobolds, and orcs. We even manage to beat a couple of pairs of ogres. I'm nowhere near the level needed to kill the two trolls, though, as a disastrous rematch proves conclusively. Amassed treasure finally gets my cleric to Level 2 and my knight to Level 3.
Taking on a whole swarm of rats.
In a dead-end cell, we find an old elf warrior--clearly the author of the note and the subject of the innkeeper's rumor. He introduces himself as Effax. He says Aurelius imprisoned him when he discovered the mage's true intentions. The ogres didn't steal Aurelius's key, he says, but they have their own treasure guarded by a key, and Aurelius wants it. He recommends that we take it for ourselves and then takes off to enjoy his freedom.
The dungeon continues to a second level, but here we run into an obstacle. To progress, we need to defeat a party of 4 ogres, and I just can't do it, not without leveling up first. The frustrating thing is that I think my characters have amassed enough experience to make it to about Level 5, but a deficiency of gold keeps us where we are. For the same reason, we can't upgrade to better armor or weapons. There's no way to grind in the game, at least not so far, as all the enemy encounters are fixed. I found a Ring of Wisdom at one point, which adds 10 to a character's intelligence, but I'm honestly considering selling it, since it will pay for 4 or 5 training sessions.
My sorcerer's inventory at the end of this session.
I'll make another loop around to make sure I didn't miss anything and keep trying. Aside from the leveling problem, I'm enjoying the game. It's simple but effective.

This entry is about eight years in the making. I was first contacted by Helge Foerster, the author of Die Quelle von Naroth, in 2016. He sent me a custom package to help emulate the game as well as a translation of the manual. That same year, Foerster produced a very belated sequel for the Android, called just Naroth. (YouTube trailer here.) It looks like an independent Elder Scrolls. It seems to have been well-received.
We exchanged some emails leading up to this entry. He confirmed my suspicion that he had played Pool of Radiance: "[It] was the first RPG that I ever played (on my trusty C64). I loved it." Naroth is in no way a "clone" of Pool, but it evokes some of the same spirit with the nature of the quest, the tavern tales, the city council, the 3D exploration contrasted with top-down combat, and the trolls serving as a hard experience gate in the first dungeon. Even the full-party-death message ("The opponents laugh at your incompetence") echoes the famous Gold Box death message ("The monsters rejoice for the party has been destroyed"). The world could use more developers inspired by the spirit of a previous CRPG who didn't feel compelled to make a direct clone.
Time so far: 3 hours

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Whale's Voyage: Forbidden Seas and Barbarous Coasts

The game prevents me from returning to my ship, and thus saving.
The game begins with the crew of the Whale still on Castra, a little less broke than last time. We returned a missing child, foiled the mugging of a resident, foiled our mugging, and got a mission to bring a heart to a shady-sounding guy named "Jack Nock" on Lapis. But other parties are apparently interested in the heart, and at the end of the last session, they slaughtered us, forcing us to do most of the above a second time. I later ended up doing it a third time because all my money disappeared for reasons I can't explain.
The secret to winning the battle is to run away. The attackers' party of four breaks up, with its members wandering off individually, allowing us to engage and kill them one at a time. For some reason, my soldier (Mapple) turns out to be terrible with the shotgun, but either he or Starbuck (bounty hunter) does fine with their bare hands, particularly since we can just wait and heal between battles. Slowly, we kill them all. They don't leave any visible items behind, but fortunately I think to search the area anyway, as each one of them drops a small-bore gun. 
Divide and conquer.
The combat system shows how bonkers this interface is. As we discussed last time, only one character can fight at a time. If that character isn't the "targeter," you have to enter the bottom interface (SPACE-DOWN ARROW), arrow to the character's name, hit SPACE, arrow to the "Select" icon, and hit SPACE. If there's only one person in front of the party, he'll be automatically selected. Then you have to back out of this menu with the LEFT ARROW to the main screen, then arrow to the little button to the right of the character's name (which shows a symbols specific to his class), then hit SPACE, then arrow to the "Attack" button, then pound away at it with SPACE until the enemy is dead. Woe the character who doesn't already have his preferred weapon equipped, as this is another whole deal. It's hard to believe that anyone designed this purposefully. My two biggest problems are:
  • Identifying what's "selected" on the interface panel. The only indication you get is a thin border around the button, that kind of "blinks" by changing colors, but I can barely see it.
  • Because I can't see the selection border easily, I'm always going to the arrow keys so I can see it moving and thus get a lock on it. But if you accidentally hit the UP ARROW while in the top row of the interface, you end up leaving it (arrow keys now move the party), so you have to get back into it again.
Which of these three guns is currently selected? Easy for you, not so much for me.
I'm sure the excuse for all of this is wanting the player to be able to use the joystick exclusively, but that doesn't justify a lack of keyboard backups for these commands. And why, in the name of all holy, would you not put a target selection button on the combat screen? I don't advocate or applaud physical violence lightly, but someone honestly deserves to be slapped for this.
After we've killed the four assassins, we return to the shop counter. Their guns are worth over $13,000, so I sell one and buy a compass, a toolkit, and a room scanner, just because they all sound useful. We then beam up to the Whale.
One gun buys enough fuel to make it to another planet and back. What a weird economy.
As I mentioned last, the interface on the ship lets you buy or sell goods, buy equipment and fuel for the ship, plot a destination, and make a phone call. At first, I thought the first options were for personal items for the party because the options include "Light Weapons" and "Ammunition." I see now that these options are trade goods. I note the prices for Castra, but I'm not sure if they change from time to time. Amusingly, one of the trade goods is "computergames," and the icon shows the box cover for Whale's Voyage.
It's nice to see that computer games haven't experienced much inflation in 300 years.
The star chart shows six planets in this system: Lapis, Arboris, Castra, Sky Boulevard, Nedas, and Inoid. Lapis is closest to the sun and requires 728 fuel units. I buy 5,000.
Purchasing fuel.
Before I leave, I note the phone panel and decide to try to call George McGil now. Maybe one of the "high tech tools" is something I can use to shrink Greg Morgan, although that still sounds like an unnecessarily complicated way to smuggle someone off-planet. Sure enough, McGil offers to send us a Shrinking Device via "3D fax." He advises us to "use it with care and keep the CD safe!" What CD?
I guess the developers anticipated 3D printing.
I don't know if that means we have the Shrinking Device or just the means to print it somewhere. I return to the surface and go speak with Greg Morgan, who has nothing new to say. But then I notice a new icon over in the left scroll wheel, the same place that the missing girl stored herself. This seems to be a "quest items" part of the interface.
My new option does suggest some kind of shrinking, so I try it. As Morgan disappears, he says, "Take care of this heart and bring it to Jack Nock. Bring me on that CD to Jack Nock. He knows what to do." A CD (compact disk) is barely visible in the corner after he disappears. I pick it up. How does he know Jack Nock? How does he know about the heart? How did McGIl know about the CD? Is everyone just into each others' business on this planet? Looking at the CD tells us that: "This is the compact disc which you used to shrink Greg Morgan. He is still stored on this disc." So I guess it isn't so much a Shrinking Device as one that turns a person into data?
We beam back to the ship and finally prepare to leave Castra for Lapis. The profile in our computer tells me that the planet is very poor and only exists because of its wealthy titanium mines. 
That's one hell of a planetary alignment.
No sooner have we left orbit than the game informs me: "Whale under attack and ambushed by avaricious buccaneers!" Given that I have no weapons, I don't like my chances in this battle. Space combat takes place on a large grid, and the manual assures me that if I can reach the edges of the grid, I can flee. Worst case, I can surrender and I'll lose all my cargo, which is empty. I try to flee, since I can't even see the enemy. I choose the "Turn Left" button, and the game responds, "Whale destroyed!"
I guess I committed one of the classic blunders: turning left in space combat.
On a reload, we don't encounter the pirates this time, and we make it safely to Lapis. Before beaming down, I note the sale prices of their goods. They don't have a lot of overlap with what Castra was selling, but of course they might be willing to buy Castran goods. I need to track buying and selling prices separately, I guess.
We beam down to Lapis. The planet is reported to have no oxygen and to have an average temperature of 400 degrees (F). None of this is reflected in the characters' experience in the town. Maybe it's in a dome or something. Overall, the area is 25 x 10, a little smaller than Castra, but with just as many locked doors. I keep annotating them even though I suspect they're just for flavor and there's no way to open them.
The interiors of the buildings that aren't locked all look like morgues, with compartments in the walls and long tables. Stones are everywhere, indoors and outdoors. I wonder if I can sell them.
This probably has some mining explanation, but I can't figure it out.
There are a few NPCs wandering the town. John Sac tells us that it's hard working the mines; Baumann says he's collecting taxes; Kruger tells us about a new disease called Hypo-Coco; G.J. Styx just keeps asking us for money (there's no way to give money that I can discover). A guy named Ferdinand runs a shop selling tools and explosives.
We find Jack Nock in a building in the north-center part of town. He takes the heart and gives us 100,000 credits. When we give him the disk, he says he can reverse the shrinking. Once he does so, he shouts, "This man is a traitor!" Greg Morgan starts blasting us from behind and has soon killed three party members. I really hate how the game keeps surprising us with combat.
"Reshrink" isn't the word I was looking for.
It takes a few reloads before I can kill Morgan, and even then, it's with one character dead. I take the party to the healing/resurrection chamber in town, which consumes about a third of the credits that I just earned. I return to Jack Nock, who tells me that Morgan was a spy and I "saved the heart," which is intended for an "important man." We try to ask him other things, but he keeps telling us he's busy and will be back in an hour. We make a couple loops around town. I verify Ferdinand won't buy rocks. I buy a machete. Nock still keeps telling us to come back in an hour. Does he mean real time? Time doesn't actually pass in this game.
You can't "be back" if you never leave.
I try to beam up to the ship to save, but the game says that I can't because the beam is being disturbed by a "beam-blocker." 
Eventually, we return to find Jack Nock not just dead on the floor, but comically positioned with his legs straight up in the air. Krueger is wandering around the building, but I don't know if that means anything. We examine the body and find a piece of paper, which causes my leader to level up. I take the "Disarm Selected Opponent" skill.
Or he's got one bastard of a yoga routine.
The piece of paper has a number on it, but I still can't beam up to the ship to call it. Eventually, I have to quit the session. I'll have to re-do it all again next time. That seems like the theme for this game.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I like that you can get a textual description of all your inventory items. I enjoy reading these so much that I made it a point on the GIMLET, but hardly any game ever gets to claim it. Might and Magic VI through VIII remain my favorite games for these descriptions.
I wouldn't mind if it had exact damage statistics along with the description, but one thing at a time, I guess.
  • I have no idea what the image on the right side of the interface is showing me. I think it might just be some generic view of the current planet. I also don't know what the (empty) bars in the upper-right are for.
  • NPCs frequently block your passage. It takes them a long time to move out of the way.
  • Several times this session, I had to reload because all my money disappeared for no reason. I had to make one of my characters the "merchant" so I can keep an eye on it.
The game makes me think of what you would get if you crossed MegaTraveller with the weird cyberpunk aesthetic and combat system of B.A.T. There's an economy of dialogue and storytelling here that borders on the surreal. I honestly don't know whether to regard it as intentional. I'm certainly not going to get very far if I keep experiencing problems like disappearing money and inability to return to the ship.
Time so far: 5 hours
Playing out of: Confusion

Monday, June 10, 2024

Centauri Alliance: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The Medal of Honor looks a bit like a coaster.
Centauri Alliance
United States
Brøderbund Software, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for Apple II and Commodore 64
Date Started: 2 May 2024 
Date Ended: 4 June 2024
Total Hours: 32
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)   
From the creator of The Bard's Tale comes the same sort of game in a science fiction setting (although not always). A party of up to 8 operatives of an interstellar alliance try to foil an invasion by exploring a series of about 50 indoor maps of 16 x 16 tiles each, spread across a dozen planets. You fight a huge variety of unmemorable foes on a hex map, but the map is largely an abstraction, and combat in general uses a Wizardry or Bard's Tale system of defining your actions and then watching them execute, threaded with the enemies' in a hidden order of initiative. "Psionics" replace spells, which are otherwise nearly identical to The Bard's Tale. Storytelling never rises to the level of competence that the game's plot twists are interesting.
When I wrapped up last time, I had recognized I had pushed too far too fast and had settled in for a period of grinding. I did that for about two hours. A few factors made me lose interest. First, I was trying to get my metamorph to the point that he could turn into a "Zon Dragon," which would have made him much more effective at ranged attacks. But when he achieved the level when he could have cast it, he didn't have enough psi points. This continued for two levels beyond that, too. 
The other thing I was trying to do was to get my spellcasters to the level that they could learn "Matter" and "Energy" school spells. I assumed this would happen when the characters hit Level 10 in "Mind" and "Body." Nope. I have no idea how you get offered those spell classes. Neither Shay Addams nor Andrew Schultz was any help with that one.
I did my grinding mostly on Kevner's World, the medieval planet, and I kept finding myself amazed at how Michael Cranford essentially programmed an entire medieval game--to include monsters and equipment--for a single planet. For hours, I fought red dragons, beholders, ogres, sorcerers, and balrogs and was rewarded with halberds, platemail, and rings of health. Unfortunately, these items help highlight a basically-broken equipment system. There's no way to identify what items actually do unless they have a direct effect on your protection or shield. A lot of them are throwing items, and I admittedly underemphasized those. 
What does an "Auramaker Ring" do? Your guess is as good as mine.
When I got bored and frustrated with grinding, I decided to see how close I could get to the end without being able to win any battles. I returned to Keppa Var via the alien transporter on Epsilon Indi and entered the Daynab base with the password CASTLE-FIST.
I had already been here, of course, and I knew there were some fixed combats, and I knew that I couldn't beat them. That doesn't mean I had to. If you successfully flee a combat, the enemies disappear as if they were never there. This strategy worked on the first enemy group I encountered. Beyond them, I found a cache of Daynab uniforms, and after that, the guards mostly left me alone. From this moment on, every time I encountered a random combat, unless it was with a single enemy in melee range, I tried to flee and reloaded if it failed. This is one of those things that would have taken so long on a real Apple II that it wouldn't have been a viable strategy. 
The fact that those Daynab commanders include a lizard and a chicken apparently doesn't bother them.
The Daynab base was four levels with a lot of up and down, but three of the levels were only partial ones, not using all of the 16 x 16 space. Our goal was to find the Alliance "traitor," a Donsai. We found him in a cell on the fourth level, but he protested that he wasn't a traitor. Instead, he said that he had been sent to investigate the Daynabs and got caught. The real traitor, he said, is Councilman Renfrew. Renfrew is mentioned in the game manual as the councilor who sent our party after the Donsai in the first place. 
The Donsai, Commander Varion, went on to say that Keppa Var is also the site of an ancient Fractyrian fortress with who-knows-what technology waiting to be plundered. He said the passcard to the fortress was in a vault on the second level of the current base, which he could open.

We had no choice but to bring him with us, dismissing our "VII Man" mech. He was a pretty good fighter, skilled in melee, sidearm, and throwing weapons, and I put him in the second position. With Varion in tow, we were able to get into the vault on the second level, which allowed us to grab a "technocard" necessary to access the Fractyr ruins on the same planet.
Michael Cranford ruins every boy's Leia fantasies in one graphic.
We escaped from Daynab, leveled up a couple of characters (I'd won a few easy fights), then returned to the planet to enter the Fractyr ruins. This was a challenging dungeon. It's four levels (though none of them use the full 16 x 16 space) with numerous staircases up and down and numerous teleporters on each level. From the moment you enter the dungeon, you can't use any psionic abilities. Spells cast outside the dungeon will remain in effect, but once you enter, it's not easy to get back out. So there was some cursing and reloading the first time I found out that psionics didn't work and I was stuck in the dark.
Fortunately, I had "Astral Sight" by now, a "light" spell that lasts damn near indefinitely. Before entering the second time, I cast that, "Spatial Sense," "Seventh Sense," and "Slow Regeneration." I saved just before entering the dungeon, and for the next few hours, I mapped as much as I could and reloaded if I got killed--which was almost every time I encountered any foe. 
A trap just about kills me.
There are three exceptions to that last statement: three fixed combats that occur in the dungeon, all of them against single enemies, all of them requiring that only one of your characters participate in the fight. Each one of them starts with a face appearing in the air demanding that I "choose one to step forward." In all cases, I chose Morella, because she does devastating melee damage with the Fractyr Fist. Later, looking at Quest for Clues, I got the impression that you're supposed to have the character with the Fractyr equipment fight the battles.
The enemies were named Big Jim, Gingerbread Man, and Blizzard. All of them lasted exactly one round, and all of them died in one hit. A couple of them went first and hit me first, but I had a shield pumped up to 100, and they didn't do that much damage.
If you send everyone forward, the enemy disappears and you have to leave the level and return.
I don't know precisely what the purpose of the battles was. I got a weapon from one called a Krelslayer which I never equipped or used. Another gave me a Mauve Sphere, which did turn out to be important, but it wouldn't have been necessary with higher-level characters. And yet one of the messages below suggests these combats were necessary, so I can only imagine my progress would have been blocked in some way if I hadn't fought them.
That was pretty easy.
Multiple squares in the dungeon gave me a message that I set off an alarm, and then drained all my health and psi points to 1. "Slow Regeneration" did its job after those drainages. They weren't as crippling as they could have been because I was avoiding almost all combat anyway.
There were five places in the dungeon where I came upon a weird inscription on a wall and "the Fractyr First begins to glow." It took me a few visits to realize that I could A)ctivate the Fist at these times to translate the messages:
  • "Of eons past and far below / A tale to tell of dread and woe / A secret said, a truth to know / A power great to yet bestow."
  • "The four small corner rooms above are not PSI-damped." I translated this very late in the session. There was a lot more cursing.
  • "To pass, break during the take-off."
  • "Fight the three, wear the fist, a focal power must exist to bring you to the point of change--activate it in that range."
  • "ENERGY NEXUS." This last one was accompanied by a little map.
Before translation.
A final message was found on the first floor at the end of a long corridor: "Come here with a Shapemaster."
I found the area indicated by the little map and activated the Fist. It asked me for a keyword. It took a while to figure out what it wanted, as I had gotten the SHAPEMASTER keyword some time earlier and didn't think anything special of it. When I fed that keyword, I learned that a "Shapemaster" is a type of metamorph that I guess anyone can learn, not just Praktors. In fact, Praktors can't learn it because they can't equip the Fractyr Fist. Anyway, the message didn't tell me anything about how you learn the ability, and none of my characters had it.
I spent damn near an hour wandering around trying to figure out what to do next before I went to Quest for Clues and found that the "Shapemaster" ability is given automatically to the character wearing the Fist when he asks about it, if he's standing in the Energy Nexus. Except the Energy Nexus is one step to the west of where I had been standing. The stupid in-game map had led me astray.
If you saw this, which square would you think was important. The odd one to the east, right? Well, apparently it's the one next to it.
I went back and activated it again, and Morella got the "Shape" ability, which allowed her to shapeshift to a Fractyr at Level 1. The Fist suggested the ability could be trained; I don't know what shapes might be available at higher levels since I never got there.
Is it talking to me? Am I reading this somewhere?
Thus shapeshifted, I returned to the square that said "Come here with a Shapemaster." I was teleported to the fourth level of the dungeon. I wandered down a hallway to a room where the game showed a cinematic recapping the story of the Fractyrs:
Our quest in search of a greater Being took us far from our home system, which lies near the center of the galaxy. It has now been abandoned for countless millennia. The first stage of our journey took us to the far reaches of the galaxy. While standard propulsion served adequately for local exploration, interstellar travel necessitated a new technology. As we began our search, we noted many primitive civilizations, and purposefully left such outposts as this one as a means to help them reach beyond their petty barbarities. The final part of our quest took us beyond the edge of the galaxy, out to a nearby quasar, and the system of Kindratus. It lies over 200,000 light years from the edge of the galaxy, yet we reached it instantly . . .
We might need some more detail here.
There was nowhere else to go from this room, and the sequence repeated indefinitely. An on-screen message said to "Press ESC to break concentration." I realized this went with the message to "break during take-off." Specifically, I had to hit the ESC key while the cinematic showed the Fractyr's rocket taking off for the "far reaches of the galaxy." That opened a secret door to the west. Clever.
Moving on, we found a "mattermission" platform at the end of a hallway. With nothing else to do, we stood upon it and were warped to what I guess was the Fractyrs' current home world.
How nice. They give burglars a free ride home.
It was a two-level map. As usual, we reloaded when we met enemies, but there weren't many. A holographic message intercepted us at one point and called us intruders, but using the Fractyr Fist disabled the security devices.
A message told us to "avoid the cyber room," but of course we didn't. We touched a panel, and Turhan was turned into a robot or something. I reloaded.
Lesson: don't touch strange alien panels.
On the second level, we found our way to the chamber of the High Citizens of Fractyr:
"Greetings, oh voyagers of the Alliance. You have come very far in search of the secret left behind in ancient fortresses. Fractyrians still exist and have seeded the galaxy with clues of our civilization. Your enemies have invaded Alliance space with the intention of grabbing the power of the Fractyr homeworld. They were unable to make the journey, however, as they lacked sufficient virtue. One of our people will accompany you to help you in your task. We would not have aided them, in any case, as we serve a higher and more noble cause than the mere possession of destructive power. Prepare to leave for Earth."

I love that those two dudes in the back are completely uninterested in these aliens that have broken into their meeting.
I had to replay this because I didn't have a space available for The Fracyrian who wanted to join the party. I had to kick out my faithful Fractyr Mech. The Fractyrian had no combat skills, so it's a good thing we didn't need him for that.
The game teleported us automatically to "Earth," which was just another 16 x 16 map. I guess we were in the headquarters of the Alliance. As we explored, we got attacked by huge parties of ridiculous enemies: experimechs, assassins, rock stars, attorneys, paper-pushers, bodyguards, friends of Renfrew, evil soldiers, janitors, and so forth. We didn't have the faintest hope against any of them. Again, we kept mapping, fleeing, and reloading when fleeing didn't work.
There were only three things of interest to find on the map. First was a shuttle back to Lunabase, but if we tried to take it, the Fractyrian left. Second was the Alliance prison, where if we accidentally wandered into a cell, we got stuck and had to reload.
Third was the entrance to the Alliance council chamber. Every time we tried to enter, the game told us, "A solid wall of force blocks further progress. The Council is always guarded when in session." I went around and tested all the walls for secret doors. Nothing.
The Council hasn't planned for alien artifacts!
Fortunately, I had fiddled around with the "Mauve Sphere" that I received in one of the battles in the Fractyr fortress. It cast the "Teleport" spell. It hadn't worked on the Fractyr world, but it worked fine here, and I was able to reach the Council chamber and the endgame. I should note that Quest for Clues tells you to cast "Passwall" or "Teleport," two high-level "Matter" spells, and doesn't even suggest the Mauve Sphere. If I hadn't figured it out, this would be a very different sort of entry.
The endgame:
You have burst into the meeting chambers of the High Council. The Council is in session. "What is the meaning of this!" the Donsai councilor cries.
None of them look like a Valkyryn, Praktor, or Arcturian.
"We have information concerning treachery--from inside this very council," Vir shouts.

Councilor Renfrew stands and points to your group, including the Fractyrian. "They are the traitors! They are wanted on charges of counter-espionage and high treason. I demand that they be placed under arrest! Guards, throw them in the Alliance prison!" 
What other prison could the guards have thrown us in?
"Stop," the Fractyrian commands. A stasis field envelops the room. "These courageous adventurers have come too far to plead their case."

"Renfrew is the traitor," Varion says.
"Where is your proof?" the Council demands.
"Allow me to explain," Varion says, stepping forward. "I was on a special mission to investigate rumors of a Daynab invasion through Keppa Var, an Alliance fringe world. My reports went to Councilor Renfrew, who urged me to secrecy. I found that Keppa Var was the site of a Fractyrian base, with a potential connection to the Fractyrian homeworld. The Daynab invasion was merely a cover for a plot to exploit this base. I knew that the invasion had to have resulted from treachery within the High Council; our enemies had access to all our information. All of the sudden, my cover was blown, and I was taken captive. Councilor Renfrew knew of my location, and the reason for the invasion, but told you nothing. It was HE who was supplying our enemies with information. HE is the traitor!"
Won't Varion be embarrassed if it turns out to be Renfrew's aide.
"I also bear witness to this," the Fractyrian says. "Our people can produce evidence to substantiate a charge of treason." The Fractyrian then points at Renfrew. "Speak truth."
Renfrew, under truth-compulsion, nods. "It's true." 
The Fractyrian then took off, and the party members all got the Medal of Honor, as per the screen up top. "This scenario is completed," the game says, "but greater adventure awaits you on your second mission . . ."
The game then took the party to Lunabase and alliance headquarters, where the officer told us "INVASION ALERT! You are ordered to report to the Headquarters on Epsilon Indi immediately." I didn't know whether this was just a repeat of the previous quest or whether it was something new. We jumped a shuttle to Epsilon Indi--and got attacked and boarded by the pirate dreadnought on the way. The pirate dreadnought seemed to be playing out as it had before, so I quit the game, but let me know if you know anything different and this really is a second mission.
This feels familiar.
FYI, if you go into the Council chambers without either the Fractyrian or Varion in the party, you get arrested and tossed into prison.
You think they'd want to hear at least a little more.
So, in the end, my horribly under-leveled party managed to win the game because there was no "final battle," and the only fixed battles were special encounters that just required one person to fight. I didn't like fleeing all of those combats, but I would have liked grinding less.
This is already pretty long, but let's do a quick GIMLET:
  • 4 points for the game world. The story is okay. The biggest problem is that there isn't enough of it. Renfrew is the only person who could possibly be the traitor, because he's the only named character in the backstory. None of the alien races that make up the Alliance make a significant appearance in the game; none of the worlds feel anything like alien worlds.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. You definitely feel the party getting stronger as they level, and I appreciate that the skill system allows for extensive customization of the characters. The problem is that not enough matters other than combat and psi abilities. I don't think my technical character used his abilities even once (unless something happened that was passive). All of the alien races were wasted; my characters might as well have all been human.
  • 1 point for NPCs. I give this for those who will join the party. Everything else is an encounter.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The Bard's Tale series, including Centauri Alliance, epitomizes what some RPG Codexian once coined "trash mob." You just get piles of originally-named but otherwise unmemorable enemies that you have to mow down. You don't even get portraits here. So most of the points in this category goes to the many non-combat encounters, including navigational and linguistic puzzles in some of the dungeons, which were the highlight of the game. As usual, I found that if I mapped a session, I enjoyed it a lot more than when I used the automaps.
This trash mob even has a janitor.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. The Bard's Tale system was showing its age when The Bard's Tale was new, but it works okay. There are a fair number of tactical considerations dealing with distance and the best attack, and there are a lot of spell options even among the two classes that I played. The problem, of course, is that enemy difficulty outpaces the party quickly unless you grind a lot, but I'll save those deductions for later.
  • 4 points for equipment. I was a little generous here because there's so damned much of it that I can only assume I would have gotten more out of it if I had taken the time to explore what everything did. Since I didn't, I ended the game with most of the equipment that I had at the halfway mark.
  • 2 points for the economy. It was useful to the extent that I kept buying shield belts and they kept me alive.
  • 3 points for a main quest and a couple of side-dungeons if not exactly side quests. There are no choices or alternate endings.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are just functional and the sound is almost completely absent. The interface works well enough.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's way too linear, not replayable, grindy, and unbalanced. You could defend the ridiculous endgame combat difficulty by arguing that combat isn't necessary in the first place, but that's like multiplying zeroes.
That gives us a final score of 33. That makes sense. I can't recommend it, but I would have been able to recommend it with a few changes. In comparison, I gave The Bard's Tale 37. Dragon Wars, another Bard's Tale descendant from 1990, got 51. The biggest problem with Alliance is that it doesn't fill any niche. Many other games were doing science fiction better, and many other games had taken the basic Bard's Tale template and evolved it into something better.
The Commodore 64 and Apple II were essentially dead as popular platforms by 1990, which meant that Alliance made almost no splash in American magazines. Computer Gaming World mentioned that it existed in the March 1990 issue (with Ultima VI on the cover) but never reviewed it. The C64 had a little life left in Europe, so there were reviews in a selection of English (Zzap!64) and German (Power Play, Aktueller Software Markt) magazines. Although rating between 72% and 80%, the reviews (at least, the parts I translated) were relatively positive, with some shade cast on the primitive graphics and more on the disk loading times.
A 2013 interview with Cranford on RPG Codex goes into some of the game's development problems. Cranford chalks them up to delays for graphics artists to do all the animations that the various cinematics required. Because of these delays, the release occurred well after the heyday of its native platforms ("the decline happened quickly"), and Cranford didn't have any experience with the PC. Reading between the lines, the larger issue is that Cranford was working on his own at a time when a single developer couldn't compete with the diverse teams of specialists at places like Origin and Interplay. If Brøderbund had really prioritized the game, they would have hooked up Cranford with programmers to handle graphics, sound, and a DOS port at the beginning.
I had thought that this was Cranford's last game: When Alliance finally hit the shelves, he was getting a master's degree in Theological Studies and beginning a teaching career at Biola University. But he appears in the credits of Cyberdreams' Dark Seed (1992) as one of the two designers. An adventure game, it looks completely unlike anything else he ever worked on, and yet I can't find any interview in which anyone asked him about it. In 2018, he provided some assistance with InExile's The Bard's Tale IV, which I imagined involved some hatchet-burying with Brian Fargo.